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India’s Secularism, Deeply Rooted, Now Hangs on a Precipice

The RSS is sparing no effort to create a sense of siege among Muslims; it is stirring this cauldron of despair at the nation’s peril

RSS volunteers march past portraits of KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar. Credit: Shome Basu

Sword-bearing RSS volunteers march past portraits of KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar. Credit: Shome Basu

Even as Prime minister Modi lauds the plurality of India and the profound peacefulness of Sufi Islam, the RSS and its cohorts have been sparing no effort to drive a deep wedge between the Hindus and Muslims in our country.

A single day’s newspaper tells us that the student Umar Khalid found, while being questioned in jail, that his interrogators had already decided his guilt before they talked to him, because he was a Muslim whose father had been an activist of the now banned SIMI. Anirban Bhattacharya was repeatedly cajoled by his interrogators to get all charges against him dropped by pinning all the blame for the February 9 sloganeering on Khalid.

Waris Pathan, a Muslim MLA, In Maharashtra is suspended from the state assembly for refusing to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai. On the same day four Kashmiri students are arrested in Rajasthan because someone reported to the police that they were eating beef in their hostel.

In Jharkhand, two Muslim cattle traders are murdered by a gang of criminals, and the public and the media immediately conclude that the killers belong to a cow protection group.

In Delhi the BJP MP from Agra, Ramshanker Katheria, (who is a member of Mr Modi’s council of ministers, no less )publicly warns the UP state government that Agra will see a ‘different kind of Holi’ if cases lodged against one BJP and two local VHP ‘leaders’ for making hate speeches against Muslims, comparing them to ‘rakshasas’ who need to be cornered and destroyed’, are not withdrawn before the festival.

All this news appearing on a single day evinces no shock because, from Ghar Wapsi, to ‘Love Jihad‘, to throwing beef into a temple, to killing Mohammad Akhlaq, to changing the name of Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, such inflammatory statements and actions have become routine in the past 21 months.

Intimidating dissenters

What is relatively new is the brazen attempt to intimidate anyone – like Kanhaiya Kumar or Teesta Setalvad – who has the courage to take up cudgels in defence of the freedom of speech, thought, justice and legal process; the administration of punishment to them through harassment, torture and beatings while in judicial custody, the cancellation of licenses and denial of access to funds.

Beneath all of this runs one leitmotif : The Muslims are not ‘us’. In anthropological terms, they are the alien ‘other’ and don’t belong in a resurgent Hindu India. The Muslim conquest of India was an aberration, and its impact on Hindu culture must be erased.

The damage was real, but was done aeons ago by rulers and generals now long dead. What does the Sangh parivar hope to gain from making people who are not even their lineal descendants pay a price today? Does it think that the community will take this lying down forever? And if it does not, can India be purged of 190 million Muslims?

No matter what its motives are, if it persists it will push the country into civil war and force it to disintegrate, as the states in the south and east scramble to insulate themselves from the virus being exported ­­­from the north. Instead of a Hindurashtra India will become the world’s largest failed state.

This may sound alarmist but beneath the surface calm, changes have been taking place in the structure of the Indian economy and society that have been weakening our collective faith in the possibility of a prosperous future. These are being felt most acutely by the youth, who have their entire lives ahead and do not see how they will traverse it. The need of the hour is to reverse these changes so that they can begin to hope again. The BJP/RSS is doing the exact opposite.

Muslims’ worsening plight

Partition made the first serious dent in India’s syncretic culture by planting resentment and suspicion in Hindus, and a wary defensiveness in Indian Muslims. With the pre-partition Muslim elite having largely opted for Pakistan, the community desperately needed educational and economic assistance to recover their place in Indian society. But a bitter legacy of Partition was the Congress’s adamant refusal to even consider the reservation of jobs and seats in schools and colleges for Muslims, as this was the tool the British had used to split the Indian social fabric.

V.P Singh was among the first to recognise the long-term damage this had done. He understood that a rural peasantry newly empowered by the Green Revolution was demanding reservation in government jobs and colleges not for the sake of a handful of poorly paid sinecures, but to create an urban base from which their children and grandchildren could acquire the education that was the only avenue to the modern world.

But he too shied away from making an overt commitment to the Muslims on this incendiary issue. As a result, in the 1990s the rate of urbanisation among the OBCs surged ahead, while that of the Muslims actually declined. As the Kundu commission noted, a process of ‘exclusionary urbanization’ set in.

The full impact of six decades of neglect was laid bare by the Sachar committee, which found in 2006 that not only was Muslim enrolment in secondary schools and colleges well below their share of the population, but their representation in salaried jobs was less than two-thirds of the national average.

The imbalance was even worse in the Central government where despite being 14.4% of the population Muslims filled only 4 percent of the senior police and paramilitary posts, only 3% of the IAS, 1.8% of the IFS and perhaps most importantly, only 6% of the posts in the constabulary. The situation was equally grim in the universities, banks and central Public sector undertakings.

The UPA government responded to the shock the report gave it by mooting an Equal Opportunities Commission and creating a Ministry of Minority (note, not Muslim) Affairs. But six years later, no perceptible dent has been made in the structural disadvantages of the Muslim community.

A study of actual disbursements till the end of March 2011, showed that of the allocation till then of Rs 3,780 crores for minority concentration districts, only Rs 846 crores actually reached the districts and only Rs 131 crores had reached the intended beneficiaries. Despite this, when the Ministry of Minority Affairs asked for Rs 58,000 crores in the 12th plan, it was allocated only Rs. 17,323 crores.

