I was angry as the visuals streamed in of protesters sloganeering ‘Jinnah Wali Azadi’ at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi on January 10. I wanted them evicted if need be with police action. Jinnah brand of freedom means another division of the country and I was surprised that the Amit Shah controlled Delhi Police did nothing, reeling under public pressure on JNU violence perhaps. But then I thought my anger missed a larger picture. Nehru’s brand of secularism is facing its final fracture in India. And Shaheen Bagh is symptomatic of that.
An Ostrich is known to bury its head when faced with danger. That Nehruvian secularism has been Ostrich like in its handling of the Indian State’s relationship with its minorities has been proved every day past month of protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
I encountered a polite rebuff, short of questioning my secular credentials from a liberal friend when I underscored the Muslim nature of the protests in my earlier piece on the subject. A few days later came the tweetstorm of Shehla Rashid, a self-proclaimed left leader who does not forget to don the hijab in her Kashmir appearances. Till recently a toast of the secular-liberal set, she asked them to go to hell if they could not accept the essentially Muslim nature of the CAA protests that she saw as an assertion of Muslim identity.
Over the next fortnight, Rashid’s sentiments have been reiterated by activists and journalists who have been mostly packaged as cardinals of (Nehruvian) secularism by the same liberal set whom Rashid was publicly taking on. Seema Chisti of The Indian Express termed the protests this time as unique for “the ability of the Muslim to find a political and assertive vocabulary” in which others could participate based on their personal or political persuasion. Protests across the country reported use of Islamic imagery and slogans like ‘Allahu Akbar and ‘La Ilaha Illaha’ prompting even the likes of Shashi Tharoor (do they come more secular then him?) to ask for moderation. Writing in The Indian Express again, Irena Akbar, a former journalist and now a Lucknow based entrepreneur, objected to Tharoor – along the lines of Rashid – asking why Muslims should always strategize to uphold the idea of India by secularising protests or even polls. The mask is off.
Nehruvian secularism provided a tenuous arrangement where a great mass of Muslims got to live in an island within the Republic, untouched with the needs of multicultural assimilation. That untouched island is, unfortunately, Akbar’s idea of India. And what Akbar calls strategizing to uphold this idea of India got reduced to voting for Nehru’s party – the Congress.
In return, Muslims got a veto on anything that would have constitutional progressivism written on it beginning with the Code Bills. Post-December 6, 1992, that contract broke between Muslims and the Congress, and the strategizing became voting to whichever party provided continuity of that protective cover from the needs of acculturation that should have been a natural part of post-independence nation-building.
That youngsters Ladida Farzana and Aysha Renna became the symbol of Muslim resistance is deeply troubling at many levels. Enough literature has emerged to show that their world view derives exclusively from Islam. The secularism of the Indian State for them is only a shield to remain on that island provided by Nehru. If the shield waivers, like it, seems to with CAA in their opinion, then ‘Islam in danger’ becomes their natural cover. And remember both Farzana and Renna are not a product of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, imagined as an exclusive Hindu Rashtra, but come from that utopia of secularism called Kerala where BJP and RSS might be a century away from power!
My friend who admonished me for calling the protests Muslim also took umbrage at putting the blame entirely on Nehru and absolving Modi. I correct that impression here. Nehru grappled with the Muslim question with his heart and mind in the right place till the time his personal ambition got the better of him. Freedom literature shows even he was developing fatigue on the issue as revealed by VP Menon’s letter to Sardar Patel of May 10, 1947. As the Constitutional Advisor to Louis Mountbatten – and two viceroys before him – Menon was in the thick of negotiations for the transfer of power. He writes that Pandit Nehru while discussing a proposal to be put before the Cabinet Mission at Shimla, clearly stated that there should be no provision, either in the Act or in the Instrument of Instructions, for the representation of minorities in the Executive Council.
Nehru asserted that while it was not the intention of the Congress to down any minority, he would not like any imposition in this respect. This was amid some very difficult discussions on the partition of the country. The atmosphere had been completely vitiated in the aftermath of the Direct-Action Day, and as the results of 1946 elections showed (and I wrote about it in my last piece), a majority of Muslims of India had thrown its lot with Jinnah and the Muslim League. Clearly, even Nehru was coming to his wits’ end in dealing with the question.
Chisti picked up a speech by Maulana Azad which he gave from the pulpit of Jama Masjid in 1947, to underscore how the Muslim relationship with India goes back to the time of Prophet, and that Azad wanted the Muslims of India to stay and own the country, and not leave, because nobody could make them flee. In the same speech, Azad also spoke of how the Muslims of India had made wrong choices as a build up to independence and freedom, making them equally responsible for their plight.
“…I called you and you cut off my tongue…I took up my pen and you lopped off my hand…I wanted to walk and move and you tripped my foot…My lapels cry because your impudent hands have ripped them…if you live with fear now, it is just retribution for your past deeds,” Azad told the crowd. A pained Azad was clearly admonishing the Muslims of India to have thrown their lot with Jinnah instead of him.
In ‘India Wins Freedom’ his autobiographical account that appeared posthumously, Azad wrote, “It is one of the greatest frauds on people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, linguistically and culturally different…History is proof that after the first few decades Islam was not able to unite all the Muslim countries into one State on the basis of Islam alone.” Mecca born Azad was, of course, indicating the futility of the concept of Ummah. It is one of the many ironies of the freedom struggle that it was Azad who was originally called the ‘Quaid-e-Azam’ in 1921 before the title permanently went to Jinnah. A century later, it is Jinnah who remains attractive to Ladida and Aysha, and not Azad. All the more reason why ‘Jinnah Wali Azadi’ moment at Shaheen Bagh rankles.
If even the likes of Chisti quote Azad selectively, and Deepika Padukone cannot be truthful in her reproduction of a real-life incident, we know the distance we have to travel before the Muslims of India see in CAA, both an opportunity to benchmark treatment of minorities and hold a mirror to Pakistan. The CAA protests are an inflection point in the Indian Muslim’s relationship with the Indian State. The missing empathy for the persecuted refugees in Muslim protests is a marker of an urgent need for a new secularism construct that integrates rather than providing islands of autonomy in lieu of votes and a veto.
(The views and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Republic TV/ Republic World/ ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd.)