A plea to India

Published: July 24, 2014
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India is home to 180 million Muslims; third largest Muslim population in the world. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

Being a Pakistani with ties to India has put me in some difficult positions. For years I have tried to remove misconceptions and disprove stagnant theories on both side of the border. One thing that I had to talk about at length was the freedoms and societal positions of minorities in each country.

Most of the people I interacted with did not have first-hand experience and would base their arguments on ‘official’ texts and school curriculum, which were heavily slated against the side. It’s a different situation now; the media is more open than it was in my teenage years and we have seen strong civil society effort towards communication and confidence building measures.

Still, the situation of Muslims in India is a hot topic and I have antagonised many in pointing out the Indian state’s constitution and laws which safeguard their freedom. I have also narrated my experience of hospitality and love, and have been called an agent, an apologist, an NRI and more, because I am guilty of trying to remove prejudice and hate. But the July 17th incident, in which 11 Shiv Sena MPs forced a Muslim worker to break his Ramazan fast, puts me, and others like me, to shame and gives the hawks every right to say,

“We told you so.”

The reports are that the MPs were staying at Maharashtra Sadan, the Maharashtra state house, in New Delhi and got angry at the quality of food being served to them. They lashed out at a Muslim worker and forced bread down his throat. This gross violation of basic human rights is condemnable at any point. There are violations of religious and human rights in towns and villages, after all ignorance and bigotry is not restricted to any domain and people. However, it is all the more flagrant considering that this act took place in an official space and committed by members of the government, members who are bound by the laws of the land to protect and serve its people and safeguard their rights.

The incident highlights the fears of the Muslim community that was worried at Narendra Modi’s victory in the recent Indian elections. The 2002 Gujarat riots had loomed large and dominated the discourse of elections in the largest democracy in the world. The BJP came to power with an overwhelming public mandate and the absolute majority that it enjoyed in the Lok Sabha raised concerns that the rights of Muslims and other minorities would not be respected.

One hoped that the shadow of communal politics could fade away and India could become the bastion of human rights that its founding fathers envisioned it to be; where the sacredness of secular polities would be upheld. Sadly, the unfolding events have punctured these hopes and belied the secular foundations of India. For some time there have been reports in mainstream media about Muslims being consigned to ghettos in Gujarat and how real estate agents first ask clients if they are Muslims before making any recommendations. Some flatly refuse because there are closed neighbourhoods.

Since May, there has been a general saffornisation of state institutions, institutions which in principle should be apolitical. The new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Mr Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, appears to be a votary of the caste system, which has no legal standing since Article 15 of the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on caste and Article 17 declared the practice of un-touchability to be illegal. In an article titled, Indian Caste System: A Reappraisal, he wrote:

“The (caste) system was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class.”

Needless to say, this is diametrically opposite to reality and to the hundreds of cases of caste-related abuses and discrimination, which have led to several rulings by the Indian Supreme Court in favour of affirmative action. Mr Rao is also a revivalist of Hindu lore and in a 2013 blog post titled Ayodhya and History states:

“All thinking men – religious activists, intellectuals, politicians, professional historians and archaeologists- are divided into at least three groups; a) those who stand for the Hindu cause, b) those who stand for the Mosque and c) the majority of others who support an amicable settlement of the controversy. In influencing the public opinion in favour of Muslim community, the ‘secular’ historians and ‘progressive’ intelligentsia make concerted endeavour in support of the Muslim cause. They further condemn all those who sympathise the Hindu cause as Hindu fundamentalists and ‘saffron brigade’.”

He also intends to start the ‘Mahabharata Project’, which will prove that the incidents are grounded in history and not myths. This is exciting but unfortunately, will not be based on archaeology or historical evidence but oral traditions. In an interview he gave to the Indian Outlook on July 21, he states,

“The writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.”

This viewpoint has been criticised by academics and historians, more so in India than anywhere else.

Then there are those who want to rewrite the history of India and underplay the Mughal and other Muslim empires. There have been other troubling signs. The new government has instructed civil servants in Delhi to use Hindi, rather than English, in all their communications on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Hindi is also expected to be given priority on all government websites. This is a deliberate attempt to downplay the other languages and leaves in a bind those who are not familiar with the Hindi language.

What this means is that India is heading down the same slope as other countries. France has banned burqas for its citizens and there are frequent reports of xenophobia and Muslim hatred across Europe. Last month, China’s Muslim students and civil servants in the north-western Xinjiang province were ordered by the state to avoid fasting during Ramazan. Sadly, while incidents in Europe and elsewhere are reported and condemned, there wasn’t a peep from our politicians about the Chinese conundrum.

However, India’s case is even more distressing for many reasons. China or Europe was not invested with centuries of Muslim existence. India is home to 180 million Muslims; third largest Muslim population in the world. It is the land of Sufi saints and poets, the resting place of Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusrau, Moinuddin Chishti and Shahwilayat Naqvi. I have been welcomed in temples and seen Hindus host iftars and participate in Muharram processions. I have broken bread with Sikhs and drank lassi with Christians. Tolerance and secularism is enshrined in its constitution and India has a proud tradition of having top officials from the minorities.

Three of its presidents have been Muslim and so was the last vice-president. There was no ‘Objectives Resolution’ passed that bars a non-Hindu to become the head of state, no prefix before the name of country that declares it to be aligned with one particular religion. It is the home of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who became the youngest person to serve as the president of the Indian National Congress (INC) and whose birthday is celebrated as “National Education Day” across India. Its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a firm believer in respecting the rights of all citizens and Mahatma Gandhi fasted for the protection of Muslims to end the violence in Calcutta, (now Kolkata).

The migration in East Pakistan was largely peaceful and the credit goes to Gandhi for the August 15, 1947 ‘Miracle in Calcutta’, which saved Muslims from deathly violence. Gandhi had protected Muslim rights so much that his killer, Nathuram Godse, stated that it was this support of Muslims that made him kill the Mahatma. Come what may, India should not besmirch its legacy, it should not betray the glorious vision of the founders, and it simply cannot lose its soul.

All my life I have been repeating the slogan,

“India is the land of a thousand religions and thousand cultures.”

It is heartening to note that yesterday’s incident has caused an uproar in the Lok Sabha and been condemned by government officials and the general public. Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, yesterday set up an inquiry to investigate the incident. However, the state should be cognisant that these incidents are symptomatic of a larger malaise that once ingrained are nearly impossible to control. I say this to all my Eastern neighbours:

“India, please don’t let the country descend into hatred, don’t trample on the rights of minorities, don’t let the constitution become just a piece of framed paper, don’t become Pakistan.”

Sibtain Naqvi

Sibtain Naqvi

A writer and social commentator who has written extensively for various Pakistani English dailies. An art critic accredited by the AICA and the Royal College of Art, London, he dabbles in music and sports writing and tweets @Sibtain_N (twitter.com/Sibtain_N)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.