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Monday, September 15, 2008

The Indian State against Islam?

Recent months has seen debate on Islam and its role within India as a nation reach a crescendo. No other time in recent history perhaps has so much written about Islam and its role in India. Tehelka has in a series of issues ripped apart the State's arguments against SIMI with a die-hard courage and journalism that is exemplary if not foolhardy in the current times. Who would sell a magazine that disproves the accusations on SIMI and defending them, when judgements are being passed against its members and every other day bombs go off across India immediately followed by SIMI name appearing in media as the main suspect. Tehelka is an exception in Indian journalism.

Apart from Tehelka, others too have openly voiced their opinion on the way the society and State treats Muslims including Shabna Azmi and other film world personalities. Arundathi Roy has written saying Kashmir wants Azadi from India and India from Kashmir. The statements from Hindu and Muslim leaders have been far more confusing. The secular writers are by far the worst, they try to defend violence by Muslims by writing about violence by Hindus and Christians, as though such acts justify each other, such arguments are in bad taste. The overall picture is bleak. Repeatedly, it seems that the State through its different wings, particularly the police and military is against Muslims as a whole. At least this is the scene that is hinted at though no one has said this overtly yet. There is a quote from our Railway Minister that says the bureaucracy has become communal as though that explains away everything. It is time we ask this question - 

Is the Indian State against Muslims?

I am a Hindu and a proud one at that. However, that never stopped me from understanding other religions. There are Hindu Indians, who believe that India should have sent all Muslims to Pakistan and become a 'Hindu' state after Independence. These are Hindus who probably never grew up in a peaceful Muslim neighbourhood (as I did) and many perhaps today live  without any apparent transaction with Muslims. Others may have transactions, but, no active socializing or engagement in a personal capacity. Though such people have increased in an political environment that is increasingly turning  less tolerant, they are still not the majority of the Hindu population. The localized nature of the Hindu religion also means there is no one talking on behalf of all the Hindus of India (and indeed other parts of the world) at any point in time.

One way of interpreting Hindu caste system is based on the sanctity it attaches to food. As eating beef is considered least sanctified (in most parts, a sin), it is given the lowest order in society. In caste conscious regions, which is still most parts of India except to some extent in the metropolis, Muslims as beef eaters, are clubbed with this lower strata in the Hindu society with all others not interacting with them. This (though very simplistic) practical aspect has influenced the Hindu-Muslim interaction in the society historically.

Indeed the issue of cow slaughter is one of the oldest and most persistent Hindu-Muslim issue. It has featured in political negotiations, used as an intimidation tactic and also used to galvanize public opinion and popular upraising. Gandhi addresses this issue as a core issue in Hindu - Muslim interaction in his seminal Hind Swaraj, and elsewhere says that the 'British killed more cows that even the Mughuls' and there is a statement by the British Queen asserting the same.

Today, with the cattle any way being slaughtered for exports under State patronage, the slaughter of a cow is no longer that important an issue among ordinary Hindus (though it is very important in the agricultural circles), though sanctity of food still remains in certain absurd levels. Cow slaughter is a mere convenient political point. With the western influenced food habits, most younger generation Indians anyway believe that apparent hygiene is sanctity, which is another absurdity.  It could still be an issue among smaller localities, locally sorted out if there is a good interaction among the two communities, this too is still visible across the country.

Such locally settled issues between Hindus and Muslims would be plenty across the land. I had earlier written about the localized peaceful Ganesh idol immersion procession in small neighbourhoods before it became a centralized show of strength by political Hindu organizations. In most parts of the country, still Hindus and Muslims do live in close proximity, do transact in a day to day basis, do have their own adjustments (like Muslims may never invite Hindus to dine in their houses, particularly if they know the Hindu to be a vegetarian and limit the exchange of safe market bought sweets and Hindus who ensure that their Muslim colleague's work load is minimised during the fasting holy month). However, such ordinary existence does not seem to influence the State and its machinery. While the powers of the State are happy to pose in Iftar parties or lock hands with well decked Pakistanis, this bonhomie does not seem to come in the way of how the State deals with Islam.  

A most absurd report was of a young Tamil Muslim leader who was questioned because as a student couple of decades back, he had registered for the Student's Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and everyone whose name was registered anywhere was being questioned by the State. That this person has since then been active in the social circuit, that he has facilitated and launched a Political Party and has been visible in the local politics does not mean anything to the State.

If ordinary Hindus and Muslims can coexist in major parts of this country, then what is the problem of the State? Why should it see Muslims anew in the global light on terrorism?

