Indian Muslims & Political Secularism

Ironically, most Indian politicians put on their best “secular” face during electoral season. The same show is being enacted now as a part of campaign for parliamentary elections. Using its “secularism vs. communalism” card, Congress is blaming Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly its prime ministerial nominee, for its communal designs, with specific reference to Gujarat carnage 2002. On his part, Narendra Modi has ensured that camera pays some attention to burqa-clad and bearded men wearing skull caps attending his political gatherings. Modi is trying to wash off the communal-tag attached with his political identity by convincing others of his “popularity” among Muslims.

Each time Congress leaders blame BJP leaders for poisoning Indian society through their communal designs, their message can be interpreted in different ways. The most obvious interpretation is of course their aim to attract Muslim votes. Besides, by drawing attention to BJP’s communal history, Congress leaders are trying to convince voters that their party is not communal. The Congress wants the electorate to believe that support for this party will ensure victory of secularism.

Religious-card, coated differently, is being used by both Congress and BJP to project their respective “secular” images.
Linked with religion, secularism is understood differently across the country and also the world. When a non-Muslim politician dons the skull-cap at religious gatherings, such as Iftar parties, he is instantly labelled as “secular.” Yet, when the same cap is worn by a typical Muslim cleric, he is viewed as conservative. Indeed, conservatism, which is linked with most religious symbols used by Muslims, is usually hardly noticed when Hindus, Sikhs and Christians display symbols associated with their respective faiths. Be it religious marks on forehead, sindoor used by married Hindu women, the turban worn by Sikh males and cross used by Christians. These signs of being religiously-oriented are not linked with their being conservative and/or non-secular. Clearly, this suggests that there prevails a sense of prejudice against Muslims and their religious identity.

If this prejudice did not prevail, during electoral season, politicians would not have given so much importance to displaying their secular credentials by trying to reach out to Muslims. Paradoxically, this prejudice would not have probably existed if a considerable section of the country’s population did not hold doubts about Muslims’ Indian identity and their patriotism. This also explains the ease with which they have been labelled as terrorists and also targeted in numerous fake encounters. Little importance is given to the hard fact that at the time of partition, the Muslims who stayed back in India gave greater importance to their patriotism and their love for this country. Their patriotism let them face partition of their families than leave their country. It is time that communal apprehensions held about the patriotism of Indian Muslims were buried for good. Till these prevail, anti-Muslim communalism will continue raising its ugly head.

True, communalism has not yet been totally defeated in this country. But would it be fair to assume that secularism has yet to succeed in our country? If secularism had really failed, a politician like Modi would not have been compelled to try and appear secular. The Congress would not have banked upon its “secularism vs. communalism” as politically the most marketable electoral-card.

This is, however, one side of the political image that leaders in the electoral fray are trying to project. They are banking on projecting their own “secular” images without giving much importance to the “secular” identity of the voters they are trying to reach. When the Muslim voter is wooed for, it is amazing that so much importance is given to their religious identity and religious symbols. Even Left-oriented politicians make sure that during their demonstrations, persons appearing to be Muslims are visible. Religious-coated secularism is used by non-Muslim politicians to gain support of the Muslim electorate. This also implies that down decades, Muslim voters have given little importance to the religious identity of politicians trying to reach out to them. What has carried greater importance for them is the secular agenda of these politicians. From this angle, secularism has carried greater importance for Muslim voters than polarization along religious lines. It is indeed a tragedy that the secular and patriotic credentials of the Indian Muslims still remain subject to a bias and prejudice. Communal bias still prevails for which targeted Muslims are not to be blamed.

With India largely a multi-religious, traditional society, it is impossible to delink religion from secularism. Each religion truly practiced in this country has several strong secular dimensions, which bring together people of different faiths. An individual can be a strong (religious) Muslim or a Hindu and also be extremely secular. Secular and religious credentials of an individual or a group weaken only when they are defeated by communal designs. Communalism engineered by misunderstandings about minority communities can be defeated when greater importance is accorded to their secular and patriotic leanings. To reach this stage, politicians must not limit their role to promoting their own secular image. Some importance needs to be given to understanding the secular orientations of targeted vote-banks, particularly Muslims!

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-28 February 2014 on page no. 11

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