Symbols and the Struggle for India’s Soul

Muhammad Tahir Iqbal on the central role played by markers of faith and identity in a divided India

Symbols and the Struggle for India’s Soul
Shakespeare once said, “What’s in a name?” If he happens to come back to life to live in the middle of India, he will discover, to his shock, just how wrong he was in saying so. Here, one’s name is all that clearly drives a wedge between those who are considered patriots and those branded as traitors.

This is what India has turned out to be in the last six years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration. Values of secularism imbued with the traits of justice, equality and freedom – as envisioned and cherished by India’s founding fathers – are going to lose their relevance in India.

At the time of Independence, India was faced with two options to build its polity upon: Hindu nationalism or secularism. The political leaders of that time sensibly inclined for the latter. Subsequent Indian leaders have evermore put their energies to make India a secular state. They proved somewhat successful in achieving the dream of a secular set-up, but not thoroughly.

In fact, side by side with the desire to paint India with secular hues, there has always been an unpleasant undercurrent. This is a streak eulogizing and promoting the ideals of Nathuram Godse, an extremist Hindu nationalist who murdered M.K. Gandhi on the plea that the latter had been excessively kind to Muslims.

The ideology epitomized by Godse has been raising its venomous head during the struggle for a secular structure, but most leaders at the helm kept tabs on that.

But all this while, the intolerant forces kept lurking under the carpet waiting in ambush for the right atmosphere. In the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, they found a leader who might meet their decades-old pent-up desire. Here, finally, was a leader who could help turn India into a Hindu Rashtra, where the ‘true’ Indians could finally settle the scores with those they see as the ‘descendants’ of the Mughals.
Many Indians argue here that one can’t fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. Such identity politics will destroy India, they argue

As Narendra Modi ascended to power over the whole country in 2014, this bevy of nationalists felt relieved. They had awaited this moment. From there started a series of hate-filled episodes wherein Muslims were made the target of the worst ire unleashed by mobs of rancorous Hindu nationalists.

In 2017, over seven hundred academics and vice-chancellors from 51 states and central universities of India gathered in Delhi University to learn how to bring the “true nationalist narrative” to the main discourse of India. The event was called the Gyan Sangam – knowledge summit. Its main motivator and the speaker was Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The topics under discussion, reportedly, were the “cultural onslaught on the educational system,” the “colonization” of intellectuals and the resurgence of nationalism in academia.

Hate-related issues have mushroomed since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister for the second term last year. Revoking the special status of Indian Administered Kashmir and the subsequent lockdown of the valley was one major step taken since then. The judicial verdict to build a temple of Ram on the site of where Babri Masjid once stood elegantly, and the recent legislation on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – all of these categorically demonstrate that Muslims are the butt of a bigoted ideology now fully backed by the state.

The residents of Muslim-dominated areas say that the police enter their homes, hurl abuses at everyone including women and children, break their doors and beat up whoever is around.

Consider just one such instance of nastiness: a Muslim cleric, Maulana Asad Raza Hussaini, along with some of his seminary students, was picked up by the police. Hannah Ellis Peterson writes in The Guardian that the police stripped the Maulana of his clothes in front of his students, beat him mercilessly and forced an iron rod into his anus causing rectal bleeding.

Take at another snapshot of the brutality: Hamid Hassan, a 73-year-old victim, says that the police stormed into his home and attacked him, his 65-year-old wife and 22-year-old granddaughter with metal batons. The granddaughter was given such a thrashing that blood spurted out of her forehead. At hospital, she got 16 stiches on her forehead-wound. Hamid Hassan sobbingly tells news reporters, “Muslims in this country are being made to live in fear, even in our homes we are not safe from violence now.”

A fortnight ago, an ideologically motivated young man shot at peaceful Muslim protestors at Jamia Islamia Millia, Delhi. Having been grappled by the police after a while, he chanted loudly, “Hamaray des main sirf Hinduon ki chalegi aur kisi ki nahi (in our country, only Hindus will prevail)”.

During these protests against citizenship act, identities with obvious symbolism are erupting into the public consciousness in a most dramatic manner. Muslims wearing particular attire chant ‘Allahu Akbar’ while hoisting Indian flags in response to ‘Har Har Mahadev’ – a supposed Hindu war-cry against Muslim invaders.

Many Indians argue here that one can’t fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. Such identity politics will destroy India, they argue.

But they would do well to consider that when a community is victimized for having a certain creed, the adherents do not have option but to rise up to defend themselves. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and political theorist, once said, “When one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.”

So it is that markers of faith and identity-symbols carry their significance in today’s India. The robust fight that the Indian Muslims are putting up is, in fact, a struggle to regain the ideals which Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi once cherished. The former said in 1948, “We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thoughts or in action.”

The writer is an educationist and historian

The author is an educationist and historian.