The search for latent phobias in neutral narratives

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Photo: Dijeshwar Singh
Photo: Tehelka Archives

IIT-Chennai student Abul Kalam Azad’s piece (to which this one is a rejoinder) is itself a rejoinder to a piece written by Arun Srivastava in TEHELKA, namely Why Secularism is a Bad Word for Muslims. I know neither Azad nor Srivastava, and it is not my case here to take sides at a personal level. Rather, what motivated me to write this rejoinder was my firm commitment to the belief that those who articulate voices one sees as different from one’s own should not be sought to be silenced by ascribing them hidden motives in a baseless fashion, failing which there certainly can be no dialectics and no reforms.

While I may clearly and emphatically state that I am in strong disagreement with the substance of what Azad has said in his piece in the context of the communal divide in India (in which he so much as almost writes off the existence of Muslim communalism in independent India), this particular rejoinder only focusses on his basic approach towards Srivastava’s article being flawed. For a more detailed rebuttal to Azad’s piece in terms of the substance of what he is saying, please read my blog A Rejoinder To A Rejoinder: Why I Think Abul Kalam Azad (From IIT-Chennai) Has Got It Wrong, in which I elucidate on the reality of Muslim communalism in independent India and how there are indeed many regressive clerics in our country, facts Azad was seeking to write off, and I also discuss how I cannot agree with Azad not unambiguously accepting the brand of politics represented by the MIM to be communal. Equally, in that piece, I have critiqued Hindu communalism and tried to dispel some misconceptions pertaining to Muslims.

But let’s come back to my disagreement with Azad’s approach, which is the focus here. The underlying fallacy in Srivastava’s piece, according to Azad, is the menace of generalisation, of not using the word ‘some’ in the title to describe what only a section of Muslims may be doing (though Srivastava has used the terms ‘many’ and ‘large section’ throughout the text of the article) and ascribing the entire Muslim community as having a herd mentality, and of making assertions, which are not backed by empirical data. However, Azad’s own rejoinder too suffers from exactly the same drawbacks he accuses Srivastava of. To quote from Azad’s piece:

“This is just to point out that the source of the ailment rests, untroubled, elsewhere — somewhere deep inside the fabric of the Indian polity, where the eyes of the upper-caste liberal Hindu can never reach. It is not the Muslims who have become communal. It is the society surrounding them that has long been communal and is becoming more so with each passing day.”

Now, wouldn’t this again amount to generalising, and that too without any empirical evidence “the upper-caste liberal Hindu” (which includes the ilk of Pankaj Mishra, Kuldeep Nayar and Romila Thapar who speak the language of Muslims being victimised that appeals to Azad), for never seeing the problems of the Indian Muslims without preconceived notions? And if Azad is entitled to his generalisations, then why can Srivastava not generalise the Muslim clergy as regressive without naming Shia and Sunni clerics specifically, as Azad would like him to?

Then, Azad sarcastically points to the “numerous self-appointed messiahs of the ‘Muslim community’ who left no stone unturned to ‘liberate’ Muslims from the clutches of mullahs and fundamentalists”, but while using the word ‘numerous’, he actually has only two examples to show — Arun Srivastava and Chetan Bhagat. Would these two examples qualify as ‘numerous’ by any statistical yardstick? And if it is legitimate for Azad to use the word ‘numerous’ without showing empirical evidence, why is it not legitimate for Srivastava to use the terms ‘many’ and ‘large section’?

It is a very convenient modus operandi to stifle debate and check introspection by accusing others of generalizations, in this case even glossing over the clear reference in Srivastava’s piece to some Muslims in West Bengal voting for the BJP in the latest Lok Sabha elections, rejecting identity politics (and this is obviously not to suggest that Muslims must vote for the BJP in order to prove their secular credentials, as though that were some litmus test of secularism). Moreover, the accusation of the entire society around Muslims having been communal and turning more communal with every passing day is much more generalised than anything Srivastava wrote, for Azad hasn’t given any exceptions of genuinely secular Hindus (going by his yardstick of most Hindus being communal, which I firmly disagree with), the way Srivastava gave with reference to those Bengali Muslims. And no, Azad hasn’t given us any empirical evidence, so to speak, of the society around Muslims (an oblique way of referring to Hindus, unless he is also referring to Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and others), in general, being communal, rather than possibly only a small section of the society he is generalising.

The truth is that Srivastava never sought to write any academic research paper, wherein one would have to define in concrete terms what one means by terms like ‘secularism’, explain the qualitative and quantitative yardsticks of measuring the same and then elucidate one’s point using those research methodology tools. His is a regular piece for the general public based on his observations, which he is entitled to, and even quantitative research resorts more to sampling than census, and in that sense, it may be said that whatever Srivastava would have witnessed or learnt of through any other sources were his sample. One of India’s internationally acclaimed ethnographers, Nirmal Kumar Bose, offered us many writings that made for free-flowing essays, rather than research papers of the academic variety, but Bose’s writings cannot be said to be bereft of scholarship only on that basis. In fact, journalists and columnists are not necessarily meant to be academic researchers in the conventional sense, but that, in no way, takes away from them the right to reflect on the society around them as they see it, and that may include inferring, in certain contexts (not necessarily always), that the assertion of a religious identity, by way of the attire one sports, can tell us something about leaning in favour of communal attitudes.

To accuse Srivastava (or any other Hindu strongly condemning Hindu communalism but also asking Muslims to introspect) of having a hidden agenda of hatred would be similar to suggesting that a Muslim must only condemn the Owaisi brothers and Azam Khan, but shy away from strongly criticising Pravin Togadia (but for a token mention of not condoning any hate politics, as Azad has indeed done with respect to the MIM) to call himself/herself secular; else, he/she has a hidden anti-Hindu agenda. While this line of thinking may resonate with extreme communalists, I am sorry to say that to the best of my understanding, it is unacceptable to a rational person. Yes, one can debate whether there is as much support to communal ideas or political entities as claimed, where the support to the communal political entities comes from, and whether that has more to do with economic aspirations rather than religious identity, but to assign the label of being a communal hate-monger to anyone from another religious grouping criticising communalism in your religious grouping even while acknowledging and condemning communalism under the banner of what is supposedly his own religion, is, sorry to say, indeed quite blatantly a communal stand itself.

(The views expressed are the author’s own)

A lawyer by qualification, the author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. He has presented research papers in several prestigious conferences in India and abroad and has also been involved in making a television serial on Maulana Azad for DD-Urdu (which has been compressed in the form of a film ‘Aashiq-e-Vatan Maulana Azad’). He has authored/co-authored four short books, namely Anti-Muslim Prejudices in the Indian Context: Addressing and Dispelling Them, The Right to Self-Determination of Pakistan’s Baloch: Can Balochistan Go the Kosovo Way?, Women and Sport in India and the World: Examining the History and Suggesting Policy Reforms and Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans.

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