To prevent balkanization, India needs to reclaim its secularism

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 24, 2012 13:29 hrs

The recent chain of events question the very basis of the nation-building process in India. Given the spread of incidents, intriguingly sparked off by remote and in some ways unrelated events, the role of politics and religion in nation-building and governance can no longer be ignored in the name of 'Secularism'.

LeT leader Hafeez Sayeed has been reiterating his endeavour to radicalize one percent of Indian Muslims to unravel India. Arguably, he has more than succeeded. He and other pan-Islamic fundamentalist forces, some of whom enjoying the dignity of being part of the apparently legitimate political structure, are polarizing Indians by injecting the communal poison amongst Muslims. Indian Islamic Secularism is under fierce attack from fundamentalist Islam, mainly of the Wahhabi brand.

In the recent past, violence with communal overtones has been increasing in frequency in India. Unsubstantiated reports do not rule out the angle of rising tension, primarily ascribed to the construction of a mosque, between two communities in the recent bomb blasts in Pune. Allegedly, as per some press reports, the blasts which did not claim any casualties were an act to forewarn and deter the majority community.

Another and even more serious communal stand-off occurred in Delhi on 6 July, 2012. The tension has not abated. The spark was triggered by the unearthing of a structure, which some Muslims claim are the remnants of a mosque (Akbarabadi Mosque), allegedly destroyed by the British in the 1857 aftermath. The VHP on the contrary claims that the said structure was a Hindu temple.

The local MLA Shoiab Iqbal stridently played a communally factious role in exploiting religious sentiments of the local Muslims who embarked on the construction of a mosque despite the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) declaring it as ‘illegal’.

This activity took place right under the nose of the Delhi Police, whose personnel significantly equaled hundreds of miscreants engaged in the illegal activity. Slogans betraying communal frenzy rent the air.

Most recently, communal violence tore Assam, an explosion that was waiting to happen. The genesis of this mayhem lies in the unbridled illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Illegal settlers are now the dominant group in 11 of the 27 districts of Assam.

This phenomenon of illegal migration led to the Assam agitation, yet we did not act. Vote-bank politics continued to triumph over security concerns. It did not matter to those in the political dispensation that this phenomenon could lead to the rupture of the country if allowed unabated. A governor, who tried to draw the express attention of the government of the day about the pernicious ‘threat’ was castigated by more than a dozen MPs from one particular party. Another governor who reiterated the position was also labeled as communal.

Lakhs of Indians have been displaced in their own country in the wake of communal violence in Assam. It definitely has social, economic and communal ingredients. The communal factor has been no less exacerbated by fundamentalist organizations in Bangladesh, as well as the ISI of Pakistan.

At least a dozen fundamentalist and militant groups thriving in the region are believed to have played subversive and incendiary role. Some of these organizations are: Muslim Security Council of Assam, United Liberation Militia of Assam, Islamic Liberation Army of Assam, Muslim Volunteer Force, Muslim Liberation Army, Muslim Security Force, Islamic Sevak Sangh and Islamic United Reformation Protest of India. Most of these organizations enjoy external patronage. The carnage was no less inflamed by various self-appropriated leaders of the Indian Muslim community.

In June and July this year, Uttar Pradesh has witnessed at least half-a-dozen communal riots. Its spread was virtually over the entire state, i.e. Kosi Kalan near Mathura, Pratapgarh, Bareilly, Faizabad, Sitapur and Meerut. It happened under a newly elected government, which has traditionally claimed to be more ‘secular’ than others. It was incidents related to perceived sanctity or temporal claims of the mosques that triggered riots in Kosi Kalan, Sitapur and Bareilly. Indeed there were other factors too that abetted these riots.

In India’s north, in the Kashmir Valley, the separatist leader Syed Gilani has called for the imposition of Sharia Law. In January 2012, a self proclaimed Supreme Court of Islamic Shariat indicted two persons, an Indian and a Dutch national for their alleged involvement in luring Kashmiri Muslims to convert to Christianity. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, riots erupted in the capital Hyderabad after alleged desecration of a Hindu temple.

Further south, there is no state in India communally more polarized and tense than Kerala. In the last assembly elections, it is common knowledge, voting was overwhelmingly on communal lines. Euphemistically, it is said that the only secular space today in Kerala is in the bars or the booze joints. It is in Kerala that a militant Islamic organization, the Popular Front of India (PFI), has spread its tentacles deep and wide.

In the present religious landscape in the country, there is ocular evidence and otherwise about the increasing stridency and radicalism in the Muslim society, signifying a psychological trajectory away from the Indian mainstream.  It is palpable on the streets of towns and cities, and is as much visible in the remote villages of India.

The emphasis on religious symbols, religious posturing is getting increasingly pronounced and widespread. The burqas, headgear and shawls in vogue, essentially Arab in import, which were alien to the Indian subcontinent, is now fraying the psychological fabric of the Indian society.

Our foreign policy with regard to the Middle East is constrained by Oil and Remittances from Indians employed in that region. According to the World Bank estimate of 2011, the total remittances by Indians was USD 58 billion of which a-third was from the Gulf nations that include Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. These countries have a Kerelaite workforce of 2.5 million and account for nearly US $ 7 billion in terms of remittances.

These remittances substantially sustain the Indian economy, but it is not without the negative baggage or price. It is playing havoc with the Indian Muslim society, by alienating Indian Muslims from the national mainstream. For some years now the Middle East has been serving as the biggest nursery for radicalization of Indian Muslim workforce by indoctrination and monetary inducements.

