By Seema Mustafa
This is a question that everyone has to ask themselves. Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he keeps silent about the assault and attacks on Muslims across the country, the brutal lynchings, the hate filled statements. Congress president Rahul Gandhi when he seeks meetings with just Muslim intellectuals. Asaduddin Owaisi when he speaks of the Muslims as if there was no other identity, adding to the propaganda that India’s minorities are a monolith. And of course the media that in its new avatar of the crusader pins the Muslims into stereotypes that negate the larger identity, and effectively move them out of the larger citizens domain.
#TalktoaMuslim that seemed to have enthused many youngsters is to my mind completely demeaning action feeding into the exclusivist, isolationist, discourse of the day. But without going into the details of this absurd hashtag—one wonders how the African-Americans with better leaders and higher aspirations would have required to a #TalktoaBlack social media venture, or actually there is no need to wonder. This would have been thrown out, bathtub, baby et al.
The provocation for this article is a sense–endorsed by colleagues like journalist Bilal Zaidi—that the Muslim youth in particular is tense, worried, agitated and seeking solutions in identity. Given the vacuum of a progressive, far thinking leadership and the reluctance of the non-BJP political parties to engage with the issue, the restlessness is growing. And as young people tend to, finding their own solutions in arguments that might not be sound as they seek their legitimacy from the right wing space, and not the secular space. In the process the BJP/RSS sits back on its haunches, happy about the results as it does not mind the right wing space growing ( as it hastens their efforts at polarisation), but cannot tolerate the secular space being strengthened.
Let me explain. There are no two views that Muslims are under threat and direct attack. I don’t have to go into this as its more than evident through the lynchings, the assaults, the propaganda, the hate speech, the terror, the threat. No one is feeling this more than the youth in the community for their very future is being under threat now, with the fear adding to deep uncertainty. And the pressure is making them look for acceptance that has not been forthcoming, not even from the supposed secular opposition parties that insist on contesting elections by making the minorities invisible. As one Bihar leader explained to me, “the Muslims are going to vote for us anyways, it is better for them to do so silently so there is no polarisation.”
The elders in the community have accepted this invisibilization in what they insist is for the larger good, evident also in the Karnataka polls. But the youth see in this a marginalisation that most—educated and as aspirational as any young Indian—are not willing to accept. And this increases the pressure, in that they are under threat and attack from the one end and do not really know whether they are welcomed by the other. There is a feeling of acute helplessness for which the political social spectrum has no answers. No palliative, no potion.
As Zaidi said, “they have started feeling that there is no room for them in the secular space, right or wrong.” And so when rejected they seek refuge in identity politics, and in the process widen a divide that the right wing on all sides of the spectrum takes full advantage of, as right organisations always, repeat always, thrive in uncertainty.
An immediate example comes to mind. A young enthusiastic activist, Owais Sultan Khan working for a secular organisation has recently resigned. Maybe the reasons are to do with just work as is perfectly normal, but a letter issued by him feeds into the ‘no space for us’ argument. This is after having worked in that space for years and with two persons whose secular credentials cannot be doubted even by those who are their foremost critics. Both Shabnam Hashmi and Harsh Mander cannot be questioned on this count, and yet Khan has spoken of marginalisation within.
He is not wrong, or mischievous in saying so. He actually believes it as he is of the youth, drawing the narrative from the right side of the fence, and wants the secular space to address these worries and concerns of the minorities. And is not satisfied with the larger battle being waged, but wants the minorities to be brought centre stage with the secular space being turned into a more radical space thereby.
An immediate response, an assurance in these pressured times, that someone, somewhere is willing to walk the immediate mile. And there are many like Owais Khan, more and more so, wanting that embrace and feeling rebuffed when even these limited aspirations are not met. It does not take long in today’s environment for a rebuff to turn itself into frustration and anger. More so, when there is a strange kind of silence in the secular arena, a visible discomfort.
The fight against communalism cannot come from a compromised secular space. It has to come from secularism that looks upon Muslims as Indians, with full rights and equality, where anyone can speak for the cause, and does not have to be from the threatened identity. In that a Dalit can speak for the Muslim, and a Brahmin for the Dalit, where the stereotypes are challenged, and where the large constitutional merges into a strong assertion of rights and freedoms and equality and liberty.
The problem has been that over the years the secular space has been compromised by fundamentalism of all hues. And by some who never really understood the concept in the first place. Secularism is not about demolishing the mosque, but it is also not about bringing in a law to take away the rights given by the courts to Muslim women. Secularism is not bringing in a bill for talaq with one hand, and allowing the lynching of minority men with the other.
Secularism is speaking for India, for the Constitution, for the people as one. With the state keeping out of religion even as it protects all religions from harm. It is about not compromising with any fundamentalism and nurturing the space as progressive. It cannot speak a regressive, even mildly fundamentalist language Secularism has to accommodate the marginalised in a language that embraces without being fundamentalism.
In the absence of this secularism takes a beating. And no wonder the youth today—Muslim and Hindu—are confused. One looks to the dominant ideology of the day to realise economic dreams, and emerges as a lynch mob. The other, pushed with their backs to the wall, look for relief and finding none, attack the only space that can bring back equilibrium instead of working with it. And for it.
Unfortunately there are many on the right side to misguide the youth, to use economics to drive hate speech, and use confusion to savage the secularists. As the right wingers know that their real threat does not come from each other, but from those who shun polarisation, and embrace diversity, pluralism and democracy.
It is important, nay imperative, for so called secular parties and organisations to revise strategies and accommodate the new challenges in India that have generated a pressure that the minorities in this country have never before felt. Where now lynchings are fast becoming the new normal with open support for those who kill from persons in power, and where hope is not really visible with the only certainty being the community’s further marginalisation.
It is sad that intellectuals and politicians have not addressed this new challenge, this new problem that can have wide reaching repercussions. Unfortunately all are trying to manage the new with the knowledge and responses of the old. This will not work.