Hindutva activists may want to tear Muslims and Hindus apart through love jihad and ghar wapsi campaigns, but metropolitan middle-class Hindus thronged to see Haider, some even silently shed a tear for the Kashmiri Muslim hero. Jingoists may propagate violent rhetoric against Pakistan as a dog whistle for majoritarian nationalism, but PK, Raju Hirani’s clever comic caper lampooning Hindu godmen, is reportedly the biggest grosser in the history of Bollywood, and wild-eyed agitators for a ban on the film have been roundly outvoted by the vast majority of moviegoers.
Sadhvi Niranjan and Yogi Adityanath may conjure up hatred in the quest for votes, Muzaffarnagar riots may bring poll dividends, but from the ‘Khanate’ of Bollywood to the Hamid Ansari-led Rajya Sabha to India’s tennis torch-bearer Sania Mirza to business legends Yusuf Hamied and Azim Premji to the cricketing quicksilver of Zaheer Khan and the Pathan brothers, India’s exceptional Muslim citizens are icons whose achievements are proudly, subliminally claimed by Indian nationalism even if the ‘Muslim’ is apparently antithetical to it.
Yet today with Hindutva forces on overdrive, by inevitable reflex action, Muslim victimhood and permanent sense of injury once again threaten to bury Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s dream of a Hindu-Muslim rainbow nation.
The rising star of ‘Muslim’ politics is now the rumbustious Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of MIM, the Hyderabad city MP, once dismissed as a ‘fringe’ element, but now positioning himself as a ‘national’ leader whose party rather impressively won two seats in the Maharashtra assembly elections, one more than Raj Thackeray’s MNS.
Owaisi plans to contest the Delhi and Bihar elections this year, both state elections where the Muslim vote can make a difference. In a sort of counter to ghar wapsi and to RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat saying every Indian’s cultural identity is Hindutva, Owaisi has roared that every Indian — or person — is born a Muslim.
45-year-old Owaisi is fast becoming the Muslim opposite number to saffron politics, a claimant to being the sole spokesman who once warned of a ‘third wave of Muslim radicalisation’ after the Assam riots and whose intolerant cadres attacked Taslima Nasreen. Owaisi appeals massively to the young Muslim’s rage and victimhood, by projecting himself as the tough-talking saviour of his community.
In the emergence of Owaisi as sole spokesperson of the Indian Muslim lies a dilemma of the community: if the so-called mainstream ‘secular’ parties will not address their concerns, if BJP will be seen to deny them representation, then why not turn to a politician who is openly promising to promote ‘Muslim’ interests?
It is no surprise that the spectacular rise of Narendra Modi and BJP has coincided with the growing clout of MIM in Muslim-dominated areas. Parties like Congress and the Janata parivar have responded to the Modi phenomenon by spreading fear, whispering to their constituencies lines from the film Sholay: ‘So jao, nahin to Gabbar Singh aa jayega’.
The ‘secular blackmail’ of Muslims by making Modi out to be a Gabbar Singh-like ogre has only been matched by the pernicious ideology of the Sadhvis and the Yogis who have looked to demonise the Muslim as inherently anti-national. A leaderless community is now seeking refuge in their own demagogues, in the belief that they alone can offer an effective counterpoint to both majoritarian and flawed secular politics.
The 16th Lok Sabha has the lowest number of Muslims ever since the first general elections of 1952. There are just 24 Muslim MPs, down from 30 in the previous Lok Sabha, who constitute just 4.4 percent of the House. For the first time in an Indian Parliament there’s not a single Muslim MP from UP, as BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate across the vast swathes of north and west India except for the sole exception of Shahnawaz Hussain.
Disappearing from politics, under siege in society, the wrongful incarceration of several Muslim youth in the Mecca Masjid blast case only reinforcing perceptions of injustice and discrimination at the hands of the law courts and police, the Muslim is being pushed into a rejection of ‘secular’ truisms even as the ghetto remains a refuge.
Which is why the community is in desperate need of a leadership that will encourage it to push for its due space in the national mainstream. It won’t happen with Lalu, Nitish and Mamata who seek votes in return for ‘protection’; it won’t happen with the Congress which promises equal opportunity but in reality offers only sops; it almost certainly won’t happen with the BJP which offers no guarantee of equal citizenship while Owaisi’s present ‘Islam khatre mein hai’ message may breed a worrying separateness.
Today if the challenge of saffron majoritarianism is to be countered there needs to be an Indian Muslim leadership which doesn’t prey on fear, but offers hope: hope of a social and economic transformation, a modern yet rooted identity that can challenge the narrative of the extremists within.
An eminent writer once said that after Maulana Azad and Sheikh Abdullah, the Muslims have never had leaders, only satraps who have nursed narrow constituencies. Yet in the land of Sania Mirza and Shah Rukh Khan, why can there not emerge a Muslim leader who will cast out fear, sidestep the clergy and stride briskly into India’s centre?
Beyond the yelling bigots, there’s a silent and more welcoming truth: Indian Muslims would not be the second largest community in the world, if the true Hindu was anti-Muslim.
Sagarika Ghose is an Indian journalist. Article originally published in Times of India.