Essay

Ansari & Modi

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Outgoing Vice President Hamid Ansari with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his farewell function at Parliament on August 10. Photo: PTI

November 1948: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (extreme right) with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachari and Sardar Patel. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

President Zakir Hussain planting a tree at Budapest's Rabindranath Tagore Memorial. Photo: PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farewell address to former Vice President Hamid Ansari not only betrays his own biases but points to the clash of two nationalisms that India now faces: Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism.

IN all the annals of ceremonials, it would be hard to find a more uncivilised send-off than the one that Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari received from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 10 in the Rajya Sabha, which he had presided over with singular distinction for a whole decade. The televised proceeding exposed to the whole country what a noted academic, Ananya Vajpeyi, so aptly described as “a humiliating farewell” in which the Vice President “was rudely demoted from the status of an Indian citizen, patriot and public official to a narrowly defined and ideologically confirmed member of, as they used to say in press reportage of communal riots until quite recently, ‘a certain community’” ( The Hindu, August 22).

Equally offensive is the commonly used epithet “nationalist Muslim”. But it is highly significant since it reveals the mindset. If Jawaharlal Nehru is hated by the Sangh Parivar, it is because he mercilessly exposed this diseased mentality which never speaks of “nationalist Hindus” except in the communal sense. “On 11 May, 1958, he told a meeting of the AICC [All India Congress Committee] that the ‘communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority’.” He was certainly not condoning the latter. But as he explained later, on January 5, 1961: “Communalism is a part of our society.” He refused to accept that one particular community was communal and not the other. However, “when the minority communities are communal, you can see that and understand it. But the communalism of a majority community is apt to be taken for nationalism.”

The only good Muslim is a Sarkari Muslim, an Uncle Tom, or a dead Muslim. Muslims are not unique in having Uncle Toms in their midst. The Parsis had the Congressman one in R.K. Sidhwa. He got his just deserts from Sir Homi Mody in an interview he gave to The Times of India published on August 29, 1947. Referring to the rights of minorities in the Constitution that was being drafted, he said: “So far as Parsis are concerned, the position as I found it in the early stages of the discussions in the Minorities Sub-Committee was that the very existence of the community as a national minority was being questioned in certain quarters. This was the result of its renunciation all these years of any special privileges for itself, either in the legislatures or in the public services. My business was, therefore, to secure a sort of statutory recognition for the community as an important minority which had played a notable part in the struggle for the political and economic emancipation of the country. When this was secured, I decided to follow the traditions which the community had maintained in the past and withdrew all claims for special reservation. …

“From the report of the discussion which took place yesterday in the Constituent Assembly, I find R.K. Sidhwa has sought to make out that I had veered round to his point of view. With regard to that, I would only say that if Sidhwa had had his way, Parsis would not have received any sort of recognition and would not have figured at all in the political map of the country. Happily, the Minorities Sub-Committee did not regard him as representing the Parsi point of view, and the community is today in the position of having secured a recognition of its special place in the political life of the country and has earned for itself general goodwill.”

Now just ask yourself one question: Had the Parsis been discriminated against, is there the slightest doubt that any of its leading figures would have spoken up? And if they had done this basic duty to the community and to the country, could one have doubted their patriotism?

Muslim and Indian

Delivering the convocation address at Kashi Vidyapith on August 14, 1935, Dr Zakir Hussain said: “There are a few well-meaning but extremist nationalists who have a concept of Indian nationalism which will consider Muslims’ claim to such a right as dangerous to the integrity and progress of the country; but if our educationists earnestly consider the problem of Indian education, then I am sure they will willingly accept Muslims’ aspiration to base their education on their own culture. That will be good education and wise politics at one and the same time. You will forgive me if I express this view plainly before this august gathering that while among the considerations that wean away Muslims from Indian nationalism are personal selfishness, narrow-mindedness and the absence of a correct vision of the country’s future, it is also due to a large extent to the deep suspicion that under a national government the existence of Muslim culture will be imperilled. Muslims are not willing to pay this price for unity under any circumstances. I, not only as a Muslim, but as a true Indian, am glad that Muslims are not ready to pay that price; because, not only will Muslims suffer thereby, but the composite culture of India will also be the poorer for the loss. That is the reason why Indian Muslims, because of their religion, history, culture, and their cultural aspirations consider their common identity valuable not only for themselves but precious also for the Indian nationhood. They regard its destruction or weakening to be not only oppressive to themselves, but a betrayal of the nation as well. Indian Muslims do not love their country less than anyone else. They are proud of being part of the Indian nation, but they will never like to be a part whose identity is destroyed. They agree to be good Muslims and good Indians.”

