How flawed the Hindutva imagination of the Indian Muslim is – Two books show

By: |
August 18, 2019 12:16 AM

At the same time, there are those who, like Jalil, argue that it remains an instrument of oppression that has no sanction in the holy texts of the religion.

File photo of Kashmiri women offering Eid-al-Adha prayers at a mosque in Srinagar on August 12 (photo: reuters)File photo of Kashmiri women offering Eid-al-Adha prayers at a mosque in Srinagar on August 12 (photo: reuters)

The BJP’s electoral rise over the last half decade is inextricably linked to Hindutva, even though the party doesn’t explicitly endorse the ideology in its constitution. Of course, its rash of electoral wins, including in the 2019 general elections, is the lesser part of Hindutva’s political victory. Far more important, for the Sangh parivar’s grand design of the Hindu Rashtra, is the communalisation of the minds of millions of Hindu voters, especially the new ones, that it has achieved. Or, at least the fact that it has helped legitimise the surfacing and mainstreaming of the worst of the majority community’s existing communal tendencies. This is of immense import for the parivar. A mind lulled by Hindutva rhetoric won’t raise uncomfortable questions as the Constitution is demolished—not just the provisions (these get amended from time to time), but its very spirit that is the life-force of the Indian Republic. This demolition will not be a cataclysmic event, but a gradual, agonising crumbling.

But, for the RSS’s Hindutva or the BJP’s milder-sounding “integral humanism” —both essentially an incredibly simple-minded ideology worded pompously—to exist and thrive, given how it treats ancestry and “cultural provenance” as metrics of “Indianness” (Bharatiyata) of a citizen, it must have a demonised other, one that opposes its own Bharatiykaran (Indianisation) as imagined by the majority community. And, depending on the context specific to the borough where its proponents are administering liberal doses of communal poison, the other can be any minority or marginalised community. In the “national” imagination, though, this “other” is largely the nation’s Muslims. Not only do the Hindutvavadis drum up a version of history that treats the entire chronology of the Delhi Sultanate as one solely of oppression of Hindus by Muslim “invaders”, they also believe Muslims in India today must prove their nationalism—or Hindutva, as defined by them—to cease to be seen as the successor of the invaders, and increasingly, as the ideological sympathiser of Islamic hardliners. And given a Muslim in any corner of India will likely have strong cultural resemblances with his neighbours belonging to other communities—a Muslim in western Uttar Pradesh will likely have more in common with a Hindu from that region than with a Muslim from West Bengal or Assam or Andhra Pradesh—the Hindutvavadis must inordinately focus on whatever differences there may be to prop this narrative of the alien, belligerent “other”. Against such a backdrop, therefore, it is necessary to perhaps understand how Muslims in India see themselves and check if Muslims in India are really a electoral/political monolith, or even have a shared religious-cultural identity that overwhelms all others. Two books, Rakshanda Jalil’s But you don’t look like a Muslim, and Hilal Ahmed’s Siyasi Muslims: A story of political Islams in India,provide a wealth of insight on this matter.

First, let us talk about Jalil’s But you don’t… . The book, given the author’s preeminence as a literary historian, is a masterful collection of essays that draw from her own experiences as a Muslim in India and also from the sense she makes of “Muslim issues” in the country. While the title itself is a dead giveaway of the pluralities within Islam in India, and of the bullheaded stereotyping of Muslims that is fodder for Hindutva, Jalil, in the first essay, My father didn’t take the train to Pakistan, explains how the Muslims families who didn’t move to Pakistan at the time of partition made a choice, to be Muslim and be Indian and whatever other sub-national identity that was theirs before partition, and this, no matter what distortions of history and fake news the right wing (Hindu and Muslim) might feed adherents, should have been evidence that the two identities are not contradictory.