The Muslims fared no better in raising concessional bank loans, for these were monopolized by Sikhs and Christians who secured 47% of the funds when they made up 21% of the minorities. Muslims who made up 69% got only 44%.

It would have been surprising indeed if being at a perennial disadvantage had not created dissatisfaction, and a feeling of being discriminated against in Muslim youth who found their path into modern India severely constricted. Wahhabi Islam backed by an abundance of Saudi money and flashy new mosques offered a new sense of purpose and source of hope. Gradually, but relentlessly, it began to erode the Sufi base of traditional Islam in India.

But even this would not have not have dented communal harmony had Pakistan not intervened. Determined to take revenge for the splitting of the country in 1971, it began to actively encourage insurgency and dispatch of terrorists across the borders of Punjab and Kashmir.

As all governments that have faced armed uprisings have learned, state responses to terrorism tend invariably to be indiscriminate. In India, this has meant sudden descents upon Muslim neighbourhoods, sustained, unfriendly interrogations, and an automatic presumption of Muslim involvement even when, as in the Malegaon idgah bomb blast and the burning of the Samjhauta express, the victims are all Muslims. The casual ‘elimination’ of terrorists in staged ‘encounters’ sowed fear and anger, especially in young Muslims just when they had begun to realise that the economic resurgence of the country was passing them by. Quite suddenly, therefore, the ground beneath their feet began to quake.

The Gujarat riots gave a new twist to the  fear of young Muslims because for the first time in their lives they felt that the state had not protected, but actually targeted them. Ahmedabad, therefore, created India’s first home-grown Muslim Islamist terrorists.

Roots of Indian syncretism

Indian syncretism has survived despite this because it is based upon an easy acceptance of diversity.  In the mosaic that is India, Tamils, Bengalis, Mizos, Nagas, Manipuris, Odias, Punjabis, Parsis, Bohras, Memons, Christians – everyone feels different. We are comfortable with being different and demonstrate it by unselfconsciously wearing different headgear, different cuts of beard and moustache, different lengths of hair, even different lengths of pyjamas. We wear different clothes, build little temples, mosques, and shrines to Jesus or one of the Sikh gurus, wherever we wish. We spread prayer mats on a busy road at midday in order to pray, and some of us even walk down the street wearing no clothes at all.

This comfort with diversity makes India the envy of European nation states which were created through enforced cultural homogeneity. But this is what the RSS mistakes as weakness, and is bent upon erasing.

The Muslim community has responded to their Muslim baiting by consolidating its vote and building closer ties with the opposition. But it is defenceless against the economic impact that programmes like the ban on beef, and the liberalisation of the economy are having upon its future in a period of unending jobless growth.

There are 3,600 legal and 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses in India, that export 2.4 million tonnes of beef and buffalo meat valued at 4.8 billion dollars. The ban on cow slaughter is threatening the livelihood of anything up to half a million families, the majority of whom are Muslims. While the ban on beef exports has received a great deal of attention all over the world, its even more deadly impact on the leather industry has been all but ignored. Maharashtra’s ban on the slaughter of all cattle and its spread to several other states has starved the industry of hides. According to the industry, by June 2015, 98 tanneries had shut down in Kanpur alone and 150,000 workers had lost their jobs. Here too most were Muslims.

The ban has also affected farmers and cattle herders – Dalits, and OBCs – to whom aged cattle and male calves rendered surplus by the spread of tractors and automotive transport, have been an important hedge against sudden financial need or drought. Today, as large parts of the Deccan are reeling under one of the worst droughts they have ever experienced, the price of cattle has crashed and this source of succour has been cut off.

Perhaps the most serious and least noticed setback has come from the ‘scissors’ effect on the profitability of the  power loom industry from falling tariffs on imports after economic liberalization, and the simultaneous, relentless annual increases in the minimum sale price of cotton decreed by the state governments. While this is killing the power loom industry all over the country, in Maharashtra whose two centres, Bhiwandi and Malegaon, account for three quarters of the power loom industry, the vast majority of the workers are Muslims.

These are three exemplars of an even more terrifying crisis that Muslims in particular face. This is the assault upon the entire artisanal sector of industry – fine textiles, embroidery and handicrafts, by cheap imports from China. From Kashmiri carpets, Pashmina and Jamawar shawls, to Lucknowi Chikan, Hyderabadi Bidriware and  Kancheepuram and Banarasi saris, all are facing shrinking markets as mill-made alternatives, domestic and foreign, push their products out.

Muslims are the prime sufferers in every case because only 23% of them have salaried jobs against 34% of the Indian work force. Three-quarters are therefore self-employed, as against two-thirds of all Indian workers. What is worse, while many of the Hindu workers, both salaried and self employed, own small pieces of land in their villages, very few of the Muslims do. They have, therefore, nothing to fall back upon when their traditional skills become redundant.

So let us see what future a typical 18-year-old 12th pass Muslim boy faces. He finds it difficult to get into the army; he will almost certainly not get taken into the police. He is unlikely to qualify for a lower grade clerical post in the government, given that 52% of these are already reserved for OBCs and Dalits ; his schooling has not equipped him for any of the traditional skills his family excelled in, and in any case these skills being made redundant. So how long will he be able to hold out when a recruiter offers him 400 dollars a month to join a jihad somewhere in the world, even India, to ‘save Islam’? The RSS is stirring this cauldron of despair at the nation’s peril.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based author and commentator

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