A Letter to Indian Muslim Youth
Friends and fellow citizens,
This is going to be a long letter, as the matter under consideration is complex. And I am not a celebrity – so by way of relevant introduction, I am a young Indian Hindu who is trying to do well in life as well as do my bit for India. Moreover, I sincerely wish that you too do very well in life, and India – our Bharat, our Hindustan – becomes prosperous, proud and peaceful. I also humbly recognize that – just by virtue of your civic and political engagement not to mention anything else, and no matter how much I disagree with said engagement at times – you too are doing your service to our nation in your own way.
But the fact remains that I lean towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and talking as a BJP supporter or surrogate with fellow Indians who happen to be Muslims, is fraught with – shall we say – sensitivities. Nonetheless, I have no intention to prove that I am well-intentioned. I do not do autobiographical maudlin well nor do I respect those who overuse it, so I am not going to pull off the I-have-very-close-black-friends trick.
Nor am I going to re-write in detail, the problems that I have had with Hindu extremism (for my general views on identity, check my posts). You can ignore all that and simply extrapolate – a hop, skip, and a jump, really – and label me communal, fascist, venomous, Muslim-hater et cetera and stop reading here, while I will get straight to the boring points for the few who will actually read the whole thing.
Now, Chetan Bhagat wrote a letter as one of you. Some of you wrote an angry, passionate and well-written letter back to him, and I agree with parts of it. One of you wrote a polite, passionate and well-written column in response to his letter, and I agree with parts of it. I will try to briefly come to why I disagree in a bit. But this letter to you is not about Bhagat (who has been defended here and here)
I do realize that when it comes to some issues, it is perhaps best to write directly and honestly – though of course fiction writers (everybody, actually) are entitled to their literary devices, and clearly it works for them at some level. Secondly, even within a certain community, we all are very unique individuals – and while the response to the letter (from Muslims) was overwhelmingly negative, what has hurt one person (say, the content) is very different from what has hurt someone else (say, the writer of the content and/or his style). Similarly, this letter also comes from the perspective of only one individual – and not that of a typical Hindu or typical BJP supporter, whatever that means.
Philosophically, I am a moderate libertarian or a liberal nationalist who is likely to support centre-right parties in most countries if I were a citizen there – GOP in USA, Tories in UK, CDU in Germany (though FDP is a very tempting option there, unlike the unviable and extreme capital-L Libertarians in the US as well as the confused Liberal Democrats in the UK), PML (N) in Pakistan (where the PPP is much like India’s Congress – corrupt and clinging onto an amorphous, fraudulent left-liberalism), AKP in Turkey (although Erdogan’s excesses of late, makes one rethink), and so on.
Most of these political choices are distasteful – it comes down to choosing the “lesser evil” as I see it. As one can see, many of these parties happen to be – to varying extents – Christian or Muslim majoritarian, despite my disagreement with the illiberal core of Abrahamic monotheism. Nonetheless, these parties are more likely to be in consonance with my economic views, and perhaps I prioritize the economic schism over the socio-cultural one. Others may not – which is fair.
In India too, supporting the BJP is not exactly something that I am very proud of. They simply represent the lesser evil, as I see it. A political party is just a vehicle – a grand umbrella – for various movements, ideologies, philosophies, special interest and identity groups. And, at the regional/assembly level, I have actually voted for other parties (if you must ask, I voted for Trinamool – my dislike for Communism is stronger than most of my other political instincts).
Yet, there is one additional factor here. It is not so clear that who is more communal in India – the BJP or the Congress. Yes, I realize, that for most Indians who happen to be Muslims such a statement is confusing at best, and deliberately misleading at worst. But do hear me out.
While the BJP has been trying to restrict beef consumption and conversions based on monetary incentives (both targeted against Muslims and Christians, no matter what some BJP partisans say) and of course has played a central role in destroying the Babri structure while being involved in riots, the Congress too has, first, been involved in riots and equally importantly, been pushing policies that are anything but secular.
From Haj subsidies (now being phased out) to educational exemptions, segregation and identity-based subsidies to now employment quotas (and even criminal justice quotas!), the Congress has indeed been indulging in the politics of minority appeasement to prevent electoral backlashes against its incompetence and corruption.
This is not even mentioning how is abolishing Article 370 and religion-based personal laws considered communal by the Congress! All Indians should be governed by the same laws – it is unconscionable if a Muslim couple cannot adopt in India, or a Muslim woman cannot get an alimony, or that if a Kashmiri girl marries a non-Kashmiri she loses certain rights. Yes, the BJP has a major credibility crisis on these issues – but the issues are still relevant nonetheless.
