Zafar Agha on Indian Muslims in the times of Narendra Modi

The May 23 results will invariably lead to the community wondering if it is the end of the road for them in this country notwithstanding reassuring speeches made by the Prime Minister

People from both Hindu and Muslim Communities attend a Sri Bhagwat session for communal harmony held at Dargah Ground in Ahmedabad, Gujarat 
People from both Hindu and Muslim Communities attend a Sri Bhagwat session for communal harmony held at Dargah Ground in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

Zafar Agha

My cell phone rang around 9 in the morning on May 24, the day after Narendra Modi stormed the Lok Sabha with 300-plus MPs. It was a call from a journalist friend, Muzamal Suhrawardy, from Lahore, Pakistan. I ignored the call.

We liberals had had a particularly depressing day the previous evening as the opposition to BJP and Modi collapsed and results belied the reports from the ground and even assessments made by colleagues. I was in no mood to take yet another call and explain what had happened and why.

But Muzamal was persistent. He called again a few hours later. Again, I didn’t pick up the phone. Muzamal, I sensed, wanted to speak on the Indian elections. But I was in no mood to oblige a Pakistani journalist and listen to him having a dig at the rise of the Right in India as has been the case with Pakistan for decades. We, liberal Indians, had looked down upon them for being citizens of an “Islamic” state in modern times. How could I explain the rise of a ‘Hindu Pakistan’? So, I again ignored the call. But a veteran, he was in no mood to let it go. He called yet again around 1 pm. There was little option left but to take the call. I took it with a sense of resignation and, I must confess, trepidation.

My worst nightmare began unfolding. He began by taunting me: “Agha sahib, why are you avoiding me today?” Even before I could respond, he continued in Urdu: “Arey, ghabraiye nahi. Hum aap ko Pakistan mein political asylum dilwa denge”. I was agitated and reacted rudely by asking what gave him the idea that I would be migrating to Pakistan, a country which I have not visited even once.

Muzamal was now sarcastic: “Well, we established the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and announced it right away in 1947. You pretended to be secular and gloated about it. But now you are finally the Hindu Republic of India”. He didn’t stop at that and turned the knife in. He had done a TV programme in Pakistan the previous evening in which he focused on how “Modi has proved Jinnah’s two nation theory right”. I felt as if someone had stabbed me at the back. I felt numb. Our conversation ended within seconds. But as I put down the phone, tears rolled down my cheeks.

Muzamal said something that I believe nagged every Indian Muslim since the afternoon of May 23. No one was ready to pose it quite as brutally and bluntly as Muzamal did. But it will be self-deluding not to admit that the results of the election disturbed virtually every Muslim in the country.

My father, like a large number of Muslims, had refused to migrate to Pakistan in 1947. He was a Gandhian whose bedroom had photographs of the Mahatma on the wall. He taught us to value the ‘Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb’, something that Gandhi and Nehru always talked about. Yet after spending over three quarters of my life in a secular, liberal India, I was being told by a Pakistani that I, as a Muslim, had no place in the “Hindu Republic of India.’’ It shattered me and left me numb. Staggered, I wondered if this was indeed the end of the road for Indian Muslims in Narendra Modi’s New India.

Whether one likes it or not, that’s what every Indian Muslim is feeling since May 23. Why Muslims alone! All liberal Hindus also feel weighed down with similar sentiments. Indian Muslims, however, are not just in a state of shock. Like me, they have also been forced to wonder if it is not the end of the road for them in this country.

After all, Modi is no dyed-in-wool Hindu leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is a self-professed Hindutva soldier who is out to build ‘naya Bharat’, based on Golwalkar and Savarkar’s idea of India wherein Indian Muslims will be second-class citizens, a sophisticated word for a sort of slavery in medieval terms. Muslims will be required to do what Hindus would not, live in ghettos and forget about equality of opportunity, redressal against discrimination and equal treatment before the law. Above all, they will have to learn to keep quiet and not raise their voice against injustice or in favour of what they may perceive to be their legitimate right.

In terms of history, Narendra Modi’s second coming in 2019 is no less a crisis for Indian Muslims than 1857 when the British destroyed and dismantled the Mughal Empire and pushed Muslims in north India into a civilisational crisis. The loss of the Mughal Empire was not just a change of power. It was the collapse of their entire world view wherein their political and social institutions crumbled overnight leaving them clueless because their old world order had collapsed and they had nothing new to look up to - a state of mind that famous Urdu poet and a personal witness to the 1857 mutiny, Mirza Ghalib, described thus:

Iman mujhey rokey hai jo khincheyhai mujhey kufr

Kaba merey peechey hai, kalisa merey aagey.

