Barkha Dutt, Hindutstan Times, March 13, 2006 ( The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24×7)
Swimming in the sea of India’s cultural complexity has taught me that I can no longer carry my agnosticism lightly. Time has convinced me that my resistance to institutionalised religion is the defining character flaw of the progressive elite; a discordant note in an otherwise full-throated symphony; a disconnect so deep that sometimes people like me are just left watching from the sidelines at the tumultuous fight for India’s future; spectators, not participants, because we speak the language of disbelief.
But there are times I am grateful that I am neither Hindu nor Muslim, but just a devout sceptic. Right now is one such. Despite the lonely corner non-believers like me inhabit, I am reasonably confident that the ordinary Indian is as mystified as I am by the hysterical debate that has consumed our media these past few weeks. The theme song — actually it was a duet — went something like this: Hindutva is simmering under the surface, waiting to leap out from the political grave into the warm embrace of a new life; and ‘moderate Muslims’ must speak, not just speak, they must shout, scream, holler, be heard, so that there is no ‘backlash’.
Apparently, the horrific twin blasts at Varanasi have given all this the force of an emergency. If I were either Hindu or Muslim, I would be deeply insulted at the generalised and simplistic assumptions made about me, my intelligence and, most importantly, my faith.
When Renuka Narayanan from this paper went on NDTV, on the evening of the blasts, and said “Varanasi is to Hinduism what Mecca is to Islam, this is the seat of Hinduism that has been attacked,” a slight shudder went down my spine. The stakes seemed so high. Gujarat 2002, New Delhi 1984… have made us forever fearful. The fear isn’t entirely misplaced. Every terror attack, especially those targeted at the nerve-centres of faith, pushes us that much closer to the edge, to the precipice of polarisation.
But the argument lapsed into absurdity when the politicians began talking. If the Varanasi blasts were a consequence of the UPA’s ‘minority appeasement’, then how does one explain the shadow of terror that tailed India during the NDA regime — from Kandahar to the Parliament attack? If the blasts were a result of this government being ‘soft on terror’, then how does one explain that there is no empirical difference in the level of violence today as compared to last year? And has a shrill BJP forgotten that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s lasting legacy is the creation of a peace process with Pakistan and a peace initiative with Kashmiri separatists?
Bihar was proof that the NDA is a combative, shrewd political force that the UPA cannot afford to be complacent about. But surely, there was a lesson in it for the BJP as well — another state won not on the strength of religious mobilisation but on the promise of change.
Even the complex caste arithmetic could not save a Lalu Prasad Yadav. Clearly identity politics could only travel this far, if governance and development were not equal companions on the journey.
So no matter what the public opinion pundits write (and I suspect even the BJP’s master strategists may just have lifted the idea off the edit pages), I would argue that in the absence of an extraordinary event, religious identity is now more the ex-factor than a decisive, intangible X-factor. Hindutva, I think, has served its time and outlived its political utility.
All generalisations are a gamble, but I would take the risk and say that Middle India (as distinct from both the fundamentalists and the liberals) wants to travel down the Middle Path. The age of shrill rhetoric is over. Indians are increasingly impatient with extremism of any kind, in any faith — Hindu or Muslim.
I’m pretty sure that the ordinary Hindu, angry as she may be about the assault in Varanasi, and before that in Ayodhya, will also find L.K. Advani’ rath yatra disingenuous and unnecessary, and he, a poor caricature of himself.
I’m equally sure that if I were a Muslim in India today, I’d feel under siege claustrophobically caught between those who claim to speak on my behalf, and those who are demanding that I must speak up as a ‘moderate’. Lost in the cacophony of argument is clarity of exactly what we are asking them to speak up against.
If it’s about politicians like Haji Yaqoob Qureshi, the minister in Uttar Pradesh who dared to declare a reward of Rs 51 crore for the Danish cartoonist’s head, each and every Muslim I have interviewed has condemned him and asked that he be removed from the state government. It’s a non-Muslim Chief Minister who continues to keep him in public office. It’s India’s party in power, the Congress, that continues to maintain a shameful silence on his utterances. The same Congress that uses textbook rules to secure a vindictive expulsion of Jaya Bachchan from Parliament is conveniently inert when it comes to Qureshi. And it’s the Marxists whose need to march with Mulayam has made them silently look the other way. So aren’t newspaper columnists framing the question incorrectly? Sure, there is a conspiracy of silence. But look who is not talking.
Or is it the anti-Bush protests that we are alarmed by and object to? Apparently, the worry is that Indian Muslims are joining hands with the global Islamic community if they march against Bush and this heralds the ominous arrival of political Islam at our doorstep. But isn’t this a wildly insecure and hysterical reaction?
First, the protests spoke for a fragment of Muslim opinion, and it would be presumptuous to assume that the protestors represented 14 million people. Second, so what if they don’t like Bush? Why isn’t their right to protest legitimate? This weekend, on We the People, a cross-section of Muslims made the same point — to oppose George Bush’s politics in Iraq is not the same thing as opposing a nuclear deal that’s clearly good for India. To lose that distinction is to question the patriotism of the Indian Muslim. This is not just a dangerous argument, but also a deeply offensive one. Mehbooba Mufti from Kashmir summed it up when she said the cause of an independent Kashmir had been championed by Islamic militants from as far as Sudan and Afghanistan, but never by an Indian Muslim outside the Valley. Are we becoming like the United States? Fearful of minorities? Alarmed at their assertion, superior and scornful about their conventions? Unable to see them as anything but the ‘Other’?
Finally, are media clichés the biggest disservice at a time like this? What or who do we mean by a Moderate Muslim? Mohammed Ali Jinnah was barely a believer, hardly followed the Quran, but created Pakistan. So who is ‘moderate’ enough for us, and who sets the benchmark?
The day of the blasts, I got a call from a member of the Muslim Personal Law Board, scared and worried about a ‘backlash’, wanting to condemn the blasts on national television so that nobody misunderstood its response. The subtext is clear. Fifty-nine years after India was born, in a country where there are more Muslims than there are in Pakistan, we are still asking Muslims to wear their nationalism like an identity card. We are still asking for proof of loyalty.
This is not their failure. It is ours.