THE public discourse not only in India but also in the West is currently dominated by the concept of multi-culturalism with the result that it is not recognised that self-conscious minorityism, as in the case of our Muslim countrymen, is a form of apartheid in reverse and that its consequences are as serious, even if not equally apparent.
Apartheid, as we have known it in South Africa, is, of course, imposed by the ruling minority on the majority of the population on grounds of race. And apartheid, as we have known it in our own society in the form of untouchability, is imposed by the majority on a minority on grounds of ritualistic purity. There is, however, a third form which is largely self-imposed. This is not to deny that Hindus have practised a kind of apartheid vis-a-vis Muslims. They have, even during Muslim rule. It also cannot be denied that they still do; educated and well-off Muslims, for instance, find it difficult to rent residential accommodation in upper class colonies, though a majority of owners have taken to non-vegetarianism and do not practise the old kind of inhibitions in respect of food, drinks, utensils and so on.
Instead of taking advantage of this gradual lowering of old barriers, however, Muslims have raised their own in the name of preserving their ‘distinct’ culture. As pointed out earlier in these columns, this exercise began in a big way in 19th century with the Faraizi movement in Bengal and Tariqa-i-Muhammadiya in UP and Bihar.
By this reckoning, minority status, however well protected in law and in reality on the ground, is a disability. This disability may not have been particularly serious for Muslims if the country was not going through a rapid process of transformation and homogenisation. But it is going through precisely such a change. A secular variant of the concept of the dhimmi or the Turkish one of separate millets just cannot work in an industrialising democracy.
Multi-culturalism by definition implies absence of a dominant cultural-civilisational framework to which individuals and groups adjust and assimilate, depending on their capacity and ambition. Among major countries, the United States is obviously the most prominent example and exponent of multi-culturalism.
Several points are notable in its case. It is a society of immigrants; it is not a community which has grown over millennia. As such, it is not rooted in history; it is defined by its Constitution based on principles abstracted from the history of western Europe. As such, it cannot be an example for historic communities such as ours, or the French, or the Germans.
That apart, the Protestant Anglo-Saxon mould in which incoming groups were supposed to melt till as late as the sixties of this century has only weakened; it has not disintegrated. The Constitution itself represents that mould as does English which remains the only language of learning, administration and public discourse in all its forms. Even so, the risk of incoherence inherent in multi-culturalism is beginning to be recognised in the United States. Compared to the present proponents of the theory of India being a land of enormous cultural and ethnic diversities, Mr Jinnah was an ardent Indian nationalist; after all, he spoke only of two civilizations and nations against scores of theirs. Indeed, even then, the CPI advocated a plan for a more thorough fragmentation of the country on the plea that India was a land of many nationalities. To the inheritors of this Stalinist legacy have now been added those who call themselves followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru.
Their prospects are, however, bleak. India is not a human zoo with different species of humanity put together in one physical location in separate enclosures and it cannot be turned into one. It embodies a remarkably homogenous, though not monolithic, culture going back thousands of years.
In reality, no living culture or civilization has ever been, or can be, a monolith. But cultures arising out of, or sustaining, the three religions of the book appear to be so on a surface view. Its apparent contrast with them is one reason why Hindu civilisation is taken to be a loose conglomeration by its admirers and critics alike.
A brief reference to language should clinch the issue. While the importance of Sanskrit in ancient India is a commonplace, it is generally not known that it was not the language of one dominant ethnic group known as Aryans but of the entire Indian people. To quote the late Prof Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, one of the best known and respected Indian philologists:
What we loosely call Sanskrit can, with greater accuracy, be described as spoken Indo-Aryan, as it evolved between 500 BC and 500 AD and included not only classical Sanskrit as it grew from Vedic Sanskrit under the impact of Dravidian and Kol (tribal) speeches but also Prakrits such as Pali. And in the vital matters of syntax and vocabulary, both classical Sanskrit and various Prakrits were deeply influenced by Dravidian and Austric (tribal) languages.
Similarly, it is not generally known that Hindavi, or Hindi, was successor to Sanskrit as an all-India language from the ninth century onwards, that it was not limited to what is now regarded as the Hindi-speaking region and that its pan-Indian spread was possible precisely because, like Sanskrit, it did not grow out of one Prakrit. As scholars have pointed out, Hindi has developed, like Romance languages in Europe, as an exogenous and not as an endogenous language. Except at royal courts and shariat courts this was the language of Indian Muslims till the eighteenth century when they Arabicised and Persianised it to produce Urdu.
Role Of Urdu
Urdu, along with the rise of revivalist movements, doubtless played a major role in the growth of the minority complex among Indian Muslims as did the introduction by the British of separate electorates and the adoption of other similar divisive measures. The result was partition in 1947; and its aftermath, the reverberations of which continue to be felt 45 years later in various ways, including riots.
There has been no serious search for a way out of this ‘apartheid in reverse’ on the part of Muslims till recently. The Congress party in particular has had a stake in the preservation of the status quo because that has assured for it access to the Muslim ‘vote bank’. Now there is an intense competition for this vote which means that other parties have acquired a stake in the perpetuation of self-imposed apartheid for Muslims.
Leaving aside the implications of the rise of the RSS-BJP-VHP combine as a significant factor in Indian politics, it is about time we pay attention to the hitherto neglected question of the impact of Hindi on Muslim youth in north India. For all we know, a return, even if slow, to one culture situation may have begun. The process cannot but be prolonged and painful.
I for one see no alternative to it. This is my view of the place of Muslims in India – one strand in the multi-strand Indian civilization interacting with others. This is also my interpretation of what Pandit Nehru meant by cultural synthesis. Only he did not attach to language the importance I do.
The Times of India, 11 March 1993