Books | Pushed to the Edge

How independent India privileged majoritarianism over syncretism. An extract

Pratinav Anil

Another IndiaThe Congress only permitted, so to speak, Muslim politics in Hyderabad in the late fifties—at a time and on terms of its choosing. The AIMIM leadership was released from prison in 1957, when the Congress, cynically enough, felt it could benefit from a counterweight to the PDF, whose socialist platform was winning it considerable subaltern Muslim support. The decision the previous year to hive off parts of Hyderabad state to Bombay and Mysore, reducing by 40 per cent the Muslim proportion of the population in the rump Andhra Pradesh, cushioned the potential blow. Nehru’s thoughts of his legacy must not be discounted. A decade in power and soon to enter his eighth, the premier released not only Razvi, but also, a few months later, another recalcitrant Muslim, Jammu and Kashmir’s Sheikh Abdullah, from his prisons.

Appointing Abdul Wahid Owaisi as his successor, Razvi decided to vote with his feet. From the safety of his retirement in Karachi, he could reflect on his prescience. For Owaisi, quickly making up for the lost decade, at once found himself the victim of a smear campaign. Accusations flew in from every shade of nationalist Muslim opinion: Congress MPs and MLAs, councillors and JUH clerics, the All-India Shia and All-India Momin Conferences. The objective was not to oppose but to obliterate the Majlis, as if it were a foreign foe. The ‘communalists [of] the AIMIM will be shown their place’, V.K. Krishna Menon, the defence minister declared in February 1958.

Clearly, Owaisi had rattled some nerves. In March, he was placed under preventive detention. Habeas corpus was promptly denied. Disinclined to present even a fig leaf of judicial independence, the courts fully supported the government’s decision, ruling that while Owaisi’s offending speech was in itself ‘unobjectionable, the spirit behind it’ was not. ‘The speech is to be judged by its potentialities’ not its contents. But a year in jail did little to dent Owaisi’s popularity. On the contrary, it turned him into an object of sympathy. For when the AIMIM made its electoral debut in the council elections of June 1960, it won eighteen of the thirty seats it contested. The nationalist Muslim tally was four. The AIMIM’s strides, moreover, came at the Congress’ expense, not the PDF’s. Nehru had fallen into a trap of his own making.

Regret was followed by alarm. The Congress, after all, had been trounced by Islamist upstarts. Indeed, behind the AIMIM’s routine affirmations of secularism was an unyielding fundamentalism. Take its manifesto of 1961, a paean to a Muslim imperium in imperio: mandatory religious instruction in schools; a compulsory charity levy for the qaum; the repeal of interfaith marriages; revocation of the ban on polygamy; collective fines, paid communally, to foot the bill for riot damage; state funding for the restoration of mosques damaged during the police action; better relations with the Muslim world; and, possibly, Muslim quotas in legislatures—all grist to the Green Scare mill.

The Congress response was threefold. First, to manufacture a greater majority, it merged Hyderabad and Secunderabad to water down the Muslim presence, reducing, as a result, the Majlis’ strength from nearly three-tenths to just under a fifth in the city corporation. Second, overwrought Congressmen set about disbursing sweeteners in the form of pork barrels. Rs 1,000,000 was allotted to a dole specifically for unemployed Muslims. Another million was promised to pump capital into ‘small industrial units’ set up by Muslims. It was also no accident that the Andhra Pradesh government was the first in the country to recognize Urdu. Third, Majlis councillors were persuaded to defect to the Congress, a development hastened in no small part by Owaisi’s peremptory management. By all accounts, he ran his party like a fiefdom, spurning the League’s overtures for a merger. Selection and deselection were autocratic affairs, typically favouring Owaisi kith and kin. Nine councillors jumped ship.




If Rajiv was a friend of reactionary Muslims, he was also, intriguingly, a friend of reactionary Hindus. On 9 November 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, he did his bit to bring down another monument of old. Appearing before a million Hindus at Ayodhya, he endorsed the VHP’s ram shila pujan, the ceremonial consecration of bricks to build a temple atop the ruin of the Babri Masjid. His election campaign later that month began in Faizabad, a stone’s throw from the mosque, where he promised Ram Rajya, a ‘return’ to just rule as in the Hindu epics. Here was secular ‘equidistance’ in practice. ‘Tit for tat’ was how Rajiv crassly put it. Double-chinned and, in my view, rather empty-headed, his dithering was too haphazard to be properly manipulative. Machiavellian he wasn’t. At all events, if propping up Hindu and Muslim conservatives in order to retain the sensible, centre ground was a calculated strategy, it spectacularly backfired.