To my knowledge, Babri Masjid was the first Hindu political issue in recent history that was imposed top-down. There was a centralized expectation and mass action planned (and eventually enacted) in which the localized Hindu wisdom had no role to play. It was an attempt to centralize the Hindu society. Perhaps many a local Hindu wise men were undermined of their social  standing and moral authority with this one political act. The claim to represent Hindu aspiration by leaders who lead this movement has only been furthered by the silence of the local Hindu leaders. Hinduism in its principle and practice is highly decentralized. No two villages have same Gods (atleast not in the same order), no two communities have similar cultures for birth, marriage and death, even the base philosophies are interpreted as per the local traditions. In such a society, the centralization of the Hindu aspiration on the hands of a few politicians is an assault that destroys the very foundation of this religion.

Indeed today, the most articulate and visible Hindu campaigners are those who have many centralized (or even worse globalized) ideas of Hinduism and are bothered about such aspirations of Hindu people (about whom their ideas will be limited to people like themselves). They have issues against Muslims that are not local (the Amarnath issue is different and one of the few local ones in recent times whose location and timing was bad, it could have been easily settled between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir itself any other time and even now in any other state) any longer. 
In response to such Hindus have appeared a band of Islamic representatives who's claim to fame would perhaps be not more than that they are easily available to the media. Like Shabna Azmi has pointed out, 'who says that the Mullah is the only representative of Islam', she goes on to say that 'Nehru represented Indian Muslims as much as any other Muslim leader'.  It is very important to realize that just like the globalized Hindu leaders, there are globalized Muslim leaders who dominate the public sphere and often they are made of the same mould. These groups feed the mass media, particularly since Sept 11. 

Much of the hype on terrorism has been created by the visual media in particular including terms and visuals to go with  'Islamic Terrorists' or 'Jihadists' that are used often and with not uniform responsibility. The need to utter words at a rapid speed to fill-up television time, particularly in live news channels (just watch Rajdeep Sardesai's lips closely with the television in mute you will understand what I mean), has ensured that the stereotyping of Islam, is incessantly strengthened.

The centralized view of Hindu and Muslim that suits  global stereotypes and is perpetuated by the political analysts, bureaucrats and high speed media experts who influence the State more today has to be critically examined as one of the causes for the perception of the State against Islam.

If the media over kill plays a major role in the way we understand terrorism, its complete absence of information on other issues is equally striking. The Naxalite problem for whatever reason does not seem to attract the 'terrorist' lable in the media.In the entire Orissa reporting, there were so much news about the expansion of VHP in that state (very statistical ones have come to my mail box three times already) and similarly a very detailed one on the status of missionaries. But there were none that spoke about the Maoists.  

Much of our media proclaims to be 'secular', however, I wonder how responsible they are in making  allegations or re-cycling material (either from the government or some other media) without adequate verification? I don't know how many of them would have reviewed their own usage of the footage of the by now infamous Saddam statue being brought down in central Bhagdad when much later it came out that the entire episode was stage managed by US military and sucked up by the 'embedded' journalists. Similarly, I often wonder how can the media hold two parellel views on Modi so comfortably. The reporting of Modi's Gujarat as an well governed, efficient, industrialized, amazing example for every Indian state to emulate is almost insulated from the political news report that projects Modi as some kind of a Hindu Hitler. The media does not seem to find the contradictions in its own reporting.  

Given that the media does play a powerful role in shaping public opinion and the State, their responsibility in projecting global stereotypes deserves to be more closely examined. How does the State view the media? In many cases the State seems to be almost guided by the media these days.  The Home Minister's inability to creatively come up with new soundbytes for the media each time a bomb goes off is interpreted as his incompetence to be a Minister!

Read an interesting statement by one of the home grown corporate icons of the previous decade.He admits that the corporates have preferred to side with the State on social issues, however, we all know that it is not so. Whereas a Narayanamurthy and everyone else will come strongly when the government talks of implementing reservation in private firms, there is no voluntary statement that is visible on terrorism or the communal front. I don't believe that our corporate icons are unable to see beyond the political polarisation of the communal issue. However, their response to the US market crash is far more vocal than a blast in Delhi or elsewhere. Their inability today to influence the State today in areas beyond economy will be a historic blunder, they never had a government so willing to toe their line.

