For Muslims, What’s Wrong About Thinking Communally?

Secularism and communalism have been misunderstood by political parties as well as people, writes Mohan Guruswamy.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Muslim women  offer prayers in front of a tazia during a Muharram procession in Bhopal. (Photo: PTI)

During the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Shazia Ilmi (now in the BJP, where she is no doubt thinking communally) kicked up a furore when she urged Muslims to think communally.  She was not asking for votes for the Jamat or Majlis, she was soliciting support for the AAP. What she was trying to say was that Muslims, for far too long, have been voting for the Congress or other self-styled secular parties, without thinking about their own interests.

It was time that the Muslims thought of themselves first, meaning pursuing their legitimate interests.

What Shazia clearly meant when she exhorted Muslims to think “communally” was to vote for or in their interests. But there is no doubt that she was then pitching for the AAP. This is exactly what the AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi is doing in Bihar now, and did in Maharashtra some time ago. Telling Muslims to think communally.

(Photo: <a href="https://twitter.com/shaziailmi/media">Twitter/Shazia Ilmi</a>)
(Photo: Twitter/Shazia Ilmi)

‘Communal’ and ‘Secular’: Misunderstood For Long

Ilmi had used the words “communal” and “secular” in their commonly misunderstood sense. To be secular is to be skeptical about religion and belief in God and all the scrambled thinking that goes with the contemplation. To be secular is to be rational. We have for long been misusing this word to signify tolerance. You can be tolerant by quietly suffering all the nonsense that goes on around with the stated purpose of saving our souls and to point it in the right direction when the time comes. To be communal is entirely something else. It means having community-specific values. But more about it later.

Muslims are a distinct and substantial minority in India, and what’s wrong if they have to think in their own collective interest? (Photo: Reuters)
Muslims are a distinct and substantial minority in India, and what’s wrong if they have to think in their own collective interest? (Photo: Reuters)

When Shazia said, “be communal”, she was telling Muslims to think of the quam. Now quam means both the ummah and the nation. She is seen exhorting Muslims to be “communal” which in this context means, quam, to vote in their self-interest. In other words, in the interest of the quam. Muslims are a distinct and substantial minority in India, and what’s wrong if they have to think in their own collective interest? The fact is that Muslims, by and large, have got a raw deal in the development of this country.

Getting Out of Ghettos

Muslims in India are mostly ghettoised. An erstwhile comrade-in-arms of Narendra Modi, Pravin Togadia, was not long ago trying to prevent a Muslim homeowner from moving into his recently purchased house in Bhavnagar, because he is a Muslim. He wanted him to go back to his ghetto. So why shouldn’t a Muslim think in his or her quam’s self interest?

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

If you want Muslims to think in terms of the larger collective interest you will need to first get them out of their kasbahs, mohallas and ghettos, and treat them as one among all of us. The fact is that we don’t do that to anybody. Ask any northeasterner. Ask any adivasi. Ask any madrasi. As a nation we seem to be largely incapable of living with diversity, which is odd considering there is no other nation in the world with such a wealth.

But how is her message communal, in the colloquially understood sense of the word? If these interests are served by voting for the BJP, as some Muslims do, so be it. There is nothing wrong if Muslims vote as a group. Farmers do. Doctors do. Some Hindus do. Hindi haters do. Muslim haters do. Ex-servicemen do for OROP. Industrialists do. (Look at them falling over each other fawning over Modi.) Shopkeepers do. Dalits do. Adivasis do. We all do because we also have some smaller identities under the Indian umbrella.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Sectarian Politics at Play

The BJP’s appeal is quite vocally sectarian. The Akalis are a sectarian party. Even the Congress has flirted with overtly sectarian politics, most famously in the 1984 anti-Sikh campaign or over the Batla House Encounter in Delhi. The UP and Bihar parties are entirely caste-based. And their leaders target masses with distinct messages. And so what’s wrong if someone says that Muslims must vote in their interests and “think communally” while doing so?

Incidentally, the word ‘Communal’ is misused in India. To be communal is to think of society as a whole. According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, ‘Communalism’ is a term with two distinct meanings: (1) “a theory of government or a system of government in which independent communes participate in a federation”; (2) “the principles and practice of communal ownership”. Politically, those who are termed as communal advocate a stateless, classless, decentralised society consisting of a network of directly democratic citizens’ assemblies in individual communities/cities organised in a confederal fashion.

Snapshot

Communal: A Much-Abused Word

  • The words, secular and communal have been misunderstood for long; to be secular is to be rational, being communal implies focusing on a specific community
  • Nothing wrong if Muslims vote as a group keeping in mind their collective interest
  • Word to be wary of is sectarianism, an approach relied upon by the political parties but is narrow in focus

Sectarianism, the Dreaded Word

The word we want or don’t want is Sectarian. Sectarianism is bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between different denominations of a religion, or religions or sects. The underlying bases of these differences are invariably theological or ecumenical.

Almost the entire Indian political spectrum is now occupied by parties that depend on sectarian or even narrower regional or caste based appeals. (Photo: Reuters)
Almost the entire Indian political spectrum is now occupied by parties that depend on sectarian or even narrower regional or caste based appeals. (Photo: Reuters)

“The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviours labeled as sectarian are extraordinarily varied. Members of a religious or political group may believe that their own salvation, or the success of their particular objectives, requires aggressively seeking converts from other groups; adherents of a given faction may believe that for the achievement of their own political or religious project their internal opponents must be converted or purged.”

Almost the entire Indian political spectrum is now occupied by parties that depend on sectarian or even narrower regional or caste based appeals. It will be a huge improvement if all of them became more communal.

(The author is chairman and founder of Centre for Policy Alternatives)

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