A childhood friend of this author, a teacher in an Indian Embassy school in Middle East has been having a harrowing time at the hands of some colleagues, ironically also Indian Muslims, for his progressive ideas, rooted deeply in the cultural ethos of his mother country, India. These radicalized teachers, some of whom engaged in anti-India activities, have been threatening this friend of mine, also a talented singer, to desist from befriending Hindu teachers and participating in the musical evenings, since they consider music to be un-Islamic.

The polarization between the two communities is increasing by the day. There is no separate electorate for the Muslims in India, as per the Constitution. Nevertheless, the ground reality is that in Jammu & Kashmir it is nearly an impossible proposition to have a Hindu Chief Minister. It is also a reality that given the demography in constituencies like Kishanganj in Bihar, no political party, so-called secular and otherwise, can dare to field a non-Muslim candidate. In contrast, many Hindu majority states have elected Muslims as Chief Minister.

The consequence of polarization obviously is the seemingly virtual end of assimilation of Muslims in the Indian mainstream. It is the most ugly and dangerous manifestation of vote-bank politics. Politicians have been constantly encouraging separate identity of the Muslim community and thereby ‘seperatism’.

On this score it may be pertinent to re-visit history. In 1906, Aga Khan was subverted by the British to submit a memorandum to the Viceroy Lord Minto demanding separate electorates for Muslims. Lady Minto described the event in following terms: “---a very, very big thing has happened today; a work of statesmanship that will affect India and Indian history for many a long year. It is nothing less than pulling back of 62 millions of people from joining the ranks of seditious opposition”. Much later Aga Khan boasted: “Lord Minto’s acceptance of our demands was the foundation of all future constitutional proposals..., and the final inevitable consequence was the partition of India...”

This kind of political indulgence by the politicians not only debilitates the integrity of the country but also makes the Muslim society regressive. The worst variety of symbols and themes are being invented to garner Muslim votes. A former Union Minister of long political standing had no qualms in parading an Osama bin Laden look-alike during his election campaign.

The process of polarization accelerated since the 70s. A former Chief Minister of West Bengal allowed the illegal immigration from Bangladesh on the plea that he did not distinguish between the Indian proletariat and the Bangladeshi proletariat. How can any nationalist government brook two separate laws for determining foreigners, i.e. Foreigner’s Act for the rest of the country but the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act for Assam?

As per the IMDT Act and as opposed to the Foreigner’s Act, the onus of proving one’s Indian nationality was with the State and not the individual. It was a tool fashioned to facilitate illegal migration. Kokrajhar was therefore waiting to happen, and Assam Chief Minister is not exaggerating when he says that Assam is sitting on a volcano. Fortuitously, the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act. It contemptuously labeled the ‘illegal migration’ from Bangladesh as ‘external aggression’.

Further, the political class has been polarizing the two communities by ways of ‘Haj’ subsidy; suggesting religion based reservation, which runs contrary to the spirit of the Indian Constitution; fabricating ‘Hindu Terror’ to balance jihadi terror master-minded from Pakistan; providing political patronage and support to regressive religious educational institutions and social practices; and finally by foisting those Muslims for high offices, whose religious credentials are high in their considered reckoning of Muslim perception.

It is for this reason that Abdul Kalam was not acceptable to the so called ‘Secular’ political class, because to them, his strong patriotic credentials and his cultural moorings to his motherland was politically an anathema.

More than seven decades after Independence the British policy of separate electorates continues to vitiate India’s democracy. W C Smith in his work Modern Islam in India writes: “The separate electorates compelled the Muslims to vote communally, think communally, listen only to communal election speeches, judge the delegates communally, look for constitutional and other reforms only in terms of more relative communal power, and express their grievances communally.”

A communal violence bill drafted by Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council was tabled for discussion in the National Integration Council meet in 2011. The preamble to the bill says “... to respect, protect and fulfill the right to equality before law and protection of law by posing duties on Central Government and State Government, to exercise their powers in an impartial and non-discriminatory manner, to prevent and control targeted violence, including mass violence against Schedule Castes, Schedule Tribes, and religious and linguistic minorities, and in any state in the Union of India.”

This preamble in effect makes a desperate bid to drive a wedge between the majority and minority community. Mischievously for vote-bank exigencies it has clubbed the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes with religious minorities. It presumes that the majority community is invariably the perpetrator and the minority community is the victim. It also ignores the fact that various sections of a particular community are in minority in one state and majority in the other. The construct of this bill is a deliberate ploy to effect further polarization.

If India has to be prevented from another balkanization, it is of critical and pressing imperative that the concept of ‘secularism’ is addressed and revisited in its entirety.

If the politicians persist with the present vote-bank politics and pander to Muslim separateness and pan-Islam, more Kokrajhars cannot be ruled out. In every other country of the world, the kernel of nationhood is the ethos, not in religious terms, but in cultural, social and psychological sense, of the majority population. Religion has no basis if it does not contribute to assimilation, peace, nation-building, and human progress.

Can the politicians reverse the process? If they cannot, it is the people who must display statesmanship and alter the  dangerous, rather fissiparous discourse in India.

Also by R S N Singh:

Kidnappings: India must not negotiate with Maoists

Army Chief's age: Personal matter or conspiracy?

Is India turning into a banana republic?

'Hindu terror': India the sole loser

The 'Invisible Violence' that haunts India

'India seems to be withering away'

The nauseating campaign against Baba Ramdev

RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW. He is the author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan.

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