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The good Muslim-bad Muslim binary is as old as Nehru

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Elaborating the title of his autobiography, The Sarkari Mussalman, Lt General Zameer Uddin Shah, former VC of the Aligarh Muslim University, argues:


Sarkari Mussalman… meaning those who worked for the government. I faced this phrase… when I was a young Second Lieutenant. I saw a few excellent riders from Aligarh Muslim University playing Polo. … I went to them and asked, “Please join the Army. We need good riders. You will also get to play Polo”. As they were leaving, I asked them again, “Will you join the Army. This is the last bastion of secularism. You will never be discriminated for being a Muslim”. No answer came from them but one of them said, “You are a Sarkari Mussalman, so you will say that”.

Lt General Shah’s explanation makes us aware of the fact that ‘Sarkari Mussalman’ should not be seen merely as a provocative title of a book. It is an explanatory template by which the attitudes, responses and actions of Indian Muslims, especially those who have become part of the so-called mainstream, are described and evaluated.

This term is also used to make a distinction between the favourable/acceptable Muslims and the non-acceptable Muslims – the bad guys of the community.

The good Muslims, we are told, would join the mainstream; while the bad Muslims would continue to raise sectarian demands and disrupt the progress of the nation. A number of different phrases are used interchangeably to describe good Muslims –secular Muslims, cultural Muslims, nationalist Muslims and so on – to counter the bad guys or communal Muslims, separatist Muslims, Pro-Pakistan elements and, more recently, the terrorist Muslims.

In this sense, the Sarkari Mussalman is referred to as an acceptable and trustworthy agent of the state/government.

The story of good Muslims versus bad Muslims is inextricably linked to the debates on postcolonial Muslim identity. It is worth noting that Hindu right-wing groups – the Hindu Mahasabha as well as the Jana Sangh – did not show any interest in evoking the good versus bad Muslim binary in the 1950s. They treated all Muslims as a homogeneous entity and asked them to Indianise their identity and religion and demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism.

It was Jawaharlal Nehru who introduced this distinction to legitimise his policies towards minorities and to oppose Hindu communal politics. In a letter to Ravishankar Shukla in 1954, Nehru wrote:

There are all kinds of trends among the Muslims in India and some of them are undoubtedly objectionable. I think, however, that we should not be led away by these and we should try to judge the broad situation objectively. (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol. 25, p. 227)

The more elaborate conceptualisation of ‘good Muslims’ may be found in his letter to chief ministers in 1961. He said:

Recently there was a Muslim Convention in Delhi …My own reaction to this… was against it. Later, I came to the conclusion that it would not be right to try to stop it… I do not regret that it was held, even though I dislike much that happened there. The resolutions were not so bad, but the tenor of the speeches made was definitely bad. But, good or bad, it represented widespread feeling and we have to recognize that and try to get rid of it. It is that feeling of frustration which leads to narrow-mindedness and reactionary thinking. (Emphasis added; Letters to the Chief Ministers, Vol. 5, p. 457)

Being a serious political observer, Nehru emphasised more on the reasons, which forced a section of Muslims to feel isolated after the Partition, especially in north India. But the vocabulary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ contributed significantly to set the ‘nationalist expectations’.

After Nehru’s death, a new imagination of good Muslims began to take shape. More broadly, three categories of ‘good Muslims’ may be underlined.

The English-educated, middle-class professionals, who have/had some association with Left-liberal politics, are the first type of Muslims. They are recognised as the ‘ideal type’ of community leaders. It is argued that this section would infuse the progressive impulse in the community and Muslims would be able to join the mainstream. Authors such as Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and diplomat Mohammad Yunus are examples of this type.

The second are the favourable Ulema and religious elite who are also treated as ‘good Muslims’. Although this tradition began with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the manner in which controversial leaders, such as the Imam of Jama Masjid, Abdullah Bukhari, were promoted is quite astonishing. Indira Gandhi’s letter to Bukhari, which she wrote in 1979, is an example of this form of politics. She wrote:
Some incidents including the 1975 Jama Masjid incident, which took place in the past and during the Emergency, resulted in stress and strain and I am sorry that they left an atmosphere of misunderstanding and bitterness. Let this past be forgotten so that we can begin on a note of harmony and cooperation… We agree that all derogatory references to religious leaders should be deleted from textbooks. Our party is committed not to interfere in Muslim personal law… Urdu would be recognized as a second language to be used for official purpose in some areas. (A.G. Noorani, The Muslims of India, OUP, p. 183)

The outcome of this letter was quite obvious. The Imam not only supported Indira Gandhi in the 1980 elections but also legitimised his practise of issuing fatwas in favour of political parties.

The rise of the BJP in the recent years has led to the third category of ‘good Muslims’, the nationalist (Rashtravadi) Muslims. Unlike the progressive Muslims of the Congress/Left, these Muslims offer an uncritical support to the basic premises of the Hindutva project. They take pro-BJP position on controversial issues by emphasising their religious identity as practicing Muslims.

This is what Zafar Sareshwala, a highly successful Gujarati businessman and a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (until recently!), says:
My physical appearance and “image” is that of a stereotypical Muslim. I have a beard, my wife wears a burqa, we pray 5 times a day, we’ve done Haj and we follow every Islamic tradition. But our views are enlightened precisely because we take the teachings of Islam seriously.

The celebrated image of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (a Veena player, a Bhagwat Gita reader, a Sanskrit lover and a Muslim scientist!) is a fine example of a Rashtravadi good Muslim. This may be the reason why he was preferred over Aurangzeb – the bad Muslim – for commemorating the ideal Muslimness in contemporary India.
These versions of ‘good Muslims’ – either as Sarkari Muslim or as a nationalist – signify a specific norm in Indian politics.

All political parties need Muslims for electoral survival – not merely to symbolically address the highly diversified Muslim community as voters, but also to assert political influence over other social constituencies.

The good Muslims, in this framework, are shown as ‘lived examples’ who can fulfil the ‘standard expectations’ set for all Muslims.

Thus, when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat says that Hindutva without Muslims is meaningless, he is not entirely aiming at reaching out to Muslims. Instead, he is addressing the common Hindus, who still do not approve of Hindutva’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The ‘good Muslims’ of the BJP/RSS, such as Zafar Islam and Zafar Sareshwala, seem to ratify this message silently through their symbolic presence in the party.

Lt General Shah is right. Muslim symbolism is an unavoidable phenomenon of Indian politics and Sarkari Mussalman is just an illustration of it.