The socio-political scenario in India is moving, over the last few years, towards a goal of cultural correction and realism about the country’s national identity. At the core of such an identity is a well-defined and stable geographical boundary, a sense of belonging to the land amongst the citizens — that was nurtured by the awareness of what they had in common in the present — and a willingness to outgrow the divisive contours that might have been created by the territorial history of the country in terms of the doings of some ‘alien’ rulers here.
India’s domestic politics in recent times has played havoc with the country’s strategic and security interests as the community-based appeal for votes constantly eroded the democratic principle of national identity overriding the lesser loyalties of caste, creed and region. ‘Religion’ defines the relationship of a person with his or her God, ‘culture’ determines inter-personal dealings — with religion hopefully creating amity rather than discord within the society — and ‘politics’ in a democracy mandates that all citizens exercise the freedom of choice in picking up their representatives in an election.
For several decades after Independence, the aftermath of a traumatic partition of India that was done on communal lines, produced the phenomenon of intermittent riots keeping the Hindu-Muslim divide sharp and deep. The democratic processes of India steadily embraced the minorities who enjoyed socio-religious freedom and soon felt stable as entities with equal political rights. However, the largest minority of India — stronger number wise than the community in Pakistan — remained politically under the influence of the Ulema and the communally-minded elite who saw an opportunity of exercising power through the play of identity politics.
The so-called secular parties also looked upon the community as numbers in elections and felt no need of pushing the country towards ‘one man one vote’ that would enable the elected executive at the national level to provide a common political umbrella which had no denominational stamp. Ensuring complete socio-cultural freedom for all groups with the state providing development and same protection for all, presaged an acceptance of the basic principle that there would be ‘no projection of religion into politics’. The minority leaders, however, found it convenient to highlight the postulation that Islam embraced the entire life of a Muslim covering the personal, social, political and even economic domains. The implicit exclusivism promoted by this became the main reason why the possibility of Muslims providing the political leadership to Hindus and vice versa never gathered strength.
It is worth going into the fundamental issue of why the community divides have continued to exist in India. It is not religion per se but the incorrigible practice of invoking religion for political gains that has fed these. Since ‘religion’ is a determinant of ‘culture’ that shapes social conduct it would have been easy to evolve an accommodating approach on matters like music before mosque, use of high decibel loud speakers for Azan, and controversies on the routes of a religious procession. On the last it could be said that it is the ‘procession’ that was sacrosanct not necessarily its ‘route’ that could face a change because of say an infrastructure development in the area. Any socio- cultural moderation was, however, projected as a discounting of religion — all because of political play. Motivated propaganda built on a mix of politics and religion is in fact on the rise — and even the self-proclaimed secularists and ‘liberals’ are behaving like communal proxies — ever since BJP came to power with a majority of its own in the general election of 2014.
The success of BJP, a party that had been a part of the non-Congress amalgam called Janata Party and ruled the country in the period after the Emergency, triggered a campaign that democracy was facing the threat of ‘majoritarianism’, implying that the Hindu preponderance in politics threatened the safety of minorities. In a democratic dispensation, the elected executive does not work for any particular religion — a majority community will have more votes naturally but this will not alter this constitutional obligation of the ruling dispensation. The divisive politics of India that legitimized parties based on caste, creed and regional sentiment viewed the large Muslim minority as a promising vote bank against a fractured majority and this is what fashioned the approach of the parties now in opposition. A welcome awakening of the sense of national identity disturbed the apple cart for them and made them raise a false cry of ‘Hindu domination’. This needs further examination.
The national identity of India is inclusive of the civilisational legacy of what this land had had five thousand years ago as also the sprinkles of culture and arts that the subsequent add on of faiths gave it through the historical processes. All communities must learn to take an objective view of these processes and willingly accept the need to correct the distortions that certain regimes of the past might have created at the cost of the assimilative content of India’s cultural traditions. A caste system that sanctioned ‘untouchability’ was to be shunned as much as the act of a ruler in the past who allowed construction of a place of worship at a spot that represented the symbol of another faith.
There is no reason for any community to uphold a wrong of the medieval times at the cost of equality of status enjoyed by it in today’s democratic India, including the benefits of development and enforcement of law. The Supreme Court judgement on Ayodhya that allotted the disputed land for the Ram temple but declared the Babri Masjid demolition as an unacceptable act against the law, the ambiguities associated with the responses of many Muslim leaders of India to the Pak-sponsored cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and India’s retaliatory strike at Balakot, and the false narrative created by the minority leaders on the matter of respecting constitutional symbols of nationalism, must all be pondered over for the sake of preserving Indian democracy. The latter offered equality to all but demanded express loyalty to the Indian nation.
Indian Muslims are in no need to look for Pan-Islamic polity — any defense of Pakistan overlooking the fact that India had to treat this rogue neighbor on merit, provides the former an opportunity of meddling in the affairs of the minority here. Seeking a share in the elected political executive governing the nation, on the basis of community identity, is an extremely injurious approach that would only harm the cause of Muslims as it would take us all back to the memory of Partition. It is for the leaders of minorities to realize that their best interests are served by keeping religion out of politics in a Hindu majority India. This is also the call of a modern democracy.
[D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are his own.]