Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Vital Distinctions

Arun Shourie

"Dear Arun", writes Mr. Som Benegal, the sharpest of pins to many a baloon, "Why do you always equate the Urdu press with Muslims? I write a 600 word editorial every single day in TEJ which is in Urdu -- and which is neither Muslim, nor communal in any way. (I hope I am not pseudo-secular!) There are other Urdu papers which are not Muslim; indeed some are very, very anti-Muslim. May be sometimes you should also read some voices of 'sanity' (or pseudo- sanity!)".

A telling point. Even in ordinary times we tend to generalize. When tensions rise, when controversies sharpen, we tend to do so all the more - even though that is precisely the time when we should be keeping every possible exception, every distinction in mind.

"There must be an end to appeasing Muslims," we hear that said. In point of fact the Muslims are not the ones whom governments and politicians have been appeasing. They have been appeasing brokers of Muslims -- politicians and priests who set themselves up as the leaders of Muslims. The telling point about that appeasement has been that it has done nothing for the average Muslim. In fact, it has brought great harm upon him: his real problems remained unattended; a massive Hindu reaction was stoked; he was led by that appeasement to believe that these brokers were the ones who were powerful, that they would be his deliverers -- he was thereby, disabled even further for the future.

Of course, the politicians would not have pandered to these brokers if the community had been deaf to the latter. And so there is a sense in which by bending to Bukhari or Shahabuddin governments and politicians were not just bending to the brokers but to the community -- that is, it is not just that these brokers out of the blue took up issues like Satanic Verses or Shah Bano which had little to do with the real problems of the community, the latter itself looked upon these issues as the real ones. That is true. But only up to a point: the community fell in line behind these brokers all the more blindly as the attention that leaders like Rajiv and VP Singh and a succession of governments paid them signalled to the community that these brokers were indeed the ones who were influential.

By not making the distinction between having appeased Muslims and having appeased brokers of Muslims we therefore wrongly imagine that Muslims have been hogging too much of the chapati. Worse, we blame the wrong entity and thereby plummet for the wrong remedy. The cause is not the ordinary Muslim -- it is the broker, and the leader who props up that broker, and the latter happens to be a Hindu more often than a Muslim.

Consider the infiltrators from Bangladesh. Who has been smuggling them on to the electoral rolls? Who has been legitimising their residence by pressurising local administrations to issue them ration cards? True, some of the ones who did this most systematically in Assam were Muslims -- Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Moinul Haq Choudhury, Anwara Taimur. But the ones who have been master-minding this in Delhi for instance are Congress leaders, and these happen to be Hindus.

The fact that new voices are being heard since 6 Decemeber warrants an even finer distinction. Hindus should distinguish, that is, not just between ordinary Muslims and Muslim leaders but, among the latter, between the familiar leaders -- who the Muslims themselves today see have brought such cost on their heads -- and the ones they may turn to in the future. Ayodhya has demolished, for the time being at least, the brokers who became important after 1977 -- Bukhari, Shahabuddin, Owaisi, Suleiman Sait etc. Which political leader today would be seen sending his emissary to Bukhari for points to be included in his party's manifesto? It is true of course that a few hall meetings of intellectuals, a few articles in newspapers by them do not mean that a new leadership is in place. But it is equally true that if we continue to lump the familiar old leaders and the possible new leaders together, even more so if we continue to focus only on the old leaders, we may nip a possible -- and very consequential -- change in the bud.

The Media

The media has a vital role to play in this matter. "Who created these leaders in the first place?", a leading Muslim intellectual remonstrated with me in Bombay in the wake of 6 Dec. "Don't just blame the politicians who dealt with them. You fellows in the press are the ones who made these fellows synonymous with the very word 'Muslim'. They had little following among the Muslims. It is the importance you gave them which convinced the ordinary Muslim to fall in line behind them. And now the poor, ordinary Muslim is being punished for what these leaders have been saying and doing."

"And you continue to give such persons the same sort of importance even today," he added. He gave the example of another "Imam" in Bombay whom he named. The man had been patronised and built up by a politician very powerful in Maharashtra then - a Hindu, whom he also named. The politician had patronised the "Imam" by bestowing land upon him. The "Imam" had built flats on it, and sold each flat to several Muslims. The defrauded purchases had taken him to court. In fact so intense was the hostility to the man that the "Imam" had to flee Bombay. He had been living in Goa all these years. The cases were still going on. But come the riots, the man had come back, and his statements and posturings -- all intransigent -- were suddenly again being given banner headlines by the newspapers. The politician-patron being important once again, the man had been given jeeps with whirling red lights to escort him. This sort of attention by the State, said the liberal, will without doubt lead the ordinary, frightened Muslims to believe that this was the man who could secure protection for them. The much was the result of what the politician was doing. But the result was left in no doubt by the newspapers giving so much importance to the statements of the man -- a man who had been so decisively turfed out by the community so recently.

