Visa as communal weapon

Published : Feb 27, 1999 00:00 IST

The BJP's strategy on the issue of a visa to Salman Rushdie derives from a Machiavellian political agenda.


THERE is a class in India of self-appointed defenders of religious minorities who get hyperactive not when the minorities are under attack from majoritarian communal forces - as they should - but typically, when an opportunity arises to do some scare-mongering about a particular interpretation of their faith, which is declared to be "in grave danger" from its own adherents.

The Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, his son, and various figures in the ulema elsewhere, are eminent examples of this group, which includes other religious orders, including Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, even Zorastrianism, too. They are the non-Hindu counterparts of our Hindutva communalists. Some members of the group have a colourful political past, having acted as brokers, pointsmen and caciques for a range of parties, Hindu-communal ones included.

Many such "leaders" fell on lean times in the mid-1990s. Take the Shahi Imam. Having first charged his followers by promising the perfect solution to the Babri dispute - that is, guaranteeing the mosque's preservation and protection against the Hindu-communal onslaught - he failed to deliver. Nor could he offer the least protection to Muslims against Hindutva goons in the wake of the Babri demolition. To overcome their isolation and discrediting within the Muslim community, some of these worthies then launched two highly emotive campaigns. The first was the "triple talaq" fatwa, to counter Muslim women's spontaneous demand that that particular mode of terminating a marriage be declared arbitrary and invalid. The fatwa failed to evoke a response.

The second issue was reservation for the religious minorities in jobs and educational institutions. Alas, they could win little sympathy on this either. This is not because Muslims are not underprivileged and educationally backward, but because the vast majority of them believe that religion-based reservations are no answer. The reservation campaign invoked fears that it would trigger a future demand for separate electorates - with its own nightmarish implications.

Of late, these briefless, footloose "leaders" have been in search of issues to clutch at, which could help them overcome their own irrelevance. Now one such issue has been thrown into their lap - ironically, by a party which has long been a tormentor and hater of Muslims, namely, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The issue is the granting of a visa to Salman Rushdie 11 years after The Satanic Verses was banned here.

The likes of the Shahi Imam did not lose a day in inaugurating a campaign of hatred against Rushdie, warning him of "dire consequences" if he visits India. They feel emboldened by fanatics such as Iran's Ayatollah Sanei, who upheld the "validity" of the fatwa against Rushdie, offered $2.8 million as reward to kill him, and declared that "the idea of Rushdie's annihilation is more alive than ever... The apostate will... be burnt in the fire of Muslims' wrath." There is a real danger that the visa issue will turn into a repeat of the Shah Bano campaign - to the delight of the Hindutva forces.

THE BJP has demonstrated the utmost cynicism and duplicity on the Rushdie visa issue. It does not lie in the BJP's mouth to claim that it rose in principled defence of the values of tolerance, artistic freedom and questioning of blind faith. It has never subscribed to these values. It is the most intolerant current in India's social and political life, one which demands not just the primacy of Hindu culture but its acceptance by all Indians. Its instinctive response to the Minorities Commission's mild and reasoned criticism of its handling of the anti-minorities campaign is to demand that the Commission itself be abolished!

The Hindutva forces have made bigotry a central plank of their approach to society, religion, gender and national identity. If they had their way, they would prescribe dress codes for schoolgirls, stipulate the length of blouses for TV newsreaders, and make Saraswati Vandana compulsory in schools throughout India. They are our thought police.

These forces have total contempt for freedom of expression. They routinely condemn the liberal notion of artistic freedom as libertarian "licence" meant to offend Hindu "sentiments". Witness their physical assaults upon Sahmat's exhibitions, Husain's (deeply reverential) sketches of Saraswati, Sita, and other Hindu deities, and on the film, Fire. The thugs who carried out these attacks, dug up cricket pitches, threatened to torch "Western liberals", were not reprimanded by the BJP or its ideological allies such as the Shiv Sena. On the contrary, the Sena chief personally imposed cuts on Mani Ratnam's Bombay. He interferes in the working of the Central Board of Film Certification even in the matter of Fire. The BJP wants to define for us what is "Indian", "decent" and "permissible" in art or public morality.

As for rationality vs faith, the BJP has repeatedly said that matters of faith are above the law, beyond facts, they are sacrosanct - with the proviso, of course, that it alone specifies what the content of "faith" must be. This was its position on the legal claim to the land on which the Babri mosque stood. When asked what it would do in case a court decided that the mosque was not built on the ruins of a temple, its answer was, repudiate the courts' authority altogether. The BJP's dogmatic Hindutva makes nonsense of any claim to objectivity, or openness to a rational scrutiny of faith.

The BJP has always assailed universalist notions of tolerance, free inquiry, unfettered expression, individual liberty and personal choice. It has always sought to limit all these - arbitrarily, often in oppressive ways. The liberal idea of personal freedom is alien to the Hindutva mould of thinking which requires homogenised stereotypes of "us" and "them".

Suddenly, however, the party of bigotry is laying claims to sweet reasonableness and pluralism. This derives from a Machiavellian political agenda: to polarise the communal situation and push the religious minorities, in particular Muslims, into a corner, while helping Hindu bigotry hide behind a "liberal" mask. The strategy is to make a vocal minority within the Muslim community appear to be the real villains, at least as intolerant as the fanatics who are hounding and torching Christians.

This is the BJP's way of turning the tables, and inventing another Shah Bano crisis. The earlier crisis was precipitated by the "natural" course of legal rulings. This time the cause is downright political. This, the BJP hopes, will take some of the heat off itself on the issue of the harassment of minorities. Given the prevalent sympathy in the West for Rushdie - in part driven by the prejudice that Islam is essentially, has to be, intolerant - the BJP calculates that its move on the visa will not attract international opprobrium, as its anti-minorities attacks did.