Yet, every member of the community has had his/her citizenship and the rights that accrue because of it questioned explicitly or implicitly in statements by many ruling party leaders, and indeed, been dehumanised (‘animalistic’, termites, etc) by some. The latter—as is the case with the dehumanisation of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and, more contemporary, the dehumanisation of the Palestinians by Israel—makes it easier for the Hindu voter to be indifferent or to support lynchings or other hate-crimes against Muslims.

Despite this, and the other manifestations of bigotry, Jalil writes that she knows that “…they (her daughters) shall enjoy the dual yet in no way conflicting identities—of being Muslim and being Indian in no particular order”. Bleak as the present seems for such faith enduring, such assertion is nevertheless key to understanding Muslims in India because it is also a faith reposed with a significant enough chunk of majority community and the country’s institutions and constitutional framework.

This faith is engendered by the manifest similarities of culture, values and aspects of identity across communities. It is, thus, strong evidence that the pluralities of India are mirrored in the Muslim community and it can’t be seen as the evil monolith that stands opposed to the other communities in the country. But you don’t… covers a wide expanse of topics that are relevant to an informed discussion on “being” Muslim in India and the Muslim experience of Indian citizenship.

For instance, in the chapter on the practice of purdah, Jalil draws from her own experience of the practice to give voice to what many Muslim women in India perhaps feel about the burqa and other forms of veiling. While she calls the burqa “a moving tomb”, there are many articulate, well-informed Muslim/non-Muslim women in India who see the practice as one of assertion of religious identity amidst rising Islamophobia, especially the state-endorsed kind seen in the bans on clothing, wrongly or rightly, associated with Islam in a handful of European and Asian nations.

At the same time, there are those who, like Jalil, argue that it remains an instrument of oppression that has no sanction in the holy texts of the religion.

Jalil’s reflections on the subjects of the essays in But you don’t…—from the aberration that the “Shahi” Imam becoming hereditary to even gastronomic matters dealt to the reader with a generous pinch of nostalgia—serve a sacred purpose. They coax out of the reader, especially a non-Muslim one, a sense of familiarity and an appreciation of similarities even when there are stark differences. For instance, a reader may not be aware of the dishes from her childhood she talks about, but would agree strongly with her take on the purdah, or even share her deep admiration for Khan-e-Khanan’s poetry.

This familiarity is an important weapon to defeat the polarity that Hindutva and Islamists seek to make canonical. The lines from Urdu poetry celebrating Diwali or Holi (Gulabi Eid) or the birth of Ibn-e-Maryam (Jesus Christ) that Jalil excerpts in the last section of the book are not just there as evidence of the hard-earned syncretism that is now under assault, but also to invoke familiarity and break down walls that are put up by the constant ‘other’-ing.

Hilal Ahmed’s Siyasi Muslim is an important text for anyone looking to approach the question of Muslim identity in India academically and politically. The book challenges, citing several research findings, the notion that Muslims in India are a politico-electoral monolith and prioritise “Muslim issues” in the exercise of political choice, and by being so, sideline the “national interest”.

Siyasi… shows that Muslims in India are no more religious than their compatriots from other communities, and tries to dispel the notion of the “zealot Muslim”. While 29% of Muslims surveyed in a CSDS-Lokniti study that Ahmed cites describe themselves as very religious, 30% of Hindus say the same about themselves as well as 35% Sikhs; 59% Muslims describe themselves as somewhat religious compared to 57% Hindus.

While Muslim participation in elections mirrors the Hindu participation, it is safe to say that neither community votes with one voice, contrary to the Hindutva narrative of “vote banks” in return for “appeasement”. Muslims have, so far, tenaciously refused to succumb to the polarisation that Hindutva politics is trying to create. Which is why, perhaps, the Hindutva brigade has had to rely on lynching of individuals in the name of gau raksha and the entirely unfounded narrative of ‘love jihad’ to keep up the momentum.

But, while this tenacity will perhaps fend off the continued onslaught from the Hindutva forces, the scars are many and would perhaps never fade.

Sustained understanding and compassion between the communities will be the only salve, and to that end, Ahmed’s and Jalali’s books offer up the ingredients.

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