On March 21, 1940, just two days before the Muslim League adopted the Lahore Resolution on Pakistan, Maulana Azad presented an alternative in his presidential address at the Congress session in Ramgarh. He said: “I am a Muslim profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Islam’s glorious traditions of the last thirteen hundred years. I am not willing to lose even a small part of that legacy. The history and teachings of Islam, its arts and letters, its civilisation and culture, are part of my wealth and it is my duty to cherish and guard them. As a Muslim I have a special identity within the field of religion and culture and I cannot tolerate any undue interference with it. But, with all these feelings, I have another equally deep realisation, born out of my life’s experience, which is strengthened and not hindered by the spirit of Islam. I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total make-up without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete. I can never give up this sincere claim.

“It was India’s historic destiny that its soil should become the destination of many different caravans of races, cultures and religions. Even before the dawn of history’s morning, they started their trek into India and the process has continued since. This vast and hospitable land welcomed them all and took them to her bosom. The last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam….

“Eleven centuries have passed by since then. Islam has now as valid a claim on this land as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of its people for several thousand years, Islam, too, has been its religion for a thousand years. Just as a Hindu can say with legitimate pride that he is an Indian and a follower of Hinduism, so can a Muslim proudly claim being an Indian and a follower of Islam. I would go further and say that an Indian Christian (or the follower of any other religion) can similarly claim, with legitimate pride, that he is an Indian following one of her many religions.

“Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common creative and constructive achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs all bear the stamp of this common life. …

“Our shared life of a thousand years has forged a common nationality. Such moulds cannot be artificially constructed. Nature’s hidden anvils shape them over centuries. The mould has now been cast and destiny has set her seal upon it. Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No false idea of separatism can break our oneness.”

Clash of nationalisms

All this was said as president of the Congress. There was not a murmur of dissent. Elsewhere, at Ahmedabad, the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, V.D. Savarkar, propounded the two-nation theory in 1937. His acolyte was Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who founded the Jana Sangh in 1951 in a compact with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Its progeny was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, 1980). India now faces a clash of two nationalisms: Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism. The Constitution of India is based on Indian nationalism.

Ours is a plural society governed democratically under the rule of law. Every interest has a right to voice its views, demands, grievances and laments; labour, industry, peasants are a whole range of interests, whether State or municipal, as well as teachers, students and minorities, linguistic, cultural or religious.

The Constitution reflects this liberal outlook. The fundamental rights not only assure every person, whether a citizen or a foreigner, of equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws (Article 14) but also recognise the minorities as a collective entity by conferring on them certain rights as minorities. “Every religious denomination” is assured the right to establish its own religious and charitable institutions (Article 26); every linguistic minority has the right to “ conserve” its “distinct language, script or culture of its own” (Article 29) and “all minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” (Article 30). If, then, any of these rights of a minority is violated—for example, discrimination in recruitment in police service or discrimination by the police services in affording protection from violence—can it fairly be argued that the minority itself must keep quiet and not protest?

Yet, this is precisely the attitude adopted towards Muslims. Unfortunately, the community has produced a rich crop of Sidhwas of the most hideous kind. They go so far as to deny that the minorities have a distinct interest which calls for protection. Thus, on December 29, 1980, at the very first session of the BJP, when the political resolution was being discussed, Mehboob Ali made an innocuous and unexceptionable suggestion: the minorities’ interests must be protected. The mover of the resolution, Sikandar Bakht, rejected the suggestion in good Uncle Tom manner. “Minorities were not second rate citizens and had equal rights as the majority had under the Constitution. The use of the terms majority and minority should be avoided” ( The Hindustan Times, December 30, 1980).

How low this tribe can sink became clear to me during a visit to the State Department of the United States in February 1993. A top official dealing with South Asia told me that Sikandar Bakht had visited him and bitterly complained of the “aggressiveness” of Muslims. He was sharply told off: minorities are entitled to be aggressive if they are discriminated against. They are aggressive everywhere for the same reason, including in the U.S., the official said.