I have denounced political Hindutva repeatedly, but what about Islamism – which too has been enshrined in the country’s laws via unelected ayatollahs at AIMPLB and its derivative bodies? Moreover, this religious polarization by the Congress has been working for it much longer than the counter-polarization has been for BJP/BJS. I think it is but obvious that at a subconscious level, we all become parochial, but at least consciously to choose someone who is seen as your partisan and badmouth someone who is seen as someone else’s partisan maybe fair – but is is really close to anywhere being liberal or secular?
Now, the BJP’s nine years in opposition have been disappointing, to say the least. Stalling parliament, hardly any coherent responses on various economic and foreign policy issues, and of course continuing confusion on identity-related issues as well – BJP leaders, for all their brilliant speeches, have not risen to the occasion – it would be fair to say. The 2009 campaign and agenda was confused also – betting on one term’s anti-incumbency (when growth was at its highest, even if the reasons for that were the good work of Vajpayee government and a global boom) was not very smart.
Things have changed somewhat with Narendra Modi being elevated as the de facto PM candidate for BJP. There seems to be a new found energy in the cadre and many BJP-leaners, and a somewhat more focused ideational framework thanks to a clearer leadership. To be honest, I had been lukewarm towards Modi. It brings me no joy to be penning this identity-obsessed letter instead of, say, thinking about economic policies. If BJP could win with Shourie, Jaitley, Parrikar etc I would have gladly gone ahead with that. But the “primaries” are over, and Modi has won.
But, if one thinks about it, Modi had to win the primaries, in retrospect. After years of sustained propaganda with respect to the 2002 riots, Modi had been converted into a national figure by the left-liberal machine, thinking that while it will help the BJP in Gujarat, it would diminish it elsewhere. To some extent, they were right. Who knows how 2004 and 2009 would have gone had Vajpayee prevailed and sacked Modi in 2002? And yet we are in 2013, and there is a small chance that the target-Modi campaign may backfire for the Congress.
Why do I use words like “target” and “propaganda”, you must be wondering? Well, because nothing has been proven against Modi – with respect to complicity in 2002 riots – despite nine years of a hostile government in Delhi, which has used central investigative agencies for partisan purposes rather shamelessly. Think about it. India – and Gujarat too, to be specific – has a history of communal riots.
There was a provocation in the form of almost three score Hindus being burnt alive. Many so-called “secular” leaders tried to prove that these Hindus somehow spontaneously combusted – that it was all just a tragic accident. Yet, in all your anger about 2002, I honestly have very rarely seen thoughts about the deliberate burning down of that Sabarmati Express train compartment at Godhra from your side. Reconciliation is based on truth, and empathy is not a one-way road – selective recounting of historical and contemporary events to suit your politics will result in hardening of attitudes on the other side – is that really a very controversial point to make? If so, so be it.
This is not justification, this is simply stating that anger was high – and could any chief minister of any state control the consequences better – that is the relevant metric. Who was in-charge during the other riots before and after? Were they personally complicit necessarily?
One of the reasons I was lukewarm towards Modi, even after 2009, was 2002. I cannot speak for others, but I do not want to support a mass murderer. Period. Socialistic policies of the Congress – often deliberately chosen for short-term political benefits – may have in aggregate killed a lot many more people, but that is still not the same as murder.
Till the SIT report came, I still had minor doubts. Of course, I could still support Modi in good conscience, because ex-ante all I knew was that he had not been proven guilty, even if ex-post things were different. Yet, the fact is that allegations against Modi are only in the media, not in the courts – and after so many years of the Congress in power, and now with the SIT report, I feel I am being reasonable to conclude that Modi indeed was not complicit.
This to me is the important question – not whether he has expressed an appropriate amount of regret (“appropriate” being decided in left-liberal op-eds) or whether he made political capital out of the riots through utterly inappropriate utterances like “hum paanch, hamaare pachees”. Yet it is important to keep in mind that unlike in the case of 1983 Nellie or 1984 Delhi, in which almost no Hindu died, many Hindu rioters were killed by the state machinery in Gujarat.
