Indian or Muslim? Why This Binary Needs to be Done Away With

No one can deny the relative marginalisation of Muslim communities in the postcolonial period.

5 min read
Indian or Muslim? Why This Binary Needs to be Done Away With

Two rather conflicting arguments are often evoked to describe the association of the Muslims with the republic of India. There is a strong claim that the Muslims should not be addressed as distinctive religious groups or minority; instead, they ought to be treated as common citizens of the republic. This view has found a new overtone in recent years in the popular narrative of nationalism – one nation, one Constitution and oneness of citizens as patriot Indians.

There is another assertion. It is suggested that the Muslims being the most marginalised social group, are victims of communalism and systematic exclusion. Therefore, there is a need to take care of ‘Muslim grievances’ to include them in the process of nation-building.


Perceptions About Muslims

No one can deny the relative marginalisation of the Muslim communities in post-colonial period; however, these two conflicting claims strongly stress upon the imaged oneness of Muslims as a community. The caste, class, region and even religious differences that determine the various Muslim identities do not find any reference in these narratives. As a result, the Muslims emerge either as a pampered lot, anti-national separatists or as victims and second-class citizens!

The multilayered story of Muslims’ imaginations of the Indian republic should go beyond these stereotypical portrayals. For this reason, one has to recognise the crucial distinction between the rhetoric of nationalism and actualities of republicanism.

(Infographic: The Quint)
(Infographic: The Quint)

What Is Republicanism?

The Supreme Court in the famous Kesvananada Bharati case (4 SCC 225/1973) has defined republicanism as a symbol of the ‘basic structure of the Indian Constitution’, which cannot be changed or amended even by the elected majority government.

Republicanism as a political value, at least in this legal-constitutional sense, signifies five essential features: constitutional supremacy, democratic form of government, secularism, separation of powers and federalism. These attributes of republicanism, the court observes, stems from the constitutional commitment for ‘equality before law’ and ‘the equal protection of the laws’.

This precise legal-constitutional articulation of republicanism could be a legitimate vantage point to explore multiple Muslim responses to the idea of the republic.

We may, in other words, ask three direct questions: do Muslims trust the institutional apparatus that constitute the Indian republic? If yes, what are the modes in which political demands are articulated? And finally, how is the domain of secular republican law envisaged by the marginalised Muslims to oppose caste-based social stratification among Islamic groups?

How Much Do Muslims Trust Our Institutions?

The recent CSDS-Lokniti report, Democracy in India: A Citizens’ Perspective (2015) offers us a few interesting insights about the popular ‘trust in institution’. The report finds that the Muslims, like other social groups, not merely overwhelmingly prefer democracy (62 percent of total respondents) but also express a strong faith in political institutions like the Parliament, administrations, police, and courts (66 percent of total respondents). Interestingly, the regional variations and class/caste differences among the Muslims do not affect this enthusiastic confidence in the working of political institutions.

These findings, nevertheless, should not be taken as a straightforward conclusion for celebrating the Indian republicanism. Muslims’ trust in institutions is not entirely unconditional. The marginalised social groups, particularly the Muslims – poor, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities – recognise democracy as a mode by which political grievances could adequately be conveyed. This may be the reason why ‘freedom of speech’ emerges as the most dominant meaning of democracy in this report.

(Infographic: The Quint)
(Infographic: The Quint)

The Language of Muslim Politics

This brings us to the language of the Muslim politics. The discourse of minority rights seems to determine the contours of post-colonial Muslim politics. The Muslim elites conceptualise political demands in a language of law. The Muslim responses to the Babri Masjid issue is a good example in this regard.

The Delhi Declaration of 1986 adopted by the All India Babri Masjid Conference defined the Babri Masjid as a part of India’s national heritage and linked it to the rights of religious minorities. This declaration says:

The Conference regards the Babri Masjid as a national heritage and as a historical monument but, above all, as a place of Islamic worship whose sanctity must be universally respected by all the right-minded persons, whatever their religion, and whose violation should be regarded as an offence to the religious sentiments of the Muslims but also to the secular order because it contravenes Article 25 of the Constitution.
Delhi Declaration of 1986

This legalisation of politics is also used by the marginalised Muslim communities (Pasmanda Muslims) to assert democratic rights. The demand that the Muslims and Christian ‘Dalit’ castes should be given the Scheduled Caste (SC) status points towards the fact that caste-based exploitation is not exclusively related to any particular religious group.

The Political Agenda of Pasmanda Muslims in Lok Sabha Elections, 2014 – a declaration passed by a few Pasmanda Muslim organisations – is very relevant here. This Declaration asks the state to work out:

…a quota for Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) within OBC (Other Backward Classes) quota at the Central and State levels…where the backward caste Muslims could be clubbed together with similarly placed Hindu caste groups. This is a more judicious and non-communal demand than the 4.5 percent sub-quota for OBC-Minorities moved by the Congress Party before last Lok Sabha elections.
Declaration passed by Pasmanda Muslim groups, 2014

Intersectional Approach Towards OBC Muslims Needed?

The demand to create an EBC within the OBC category establishes a crucial link between backwardness and communalism. This proposed restructuring, in principle, recognises the significance of the caste-based reservation for the OBCs, yet, underlines the fact that the OBC is not a monolithic category. Precisely for this reason, a secular, differentiated approach to deal with the multilayered phenomenon of Muslim backwardness is demanded.

Muslim Identities Are Complex

These three examples – Muslims’ trust in institutions, articulation of Muslim political demands in legal language and secularisation of affirmative action – underline the complex relationship Muslim communities form with Indian republicanism.

However, I strongly argue that Muslims’ adherence to constitutional discourse should not be overemphasised. Instead, it is taken as a point of reference to make sense of the ways in which republicanism and citizenship as political ideals are absorbed and practiced by the Muslims communities at various levels. This kind of exploration, I believe, might help in getting rid of a vulgar and provocative question: are you an Indian or a Muslim?


(The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Rajya Sabha Fellow 2015-2016. He can be reached at @Ahmed1Hilal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Muslims’ Voting Patterns Show They do not Constitute a Vote Bank

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