‘No Muslims please: this is India’

  • Religious frenzy in pre-polling campaigns

From Vedic Pathsalas to meddling in the non-Hindu history of textbooks to exemplifying the status of the ‘holy’ cow, the ruling party in India has consistently been cajoling its majority population to retain its status, especially in the wake of upcoming elections. Simultaneously, the minorities, particularly the Muslims, are being sidelined. But is playing the religion card the deciding factor for aparty to secure a term?

The most recent move by the government includes the acceptance of a proposal to establish India’s first National School Board for Vedic Education, Bhartiya Shiksha Board (BSB). Indian media has reported the popular sentiment as the belief that the board “would free the future generations from the present anglicised and anti-Hindu education system”. Pair this up with the very vocal intentions of the government to remove Mughal history from its textbooks, as ‘not part of Indian culture’, and the revised Indianised impact on the country’s seven decades old secular image becomes quite evident.

From education to legislation, the ‘pan-Hindu’ movement in India seems to be gaining pace. India wants to give citizenship to immigrants belonging to religious minorities persecuted in its neighbouring countries, “because they have nowhere to go except India”, its interior minister is reported to have said. Although its ‘persecuting’ neighbouring countries include arch-rival Pakistan, Bangladesh and distant Afghanistan – all Muslim countries, interestingly the citizenship offered is only for the non-Muslim immigrants.

The proposed bill, Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, “seeks to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who came to India before Dec. 31, 2014”. Critics have called the proposalblatantly anti-Muslim and an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to boost its Hindu voter base ahead of the general election due this May. The criticism is not unjust, as at the moment the most persecuted minority on India’s borders are the Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar; with them being Muslim and Myanmar a Buddhist state. Suffering Shias and Ahmadis in Pakistan have also not been included in the list. As one Indian commentator summed up the amendment in one phrase: “No Muslims please, this is India.”

However, the move has been strongly snubbed in at least one state, Assam, where local nationalists do not want their indigenous communities to be deprived of education and economic opportunities after having to share with immigrants, Hindu or non-Hindu.

The truth is that in countries like Pakistan and India, where performance does matter at the end of the day, religion still plays a very important role

Moreover, the persecution claim on neighbouring states also seems to be an attempt to camouflage India’s own intolerance towards non-Hindu subjects, especially the Muslims.

During a recent interview, veteran Indian Muslim actor, Naseeruddin Shah, commenting on increasing mob violence in his country, had said that, “The poison has already spread in society. There is complete impunity for those who take the law into their own hands. We have already witnessed that the death of a cow has more significance than that of a police officer in today’s India”.

As Shah’s elder brother, a retired army officer and former vice chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University, agreed with his younger sibling’s concerns, Naseeruddin Shah’s keynote address at the Ajmer Literature Festival was cancelled after protests by right-wing groups.

But as the BJP continues on its hard lined Hindu stance, the outcome in India’s latest state elections did not seem to support the argument. Rather, the voters, in overwhelming numbers, decided to split ways.

In three out of five majority Hindu population states; Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, opposition party, Congress was the winner. Jubilant Congressmen claimed that it were the real issues that mattered to the voters. In Rajasthan, where more than half (53 percent) of households own agricultural land, only four percent wheat was procured by the government. Madhya Pradesh saw a 21 percent increase in suicides by farmers in the past two years, which was also racked by major corruption scams in plantation and fund schemes.

“BJP has absolutely ill performed! There is no second thought on this. Tall promises, abysmal delivery. All the chest beating of development and growth fizzled out within the first three years itself,” says Misbah Quadri, a young Mumbai based professional with extensive experience in media and communications. “We want employment, infrastructure and progress, not empty promises”, Quadri responds to my query.

The Muslim community, bearing the ire of intolerance by Hindu nationalists since the past five years, now looks up for more victories by the Congress and thus, a respite from the scorching Hindu nationalism. “The party (Congress) has fallen into a habit of taking u-turns and allying with parties, poles apart in principle, for the sake of gaining ground. (Still) with the Congress taking over national reigns, Indians can expect the saffron terror to subside, or at least not thrive as blatantly as it has in the last four years”, Misbah Quadri adds further.

As the Muslim community pins hopes on the Congress, the party rallied much against BJP’s missed targets to strike a chord with the public. Once dubbed by critics as a ‘reluctant politician’, Congress President Rahul Gandhi addressed nearly a hundred public rallies and seven road shows crisscrossing Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telanagana and Mizoram on an almost daily basis. He raised several issues such as farmers’ distress, corruption, and women’s security during his campaign.

The party also did not forget to lure the Hindu population to win votes.

In a column for Pakistan’s daily Dawn, Jawed Naqvi, a senior journalist, fiercely criticising Congress, wrote that “He (Rahul) claims to be the better Hindu of the two…. By allowing his party to hug symbols of a regressive appeal, Gandhi unwittingly smudged the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and those who hitched their hopes to his liberal ideals”. Naqvi further questions in his article that:

“Also, is Gandhi going to become an avid drinker of cow urine to garner votes, now that his party has promised to manufacture refined gaumutra as a commercial proposition? Is this what Indira Gandhi had in mind when she underscored secularism and socialism as the guiding principles of the constitution? Or would sipping the hallowed elixir embellish the scientific temper that Nehru had envisioned for the country?”

The truth is that in countries like Pakistan and India, where performance does matter at the end of the day, religion still plays a very important role in garnering popular sentiment. It is religion, from which rulers and subjects both, seek support and success. It is the divine intervention, which they can not dare to ignore. It is their faith and its reverence, which ensures acceptance and an esteemed position.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan offered sympathy to Naseeruddin Shah, saying that he would show the Narendra Modi government ‘how to treat minorities’, Shah responded by saying that he shouldn’t be commenting on issues that don’t concern him. “We have been a democracy for 70 years and we know how to look after ourselves,” Naseeruddin Shah had said. This is what minorities in both countries have been doing, looking after themselves, as the states look after their larger interests and continue to prioritise matters according to gains, in both person and faith.