Dystopian realities

Print edition : July 03, 2020

A mosque set on fire by rioters in Mustafabad, Delhi on February 27. Photo: Bibek Chettri

At the entrance of a building attacked during riots, in New Delhi on March 1. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

The threat to India’s pluralist tradition and ethos under the current regime is insightfully discussed in this new book.

DURING the recent organised violence in North East Delhi, mobs chanting “Jai Shri Ram” slogans planted saffron flags atop many mosques. At one mosque, a saffron flag was hoisted over the national flag. Although it was not declared in as many words, the violent crowd’s message was clear: There was only one way of being an Indian, only one religion that an Indian could follow. Amazingly a few months before the hateful incidents in Delhi, the noted academic-author Neera Chandhoke had written about almost the same thing with a hint of prognostication and resignation in her superbly articulated and persuasively argued book Rethinking Pluralism, Secularism and Tolerance: Anxieties of Coexistence published by Sage.

In the preface to her book, the distinguished academic writes: “Tolerance has disappeared from the political scene as lynch mobs, self-appointed censors, repression of dissent, vigilantism and murderous crowds try to hammer a plural nation into conformity with slogans of one language, one religion, one people and one cuisine. The language of secularism has practically vanished from the political horizon of Indian politics. Whatever remains of secularism is subjected to contemptuous remarks, some ribaldry and offensive dismissal by cadres and supporters of the religious right.”

Tolerance has as good as disappeared from the political scene, as witnessed during the 2019 general election when even the leading opposition party, the Congress, was at pains to tell voters that it was in favour of the majority community with constant visits by Rahul Gandhi to numerous temples. This was accompanied by the decreasing demand for a Muslim leader like Ghulam Nabi Azad to address election rallies. Yet, Hindutva has permeated beyond the political layer to everyday issues of coexistence. The common man, fed on a daily diet of the alleged atrocities of Muslim kings in medieval India, from Alauddin Khalji to Aurangzeb, equates in his mind this stereotype of the medieval Muslim with present-day Indian Muslims. Hence the attacks on mosques in Delhi as a retribution for alleged instances of temple desecration in the past.

Indeed, this is the time when a large part of society, driven by hate and emboldened by statements of political leaders, seeks to label a community in abusive terms, as proven by the vituperative-laden campaign of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, ranging from Union Ministers Amit Shah and Anurag Thakur to a relative upstart like Kapil Mishra during the recent Delhi election. Even an entirely peaceful protest like the one at Shaheen Bagh, replete with displays of national icons, was dubbed a gathering of traitors deserving to be shot merely because the women at the forefront of the protest were largely Muslim. These are bleak times for the pluralist ethos of the nation.

Chandhoke writes, “This is, perhaps, not the best moment to resurrect a defence of secularism. Since 2014, India has an extreme right-wing party in power at the Centre—the Bharatiya Janata Party. The party’s ideological backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and other assorted fringe outfits belonging to the larger Hindutva brigade have been granted an opportunity to carry out their a little-less-than-a-century-old project of creating and sustaining a nation exclusively of and for the Hindu community almost by divine right. Although the geographical boundaries of India contain a multiplicity of belief systems, and the Hindu community is decentred and plural in nature, the cadres of the extreme right concentrate on drumming up old bigotries and unearthing new ancient antipathies to unify an otherwise plural and decentred Hindu community, and pit it once again against the Muslim community.”

In this hate-filled rhetoric, elements of cohesion are either wilfully ignored, or deliberately underplayed. For instance, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is dubbed an idol breaker who felled temples at will, but the fact that his regime had the empire’s highest number of Hindu mansabdars until then is ignored, as is his grant to the Gauri Shankar temple right in front of his fort in Delhi. Not just at the level of emperors and kings, the glue always percolated down to the common man’s level. Hence, we have innumerable dargahs frequented by people of various faiths. It is in recounting such instances that Chandhoke gives us concrete examples of tolerance and coexistence, and thus raises the book above the level of a mere academic discourse.

