“We need a liberal Muslim like you,” is how I’d get invited to participate in TV debates on communal issues. It did not even strike them that it sounded insulting and that by treating me as an exception, they were brazen about their conditional acceptance of the community.
So, I wasn’t surprised when many in India, including the liberals, recently consecrated Javed Akhtar and ‘othered’ the rest of us after his “schooling” of Pakistanis in Lahore for harbouring terrorists.
“Why does the criticism of Pakistan bother you?” they ask. It bothers me because a news channel can run the hashtag #AkhtarVsPakPremis, implying that unless Indian Muslims follow the prototype set by a bigoted and atavistic mindset, we would always be seen as suspect and anti-national.
Good vs Bad Muslims in Modi's India
“Through their unsolicited ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ chant in Parliament and at the Sufi Forum, Javed Akhtar and the Sufis have built their distance not only from ‘Bad Muslims’ but also from millions of Hindus who refuse to endorse the claim of Hindu Nationalists that this, and this slogan alone, is the real test of every Indians’ love for and loyalty to his country.”
Following the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992, and the resultant rioting and bloodbath, the Shahi Imam issued a fatwa to boycott the Republic Day function. A celebrity appeared on a TV show and boasted that he had gotten 9000 signatures from Muslims in Behrampada to confirm that they were not with the Imam.
Why would anybody visit one of the worst-affected slum areas in Mumbai, congealed blood stains still discernible in the gullies, only to get beleaguered widows and men left bereft of any livelihood to hoist the tricolour and prove to extremist forces that they could be called moderate Muslims? This would be considered insensitive at any time, but particularly so when the community had been so brutally targeted.
The Double Standards of Muslim Elites
For the elite, as for the maulvis, every group they claim to represent is just a potential constituency. Wittingly or unwittingly, they become messengers of the very ideology that seeks to destroy the community.
A group of them met Mohan Bhagwat and other senior members of the RSS at a time when its affiliate radical organisations were giving arms training to deal with “the threat from Muslims”; the Hindutva leaders mouthed the usual homilies and said that while lynching was wrong, “Hindu sentiments are involved with the cow”. How do such dialogues help the cattle traders who are not only rendered jobless but also face a risk to their lives?
Add to that the social nicety of celebrities who pronounce, “I don't eat beef. It’s not made in our kind of homes.” Such arrogance is one of the reasons the right wing bolsters them for they share the supremacism of middle-class Brahmins, the gatekeepers of the 'Hindu Rashtra' dream.
What Can be Spoken About Muslims in India?
Before the last general elections, Rahul Gandhi invited some Muslim intellectuals. Rather shockingly, they advised him against speaking about “the Muslim community in particular as it will give others an opportunity to polarise him as a leader”. This, when the relevance of every political party depends on its soft Hindutva quotient.
Indian secularism has become enslaved by a religious credo, so much so that a Muslim actor’s success is attributed to the large-heartedness of the majority. We are also considered secular if we do visibly dharmik things like quoting from the Bhagwad Gita or displaying idols.
As someone who appreciates intellectual pluralism, none of this is problematic in itself. But for the elite, who live in a cosmopolitan environment that exposes them to cross-cultural activities as a matter of course, to highlight these as a validation of belongingness in such divisive times reveals an opportunistic streak.
They are anointed as spokespersons of the community by the ruling class precisely because they can be co-opted into baiting the community as ‘insiders’. Ironical, considering that politics in India today is subverting the contemporary to regurgitate history.
Under the Guise of Liberalism, a Section of Indian Muslims Peddle Hindutva
Those asking the community to reform are chattels of the Hindutva movement or privileged Muslims with elastic convictions. They come out in droves to rally against what Islamists do outside the country, self-righteously distancing themselves with a #NotInMyName and urging the Muslim leadership in India to clear the air about what Islam — or what they refer to unthinkingly and erroneously as ‘Indian Islam’ — is. But they will not directly challenge Hindu leaders about Hindutva-sponsored violence in their backyard. This is to safeguard their Padma awards, Rajya Sabha seats, and seminar room advantages.
The Muslim liberal scheme is all about being ‘objective’ and ‘balanced’ and, therefore, seriously flawed. It lacks the courage to protest what matters to the many while standing by the concerns of a few. Here, too, there is a pecking order.
They will raise objections on issues like Maulana Azad’s photograph not being included in the Indian National Congress plenary session poster. This is followed by support for celebrities who can’t get a flat — a genuine problem, affecting many who aren’t merely investing in a second or third property, becomes a dramatic moment for such celebs. But they are silent on those rendered homeless during engineered riots, and if at all they raise their voice it is by obfuscating it as a ‘threat to democracy’ without even alluding to the culprits.
Next on their support list are artistes, only famous ones. Unknown activists and regional journalists get little attention. And Kashmiris do not matter at all. As one privileged person said after the suspension of the 67 Kashmiri students who cheered Pakistan was revoked, “They should be rusticated and sent back to Kashmir.”
Their “Kashmir hamara hai” proprietorship has zero sympathy for a state that has among the worst human rights records in the world where more civilians than terrorists have been killed.
Religious open-mindedness is measured in economic and cultural terms. The class that has to be protected is the one that is most threatened, but the elite is far removed from their lives even as observers.
They will call for a strong sensible Muslim leadership but will scuttle such a move because it might not suit their profile as ‘cultural Muslims’. To be fair, due to their names and lineage, they, too, are trolled and labelled 'jihadis'. That ought to make them more empathetic. Instead, they wash their hands off the reality of the streets, of dissent, to become the acceptable Indian Muslim token angels in the deviously manufactured ‘sab ka saath’ delusional paradise.
(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.))