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Religion and politics
By Kuldip Nayar

Woefully, the Gujarat riots have come at a time when the Muslims of India have been joining the mainstream. Their faith in constitutional guarantee for equality has been deepening and their confidence in the country's secular ethos steadily increasing. 

Even after partition, their romance with Pakistan had not ended, although they had felt let down. But the liberation of Bangladesh, one Muslim area cutting itself from another, disillusioned Indian Muslim community. Good or bad, it accepted the fait accompli and began to develop an identity, which was neither theocratic nor pan-Islamic but wedded to the soil.

Otherwise, how do you explain their deliberate aloofness from the issues which caught the imagination of the Muslim world? India, next to Indonesia, has the largest Muslim population. But no Indian Muslim has ever joined any jihad anywhere in the world. Take, for example, Afghanistan. The Pakistani Muslims fought by the side of the Taliban against the American-backed Northern Alliance. So much so, Islamabad took Washington's permission to evacuate them. Some Bangladeshi Muslims were also found in Afghanistan, but no Indian Muslim.

Nearer home, take Kashmir. You find Muslims of different countries participating in what is going on in the valley, but there is no Muslim from the rest of India. Even the support to the autonomy demand is lacking. Silence of Indian Muslims on such issues is often misunderstood. Yet, they have seldom said or done anything, which they think does not represent the sense of the country. 

The happenings in Gujarat have indeed jolted the community. On the one hand, it is surprised over the reaction of some who became so desperate that they went to the extent of burning the coaches of the Sabarmati Express at Godhara. On the other hand, the community has suffered beyond proportion when it comes to retaliation. It has also found most of the Hindu intelligentsia coming to be part of the anti-Muslim sentiment in one way or the other.

True, the Gujarat fire did not spread to the rest of the country, except stray incidents in three or four cities. But it is of little satisfaction to the community when once in a while there is such a communal conflagration that whatever confidence it may have built over the period is decimated in no time. Every time the dishonesty, if not the animus of the majority, is more visible than before.

The community's fears have heightened because it finds the authorities purposely inactive, the police contaminated and the government interested more in covering its tracks than in punishing the guilty. This was their experience in the last big killing at Ahmedabad in 1969, nearly 33 years ago, and now again in Gujarat. In fact, the community increasingly feels that a Hindu-Muslim riot generally turns into a Muslim-police clash. The proposal to have a mixed force in every state has remained only on paper.

The biggest challenge facing the community and the country is how to change the biased mindset of the police. And an almost equally big challenge is how to stop the injection of communal poison by the RSS parivar in the states under the BJP and in the central ministries headed by the BJP men.

The Ayodhya issue has risen at a wrong time. It has re-ignited the fears in the community, which is still reeling under the loss of the Babri masjid, demolished more than nine years ago. The community has also become nervously conscious of the clout the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a fundamentalist organization, has in the corridors of power. The prime minister had to bring the Kanchi Sankaracharya (high priest) from down south, to make an equivocal statement that it would abide by the court's verdict on the disputed Ram Janambhoomi-Babri masjid site.

Even Otherwise the community's faith in Vajpayee's liberalism has been lessening for some time. This is clear from the way the Muslims voted in UP, bringing down the party strength in the assembly by 68 seats. Still the message has not gone home. Vajpayee, to the chagrin of the community, is as dependent on the RSS as before. It was the third party at the meetings between the Kanchi seer and the VHP. The fallout from the events, as they have unfolded, is the closing of ranks by the community. The Muslim Personal Law Board is emerging as a rallying point. If this development had remained confined to religious problems, it would not have mattered. But it looks like becoming an instrument of political pressure. Many Muslims have begun talking in terms of one platform and even a Muslim party. This might well be what Hindu fundamentalists and even the BJP are wishing. Their efforts to polarize the country have not succeeded so far but it is very clear that they are hell-bent on doing so. In fact, this has been their objective all along since partition. The community will play into their hands if it decides to go it alone. 

The Muslim Personal Law Board has not, however, done well by combining the Ayodhya dispute with its normal work. The demolition of the Babri masjid hurt the conscience of all, not the Muslims alone. The entire nation felt horrified because the masjid represented India's composite culture. So many Hindus joined hands with the Muslims to condemn the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, another member of the RSS parivar, over the masjid's demolition. The mood of the nation can be judged from the dismal defeat of the BJP in UP and Rajasthan in the state elections held soon after what happened at Ayodhya. Muslims will be well advised in constituting a separate body in dealing with the Babri masjid problem. That body should have members of all communities. The Muslim Personal Law Board can join the body, but not appropriate it. The Ayodhya matter is not between Hindus and Muslims. This is a matter between those who believe in secular ethos of the country and those who are out to establish Hindu Rashtra. This is a matter which goes to the roots of our beliefs, our faith in the constitution.

The Supreme Court's verdict was flouted when the masjid was demolished and the VHP is traversing a similar path in a zigzag manner. In a way, the prime minister is right when he says that a settlement between the two communities can decide the dispute. But it will be a limited settlement if it is ever reached. Many Hindus do not want the temple to come up where the masjid once stood. Many Muslims also do not want to rebuild the mosque at the same site. Most people in the country would like the place to be left vacant so as to serve as a reminder to the nation that a structure that represented our pluralistic society was pulled down by religious zealots on December 6, 1992. Japan has done a similar thing to keep the horrors of war before its people. Hiroshima has left the ground, where the bomb was dropped during the last World War, vacant. It serves as a catharsis. The vacant site at Ayodhya may have a similar effect. 

It is a pity that those who were once the supporters of a secular India are now apologists for a policy which is communal in content and ruinous in objective. Their rationalization of what happened in Gujarat is as disgusting as is their craze to stick to ministership. This is not a political issue. It is sheer communalism. How many Gujarats should happen before the different parties, particularly the ruling BJP, realize that religion and politics cannot be mixed if India is to stay united?

The writer, currently a member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), is a former editor of The Statesman, Delhi.
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