The effort should be to try to strike a balance between minority rights and the sensitivities of the majority community, which she says have been ignored in the name of secularism
The Complex Muslim Debate. Representative image from Reuters
As the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections approached, a distant cousin of mine – a former Congress loyalist – who lives in a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, called to make a “confession”, as he put it. He said he planned to vote for the BJP for the first time in his life but had not told anyone yet for fear of being “ostracized” by members of his community. The reason, he explained, why he leaned towards the BJP was simple: Congress had no chance of winning and he did not want to “squander” his vote once again; and the candidates presented by the other two main non-BJP parties (the Samajwadi party and the Bahujan Samaj party) had a bad reputation.
Sounding almost conspiratorial, he said: “Just look between you and me, I’m seriously thinking about voting BJP.”
A few weeks later, however, I received a WhatsApp message from him saying that ultimately family and community pressure proved too much and he was “forced” to vote for SP. “I just couldn’t handle the pressure at the end. I didn’t want to end up an outcast in my own family,” he wrote.
His story can be read in two ways. On the one hand, it confirms the vast, seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Muslims and the BJP and the underlying mutual distrust. But there is also an optimistic side: it shows that despite this, are Muslims, though a tiny minority, who privately rally around the idea that Muslims cannot remain in a state of permanent confrontation with the BJP, especially given its near total dominance over the political landscape of the country, as proven once again by his victory in three of the five states that recently went to the polls.
In Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims have particularly high stakes, the BJP has returned to power despite opposition efforts to create a united front against it. Yogi Adityanath became only the fifth chief minister in the long history of UP elections to win a second consecutive term. The results again revealed the impotence of rival “secular” groups that Muslims have chosen to trust.
As someone who has always advocated for a Muslim-BJP dialogue, I see people like my cousin as the harbinger of a ray of hope. The current stalemate is simply not sustainable. Besides its impact on democratic politics, it’s bad for Hindu-Muslim relations which, despite occasional dips, have historically remained largely cordial. Recently I argued with an old (Hindu) friend on Facebook after he suggested that what was happening to Muslims was simply a case of the empire hitting back. But after some testy exchanges, he writes: “Allahu-Akbar… Jai Sri Ram… Hindus and Muslims in India have a shared centuries-old heritage… [the] years to come, the good old days will return. This is my prophecy.
The episode showed that despite all the apparent hostility, there is still a grudging acknowledgment of what my friend called “a centuries-old, shared heritage.” And offers a glimmer of hope that all is not yet lost. For any dominant community, especially one the size of the Muslim community (over 200 million and growing), it is tactically shortsighted to retreat into a shell and refuse to engage with the dominant political force, regardless of no matter how wronged she feels. And, to be fair, Muslims have legitimate grievances as they fight the fallout from right-wing majoritarianism based on the idea of a Hindu India in which non-Muslims take a back seat.
But here’s the thing. Precisely because the stakes are so high for Muslims facing an existential crisis, it is all the more important for them to try to find a way out of it, even if it means making difficult compromises. The point is that the current standoff is hurting them, not the BJP, and so it is in their own interest to open a dialogue. There’s a crude old adage that you can’t afford to be an enemy of the biggest fish in the pond.
The Muslim response to the majority challenge has tended to be more emotional than pragmatic. And their liberal and secular friends didn’t help by expressing their sense of grievance, exaggerating the “threat” to their safety, and effectively discouraging them from speaking to the “enemy,” while portraying themselves as saviors even then. they are struggling for their lives. Act together.
The whole Muslim-BJP and Hindu-Muslim question has become bogged down in a meandering debate over secularism versus communalism. Confusing the two has led to a deepening of the sectarian divide, sparking a politically charged culture war. What Muslims need is an uncompromising pragmatic approach. Which means we stop dreaming of a secular utopia and endlessly arguing about the past – and instead try to make the best of a bad situation.
Politically isolated and facing an uncertain future, Muslims have few options. The question is whether they want to prolong the agony or try to find a dignified outcome. There is an urgent need to seek agreement on the basis of common citizenship and shared history rather than faith – a settlement underpinned by hard-line realism. The effort should be to try to strike a balance between minority rights and the sensitivities of the majority community, which she says have been ignored in the name of secularism.
For any dialogue to succeed, the Hindu sense of grievance will have to be addressed. Which could even imply the recognition of Hinduism as the official religion of India. There is a misconception that the only alternative to a secular state is a theocracy. A state can have an officially recognized religion while remaining secular in practice by treating all citizens equally and ensuring that their religious and civil rights are protected by law, as in many western liberal democracies. , including Britain, where the state is Christian, but the government practices are secular. Exploring a mutually acceptable framework that would be seen as fair to all without abandoning the essential elements of a secular society can be a good starting point for dialogue.
Some might see this as a “surrender”, but it will actually allow Muslims to withdraw at a time of their choosing rather than having a solution imposed on them. In return, they can insist on constitutional/legal guarantees around the protection of the rights of Muslims as equal citizens of India.
Let’s be clear: there is no Godot coming to our rescue. Muslims are alone and time is running out. But, of course, it takes two to tango. For any Muslim initiative to take off, the BJP and the RSS will also have to reach out to them – starting with reining in bullies operating in the name of defending Hinduism and Hindu culture. It will be much easier for moderate Muslims to persuade the community to ask for peace.
The writer’s book on Hindu-Muslim relations is due out soon. The opinions expressed are personal.
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