As a result on the one hand ordinary Muslims are misled, and on the other the wrong stereotype of them is formed in the Hindu mind. Over the last few years, the stereotype among Hindus of the average Muslim has been the visage of Bukhari, the intransigence of Shahabuddin and Suleiman Sait, the bargains of Owaisi. The media has contributed to reinforcing this stereotype. When stories have had to be done and obtaining "the Muslim point of view" has been thought necessary, the reflex in newspaper offices has been to contact Shahabuddin or Bukhari and report their view as the views of Muslims in general.

Imagine if the stereotype of the Muslim in the Hindu mind today were not Bukhari, imagine if the role model in the mind of the Muslim himself were not Shahabuddin, but Mr. Abdul Kalam. He is a Muslim too, and few have done for our rocket and space programmes, and therefore for the defence of our country, what he has. The Hindu would not react the way he does to Muslims as a category. The Muslim would not conclude that the options for him are to follow Bukhari or nothing. Of course, the real remedy is to have many, many more Abdul Kalams -- for a stereotype cannot be conjured on exceptions. And that reminds us of the need for Muslims and the rest to do everything possible for improving the educational and technical standards of Muslims. But simultaneously the media can help that very upgradation by putting every Abdul Kalam at the center of the stage.

Further Distinctions

The example of Mr. Abdul Kalam points to an even more vital matter: even worse than confounding these brokers with ordinary Muslims is the tendency at such moments of tension to brand an entire group -- Muslims in this case -- as disloyal to the country. Bal Thackeray's rhetoric is an extreme example of such branding.

Many of our rulers joined up with the French, the Portugese, the English to do in their immediate rivals. There were many Hindus among them. That pattern continues to this day. To take a current example, persons who have been secreting away money in Swiss banks have been, among other things, undermining our economy; they have been making our country vulnerable by leaving it all the more dependent on foreign aid etc. Are these primarily Hindu or Muslim? The ones who engineered the bank scam -- they undermined a vital institution and much else, and thereby made our country more vulnerable. How many Hindus, how many Muslims?

It is true of course that supra-nationalism is one of the hallmarks of Islam. And there IS a sense in which Muslims here identify with what they come to see as an Islamic issue or Islamic State elsewhere. But the way out of that is not Thackeray's. The way is to inform them about the real condition of the people in these Islamic countries, to give them facts about the nature of these Islamic regimes -- about the corruption and venality, about how the enormous earnings from oil have been squandered by profligacy and mismanagement, about the woeful condition of women and minorities, about the fratricide among these regimes all supposedly belonging to a common identity. Assume for a moment that the oft-repeated charge is true -- that some persons in Muslim localities celebrate the victories of Pakistan's teams over Indian cricket teams. That a few burst crackers cannot be taken as proof of the sentiment of an entire community. But assume for a moment that Muslims in general have their heart in Pakistan and those crackers are but a symptom. Surely, the way to deal with that is not Bal Thackeray's -- of clobbering the entire community each time some one bursts crackers. The way that will work is to inform the community about the condition of mohajirs in Karachi, about that of the Ahmediyas and of women all over Pakistan, about the murderous jostling among Punjabis and Sindhis. And to have an invincible cricket team!

Things to do

Simple distinctions, and yet the more strained the times the more important it is that we keep them in mind. And there is another thing. As tensions intensify, as diferences sharpen we tend more and more to exchange views only with persons who share our views. But that is just the time when we must reach out beyond our circle.

So, lots and lots of meetings at which Muslims and Hindus speak what is in their mind and heart. And there are three keys:

Muslims and Hindus - whether they be intellectuals or priest -- should talk to each other directly, and not through politicians, nor through secularists who set themselves up as referees;
They must speak out everything that is in their hearts;
And the two must in a sense ask themselves diametrically opposed questions.

Hindus for instance must ask themselves what exactly the benefits are which the Muslims have wrested disproportionately from the State. The Muslims on the other hand must ask themselves whether the "victories" their leaders won in their names brought them anything, whether these "victories" are not the precise thing that convinced the Hindus that Muslims were wresting undue advantages from the State. Muslims must see that if they make a fetish of separateness -- of some chimerical "separate identity" -- they will be consigning themselves not just to separateness but to discrimination. The Hindus on the other hand must be always watchful that the well-reasoned arguments of Mr Advani do not become the occasion, that they do not come to be used as license by some local bully to wreak vengeance. Muslims must remember that irrespective of what Hindu scriptures may have said, the Hindus too will become a bit "Islamic" if Muslim leaders make intransigence the badge of commitment to the Faith. The Hindus on the other hand must keep the opposite in mind: the "victories" of Shahabuddin etc. stoked such a mighty reaction among Hindus; will the rhetoric of Bal Thackeray or Ritambhara not legitimise a reaction too?

From 'A Secular Agenda'

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