Even the vibrant civil society is not clear when it comes to the issue of terrorism and communal issue and the way the State handles it. We don't critically examine what the State and the media says.  Intellectuals who populate the media and web are most often than not just don't want to touch the religious issue or deepen the discourse beyond the safe 'secular' idiom. At times I wonder whether it is because the articulate and visible civil society representatives are people who have become 'global' citizens and unable to relate to the issues from local perspective and common man any longer or whether it is their active participation on issues and initiatives can only come if it has been tried elsewhere (or atleast modelled on the west).

An interesting story on how a Judge termed an accused as a 'terrorist' even before the accusation could be proved in the court was carried recently in the media.  The recent reports on the corruption of the judiciary is as most people have commented, just the tip of the ice berg that refuses to surface. Most common people think that if someone is innocent then the court will eventually release the person, that we do have a fair and unbiased judiciary. But, in the case of the so called terrorists (as indeed in other  social issues such as environmental, economical, health, development, etc.), it does not seem to have the intention or capacity to stay independent. The State seems to take a long time to present its case in most 'terrorist' Muslim cases in recent times. However, this does not seem to bother the judiciary at all. Understandably our police system and judiciary has never witnessed such large number of cases of terrorist act.  But, how does the Judiciary hold its own and ensure an unbiased look at what is being presented to it? In an environment where 'stricter laws' and 'more stringent laws' are being spoken of almost on a daily basis, there is no review mechanism for the independence and fairness of the judiciary and its inability to be independent of the State's opinion.

A tribunal set up to enquire the banning of SIMI lead by a judge who seemed to be exceptional has questioned the ban on this organization. However, even before the tribunal's ruling was made public, measures have been initiated by the State machinery to get the tribunal challenged. How is such speed possible by the otherwise lethargic State machinery unless it is driven by its own agenda?

Something most striking, for me, in the recent opinions being aired on communalisation of politics, political perception, the Muslim issue, the State's assertion against terrorism, etc. has been the absence of Gandhi in the discourse. I read through the various opinions by popular and intelligent persona and none wanted to take the name of the Father of Nation in the context of the communal tension. That his approach is seen as a closed chapter rather than a continuum is very sad. 

What would Gandhi have done in the current context?

I think he would have walked all over Azamgarh to personally hold discussions with the Muslims of that region to try to understand why is it so many youth from that particular part of the country are suspected to be militants. He would have tried to understand the environment in which this phenomenon happens (if at all).

He would have utilized the Holy month of Ramzan to talk of the  spiritual nature of Islam, highlight the sacred aspects of this religion and asked his followers to hold meetings with Muslims in the neighbourhood, particularly the youth, to use the sanctity of the month as a time for common reflection on the Nation. He would have requested ordinary Hindus  and Muslims to come together in small neighbourhoods to assert their de-centralized nature and break the stereotypes.

Most importantly he would have apologized on behalf of the State to all the families who have lost lives in the bomb attacks as well as some of the innocent families that the State has held as suspects, holding both as equally detrimental to the peace in the state. He may have even invited Muslim youth groups to serve the injured victims of the bomb blast in hospitals to ensure their physical healing goes alongside their mental healing. He would have at the same time made a strong statement to the world to stop unnecessarily extrapolating and appending what happens in India to what happens in other parts and request them to look within their own societies rather than globize their problems.

I realize even as I write that this may be ridiculed and people may say that the global militancy is way beyond such peace 'gestures'. However, we do know what such a process did to an 'Empire on whom the sun never set'. It is a completely vision less State that needs to look outside models to make policies on every aspect of governance including its own security. It shows how weak and unimaginative we have become as a people and as inheriters of a legacy of a peace loving civilization. Even worse it shows how quickly we have forgotten the powerful immediate legacy of peaceful means as a valid method of fighting colonization, which is many times more dangerous than terrorism in its intent and design. 
To me the State's handling of the entire terrorism issue is an inability to own up to a legacy, to approach issues with imagination, to have conviction on the ordinary people and their approach, to believe in the diverse and de-centralized nature of this civilization.  Inability to lead its people with conviction that they are with the State and  to provide the exceptional people in the media, judiciary and intelligentsia strength to say the inconvenient truth and engage to resolve them. It is not a State against Islam, it  is  a State that increasingly seems isolated and against  majority of its own subjects.

In a few days from now, with their  hands still stinking of the Nuclear Deal ink , Manmohan Singh and team will gather in an annual ritual to lay flowers on Gandhi Samadhi in Rajghat. They will bow before him with no conviction of his methods, Rajghat would have never been more dead and defiled before.  The media will gather in large numbers to telecast this ritual to a uncaring  nation that will swiftly switch channels from this mockery.

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