Chest-Thumping Nationalism Won’t Improve Condition of Minorities

Debate around nationalism is missing a larger point – deplorable conditions of minorities, writes Karthik Venkatesh.

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The Census 2011 pegs the Muslim share of the national population at 14%. (Photo: iStock)
I, son/daughter of ............ do hereby declare that my book/journal/booklet .............., which has been accepted by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language’s scheme for financial assistance for bulk purchase, does not contain anything which goes against the policies of the Indian government, or anything that is against national interest, or anything which promotes disharmony between the various communities.
A recent government form

Both the above are from the very recent past. Popular writer Chetan Bhagat’s tweet betrays a weird one-upmanship that hints at a very shallow understanding of our neighbour. The second item – the form – seems to single out Urdu publications and by extension, north Indian Muslims for harbouring ‘anti-national’ feelings. Both instances cited reflect a poor understanding of both Pakistan and India’s Muslims. How has this come to be?

Lessons from Umerkot

In February 2015, a high-profile ‘royal’ wedding took place in Jaipur. The bride was Padmini Kumari Rathore, of the Kanota family, who hailed from Jaipur. The groom was Kunwar Karni Singh Sodha, a Rajput royal whose father was Rana Hamir Singh, a former member of the assembly. This was not just another ‘royal wedding’. There was a twist in this one.

The groom, Karni Singh Sodha hailed from Umerkot district in Sindh, Pakistan. The boy’s father had been a member of the Sindh Assembly and his grandfather, the legendary Rana Chandra Singh, had been a member of the Pakistan National Assembly. In fact, Rana Chandra Singh was a founder-member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and had been a Minister in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s cabinet and Chairman of the National Commission of Minorities. 

Umerkot, the place the groom and his family hailed from, was originally Amarkot, named after its builder Amar Singh. Akbar was born there on 14 October, 1542. When Humayun fled Delhi after his defeat by Sher Shah Suri and Rana Prasad, the ruler of Amarkot/Umerkot gave him refuge.

After Partition, the district to some extent has retained its pre-Partition character. It is 49% Hindu, it has an influential Hindu ‘ruler’, and it continues to maintain its cross-border ties even as Indo-Pak ties have seesawed.

  What  prevents the a<i>am aadmi</i> from admitting the truths that the Sachar Committee had highlighted a decade ago? (Photo: Reuters)
What prevents the aam aadmi from admitting the truths that the Sachar Committee had highlighted a decade ago? (Photo: Reuters)

Need for an Objective View on Muslims

It is of course easy to ignore this single instance of a Hindu family carving out a niche for itself in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Pakistani Hindus are, after all, a miniscule 1.5% of the population. But can one use the instance of Umerkot to probe two deeper issues: the issue of stereotyping that has hampered a reasoned understanding of India’s Muslims, and an understanding of Pakistan as a nation and developing a better understanding of Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities. What lessons can we in India can draw from this treatment, both positive and negative?

For a start, let’s begin with the facts.  The Census 2011 pegs the Muslim share of the national population at 14%. One state, Jammu and Kashmir and one UT – Lakshwadeep – have Muslim majorities (68% and 96.5% respectively). Four other Indian states have significant Muslim populations – Assam (34%), West Bengal (27%), Kerala (26.5%) and Uttar Pradesh (19%). In most other states, the share of the Muslim population is below 15%.

The Sachar Committee constituted by the UPA-I government to  study the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim Community of India submitted its report in 2005 and this report clearly highlighted several important aspects about India’s Muslims:

  • Muslims face high levels of poverty and their levels of poverty are only a little higher than that of Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
  • They were poorly represented in Central and State government departments.
  • They had little access to bank credit.
  • Their literacy rate was lower than the national average.

The Sachar committee brought certain truths into the mainstream more than a decade ago. What then prevents the aam aadmi from admitting the truths that the Sachar Committee had highlighted? The stereotypes that exist about Muslims in popular imagination have created an erroneous impression about them in the minds of the people, preventing them from taking a more objective view of Muslim realities and recognising the need for government action to improve their economic and social well-being. Popular thinking largely revolves around ‘minority appeasement’ and ‘pseudo-secularism’.

Chest-thumping nationalism and pointing fingers at Pakistan’s abysmal record in handling its minorities cannot hide our own poor record in this regard.&nbsp;(Photo: iStock)
Chest-thumping nationalism and pointing fingers at Pakistan’s abysmal record in handling its minorities cannot hide our own poor record in this regard. (Photo: iStock)

Stereotyping Continues

Similarly, a refusal to engage with the complex reality of Pakistan has created another stereotype – the image of Pakistanis as terrorists. The post 9/11 world has only strengthened this impression and there is no attempt to go beyond this view. The instance of Umerkot and a recent book, In Search of Shiva by Haroon Khalid, could help in dispelling the stereotyped notion of Pakistan that Indians nurture.

In Search of Shiva documents a variety of pre-Islamic religious practices that continue to thrive in the Pakistan of today in spite of orthodox Islamic elements attempting to proscribe them. Also, it would be instructive to study the steps taken by Pakistan in the area of minority representation. Surprisingly, a reservation policy exists in Pakistan to ensure adequate minority representation in government services. There is a five percent reservation at the national level in federal government services.

It is nobody’s case that Pakistani treatment of minorities has been good. Enough evidence exists that highlights Pakistan’s deplorable record in this area. A single Umerkot cannot be accepted as testimony that Pakistan has treated its minorities well.

Similarly, the prominence of a handful of Muslims in India cannot prove that India has treated its Muslims well either. The existence of an affirmative action policy in Pakistan and the non-existence of a similar policy in India speaks poorly of our nation. The Sachar Committee had urged the government to take certain steps in order to address the imbalance in social and economic parameters between Hindus and Muslims. The record of both the Central and State governments in implementing its recommendations has been extremely tardy. The tendency to use Muslims as vote banks by one prominent political party and as figures of fear and hate by another have handicapped any attempts to address the realities.

Chest-thumping nationalism and pointing fingers at Pakistan’s abysmal record in handling its minorities cannot hide our own poor record in this regard. Perhaps our record is better than Pakistan’s. But, should our standards be relative or absolute? 

The writing is on the wall.

(The writer is a Chennai-based Consulting Editor with Westland Books)

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