(Belief restrains me as doubt pulls me on, have turned from certainty to complete incertitude)

In somewhat similar fashion, the Gandhian and the Nehruvian idea of India lies shattered with the landslide victory of Narendra Modi. It is just a word between the old India and Modi’s Naya Bharat. The BJP had been accusing Indira Gandhi for long now for inserting the word ‘secularism’ in Indian Constitution which will surely be dropped sooner than later as LK Advani promised on several occasions. It will be the formal realisation of the RSS vision of a Hindu Rashtra. And, Muslims are now aware what it might mean for them to live in a Hindu Rashtra. Frankly, it would be somewhat similar to what Pakistani Hindus are going through in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which virtually translates into ‘no’ rights for the minorities, especially Muslims.

There are Muslims in India though who believe Indian Muslims got nothing much in the last 70-plus years in India. Riots bordering on massacres, genocide and pogrom like 2002 in Gujarat but on earlier occasions as well, crumbs of a handful of second-rate jobs in the government and a few slices of power courtesy the Muslim quota are what the balance sheet records.

Yet Indian Muslims never felt so hopeless even in the aftermath of the frenzy of Partition. Educated Muslim elite like us proudly clung to the Nehruvian idea of India even after the cathartic, humiliating and devastating experience of the Babri Mosque demolition on December 6, 1992. Now even that fig leaf, they feel, is gone with Narendra Modi’s second term. It’s a dark tunnel ahead for Indian Muslims who feel like sitting ducks, or headless chickens if you like, in Modi’s Naya Bharat. Incidents of mob violence, public jeering, hate speech on social media and lynchings are enough to make Muslims feel permanently insecure. What follows now is anyone’s guess.

The story of Indian Muslims is a sad story of the community’s decline and decay. But the Indian political establishment alone cannot be blamed for the fate that stares so starkly at Muslims in India now. Communities cannot advance on entitlements alone. Governments don’t make the fate of a community. Instead, wise communities make and unmake governments and thus write their own fate.

A community needs to have a vision of its own to advance in times they live in. But Indian Muslims, unfortunately, love to live in their ‘glorious’ past. Only a handful of reformers like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who established the Aligarh Muslim University, tried to link the community with modern times.

Indian Muslims in post-Independence India left their fate to avowedly secular parties who, not surprisingly, succumbed to social and business lobbies. Hindus being the dominant majority in this country, successive governments ignored minority welfare. When they were persuaded to think of doing something for the community on a large scale, they would be accused of minority appeasement and suffer from withdrawal symptoms.

What little was initiated by various governments, they were sabotaged by the bureaucracy. The Manmohan Singh government, for instance, came out with the Sachar committee report which recommended welfare schemes targeting minorities. But the benefits rarely trickled down to the intended beneficiaries. Indian Muslims rarely responded to calls of the conservatives led by the clergy on political issues. Yet, emotive religious issues like the demolition of the Babri mosque and their personal law were exploited by the clergy. Most such movements fuelled by highly emotive campaigns received little support among Indian Muslims but ended up strengthening the ‘Hindu Right’. Still, secular parties encouraged conservative Muslim leadership as their spokesperson. It annoyed liberals and the Hindu Right alike.

In the last five years, they lay low despite provocations. They kept their fingers crossed, bowed their head and hoped the storm would pass. The Modi government’s move to abolish even the Muslim Personal Law didn’t provoke Muslims to take to the street as they had done on various other occasions. They hoped against hope and felt their silence would be reciprocated with restraint and not provoke any Hindu backlash.

But after the election results, the Indian Muslims are both dejected and confused. The second largest community in the country, 170 million of them, constitute a little less than Pakistan’s population. And the Indian Muslims numerically are more than the population of Bangladesh. But they are in a bind and unable to figure out what they must do to break the impasse.

But if history is any guide, even such grim times tend to pass. The nightmare of 1857 and the horrors of Partition are now distant memories. The worst doesn’t last forever.

Muzamal’s offer to help me migrate to Pakistan, where he assured me that he had already identified a house I could move in to, is, however, not the first such proposal made to my family. When we were growing up in our hometown Allahabad, my late father told us about the visit by a Sikh gentleman. Refugees were pouring in from Pakistan and a reverse stream of Muslims was taking the train to Pakistan.

The Sikh gentleman showed my father pictures of two bungalows that he owned in Lahore and offered to exchange them for my father’s two bungalows in Allahabd. When we asked our father why he declined the offer, he calmly told us: “Beta, hamarey purkhey yahan dafan hain. Phir Hindustan hamara watan hai, hum isko chor kar kaisey chaley jatey. Achchey burey waqt to atey jatey hain, watan sey jao to phir woh thodi wapas milta hai (My son, our ancestors are buried here. Besides, India is our homeland. How could I have deserted my homeland? Good and bad times come and go. One need not desert one’s homeland in troubled times. Once you lose your homeland, you are unlikely to get it back).”

The overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims in 1947 thought like my father and stayed back. When the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, could not tempt the Muslim millions to migrate to the ‘Islamic state of Pakistan’, how could my friend Muzamal sway me?

India is our motherland. Why should we quit it for the fear of Hindutva? We believed Mohammad Iqbal when he wrote, “Sarey Jahan sey Achcha, Hindustan hamara”. Our faith in the country and its future remains intact.

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Published: 2 Jun 2019, 12:30 PM