Since my personal interaction with educated Muslims is rather limited, I am not in a good enough position to assess their response to developments after the demolition of the Babri structure in Ayodhya on December 6last. But certain points emerge fairly clearly from what some of them are writing and saying.
On this basis, it can be said: (a) they are critical of Muslim leaders associated with the Babri Masjid agitation apparently on the ground that the latter led the community into a conflict which has turned out be unequal; (b) they have lost confidence in the Congress leadership, especially the Prime Minister, Mr P V Narasimha Rao, not only because he ‘failed’ to protect the structure but also because they are now convinced that he was never sincere in his protestations; (c) they find it difficult to believe that the Janata Dal and the breakaway factions can stop the Ram wave on which the BJP plan to ride to power in New Delhi; and (d) they are doubtful that the proposed anti-BJP front comprising the Congress, the National Front, the two communist parties and other ‘secularist’ groups will be particularly effective.
The last two points are not explicitly reflected in the writings of Muslim intellectuals. But while the relevance of the first two points is obvious, their anguish is not intelligible on that basis alone.
They would, in my view, not have been as critical as they are of the Babri Masjid agitation leadership if the demolition of the structure had not been followed by riots and a substantial rise in Hindu support for the BJP. The anti-BJP outpourings in the press covered up this reality from their view for a week or so but then it became pretty visible to them. As for the loss of faith in the Congress leadership, no serious Muslim intellectual will deny that it has not been the focus of their hope since 1987 when Mr V P Singh raised the banner of revolt against Mr Rajiv Gandhi and even more so since 1990 when, as Prime Minister, he decided to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendation in respect of job reservation for the ‘other backward castes’.
The story of the Congress-Muslim relationship is a long and complicated one and need not detain us except to make one broad point. This relationship was reasonably smooth up to 1967 when the Congress was voted out of office in all north Indian states and lost its easy dominance over the Indian political scene. Muslim leaders saw this development more as a threat than an opportunity to improve their bargaining position.
That changed in 1977 when, on the one hand, Muslim felt alienated from the Congress on account of its slum clearance and family planning programmes during the Emergency and, on the other, the Congress faced the prospect of defeat. Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid, Delhi, quickly seized the opportunity and cast his lot with the would-be Janata Party working for the overthrow of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Similarly, Syed Shahabuddin emerged as a critical factor in Muslim politics in 1987 because he too seized the opportunity offered by Mr V P Singh. He saw in Mr Singh’s move to ‘Mandalise’ Hindu society the prospect of partnership. His writings since deserve careful study.
The Syed has been described as an incarnation of Mr Jinnah. This is an inapt description. Mr Jinnah sought to unite Muslims on the slogan that Islam was in danger because in independent India Hindus united under the auspices of the Congress would, he argued, rule over Muslims in view of their majority. That slogan has not been available to Syed Shahabuddin in the absence of a separate electorate and in view of a certain Hindu backlash.
He has seen his opportunity in the Congress decline, the absence of an effective replacement and aggravation of divisions in the Hindu society by the unabashedly casteist politics of Raja V P Singh and others. Mr Jinnah, too, might have adopted a similar approach if the British move to provide separate electorate for Harijans had materialized. But that is another story.
If Syed Shahabuddin, Imam Bukhari and their associates had been sufficiently shrewd, they would have recognised, at least in the wake of the May-June 1991 poll, that Janata Dal, with its Mandal platform, had not been able to beat back the BJP with its Ram plank, and taken steps to reduce the importance of that plank by finding ways to give up the claim to the Babri structure. Indeed, they should have realized the power of the appeal of Ram in 1990 itself when, following the Mandal decision, Mr L K Advani’s rath yatra drew a response far beyond his best expectations.
The Muslim leaders’ contention is that they could not be sure that a gesture by them in respect of the Ramjanambhoomi site would not be followed by a demand in respect of Krishnajanambhoomi in Mathura and the Vishwanath temple site in Varanasi. There is no good reason to dispute that they entertained such an apprehension. Even otherwise, they could well have thought that to concede victory to the RSS-BJP-VHP combine in Ayodhya would raise its status in the eye of Hindus to their disadvantage. In any case, they would have feared that to compromise on the Ramjanambhoomi site was to risk their claim to speak on behalf of the Muslim community.
This fear has been interpreted by Hindu supporters of the Ram temple as an expression of the desire for self-aggrandizement on the part of Muslim leaders. Muslim intellectuals, vocal as never before since Partition, are now pressing the same charge. There is some merit in it. But there is an even larger question which needs to be addressed. That question is whether it is possible to organise Muslims, or, to put it more accurately, mobilize Muslims on issues other than those connected with their religion.
This question has, by and large, not been faced by the dominant elite, whether political, or academic or journalistic, since independence. Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged the power of the appeal of Islamic symbols for Muslims when he agreed to lead the Khilafat movement. On a surface view, the move was justified inasmuch as the Muslim factor had emerged in Indian politics with the formation of the Muslim League in 1906, acceptance of the demand for separate electorates, and the mobilization of support for the Khilafat by leading maulanas and pan-Islamists. But it also betrayed less than adequate understanding of Islam on the part of the Mahatma. From the Khilafat movement to Partition in 1947, the road was straight.
After the collapse of the Khilafat movement, Gandhiji was not able to come up with a platform which could command worthwhile support among Muslims, though he had among his lieutenants figures such as Maulana Abdul Azad, Hakim Ajmal Khan and Dr Z A Ansari. Pandit Nehru thought he could counter the Muslim League’s ‘Islam is Danger’ appeal with his ‘mass contact’ programme based on the promise of economic justice. The campaign, as is known, was a flop.
That, too, was not the end of the matter. Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru conceded that Hindus were as liable to be moved by religious slogans as Muslims and thereby established a party between Hindu ‘communalism’ and Muslim separatism which cannot stand scrutiny. As it happens, they spoke and wrote against Hindu ‘communalism’ even more frequently and eloquently than against Muslim communalism.
Pandit Nehru’s perhaps one time description (in a letter to Dr Kailash Nath Katju, then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh) of Hindu ‘communalism’ being more dangerous than Muslim communalism on the ground that Hindus occupied commanding positions in independent India is often quoted by ‘secularist’ intellectuals. Clearly they juxtapose Hindu and Muslim communalism against a transcendent nationalism resting on a ‘composite culture’. This is an untenable proposition. Only those who have not cared to inform themselves of the centrality and power of the umma in the Muslim scheme can accept it. Unfortunately, that covers almost the entire dominant Hindu elite. But this blissful ignorance will not dispose of the question whether Muslims can be mobilized on a non-communal basis.
(To be concluded)
The Observer of Business and Politics, 23 February 1993