Modi is a politician, and has his faults – severe faults, even – but it is important for me to know that he is innocent. And, I believe he is. Hence, the last-ditch attempt with the Ishrat Jehan case. It is bizarre in a country which has had at least hundreds of fake encounters, the Congress has suddenly used the CBI to zero in on this case. Firstly, and most importantly, that it is a fake encounter has not been proven. It is the CBI’s assertion – which has not been proven in courts. By CBI’s own words, at least three of the four killed had terror links.
To be sure, even if all four were terrorists, killing them in cold blood is absolutely unacceptable. But again – what is the comparison? What is the metric? What, friends, is the alternative? Is the hands of Congress clean of fake encounters, even assuming this 2004 encounter is proven to be a fake one? Not at all. The idea is to show Modi as the killer of a young, innocent Muslim girl for apparently no reason – and somehow the IB (which was under a Congress central government) also decided to play along. It makes no sense, and is simply muck throwing.
Again, and I want to say this loudly and clearly, Narendra Modi – in my understanding and interpretation of events – did indulge in dog-whistle anti-Muslim rhetoric in 2002. To me, that is undeniable and indefensible. The much reviled mainstream media could have exaggerated its reports a bit here and there, but one cannot invent quotes out of whole cloth. Yet if that was all to him, I would not support him. I understand how difficult it is for you to listen to this, and being asked – albeit indirectly, I guess – to consider supporting him given all that you have heard about him. Actually, I do not understand. I am not here offering sympathy of any sort; I am just trying to communicate with you, instead of scoring points.
But Modi – like any leading politician (Vajpayee, Indira, Rajiv, Nehru, Gandhi himself included) is a complicated personality. Whether he was the absolute best Chief Minister over the last decade (2003-2013) is irrelevant as he is not running for that prize, but it is clear that most somewhat objective commentators and experts acknowledge, even if grudgingly, that he was one of the best. His reforms in power, water, maternity healthcare, education delivery – have been appreciated by many as ranging from incrementally positive to path-breaking in some cases.
Modi has been enacting some bold economic liberal policies – even as he sadly plays the socialist-populist with respect to FDI in retail, derivatives etc. Reform is not just opening markets, it is also about putting the state in order. Modi has been an excellent micro-manager who can make sure the BRT that does not work in Delhi works in his extended city, and that the same unemployment exchanges that do not function in Mumbai work in Surat.
Yes, what works in Gandhinagar is less likely to work to the same extent in a much more diffused power structure of Delhi, but that does not mean that these governance skills and experience are useless. These small issues – a hundred micro-reforms, to paraphrase Raghuram Rajan – matter although they are, for lack of a more sensitive word, not “sexy”. This was Prayaag Akbar’s strongest point in his otherwise nihilist-reductionist-no-one-can-speak-for-anyone Mint piece in my opinion – that there is a class dimension too, in addition to communal/caste ones which we forget when we discuss politics. And a dimension, if I may add, that need not necessarily align with the economic left.
Most “wars” on social media tend to be between upper-middle-class people, no matter which faith they belong to. Yes, we too get affected by economic outcomes – over time – but we are on average higher up in Maslow’s Pyramid. We can afford to have a bit more power cuts and fewer highways if that means keeping people who we think hate us out of power. But why should the Muslims of India underestimate their strength? Can any government in Delhi really kill or deport a large number of Muslims? These are chestnuts that some extremist elements have started to circulate.
Zooming out from the personality to the party, a BJP-led NDA remains the only credible alternative to the incumbent UPA. Think about that last statement once again, and let me rephrase –there is no third choice. Yes, there are smaller parties – but most are likely to ally with one of these “poles”. Modi’s elevation is likely to increase the number of votes for both Congress and BJP, and no Third Front can come in power without either of the two. Yes, one can simply not vote but not voting is also a political decision – which basically means equal support to both sides.
In other words, if you really hate the red tape, corruption, inflation, power cuts, traffic jams, higher taxes, and above all slower growth in high-quality employment opportunities – especially during UPA-2’s tenure – and want a change, and still do not want to support the “communal” Modi, you cannot in every case get away with your conscience by saying “I did not support either of the two”. Yes, some states like Bengal, Kerala, etc are exceptions – but in most states, you can vote for a party that is likely to support Modi if the political arithmetic is viable.
I will start summarizing my letter – as this is very tiresome, not the typing or the thinking – it has hardly been a scholarly or rigorous letter, it is more of a conversation – but the emotions involved have been very tiring nonetheless. It is sad that we have come to this day, where our divides have been exacerbated and our dirty linen is being washed for the world to see. Yet, with so much deliberate confusion, a catharsis was perhaps inevitable.