In the chapter “The Principles of Tolerance”, the author writes about a Muslim shrine in Punjab where Hindus and Sikhs frequent a mazaar. Hailing the mazaar as a throwback to the times when people lived in a pluralist society, she writes, “As our vehicle drove away from the fair, the thought crossed my mind: Undivided Punjab must have looked like this, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs worshipping together at the mazaar of a fakir, at the dera of a Guru and at the feet of a living saint in accordance with the strong tradition of Sufism, which brought to the region a softer and less doctrinaire form of Islam. Saints of widespread renown occupy a very important place in the worship of the peasantry, stated Ibbetson’s Report on the Punjab Census of 1881. ‘They are generally Mahammedan, but are worshipped by Hindoos and Musalmans alike with the most impartiality’.”

Incidentally, the Tarn Taran mazaar, which Chandhoke refers to, has an interesting story about its origin. It is said once Guru Nanak came across a goatherd, named Lakhan, and asked him for food. Lakhan offered him a sweet made from goat milk. The Guru blessed him, saying nobody would return empty-handed from his doorstep. The belief percolated down centuries and today many frequent his mazaar with special prayers.

This pluralist tradition is in danger in India today. In the recent Delhi pogrom, the first place to be torched was a mazaar in Bhajanpura where people from all faiths gathered. It was to guard against such miscreants that the founding fathers of the nation provided for Right to Equality. The rights of the minorities were enshrined in the Constitution and the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, conceptualized it as an integral part of the democratic state. Yet even the freedom to follow any religion, or even no religion, equal right to vote, failed to translate into a living example of secularism in the absence of the will of the state. The minorities, despite possessing the same right to vote, stood in danger of being outvoted all the time by others if faith alone determined choices. Worse, they could be demonised for their choice, be it political or religious, or even banal matters of food, language and attire.

Chandhoke hits a sensitive nerve in the chapter Equality and the Rights of Minorities. She writes, “People are, in this case, treated unequally because they belong to a religious community that has been demonised through vicious rhetoric or hateful actions. The demonisation of the entire community impacts the life of its members adversely. Individual members may not be able to get the jobs they want, rent or buy a house in the neighbourhood they want to live in, send their children to schools they think are desirable, and form warm and social relationships with others who they wish they could be friends with. Inequality of life conditions has shaped their lives, they are considered lesser than the members of the majority community for purely arbitrary reasons. They are not seen as individuals; they are reduced to the community of which they are members. They might possess the right to cast a vote, but the exercise of this right may not be enough to enable to live better lives.”

Chandhoke’s words are a reflection of the lived reality of our times where often to be a Muslim is to be taken as a doubtful citizen, one who has to prove his patriotism to goons on the road. What is the way out? The Right to Equality between citizens is a good beginning, but it has to translate to equality between communities. Otherwise, a majoritarian agenda can be furthered under the garb of nationalism, and a minority’s bid to retain its identity dubbed as an anti-national move. The author wants the state to take a fresh look at its principle of secularism as followed through a policy of equidistance from all religions. She concludes with a question, “Do we really want to live in a bare and stark society marked by informal apartheid? Or do we earnestly desire to inhabit a social order that foster warm relationships based on civility and mutual respect? The first kind will drastically constrain our minds and hearts, our sensibilities and our perspectives. The second part will enable the unleashing of creative imaginations and allow us to become fuller human beings, at ease with others in a pluralist society.”

Despite the somewhat Utopian end, Chandhoke’s work is timely and reflects the stark realities of everyday existence for the minorities of contemporary India.

She argues that our unending wish to settle scores of an imagined/real past runs the risk of not only marring our today but also, practically, ruining our tomorrow. We are living in an age when the state is seen colluding with non-state actors on the one hand, and using the arm of the state itself on the other, to marginalise the minorities.

At this crucial juncture, secularism, tolerance and coexistence as lived realities need to be highlighted in contrast to the divisive agenda of sundry politicians. Chandhoke’s book outlines the hurdles and the pitfalls and offers a blueprint for the way forward. The question is: Will Indian society and polity heed her pertinent and timely warning? If the example of the Delhi mob chanting “Jai Shri Ram” slogans even as it set mosques on fire is anything to go by, not many are ready to abide by her values. More is the pity. Greater is the need for the message.

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