Nehru exposed this school in his Autobiography. “The Hindu Mahasabha is always laying stress on its own irreproachable nationalism when it criticises Muslim communalism. That the Muslim organisations have shown themselves to be quite extraordinarily communal has been patent to everybody. The Mahasabha’s communalism has not been so obvious, as it masquerades under a nationalist cloak. The test comes when a national and democratic solution happens to injure upper-class Hindu interests, and in this test the Mahasabha has repeatedly failed. The separation of Sind has been consistently opposed by them in the economic interests of a minority and against the declared wishes of the majority.”

Savarkar propounded the two-nation theory in his presidential address in 1937 (much before M.A. Jinnah did), amplified his thesis in Hindutva published in 1924, and emerged as the BJP’s icon when it took up the Ayodhya issue. The RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts (1968) drew on Hindutva. Common to both is the rejection of “territorial nationalism”—everyone born in India is a national—and espousal of its antithesis, “cultural nationalism”, which is synonymous with Hindutva.

From 1996, the BJP’s election manifestos swore by it. The 1998 manifesto had a section on “Our National Identity, Cultural Nationalism”. It asserted that “the cultural nationalism of India… is the core of Hindutva”. L.K. Advani, as the BJP’s president, told the BBC: “It would not be wrong to call the BJP a Hindu party” ( Organiser, August 5, 1989). Narendra Modi, his former protege who had him discarded for good, proudly said when he became Prime Minister in 2014: “I am a Hindu nationalist.”

Modi as Hindu nationalist

As in most things, including the style of governance, Modi simply replicated his record in Gujarat. Christophe Jaffrelot’s essay entitled “Narendra Modi between Hindutva and sub-nationalism: The Gujarati Asmita of a Hindu Hriday Samrat” ( India Review, 2016, pages 196-217) repays study. He recalls what Modi said at a public meeting on September 9, 2012: “The Muslim philosophy is ‘ hum paanch, hamare pachhees’ (We are five—allusion to Muslim polygamy—we will have twenty-five children)—an open criticism of the high Muslim birth rate that many Hindus fear.”

“Narendra Modi’s identification with the religion of the majority found expression in the invitations he extended as Chief Minister to Hindu clerics and saintly figures to public functions or in the fact that he attended religious functions in Hindu sacred sites only. For instance, sadhus took part in the grand celebration of the mixing of water in Ahmedabad when new canals took the Narmada to the Sabarmati in the city in 2002 for a grand function known as the Narmada-Sabarmati Sangam. He then performed a puja from a boat near Ellisbridge, along with Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the then president of BAPS (the main branch of the Swaminarayan movement), which was ‘telecast live on four giant screens along with pyro techniques’.

“Symmetrically, many years later, in 2010, Narendra Modi inaugurated the new, post-earthquake, Swaminarayan temple in Bhuj (Kutch), while emphasising in his speech that ‘Cultural nationalism is once again leading our country on the right path that was shown by saints and sages centuries ago.…’ Three years later, he was the chief guest of the 60th anniversary of BAPS youth activities. This grand function, which brought together 60,000 people at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad on 6 January 2013 was inaugurated by Pujya Mahant Swami, who was to officially become the chief of BAPS in March 2013, and Narendra Modi. The former garlanded the latter on stage and they both lit the inauguration deepa (lamp).… Similarly, the tradition of Iftar parties was discontinued by Modi in Gujarat.”

Attack on Hamid Ansari

True to form, in his very first speech in the Lok Sabha as Prime Minister, Modi lamented a thousand years of slavery: British rule plus Mughal, to him, Muslim-rule. Like the RSS, he is at war with history. That explains his rabidly communal speeches during the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh election campaigns; that explains his studious refusal to condemn the lynching of Muslims; and that explains his attack on Ansari.

Modi began with a snide insinuation of insincerity, diplomats dissimulate; another on his ambassadorships to West Asian countries over the years where he was contaminated, “in that atmosphere, in that thought, its debate and around such people” (read: the abominable Muslims).

Even after his retirement, horror of horrors, he “remained in that circle”. For, he became Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and Chairman of the Minorities Commission. But for 10 years as Vice President, he assumed a different responsibility. That was spelt out to buttress the aspersion of insincerity by suppression of Ansari’s own beliefs, as if a Vice President is supposed to promote any ideology whether his own or that of the state. But that is precisely what the Modi regime wants. Seshadri Chari, a former editor of Organiser and member of the BJP’s National Executive, told The Hindu (August 18) that Ansari should have served as “ a bridge between the government and the Muslim community”.

