March 23, 2016

India: The Bharat Mata Trap (Saba Naqvi)

The Times of India - March 19, 2016

The Bharat Mata Trap — both Owaisi and Akhtar end up being caricatures of what they hope to represent

Saba Naqvi in TOI Edit Page | Edit Page, India | TOI

Politician Asaduddin Owaisi and poet- lyricist Javed Akhtar have both waded into an unnecessary controversy that is designed to entrap anyone with a Muslim name. In the current environment, whether one of them chants Bharat Mata ki Jai with gusto or the other refuses to do so at gunpoint, both are losers in this game.

Personally, i relate to the position from which Akhtar comes. He is an atheist and an aesthete, from a family of poets and writers. He speaks for personal, literary and cinematic freedom. In ordinary times i would have no problems invoking Bharat Mata or any other divinity. I’ve been to many Durga pujas, attended Ramlilas, even walked up to the Amarnath cave, not as a believer but as a participant in a cultural landscape. I also have an old collection of bhajans by V D Paluskar that i absolutely adore, and since we are on a Shakti figure let me share that there is a rendition of Raag Durga (Jai Jai Jai Durge Mata) by Rajan and Sajan Mishra that should be in every collection of Hindustani classical music.

But these are not ordinary times. So today i’ll be damned if anyone – BJP, Congress or Javed Akhtar – encourages me to invoke Bharat Mata. To that extent i also relate to what Owaisi has said except that no one was actually holding a knife to his throat when he said it. Now of course that’s changed.

Let’s look at the sequence of events. On March 3, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that there are people who refuse to say Bharat Mata ki Jai and must be taught to say it. RSS chiefs past and present have said this sort of thing pointing the needle of suspicion at the nation’s largest minority. But this time Bhagwat was saying it in the context of the JNU controversy. He could have been ignored, especially by Owaisi, whose utterances would inevitably place the debate in a Hindu-Muslim framework.

Yet, 10 days later, on March 13, Owaisi took the bait when he said at a public rally that even if someone holds a knife to his throat he would not say Bharat Mata ki Jai. Two days later, making his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha where his term came to an end, Akhtar must have known he would make news when he said Bharat Mata ki Jai many times and added that he would fight for his right to say it although it was not his duty to say so. (He also made a surprisingly tasteless dig at Owaisi’s dress, in a remark about the sherwani-topi not being ordained by the Constitution.)

The entire debate could have been dismissed as ridiculous posturing if the consequences were not so serious. The day after one Indian Muslim invoked Bharat Mata in Indian Parliament, another, Waris Pathan from Owaisi’s AIMIM, was suspended for refusing to do so in the Maharashtra assembly. The goalpost had shifted. The idea of another nationhood test was being given legitimacy.

BJP and Shiv Sena being on one side of the debate is expected. What is outrageous is the Congress duplicity. The party has for decades endorsed clerical soft power in the Muslim community, and thereby backward retrograde personal laws. It must know that invoking a mother goddess would go against the religious beliefs of some Muslims. Yet, the party’s Maharashtra MLAs did not hesitate to gang up against a legislator who wished to stress his distinctiveness, no matter how unpopular that position may be.

The entire Bharat Mata debate is framed in such a way that neither Owaisi nor Akhtar can gain anything from participating in it. It’s a construct designed to fail any Muslim who steps in. Both of them end up being caricatures of what they possibly hope to represent. Owaisi is presented as the conservative who only speaks to the faithful, Akhtar as a Muslim anxious to prove his nationalistic credentials. It’s Good Muslim versus Bad Muslim performing on a stage where identity politics is the most popular show in town. The good news is that there is a fight back against constructs of nationalism that exclude citizens and it’s coming from main- stream Indian society.