“The Hindu-Muslim problem is the problem of India”, so declared Lala Lajpat Rai nine decades ago in an article that was to be the first of thirteen on this topic. This subject is again coming to prominence – if it ever went away, that is. Of course, I must not overstate the premise of this letter – many Indian Muslims do support Modi, but as a fraction of the community – they are definitely the exception to the rule.
The Indian centre-left tries to co-opt Christians, dalits, tribals and the “very poor” into a coalition that is electorally sustainable. In 2009, large sections of the urban middle class too went with them. But they are now coming back towards the BJP, which has grown from middle and upper castes in North India to a broader coalition.
The Muslim percentage of population of what is now India is about half of what it was in 1924, because of the partition, despite faster population growth amongst Indian Muslims. The 2011 census results as far as I know have not yet been broken down by religion, but the Muslim population should be around 15%, higher than 13.6% in 2001. This would mean the Indian Muslim population is around 180-190 million Muslims. The 250 million number peddled by fanatics – both Hindu and Muslim – is simply inaccurate. Sikhs and especially Christians make significant religious minorities as well.
In short, no matter who likes or dislikes the idea, India has always been a multi-faith nation, and will always remain one. India is not a Hindu nation, it is not a nation only of Hindus. Yet, India’s Hindu civilizational core cannot and should not be denied, because that is what makes India tolerant – and not constitutions that can be amended if even half the Hindus wanted so. But by not making the Indian state communal, Hindus are not doing anybody else any favour – neither to you nor to any other Indians who happen to be religious minorities – but simply making their own lives better.
To bring up instances like Afzal Guru’s execution, as some of you did in your response letter, to mock India’s democracy and not so subtly allege an anti-Muslim or Hindu majoritarian bias in the highest court of the land, is unfortunate. The problem was with the judgement’s wording, not in the actual establishment of guilt. If you are going to look for victims, you will find aplenty.
There is no analogy for sharia in Hinduism. There is no idealized Hindu state with a comprehensive, inflexible legal system that excites even a sizeable minority of Hindus. If that was the case, India would have become a Pakistan by now. Blasphemy, apostasy, homosexuality, abortion – do not generate the same amount of hatred and retribution in India.
What does? Protecting cows, “saving” poor from rich evangelicals, and recovering a temple (Ayodhya) just like another one that Congressman Patel had recovered (Somnath) – sure all these are wrong and they set very untenable precedents, and I have written against them. But it is important to keep a sense of perspective.
In the name of religion, no matter how much we try to forget this uncomfortable fact, the grandparents and great-grandparents of some of you had voted for Pakistan by dividing India – a country supposedly for the sub-continent’s Muslims. India could have justifiably become a “Hindu republic” if only in the benign sense of some European countries continuing to be Anglican, Lutheran, etc, but thankfully did not. India kept Kashmir partially in the name of secularism, and it was Pakistan that got divided – showing that pluralism works and religion-based politics backfires.
Bigotry starts by targeting the “other”, but eventually the “in” circle keeps getting smaller. Tolerance though works in ever-expanding circles. One of the most prominent historical allegations against Hinduism is interesting – it says that Hinduism has been like a “boa constrictor”, absorbing not just other Indic faiths, but trying to Indianize – and hence assimilate – Christianity and Islam as well.
Anything comparable to the Catholic-Protestant schism or the Ahmadi excommunication are alien to the Hindu mind, which is more obsessed with social – not theological – hierarchies. Of course, this tolerance does not imply acceptance or respect or liberalism in any sufficient sense – it just implies co-existence. Many ills – sexism, casteism to name just a few – have been ignored by some Hindus completely in thrall of their supposedly higher metaphysics.
While parts of the Hindu nationalist network can justifiably be called sexist even today, calling them casteist would not be accurate. Even if the driving force is power – one cannot deny that Hindu nationalism (and one can include Gandhi in this limited context as well) has been anti-caste-discrimination for the last century at least.
Making the Indian state and society better is a complicated task, and one that people from all religious backgrounds and partisan leanings can and should contribute towards. But it cannot start by completely dismissing the other person’s perspective with name-calling. Else one side can keep conjuring up brownshirts, and the other can keep imagining traitors, while other countries race ahead to give their citizens a better life.
This letter could go on and on. There is no case here that I will now rest. This was just an open and frank conveying of views, and I would love to hear back. I apologize for any inaccuracies, and equally importantly, if I have made any point insensitively.
Your fellow Indian and human being,