Presumably, that is what is expected of the sprinkling of Muslims who have received alms from Modi. Endowed with such an outlook, Modi’s attack in the finale becomes as understandable as it is revoltingly cheap. “You now have the joy of being liberated and the opportunity to work, think and speak according to your core beliefs.”

But Ansari was ever a public servant committed to the values and discipline of public service, whether in West Asia, Australia or as Permanent Representative to the United Nations. What irked Modi & Co. was Ansari’s remark to Karan Thapar the day before on the insecurity among Muslims and Ansari’s Indian nationalism, which does not exclude mention of wrongs done to Muslims—a trait that marks the true Indian nationalist from the authentic Sarkari nationalist.

The record on both Muslims’ insecurity and Ansari’s nationalism is incontrovertible. On August 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released the Report of the Commission on International Religious Freedom for 2016. It said: “There was an increase (in 2016) in violent incidents by cow protection groups against mostly Muslim victims, including killings, mob violence, assaults and intimidation.” Such actions are not exactly calculated to foster a sense of security among Muslims.

Manini Chatterjee’s crisp summary tells all: “The Sangh Parivar’s foot soldiers and storm troopers make no bones about their mission to make India a Hindu rashtra. It is not just the lynchings in the name of cow protection that mark this mission. It is in the daily invocations to a nationalism imbued with Hindutva: making the singing of Vande Mataram compulsory in schools, deleting Mughal history from textbooks, altering facts to glorify a mythic Hindu past, uttering cries of “Jai Shri Ram” at official functions, imposing diet codes on everyone during Navratri, abusing an outgoing Vice President for expressing the same concerns that an outgoing President did because the former is a Muslim and the latter is not” ( The Telegraph, August 14). Americans did not impugn Colin Powell’s nationalism when he complained to a Congressional Committee about the poor recruitment of blacks in the armed forces.

Ansari’s world view

In his scholarly addresses, Ansari’s world view emerges with inspiring clarity. Just four days before the TV interview, he addressed the 25th Annual Convocation of the National Law School of India University at Bengaluru. It has 34 footnotes, a characteristic of his addresses. He spoke on the representativeness of legislation, the functioning of the legislatures and the like.

“Since a wall of separation is not possible under Indian conditions, the challenge is to develop and implement a formula for equidistance and minimum involvement. For this purpose, principles of faith need to be segregated from contours of culture since a conflation of the two obfuscates the boundaries of both and creates space to equivocalness. Furthermore, such an argument could be availed of by other faiths in the land since all claim a cultural sphere and a historical justification for it. In life as in law, terminological inexactitude has its implications. In electoral terms, ‘majority’ is numerical majority as reflected in a particular exercise (e.g. election), does not have permanence and is generally time-specific; the same holds for ‘minority’….

“Within the same ambit, but distinct from it, is the constitutional principle of equality of status and opportunity, amplified through Articles 14, 15 and 16. This equality has to be substantive rather than merely formal and has to be given shape through requisite measures of affirmative action needed in each case so that the journey on the path to development has a common starting point. This would be an effective way of giving shape to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas.…

“Tolerance alone is not a strong enough foundation for building an inclusive and pluralistic society. It must be coupled with understanding and acceptance. We must, said Swami Vivekananda, ‘not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them, as truth is the basis of all religions’.

“Acceptance goes a step beyond tolerance. Moving from tolerance to acceptance is a journey that starts within ourselves, within our own understanding and compassion for people who are different to us and from our recognition and acceptance of the ‘other’ that is the ra i son d’etre of democracy. The challenge is to look beyond the stereotypes and preconceptions that prevent us from accepting others. This makes continuous dialogue unavoidable. It has to become an essential national virtue to promote harmony transcending sectional diversities. The urgency of giving this a practical shape at national, State and local levels through various suggestions in the public domain is highlighted by enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians.” The TV interview to Karan Thapar came later.

Ansari proceeded to discuss the concept of nationalism and quoted the Israeli scholar Yael Tamir, who said: “Liberal nationalism requires a state of mind characterised by tolerance and respect of diversity for members of one’s own group and for others; hence it is polycentric by definition and celebrates the particularity of culture with the universality of human rights, the social and cultural embeddedness of individuals together with their personal autonomy. On the other hand, the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism. It promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism. What are, or could be, the implications of the latter for pluralism and secularism? It is evident that both would be abridged since both require for their sustenance a climate of opinion and a state practice that eschews intolerance, distances itself from extremist and illiberal nationalism, subscribes in word and deed to the Constitution and its Preamble, and ensures that citizenship irrespective of caste, creed or ideological affiliation is the sole determinant of Indianness. In our plural secular democracy, therefore, the ‘other’ is to be none other than the ‘self’. Any derogation from it would be detrimental to its core values.”

