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Why this strange silence?
By Kuldip Nayar

Our Muslim intelligentsia reminds me, at times, of the nationalist Muslims before Partition. They were so steadfast in their conviction to keep India united that they withstood the ridicule of the community. In the forefront were the bodies like Deoband Ulema and Majlis-i-Ahrar, which are still run down in Pakistan.

Their argument against the Subcontinent's division was that as Muslims they were not prepared for a moment to give up their right to treat the whole of India as their domain and to share in the shaping of its political and economic life. To them, it seemed a sure sign of cowardice to give up what was their patrimony and content themselves with a mere fragment of it.

The nationalist Muslims failed because they could not explain properly to their community the pernicious impact of partition on the Muslims outside Pakistan. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad predicted, "they (Muslims in India) awaken overnight and discover they have become aliens and foreigners. Backward industrially, educationally and economically, they will be left to the mercies of what would become an unadulterated Hindu Raj." Azad was helpless. The community did not listen to him.

The Muslim intelligentsia is probably feeling the same way. But it is making the same mistake of not penetrating the community. It must speak out and warn the community against the trend of organizing itself into separate bodies of Muslims. Exclusive organizations for religious purposes are understandable but for political ends they will be suicidal.

Parochial thinking will hurt the Muslims most because their number is small and strength limited. The Muslim intelligentsia and the Institute for Initiatives in Education did well in organizing a meeting of Muslim scholars, writers, academicians and others some time ago.

The thesis, as spelled out in the invitation, is: Contemporary India continues to witness severe distortions of constitutional values, civility and social environment conducive to peaceful coexistence of social communities: intimidation of minority groups, saffronization of education, burning of sacred books and periodic calls for Indianization of social communities whose Indian credentials have been established for ages.

Such distortions have challenged the capacity of social communities to exist in peace and amity and also slowed down the process of social reform in favour of equity, social justice and equality."

The organizers did not mince words when they said that the "time has come for the community and Muslim intelligentsia to address these issues before they are able to challenge the fabric of society and, in association with different cross-sections of India, work out a strategy of intervening in the current situation."

But the question that they have to answer is: What happened after similar conferences held earlier? There was no follow-up action. What the speakers at this meeting said about the plight of Muslims was largely true: lack of employment opportunities, lack of educational facilities and lack of justice. Practically every Muslim participant told the same tale of woe. They spelt out how they didn't get their due. The solution they proposed of joining hands with non-Muslims and secular political parties sounded all right. They felt handicapped but not helpless.

It is welcome that their emphasis was on secularism, not on sectarianism. None of the Muslim speakers suggested a separate party for the community. None asked for reservations. None raised the sterile debate whether he was a Muslim first and Indian later. All favoured the participation of the community in secular activities, without bringing in religion. The message, which came loud and clear, was that religion should not be mixed with politics, a belated realization by Pakistan Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf.

This meeting was in sharp contrast to an earlier seminar of some Muslim intellectuals I attended. They repeatedly demanded the formation of a separate Muslim political party to protect the interests of the Muslims. One of the chairpersons, well versed in law, repeated the same arguments in his written speech as one had heard before partition. Once again religion and politics were presented as two sides of the same coin.Once again there was talk of separatism.

The thesis of most speakers at the earlier seminar was that Muslims should have a party of their own, which should fight for Muslims from a Muslim platform since nothing else had worked since independence. Probably true, but the way to correct it is wrong. Were the message of Muslims marshalling themselves as a community to spread, it would accelerate the process of polarization and widen still further the gulf between Hindus and Muslims.

Since I was presiding over that seminar, I could not help intervening and saying that a communal approach would only help the pro-Hindutva forces to justify their parochial line. I admitted the difficulties the Muslims faced in the country, and that they had a point in agitating for the redress of their grievances. But my plea was that they should do so by joining hands with secular forces. I warned them that the philosophy of separatism would spell ruin and give the stamp of credibility to Hindu communalism. I must confess that the seminar left me cold.I see no alternative to secularism except more secularism. Even if some Hindus go away from the path of secularism, the Muslim intelligentsia has to bring them back. Parochial thinking in a country which has a secular ethos is bad in approach and bad in content. It will be counter-productive for Muslims. It may give rise to Hindu fascism. Muslims will come to grief if they adopt a communal approach - as they did in Kanpur recently. Here the SIMI, a Muslim youth organization, started the riots but paid heavily because the Hindu fundamentalists took over later and the police helped them.

One thing which I have painfully watched is that the Muslim intelligentsia does not generally speak out against fundamentalists among the Muslim community. Many Hindu liberals openly attack communalism of their community. Why not Muslims? It seems they are afraid of mullahs and maulvis. I find the same type of fear prevailing in Pakistan and Bangladesh as if the mullas and the maulvis have the ear of the people.

This is not true because they hardly get any seats in elections. There is no doubt that Muslims, by and large, feel lost when they think of the future and wonder what is in store for their children. The only way to face the situation is to broaden the question and ask: What is the future of the children of any citizen? The answer then becomes simpler. It is not a question relating to only Muslims, but to all. This is so because the benefits of development are increasingly confined to the upper crust which is neither Hindu nor Muslim; it is just the upper crust.

Any reservation on the basis of religion will take us back to the days when there were separate electorates, making Hindus vote for a Hindu candidate and Muslims for a Muslim. The candidate's party or proficiency did not count; the religion did. Religious zealots had a field day. India's composite culture cannot afford that kind of atmosphere to return.

And I have not been able to understand the silence of the Muslim intelligentsia on the issues facing the country. It does not say anything when it comes to Kashmir or relations with Pakistan. Muslims are an integral part of the country. They are citizens of India. Their views are as important as those of others.
The above article appeared in Dawn, Karachi, 16 June 2001 - see editorial p. 2 q

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