June 10, 2008

Secular India? My Foot!

In an extensively discussed series of posts at the Acorn nearly a year ago, Nitin Pai advocated the promotion of "the Indian interpretation of Islamic values" domestically and abroad:

Regardless of historical and contemporary religious conflicts, it is unarguable that Indian Islam has export potential, not least because it offers the world a more hopeful narrative than its Middle Eastern variety. Moreover, states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran use Islam to cloak their quest for geopolitical power (see It’s the State, stupid!). That makes it incumbent upon India to join the battle for the Muslim mind.

In a comment on the post, I had argued against the proposition:

The Indian State is already mired in religion, with its peculiar version of secularism that professes strict neutrality towards religions. Promoting a “Indian” interpretation of Islam, whatever it is and whether it is feasible or not, would not only violate the strict neutrality principle, but also draw the State further into the religious quagmire. It is a dangerously slippery slope...

Looking back, I misspoke. I must have been sleep-deprived when I wrote that comment!

My comment had a fatal flaw: the assumption that the Indian state was secular. If it ever was, it's no longer one. I will concede to Nitin that it is indeed in the interest of the nonsecular India that it should promote Indian Islam. That is, if the Indian state is cognizant of the Islam conceptualized by Nitin, and if it had the backbone to promote it. I am skeptical on both counts, though.

Suspected involvement of Indian Islamists, particularly the SIMI, in the bombing incidents in Hyderabad, Jaipur, and elsewhere, do not repose much confidence in the voice and influence of the Indian Islam that Nitin wants to promote. About the ability of the current Indian government to strengthen the hands of the peaceful adherents to this version of Islam, the less said the better. Witness, the events surrounding the hounding of Taslima Nasreen out of India. It's pathetic how the current government led by the grand old Congress party and its communist allies, cowered in front of an Islam that seems to have little resemblance to the one that Nitin had advocated state support for. As Joseph Schumpeter said, "Politicians are like bad horsemen who are so preoccupied with keeping in the saddle that they can't bother about where they go [via Cafe Hayek]". The Indian politician is not an exception.

Yesterday, the provincial government of Andhra Pradesh barred the Ahmadiya Muslims from holding its centinary celebrations in any public property, drawing the state further into a religious quagmire. Responding to the blatant pressure tactics by the representatives of a local Muslim polittical party and clerics, that are reminiscent of similar tactics adopted by the Kolkotha Muslims against Taslima,

Novel initiative: Ahmadiyya Jamaat members planting saplings on Osmania General Hospital premises on Saturday.
Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy of the Congress Party directed the police not to allow the [Ahmadia] community to hold its meeting at any public place as this could create law and order problems in the city.

A delegation of Muslim groups led by Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi had called on the chief minister Monday to demand that the Ahmadiya, also called Qadianis, should not be allowed to hold their conference.

The controversial sect was to hold its meeting at the Public Gardens, in the heart of the city...

The delegation comprising several clerics said the activities of the sect [like this one, for example?] were hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims as it calls itself Ahmadiya Muslims and warned that the permission to hold a meeting could create law and order problems.

In case you have forgotten, Asaduddin Owaisi is the leader of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), the Muslim party that was involved in a physical assault on Taslima Nasreen during a book release function at the Press Club of Hyderabad last June.

The Ahmadias are not recognized as Muslims in the Islamic theocracies, because they believe, among other differences, in "the peaceful propagation of Islam with special emphasis on spreading the true message of Islam by the pen. In special circumstances Jihad could be an armed struggle but only as a defensive war against extreme persecution." The Ahmadias, of course, beg to differ. As an atheist, I'll recuse myself from any discussion of whether or not the Ahmadias are Muslims. I'll leave that task to those who make much ado about identities, and the like.

This latest incident is not only an abject surrender to the forces of intolerance and militancy, but a shameful retreat from any semblance of a secular state. Whether the Ahmadias are Muslims or not, as lawful citizens of India, and as its legally permitted residents and visitors, they have a right to engage in a peaceful demonstration and expression of their beliefs and values, as long as they do not physically violate the lives and properties of others. To bar them from using public places funded by tax payers that must include millions of Indian Ahmadias, is a gross infringement of their fundamental rights.

In the light of the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India in Hinsa Virodhak Sangh v. Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat & Ors, the Government of Andhra Pradesh may be held in contempt [cf. my recent post on Perpetually on Short Fuse]. I'll quote what Justices H. K. Sema & Markandey Katju wrote as part of their judgment (para 66):

These days unfortunately some people seem to be perpetually on a short fuse, and are willing to protest often violently, about anything under the sun on the ground that a book or painting or film etc. has hurt the sentiments of their community. These are dangerous tendencies and must be curbed with an iron hand. We are one nation and must respect each other and should have tolerance.

Since when did a secular state take sides in theological and religious squabbles? To put this in perspective, will Mr. Reddy bar the Arya Samaj from holding a convention in the city, if a few Bajrang Dal activists proclaimed that the Samaj is a renegade sect, and if allowed to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression, it would hurt the sentiments of millions of Hindus, leading to a law and order problem? Will Chief Minister Reddy go to the mat for them, if the Muslims claimed that idol worship was against the core values of Islam, and therefore, all such worship, including the ones offered to the icons of Buddha, Jesus, and Ram, should be barred in the city of Hyderabad, unless the government wanted blood on its hands? Blackmail, you say? You bet it is!

I'll conclude with the words of J. Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Delhi High Court, in his recent judgment dismissing "the summoning orders and warrants of arrest" against the renowned painter, M.F. Hussain:

A liberal tolerance of a different point of view causes no damage. It means only a greater self restraint. Diversity in expression of views whether in writings, paintings or visual media encourages debate. A debate should never be shut out. 'I am right' does not necessarily imply 'You are wrong'. Our culture breeds tolerance- both in thought and in actions.

J. Kaul added, "A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home painting his canvass!". May I ask, at 100, don't the Ahmadias deserve to celebrate their centenary freely in their homeland?

  1. I fully agree with your post, but its a pity that at the end you had to quote the judgement of the Delhi HC on MF Hussein. Far from being a judgement promoting secularism, it just goes on to demonstrate Indian state's version of pseudo-secularism.

    MF Hussein was a muslim and the aggreived party was hindus. How is the HC judge any different from the reddies or the karats or the congress?

  2. @Harshit:
    I am as concerned about any infringement on M.F.Hussain's right to paint Durga in the nude, as I am about Taslima Nasreen's right to question Muhammad's sexual preferences in her Dwikhandito. If J. Kaul had rendered contradictory judgments on the right to freedom of expression, I would like to know. Thanks.

  3. Next time onwards whenever you mention about Owaisi.. pl. mention about their past and relations with Qasim Rizwi and Razakars too..


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