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Why Indian Muslims Must Take Control Of Their Narrative

29/03/2015 9:44 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Visitors at Humayun's tomb, Delhi

In the late 1980s I had just started on my legal practice, still uncertain about how to enter the political arena, something in which I had an abiding interest, I decided to write a book about issues that arose naturally around me, at home and amongst the people with whom I spent my working and leisure hours. My Muslim companions were preoccupied with concerns like representation, opportunity, discrimination, identity, security et al. Others seemed perplexed at what they thought was a case of Shakespeare's 'Me thinks the lady protests too much.' Why could Muslims not be like every one else, they would ask me. I would make heroic attempts to explain the cause of distress. Why do Muslims seek to be an exception to the secular ethos of India that we all cherish as the Idea of India, was even more tiresome to respond to. Essentially while we all believed in secularism, the actual definition of secularism itself varied. To add to that confusion was the introduction of concepts such as 'pseudo secularism' and 'genuine secularism' by the BJP, an ascendent political force. So I chose to write a book about this called At Home in India: A Restatement of Indian Muslims. Not many people read that book by a relatively unknown author.

"It is curious and indeed somewhat distressing that contemporary public debate in India about freedom of speech and action is premised on narrow self-serving opinions on some people."

Over the years as I went from one preoccupation to another, law to government, to party politics, and to government again I continued to reflect upon the theme that had been the focus of the book. There were innumerable opportunities to expound on the thesis, both in the professional, academic world as indeed in political gatherings but there was little time to return to writing, apart from short newspaper columns. Towards the end of our term as UPA II, I chanced to pick up a copy of the book and found that over the years the issues had not vanished or transformed, rather the Babri masjid demolition and the riots that followed all over India, Mumbai blasts and riots, the Gujarat episode of 2002, had added greater urgency and morbidity to the theme. The gathering storm of a BJP-Modi alternative to our ten year Rights based Governance model badly damaged by allegations of misadventures and incapacity (many unfair and politically motivated) made me consider the need for a fresh book on the subject. Yet it made no sense to abort material that still was quite compelling and needed to be marshalled for a fresh exercise. In a conversation with my publisher, Ashok Chopra I was persuaded to rework the book, add new chapters and publish it quickly even as the worst concerns began to haunt in reality: moral policing, allegations of love jehad, attacks on churches, dismantling of secular composition of institutions, introduction of partisan curricula in schools and universities, a spate of orders granting relief to riot accused in Gujarat, etc.

"It is not enough to seek to be heard but equally important to pick the right strategy to be heard effectively."

It is curious and indeed somewhat distressing that contemporary public debate in India about freedom of speech and action is premised on narrow self-serving opinions on some people. We have long known the adage that one person's meat is another person's poison. In political parlance it is one person's freedom fighter is another's rebel. Che Guevara remains a hero for successive generations of freedom loving world citizens but he was mercilessly executed by a young Bolivian soldier on the instructions of the CIA. In a time span of one hour a voluble and opinionated TV anchor can castigate a political renegade from Kashmir for mouthing pro-Pakistan sentiments, rubbish attempts of mainstream political spokesperson for attempting to defend a position taken by the party concerned, express amazement at the Supreme Court refusing go along with an interpretation to protect differently inclined persons from the rigours of criminal law, ridicule a religious organisation for its unscientific views, and pronounce, if not pontificate on what is right and good for the country and humanity (although that word is seldom used in the discussions!)

"Why do Muslims seek to be an exception to the secular ethos of India that we all cherish as the Idea of India, was even more tiresome to respond to."

In an already crowded space any attempt to seek an opportunity to speak for the minorities is not easy unless it is a cry of physical or mental agony. If Churches are attacked, mosques are demolished, devastation is caused by riots, there is some hope that the voice of victims will be heard and that is no small mercy. But when it comes to looking at the root causes of disadvantage and discrimination, such as brilliantly recorded by the Sachar Committee and the Rangnath Mishra Commission, the voice is quickly and ruthlessly drowned in loud retorts and accusations of communalism. It is not enough to seek to be heard but equally important to pick the right strategy to be heard effectively. Many activists and representatives of minorities, particularly Muslims unfortunately fail to take this into account. Not only do they fail in their efforts but also end up undermining their genuine supporters in public life by myopically questioning the commitment of those leaders. Advocacy is more than shouting from the tree tops. Language and strategy, not to mention a deep understanding of the psyche of friends and foes alike is paramount. My book attempts to do just that in the hope that it will reach a larger audience than in the past and add some content and quality to public discourse.

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