I have quoted extensively from this address because of its relevance to the issues under debate. There are two volumes of his writings and speeches. One is entitled Teasing Questions: Exploring Disconnects in Contemporary India (2014). Another, published last year, is entitled Citizen and Society (Rupa, 322 pages, Rs.595). It has 45 writings on the polity, including the judiciary, identity, security, empowerment and matters global. The speech on “Intelligence for the World of Tomorrow” makes a powerfully reasoned plea for democratic accountability of the intelligence services.

Barring S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain, no Vice President made a comparable contribution. One can confidently predict that Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu will break their record.

Ansari’s speech at the inauguration of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat Golden Jubilee on August 31, 2015, is an excellent contribution which reckons with the problems and suggests approaches for redress. With good reason I quote it in extenso.

“It is evident from this compendium of official reports that the principal problems confronting India’s Muslims relate to: identity and security; education and empowerment; equitable share in the largesse of the state; and fair share in decision-making. Each of these is a right of the citizen. The shortcomings in regard to each have been analysed threadbare. The challenge before us today is to develop strategies and methodologies to address them.

“The default by the state or its agents in terms of deprivation, exclusion and discrimination (including failure to provide security) is to be corrected by the state; this needs to be done at the earliest and appropriate instruments must be developed for it. Political sagacity, the imperative of social peace, and public opinion play an important role in it. Experience shows that the corrective has to be both at the policy and the implementation levels; the latter, in particular, necessitates mechanisms to ensure active cooperation of the State governments. …

“It is evident that significant sections of the community remain trapped in a vicious circle and in a culturally defensive posture that hinders self-advancement. Tradition is made sacrosanct but the rationale of tradition is all but forgotten. Jadeediyat or modernity has become a tainted expression. Such mindset constrains critical thinking necessary both for the affirmation of faith and for the well-being of the community. The instrumentality of adaptation to change—Ijtihad—is frowned upon or glossed over. Forgotten is its purpose, defined by the late Sheikh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi as ‘the ability to cope with the ever-changing pattern of life’s requirements’. Equally relevant is Imam Al-Ghazali’s delineation of the ambit of Maslaha—protection of religion, life, intellect, lineage and property. Both provide ample theoretical space for focussed thinking on social change without impinging on the fundamentals of faith.

“It is here that the role of Mushawarat becomes critical. As a grouping of leading and most respected minds of the community, it should go beyond looking at questions of identity and dignity in a defensive mode and explore how both can be furthered in a changing India and a changing world. …

“This would necessitate sustained and candid interaction with fellow citizens without a syndrome of superiority or inferiority, and can be fruitful only in the actual implementation of the principles of justice, equality and fraternity inscribed in the Preamble to the Constitution and the totality of Fundamental Rights. The failure to communicate with the wider community in sufficient measure has tended to freeze the boundaries of diversities that characterise Indian society. Efforts may be made to isolate the community; such an approach should be resisted.

“The Indian experience of a large Muslim minority living in secular polity, however imperfect, could even be a model for others to emulate.

“The world of Islam extends beyond the borders of India, and Muslims here, as in other lands, can benefit from the best that may be available in the realm of thought and practice. A few years ago I had occasion to read the Algerian-French philosopher Mohammed Arkoun and was impressed by his view that our times compel us to rethink modernity so that, as he put it, ‘critical thought, anchored in modernity but criticising modernity itself and contributing to its enrichment through recourse to the Islamic example’ could open up a new era in social movements. ‘Verily never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves with their own souls’ (The Quran, 13, 11).

“And so the task before Mushawarat in the foreseeable future should remain a threefold one; to sustain the struggle for the actualisation in full measure of legal and constitutional rights, to do so without being isolated from the wider community, and to endeavour at the same time to adapt thinking and practices to a fast-changing world.”

Modi would have loved to face either a Sarkari Muslim to manipulate or an authentic bigoted communalist to denounce. He had to face, instead, a patriotic Indian and a devout Muslim. The clash was of Modi’s choosing. He made it a clash of Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism. The tide of history runs in Hamid Ansari’s favour.

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