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If I Were an Indian Muslim

January 2009
If I Were an Indian Muslim

One of the central beliefs of the Hindu worldview is the concept of maya, which suggests that the world, as we know it, does not exist—that it is a grand divine illusion.

It may be ridiculous to even suggest something so seemingly outlandish, if it were not for the fact that today this belief has the stamp of scientific validity. Modern quantum physics confirms that matter does not exist. Broken down to their final elemental level, all sub-atomic particles of all matter—from dirt to human bodies, and from pins to airplanes—are ultimately matter-less.

If the world were indeed maya (illusory) at the subtlest level, then it follows that there could be countless other illusions within which mankind must function. One such illusion could well be the belief that if YOU fix up and improve yourself, MY world will become fine. From the individual to the collective, from spousal conflicts to national and religious conflicts, this belief that the problem is the other is perhaps as grand an illusion as any. Appearing real, no doubt!

I have therefore been reluctant—even when it comes to religious conflict in India—to point at the other; and have always looked inwards at the Hindu collective for solutions to this growing menace. To the disappointment of some of my fellow Hindus, we have written in this space about the rising divisiveness, animosity, aggression, and violence that characterize the present day Hindutva movement. This reversal of core values of the age old Hindu way of life is particularly painful as, in the name of defending Hinduism, it is corrupting the very ideals of inclusivity, tolerance, diversity and pluralism that are the foundations of this timeless religion.

Granted, this shift in Hinduism may be a reactive response to the fundamentalism in other religions, but that does not make it any less troubling.

Now, thanks to the cold-blooded attack on Mumbai in November, which was only the latest in a spate of terrorist violence in India, the communal tension within the country and the bilateral tension between India and Pakistan have reached a dangerous pitch. If this time-bomb has to be diffused, then reactivity, finger-pointing and a militant approach can hardly be lasting solutions.

At the ground level, the situation does demand that the nation awake to the ever-hanging sword called terrorism, and take determined proactive steps to defend itself. At the fundamental level of communal relations and root causes, however, the situation demands understanding, creativity, and empathy.

It is this that inspired me to look at the issue from the other side, as I have done many times from the Hindu side. How might an Indian Muslim look inwards to resolve India’s growing religious divide? “What would I do if I were an Indian Muslim,” I wondered.

To begin with, if I were an Indian Muslim, I would have a new appreciation for the proverbial space between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand are those from my own religion who are increasingly resorting to terrorism and its mindless killing of innocent men, women and children. On the other are a rising band of Hindu hardliners who have shown a willingness to mirror the worst of those on my side. These champions of Hindutva seem bent upon painting all 150 million of us with a broad brush characterized by suspicion and divisiveness, if not downright animosity. Disruption and anxiety have already crept in amongst many of us. The simple act of working and living in our own motherland has become a curse, thanks to the rising discrimination and alienation from certain segments of the majority community.

To react with negativity and anger in this environment would be easy?but dangerous!

Rather, if I were an Indian Muslim, I would want to strengthen all that is good and constructive in my world, and distance myself from all that is divisive and destructive. This means I would unequivocally distance myself from fundamentalist mullahs and madrassas. I would prominently and proactively denounce all elements in my camp that are associated with terrorism. I would hit the airwaves and the print media of the country with an unmistakable message of unity and nationalism, and would encourage other Indian Muslims to do the same. Peace and prosperity has a chance only if peace-loving and progressive elements in all religions drown out the divisive elements.

Above all, as an Indian Muslim, I would want to embrace the secular fiber of the country. Secularism, a product of a mature civilization, is certainly advantageous to all demographic groups. But for the minority, it is an outright boon—something to be cherished and preserved at any cost. Sadly, though, in India, secularism has been tainted by the provision of Muslim Personal Law—a vote bank gimmick of politicians.

The infamous Shah Bano case of the eighties clearly demonstrated that such an allowance of religious interpretation in matters of the law is a breeding ground for speculation, confusion, and fundamentalism. More importantly, the very existence of such a preferential legal provision to a religious group is at odds with democracy and secularism.

Such preferential law, which is supposed to serve Indian Muslims, ends up hurting the integrity of secularism—the very idea that should be most precious to Muslims and other minorities. This compromise of Indian secularism also provides hard-line Hindus with a justification for their divisive complaints. One cannot expect the culture and spirit of a nation to be that of unity if the Constitution itself enshrines divisiveness through a different set of laws based on religion.

In America, we see the merit of a single Constitution, and a resultant set of laws that are applicable uniformly to all its citizens regardless of race, religion or other such discriminatory factors. And yet millions of Muslims in the U.S. are able to practice their religion freely without a need for a separate set of laws.

Why then should it be different for any other liberal and inclusive democracy? Can I, as an Indian Muslim, expect to have my cake and eat it too? Can I continue to insist on a separate set of laws that would undermine the supreme law of the land, while continuing to hope for communal harmony and national unity?

This is not to suggest that a move to a Uniform Civil Code in India will be the magic pill to cure the nation’s religious conflict. While it is a major point of contention for many Hindu hardliners, it is by no means the only one. And appeasing hardliners (of any side) is not the purpose or the solution, but righting a wrong is.

The reversal of Muslim Personal Law may not solve India’s communal divide overnight, but without doing so there is little hope for progress. Can unity flower where divisiveness is institutionalized?

Parthiv N. Parekh

[Your comments are welcome. Please write to editor@khabar.com. To submit a letter for print consideration, please write to letters@khabar.com]

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