December 27, 2015

India: Pluralism under fire (Mehboob Jeelani)

Magazine / The Hindu, December 26, 2015

Pluralism under fire

The year saw the intensifying of the ‘us versus them’ brand of politics not just in India but across the world. But somewhere deep inside, the liberal citizen is still alive. And this generates hope for the coming year.

Looking back at 2015, the calendar is filled with incidents of bloodshed. From the Charlie Hebdo murders to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the neocons have enough evidence to suggest that violence and terrorism are tearing the world apart. But equally, there are signs that it might not yet be the end of the world as we know it.

In India, the effects of Islamic terror were less felt. The Indian government has shown great maturity in the way it has dealt with the IS phobia, by ruling out any direct threat from the pan-Islamist militant state. The ideology has been countered by Indian Muslims, too. Last month, Jamaat-e-Ulema Hind, India’s largest Muslim welfare body, condemned the Paris attacks and declared the IS as an “un-Islamic” entity. A parallel campaign is also going on across Indian madrasas, where students are taught to be secular and loyal to the Indian constitution. So far, the war in West Asia and its Islamic connotations don’t mean much in India.

What India saw was bloodletting of a different kind. Hindu nationalist trolls used the IS excuse to rake up fear about Indian Muslims and accuse them of endorsing militant Jihad. RSS shakhas have used the violence caused by the IS and the al-Qaeda to indoctrinate Hindu youth against fellow Muslims. The concept of “global Jihad” is customised to align it to local insecurities.

Thus, for instance, the atmosphere of unrest is thickened by linking the emergence of the Kashmiri insurgency and Indian Mujahideen to the global pan-Islamist doctrine. The year saw the ruling BJP, the ideological protégé of the RSS, deploying these fears for electoral gains. In Bihar, for example, the party tried to create hysteria among Hindus voters by putting up posters insinuating that rival political groups were “supporting terrorists”. But, again, good sense reigned. The Election Commission of India had the posters removed from the public domain.

The intensifying of the ‘us versus them’ brand of politics is not confined to India. Other countries founded on liberal principles are floundering on this rock too. From Hong Kong’s democracy protests to Japan’s anti-war campaigns, 2015 showed us how liberal politics everywhere wrestled with authoritarian governments. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan winning a second term as president, even though he faced public protest for his anti-liberal outlook, confirms that the world is heading towards a new era where politicians have learned how to achieve divisive goals through democratic frameworks. The growing popularity of Donald Trump, a Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, a textbook example of a fascist, is another cause for alarm.

India’s politics have been similarly hit. Given its diversity, where apart from the majority faith of Hinduism, several million people practise Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and several other faiths, India, of all nations, cannot afford to have social unrest brewing in the name of identity. This was the reason why the country’s founding fathers stressed on the need to safeguard pluralism.

Yet, in 2015, not only were there numerous hate crimes, the crimes were celebrated rather than denigrated. A climate of hostility against intellectuals, writers and artists was encouraged and cheered on by a rabble of voices. The murders of writers Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi, of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri, of a Kashmiri trucker in Udhampur, the ink attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni in Mumbai for participating in the launch of a book by a Pakistani former minister — all were signs that pluralism as we know it was under attack.

In this atmosphere, hawkish politicians flourished, rendering moderate ones irrelevant. India’s former Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid recently told me that ignorance had paralysed the Indian political establishment. It sounded at first like the usual Congress line against the ruling BJP. But when he finished his thought, I realised Khurshid was criticising the Congress too. He spoke of an era when Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad had “complemented each other to strengthen Indian democracy.” After Nehru, inter-faith bonhomie as reflected by the Congress became far less and by now has disappeared.

Khurshid’s charge makes sense. India’s political elite has indeed failed Muslims and, reflexively, Indian pluralism. After its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress wrestled internally with the Muslim question. Its policies were largely based on symbolism and placation. Rahul Gandhi’s temple appearances brandishing a gadha or mace, in turn, made Muslim leaders shrill and played right into the hands of the likes of the Owaisis. Annoyed Hindus, in turn, were driven into the folds of a waiting right-wing.

It all came home to roost in 2015. Politics as it was practised this year was one of generating mass hysteria. This is the kind that blurs logic and places demagogues at the forefront. It changes history and argues that India will become a better place if Aurangzeb Road is renamed A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Road. It alters high-school textbooks to argue that Maharana Pratap was greater than King Akbar. It takes offence at everything and nothing will appease it except offerings of blood.

For the first time, we saw a deep schism in the country, where nobody wanted to come to the middle and talk. But this might just be the political face. Somewhere deep inside, the liberal Indian is alive. In the Chennai floods, one of the stories that went viral was of Muslim youth cleaning Hindu temples and of Hindu youth serving food in Muslim neighbourhoods. As we step into the New Year, we can only ask, like Tagore did, for a world that “has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”