If the ulema and a section of the Muslim community get drawn into a ban-Rushdie-from-coming campaign, the BJP can "prove" it is they, not it, who are unreasonable. At the very least, the issue will help the BJP divert attention from its present appalling state and its horrendous misgovernance. Its coalition is a mess. The party stands discredited. Its stock plummets by the day as its leaders and allies play out their disgraceful parts in the ongoing low comedy.

CONSPIRACY apart, the BJP and the fanatical mullahs actually have something in common. That is their view of Islam as monolithic, and Indian Muslims as homogenous. The bigoted mullahs' notion of Islam as an inflexible religion that admits of no plurality mimics the stereotype that the BJP's ideologues have of that religion. They pompously contrast it to the idealised, many-sects, many-paths, many-deities, view of Hinduism. It is another matter that their Hinduism is narrow, hierarchical and hostile to other faiths.

However, Indian Islam is remote from this homogenised, monolithic stereotype. It is, like Indian Christianity or Hinduism, plural, and inclusive of many schools, sects, practices and rituals. A look at the 3,500 communities described by the Anthropological Survey of India's "People of India" project should clinch the issue. There are more than a dozen significant schools of Islamic theology in India, including the two most important ones east of the Suez, besides a host of Sufi traditions, some influenced by Saivite tantrism. Greater differences set apart the Meos of Rajasthan from the Moplahs of Kerala or the Julahas of Uttar Pradesh, than their differences with Hindus or Christians from the same region.

Scholars such as Muzaffar Alam have masterfully argued that the very idea of "Muslim rule" or "rule of Islam" in India needs to be broken down into heterogeneous, discrete phases, dynasties of differing origin, divergent state structures, and social relations. It is illegitimate to bracket the Turkish-origin rulers of the Delhi Sultanate with dynasties from Afghanistan or Arabia, and still more illogical to confuse the Mughals with the latter. It is not their religious identities, but ethnic origins ("Tajikas", "Turushkas", "Yavanas" and so on, described in contemporary texts) that are their distinguishing features.

Many "Muslim rulers" from the 13th century onwards were hesitant to impose Islam upon their subjects - partly because they were themselves uncertain, new converts, and partly because they saw no political advantage in that. Much of the sanction for their rule came not from religion but from supposedly superior cultures, for instance, Persian.

Contrary to what is imagined, says Alam, the Mughals were in some ways refugees from Central Asia, then under the invasion of Mongols who posed a great threat to its Persian-influenced culture. They had a stake in seeking accommodation in India, rather than stretching the limits of their power to the extent of imposing Islam upon the local population. The real confrontation in medieval India was not between Islam and Hinduism but between Persian power (the dominant form of the rulers' culture) and the Brahminical order. Thus, Mughal rule opened up a disjunction between the state and civil society, which did not obtain in much of West Asia and north Africa. This made for a remarkable species of pluralism in India.

Hindutva ideologues comprehensively fail to understand this or recognise that Islam is not a monolithic and quintessentially intolerant religion. Their effort to depict (and condemn) it as such involves distortion and manipulation. In the Rushdie case too, manipulation is particularly stark in the way BJP Ministers tom-tommed the visa issue.

Now, it is one thing to grant a visa to someone quietly: roughly 9,000 visas are granted every day to foreigners by Indian consulates. It is quite another to shout from the rooftops that you have done so, especially when it comes to someone whose case is bound to stir up strong emotions among a vocal minority. The BJP could only have done this with nasty motives.

THAT does not mean that Rushdie has no right to visit India, or should not do so in the near future. His moral right to visit the country of his origin, and about which he has written so much and so well, is undeniable. India should indeed be glad to receive a writer of his stature and talent. Rushdie's right to visit is strengthened by the personal contact he has had with a large number of writers, scholars and critics in India, which was physically interrupted 10 years ago. That loss is India's, not Rushdie's alone.

However, Rushdie's coming to India for a series of public appearances amidst an already vitiated communal situation is fraught with the danger that Islamic bigots will act up, resulting in a confrontation, and that the backlash will immensely strengthen Hindu communalism. Salman Rushdie is politically too serious to want such an outcome.

Nor would responsible, secular-minded political parties, intellectuals and activists want it. Therefore, they would be ill-advised to ignore tactical considerations and take "first principles-based" positions ignoring both the BJP's devious plans and ground realities. They can counter those plans without in any way denying or abridging Rushdie's rights. They must affirm his right to a visa, and more fundamentally, his right to the freedom of expression.

But what do tactical considerations mean? Progressive and secular parties and intellectuals must criticise the BJP for its deviousness and expose its double standards: appeasing rank Hindu communalists and rowdies while pretending to be "liberal" when it comes to Rushdie. They must express solidarity with Rushdie as a secular and free spirit. At the same time, they should warn him of the unintended, but extremely harmful, consequences of a highly publicised visit.

Salman Rushdie, for his part, would do us all a signal service if he made his visit a low-profile, personal one, so as to avoid handing over the communalists an issue and a chance to inject their own special venom into it. He should also express himself strongly against the kind of politics that the BJP (and its Muslim counterparts) stand for, and the logic of communal appeasement that led to the banning of his book.

One successful, low-profile visit by Rushdie will pave the way for many more. We should extend unstinting support to him and stand by him. But it would be irresponsible of us to turn a blind eye to the BJP's cynical manoeuvres and the danger of communal aggravation.

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