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Posts tagged ‘Islamist Politics’

The Monk and Haryana’s Assembly


Haryana’s folk dances are vigorous and fiesty like its people. Photo

Haryana wears its heart and mind on its sleeve. There is a lot of brawn and bravado but little guile here. Last week, the Haryana Assembly listened in rapt attention to a pravachan (teachings of a holy person) by a Jain monk. Alarm bells rang immediately in the citadels of prickly pseudo-secular vigilantism.

The Indian Constitution clubs Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists under the broader rubric of “Hindus”. So, the choice of a Jain monk, rather than a Hindu priest, to preach to the Assembly was a clever and far-reaching tactic to formalise the mix of religion with politics. Clever, because the minority Jain community is being used as a proxy for Hindu thought. Far reaching because, frankly, it was disturbing, coming from an overwhelmingly Hindu state, ruled by the BJP.

The politico-religious cocktail 

In these fractious times, an overt mix of religion and politics is unusual. The practice has been to keep religion distanced from the formal processes of the State, whilst discreetly extracting political mileage from religious discord. Secular fundamentalists cavil that unless the strictest oversight is exercised, in this God-fearing, Hindu dominant country, religion can creep into politics and governance, to the detriment of marginalised communities. They have a point. In earlier days, prayers on public occasions were explicitly secular. Holy men from all major religions were allotted time for doing their bit. But this tradition has waned during the last two decades. Hindus no longer feel obliged to be subdued, lest they offend minorities. This is a healthy development. Truth needs to be spoken and recognised before reconciliation can happen. Paying lip service to secularism, whilst practising a more partisan strategy, has done little for those away from the mainstream.


1986 – Shah Bano – a Muslim, who had to fight a majority government, pandering to populist Islamic orthodoxy, for getting maintenance from a divorced husband, even after getting relief from a progressive judiciary.  

India: a “benignly Hindu” majority state

The “syncretic” culture of India is predominantly Hindu. We are more comfortable with Barelvi Sufi version of Islam than the more strident Wahhabi Deobandi type. This illustrates that strident, ritualised religion — whether Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Sikhism, does not align with the benign and neutral constitutional provisions. Citizenship, not religion, is the primary identity of Indians. This is the essence of a modern, secular state.


Haryana: Treading thorny paths

Haryana has initiated a novel experiment of democratising religion by inviting a never-before direct interaction between a religious leader and elected legislators. This has been long overdue. Legislators reflect voter preferences better than intellectuals. But their formal duties thrust them into an artificial bubble, which bars frank recognition of the extent to which religion both deeply divides and elevates India. Nothing wrong in puncturing the bubble. But the Haryana experiment will lack credibility as a “positive new beginning”, unless it promotes similar interaction with religious leaders of all denominations.

Religion can be inherently divisive, particularly in the highly-contested political environment of democracy. This is why Communist regimes stand out from other political parties, in that they steadfastly ignore religion. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the wily politician and grand old man of the CPI(M), passed on in 2008. He was a Sikh. But at his funeral, there were no religious rituals beyond a spirited Lal Salaam. Contrast this with the traditional rituals which accompany the sendoff for other departed leaders.

The Indian “glue”: beyond religion?

Hum Hindustani poster

The overlay, mostly incipient but often explicit, between religion and politics, has been a fact in the subcontinent since Independence. Pakistan hived itself off into an Islamic state consisting of physically and culturally separated West Pakistan and Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Surely, the fact that Pakistan split subsequently, despite a common religion and that Nepal, despite being a predominantly Hindu state, holds its sovereignty dear, sufficiently illustrates that Hinduism is not the primary glue which binds India. India is predominantly Hindu. But significant political jurisdictions, where 32 per cent of our people live, are not. These states cannot ignore the salience of a plural polity. Nagaland and Mizoram are predominantly Christian; the Kashmir Valley is Muslim; Punjab is 60 per cent Sikh; 20 per cent of West Bengal, 18 per cent of Uttar Pradesh and 17 per cent of Bihar is Muslim; 19 per cent of Kerala is Muslim and 25 per cent is Christian; Goa is 26 per cent Christian.

Sanitize religion for inclusive democracy

Rather than hiding from religion as an identity, dealing with it upfront and sanitising it democratically, could have real value. The pseudo-secularist approach, driven by 1950s beliefs in modernity versus tradition as values, rather than processes, relies on insulating politics from religion as the right way to go. Nothing could be worse, if the ground realities do not reflect this belief.

Far from fading away, across the world, religion as an identity is fighting back. And this is true across all religions. The modern state needs to explicitly factor in the resilience of religion as a treasured personal belief. But just as surely, the State needs to enforce constitutional rights across all religions. In particular, the religious marginalisation of minorities, dalits, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community come to mind. The available constitutional safeguards need to override religious biases against these communities. Upfront, visible confirmation of this intent by the leadership would be transformative.

If Haryana has this resolve then bridging the gulf between politics and religion makes eminent sense. If the moral fiber of politicians can be strengthened by religion, without diluting their constitutional commitment to safeguard the marginalised, the benefits of religious teachings far outweigh the costs. After all pragmatic Haryana filters all actions through the “value for money” lens.

But it is a thin line the legislators walk between legitimising naked majoritarianism — Haryana is 95 per cent Hindu — and spring-cleaning their minds as they run through the full gamut of multi-faith religious discourses in the Assembly. The stout bamboo lath (stick) that the archetypal Haryanvi “tau” (great uncle) is caricatured to carry is as useful to balance on a tight wire as it is to subdue dissent. It all depends on the intent with which it is wielded.


