Of identity & hope

Print edition : September 14, 2018

FL Book Of Saffron Flags and Skullcaps

A book reassuring the beleaguered Muslims of India that nothwithstanding Hindu majoritarian offences they must have faith in the country.

THE book, Of Saffron Flags and Skull Caps, basically consists of the reflections of the author, Ziya us Salam, who is as perturbed by the Hindu majoritarian reaction (of resorting to marginalisation and even liquidation of members of the religious minority, read Muslims) as the liberal-secular-plural voices among Hindus and other sections. These reflections are born out of his lived realities, observations, and studies of academic works.

In the 1980s, writings and television broadcasts in local languages helped majoritarian reaction capture sociopolitical spaces. Academics research and write largely for themselves. Broadsheets such as Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala were a big factor behind the saffronisation of the Hindi belt. Zoya Hasan’s Quest for Power: Oppositional Movements and Post-Congress Politics (1997) demonstrated how Uttar Pradesh was saffronised in the 1980s through such newspapers. Jenny White’s Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (2002) explored how Turkey was communalised, paving the way for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power. Even colonial India witnessed vernacular intelligentsia communalising the socio-political spaces. One such study of the Hindi intelligentsia in Bihar is by Hitendra Patel (2011).

Communalisation of local language spaces should, therefore, be taken up with seriousness. The first two segments of the book under review should have looked at how socio-political spaces have been communalised through regional language media. Ziya Us Salam is successful in turning academic output into lucid communication, although he, too, caters to the English-reading public. Through regional language renderings of his works, he should try to reach out to wider segments of readers.

In his earlier work, Till Talaq Do Us Part, and through some of the chapters in the current volume, he has raised a voice against gender injustice. Confining his arguments within the Quranic framework, he brings out issues relating to women’s emancipation and empowerment. That way, Ziya Us Salam is particularly concerned about subjecting Muslims to introspection, rather than making them play the victim. He rightly concludes his book on an optimistic note.

“The winds of change may not yet be developing into a storm, but the gentle breeze promises lasting relief. Indians are beginning to speak for fellow Indians, irrespective of their religion, gender, caste, just as our Constitution visualised. Critically, Indians are speaking up for India, a nation whose soul has been under attack, a nation that could do with the balm of pluralism” (page 291). This is not misplaced optimism, given the consistent history of India’s pluralism.

However, it is to the aspect of persuading Muslims to subject themselves to introspection that the book pays relatively less attention. It does not talk much about the ideas and organisations, howsoever marginal and barely significant, harbouring communal and exclusionary intents and indulging in such practices, except mainly some pertinently critical remarks about a gradual transformation of the Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Hind (founded in 1941), which is increasingly becoming inclusive and undertaking charitable welfarism; and Tablighi Jamaat, which does not train its cadres in critical thinking. To some extent, these aspects are brought out in Mushirul Hasan’s Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims since Independence (OUP, Delhi, 1997). Irfan Ahmad has made a more comprehensive exploration on the Jamaat-e-Islami in Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami.

Ziya Us Salam also does not talk about caste-based discrimination prevalent among some Muslim communities. It should not have missed his attention because voices raising the issue are becoming louder in academic and popular political spaces. The Ajlaf and Arzal (that is, Dalit) Muslims, together called the Pasmanda segment, are asserting themselves against the Ashrafiya hegemony.

The author is quite right in saying that the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind (founded in 1919) did contest the Muslim League’s politics of communal-territorial separatism. It has been working since Independence, but this and other such organisations have paid scant attention to the issue of caste. The attention they paid to the issue of gender has been hardly helpful in challenging and resisting patriarchy and misogyny. Small and marginal Muslim organisations/movements that are seeking to establish a retrogressive theocratic state in India have not been critiqued and exposed in this otherwise useful and timely volume. While critiquing Hindutva, its counterparts among Muslims should also have been exposed.

At the level of ideas, the rapidly deteriorating quality of Urdu journalism, particularly in northern and eastern India, is another issue (pertinent to the volume) that has skipped the author’s attention. These Urdu broadsheets are increasingly getting confined to trivial theological contestations and sub-sectarian disputes. This has its impact on the interplay and enactment of identities among Muslims. True, Hindutva forces, having become much more aggressive after capturing state power, have been accusing madrasas.

Role of madrasas

As the state has abdicated its responsibility of educating and feeding the poor, the community-funded madrasas are working towards this end. They deserve appreciation and encouragement for their efforts. But that does not mean that these educational institutions should be allowed to remain mired in retrogression. A wide network of these institutions should be made to work towards caste and gender reforms for the simple reason that retrogression leads to communal prejudice and hatred.

Not only Hindutva forces but many well-meaning Hindus remain grossly misled about madrasas. Matters have been made worse by the capitalist-imperialist motivations of the West’s Islamophobia. Falling prey to Hindutva propaganda, they too consider madrasas to be factories of sedition and treason, whereas in reality madrasas are busy perpetuating intra-Muslim sub-sectarian (maslaki) rivalries, something Arshad Alam demonstrated in his well-researched essay titled “The Enemy Within: Madrasas and Muslim Identity in North India” (Modern Asian Studies, vol. 42, nos. 2-3, Cambridge, 2008) and in his blog post “The Barelwi-Deobandi Truce? More than Meets the Eye” (dated May 30, 2016) in New Age Islam.

In this regard, however, even institutions of modern education where Muslims have greater numerical presence, such as Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Hamdard University and Maulana Azad National Urdu University, have not been able to perform adequately. Academic outputs (publications) from these institutions have largely shied away from exploring, critiquing and exposing the prevalence of caste- and gender-based injustices among Muslims.

In this era of Muslim-bashing, especially virulent state-backed Hindutva forces, it is difficult to persuade vulnerable communities to do some introspection. Even well-meaning people may dismiss such ideas as an indulgence in self-flagellation. But that should not be the case. In terms of implications, minority and majority communalisms do vary. This, however, does not mean that even in fighting them, the approaches in the two cases should vary.

What is good about this volume is that in all three segments—Hindutva, Muslim identity and the idea of India—the wilful (or not so) delinquencies of the state have been exposed without fear or favour. Today, lynch mobs are let off by the state, as in the past when rioters went scot-free. The Hashimpura pogrom (May 1987) under a “secular” regime in Uttar Pradesh is a case in point. The then Superintendent of Police of Hashimpura, Vibhuti Narain Rai, subsequently exposed the hand of the personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary in the cold-blooded killing of Muslims rounded up from riot-torn Meerut in Hashimpura, the area under his jurisdiction. in his meticulously chronicled book Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killing, which, Ziya Us Salam rightly says, “ensures that the faith of the minorities in the state is merely shaken, not crushed. Amid all the gloom, there is hope though” (page 258).

In sum, the author, deeply disturbed by and anxious about the onslaught of virulent Hindutva, goes on to explore the rise of such forces and the way they could be fought at the level of ideas. He then tries to comprehend its impact on the existence of the minorities.

The author’s curiosities about the identity and existence of the minorities lead him to look at the idea of India and its civilisational characteristics. Does he find hope and re-assurance? Understandably, this attempt to make sense of the country’s present, past and future prompted him to write Of Saffron Flags and Skull Caps. The book reassures the otherwise beleaguered Muslims that notwithstanding cow vigilantism and lynch mobs, they must have faith in this country. Saner forces, it hopes, will push aside the forces of destruction. In this sense, the book can hope to play a vital role in retrieving the India that its founding fathers envisioned.

Mohammad Sajjad is professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.