Adapted from the authors article in Asian Asian August 30, 2016

A Foreigner in Delhi


Foreigners aiming to live in Delhi must first get acquainted with its culture. It is they who need to adapt. No one, not the Mughals, the Brits, the entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees from Pakistan, the rich but rude, Haryanvi landowners, the clever South Indian Brahmins, desperate Bangladeshi refugees, the skilled Bihari, Eastern UP and Oriya migrants, the Christian tribals from East India nor the educated migrants from the North East, have managed to bend the robust spirit of Delhi, characterized by the five Cs: (i) Contempt for the law and rules: “sab chalta hai”. “Dilliwallahs” make the rules. (ii) Car; the bigger and higher the better, preferably black or white, with multi-coloured beacons, flags and a sign board on the front bumper (iii) Cut: variously, a cash payout from a deal involving public funds; short-circuiting a queue by using status; changing lanes frequently on a road, to get ahead of others. (iv) Cutlet: a westernized and tasteless kebab or a foolish friend and (v)  Carat: which is self-explanatory as jewelry, opulent clothes or a more generalized measure of quality.

The colonial Brits were adept at mastering this game. Many, not surprisingly given their choices, went “native” and integrated. Living examples are the journalist, Mark Tully; actor, Barry John and wildlifer, Belinda Wright.

Of course, the most recent examples are David Cameron and his wife, participating enthusiastically in Hindu rituals during Deepawali (clearly with an eye to the huge and rich Indian community in the UK) and the less strategic, but more genuine and endearing, “Indian”, Prince Charles, worshipping the Ganga in Varanasi. It is a measure of their maturity, that no one in the UK objects, to their leaders participating in the “foreign” rituals, of a minority community. The Americans are no different. President Nixon famously complained that every Ambassador he sent to Delhi became more Indian than American.

Modi must learn from the Brits. If he is to live in Delhi, he has to publicly accept the glorious Mughal and Muslim part of Delhi’s composite culture. It is a pity that Modi is vegetarian otherwise good sense would have got to him via his stomach.

The kebabs, korma and biryani, handed down from the Mughals, are mouth-watering. But he could feast on the succulent Shahi Tukda and reflect, on whether it is such a bad idea, to don a skull cap after all.

No one can argue that Modi is wrong. Of course, Indian Muslims have willingly been used as political pawns and “secularism” converted into a political tactic. Just as clearly, Hindu fundamentalism is misplaced in India. The BJP won the battle in 1992, but erred deeply in demolishing the Babri Masjid with the Congress looking on from Delhi. The Congress erred in supporting and feeding the fundamentalist Bhindranwale into becoming a cult figure for the Sikhs. It subsequently tarnished its image further, by having to destroy the Golden Temple, to get rid of him. Give politicians of any hue a cleavage and they shall play with it. No pun intended.

Hindus were massacred by Sikh terrorists in Punjab (1980s), Muslim terrorists in Maharashtra (2008) and got killed in the post Babri Masjid riots in Mumbai (1993). They have put the past behind them. Sikhs were massacred by Hindus, the Police and the Army (1984) but they have put that behind them. Christians have been sporadically killed in Odisha but they have not given up on the idea of India. Muslims have been massacred in Uttar Pradesh (1980s and 2013), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). They, similarly, need to put this behind them.

Clearly the Hindu-Muslim religious tension is enhanced by the memories, albeit fading now, of the horrors of partition (1947). The continuing, intentional, overt support by Pakistan to Muslim fundamentalism in India does not help. Nor does the international, institutionalization of Islam in politics, evidenced by the rise of Islamist parties in the newly democratic countries of North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Democratization inevitably throws up what people actually believe in. If citizens are deeply religious, democracy is unlikely to lead to religious neutrality. In India we know that religion is entwined into culture and life and cannot be separated from State action, in the manner it is done in the West.

But we also know that 15% (or more) of our population is of Muslims who are poorly led since the traditional elite migrated long ago to Pakistan and other countries. Indian Muslims are defensive, as only a minority can be and are gradually being pushed into a tight corner by all parties, to become the obscurantist, backward looking political pawns they are made out to be today. A case of life imitating fiction.

Modi is against appeasement of anyone just for votes and who can argue against that stand in distinguishing him from the others. However, he needs a Bill Clinton moment when he comes out openly and pulls the average Muslim into the warm embrace of the national mainstream.

He can do this by rising above Advani’s brand of fundamentalist Hinduism. He can also do this by consciously playing to the development needs of the minorities and the marginalized: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist, Jains, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.  

Here are three suggestions:

First, be the caring elder you claimed to be in Patna. For the marginalized, the biggest concern is security of life and property. Set up an all India 24×7 call-in number and website which would counsel them if the local police are not taking sufficient or appropriate interest in their case and monitor the most outrageous cases of neglect. Law and order is a State subject, but it is within the Central governments powers to monitor and ensure that basic human rights are implemented by state governments.

Second, be even handed. Extend the scheme of reservations (positive discrimination) to the marginalized, who are currently excluded (Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) but with an additional poverty criterion. With a downsizing government and growing private sector this is a sop but it does establish equity as the corner stone of state action.

Third, make democracy truly representative and kill identity politics by killing the potential for fracturing the vote. This is the most important reform. Change the existing electoral system under which MPs and MLAs get elected just by polling the largest number of votes, which is sometimes not more than 20 to 25% of the polled vote. Introduce a system of runoffs so that the elected candidate represents at least more than 50% of the polled vote, including the NOTA votes. This will ensure that the voice of minorities is not ignored.

Skull caps and Astrakhans are just a symbol. Donning one will not put off Modi’s supporters. The Gujarati voters cherish him, not for the Gods he worships, but for the development he delivers. 

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