For the flattening of the Babri Masjid proved to be the BJP’s passport to power. Advani’s latter-day rath yatra, the chariot cavalcade swapped for a motorized affair, from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990 impressed upon Hindus the geographical unity of their faith in a manner hitherto unseen. Fast-forward two years and the mosque was reduced to rubble, Rajiv’s successor but two, Narashimha Rao, scarcely lifting a finger on the strength of assurances from the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, the BJP’s Kalyan Singh. Muslims were slaughtered in a pogrom that ensued in Bombay.

Rao’s characteristically Congressite response, a wage hike for imams, must have been scant consolation for the qaum; just as profitless a wooing gesture as his predecessor V.P. Singh’s decree recognising mawlid, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, as a new bank holiday. As it was, Rao could be found in Shirdi the same month giving Hindu idols a lactic shower—in the spirit of secularism, of course.

If the Hindu leadership disregarded the material interests of Muslims, so, too, did the community’s ashraf leadership. After Ayodhya, more bile was directed at the Ahl-i-Hadith ulama, whose 1993 fatwa declared triple talaq un-Islamic, than at Hindu nationalists. To the delight of the JUH and AIMPLB, the schism was short-lived. Orthodoxy prevailed. Taqlid trumped ijtihad—purblind conformity trumped creative interpretation.

Language politics, meanwhile, had hit a dead end. Urdu readership had stagnated. In the three decades to 1988, the combined circulation of Urdu dailies grew by 25 per cent to 250,000, whereas the Muslim population grew 115 per cent to 101 million. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a card-carrying Jama’ati who renounced Islamism to extol multiculturalism in Al-Risala, was only stating the obvious when he observed that English, and to some degree regional tongues, were the entrées to technical learning and class mobility. Urdu, by contrast, had become the language of nostalgia, its very parnassian quality synonymous with an unwillingness to come to terms with prosaic modernity.


Brigading an aspirant middle class and backward gentry with the left-behinds (just as Mrs Gandhi once did), and promising each the buccaneering rewards of liberalization (an empty signifier akin to Nehruvian ‘socialism’) the BJP came to occupy at the fin-de-siècle a position analogous to the Congress’ in the mid-century. After its victories in the spring of 1995 in Gujarat and Maharashtra, there was no looking back. Barring an interregnal decade of no particular moment, the Congress’ last gasp as it were, the BJP has been in power since 1998, winning five of the last seven elections.

A steady trickle of Muslims back to the party of Azad has taken place, the logic of the Mushawarat now underscored in reverse, Congressism replacing anti-Congressism. Since 2009, the Congress and its allies have typically taken 45 per cent of the Muslim vote share, the BJP and its partners just under a tenth of it. The League remains influential in Kerala as does the Majlis in Hyderabad. The Muslims of Uttar Pradesh stagger between the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj Party, the vehicle of the Yadavs and Dalits, respectively.

All the same, Muslim representation is at a discount. After achieving highs of 9 per cent in parliaments of the eighties, Muslims are down to 4 per cent in Modi’s India, a return, as it were, to Nehru’s India. If the eminent Nehruvians had little standing, the eminent Modians—Najma Heptulla, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, M.J. Akbar—have even less. At any rate, none of them lasted very long in government.

Elsewhere, too, Hindu majoritarianism has produced a hostile environment for Muslims. The upshot has been, in the words of Christophe Jaffrelot, nothing less than an ‘eviction from institutions’. At 14.25 per cent of the national population, Muslims account for a mere 4 per cent of those who clear the competitive exam for entry into the administrative service.

Similarly, just under 3 per cent of the officers in the police service are Muslim. The result? Some 54 per cent of Muslims fear the police, whereas only 24 per cent of Hindus do. Not without reason. Evidence planted, confessions extracted under torture, and emergency laws invoked, purported Islamists were banged up after the Malegaon bombings of 2006. Only, as it turned out, they were innocent. It was a Hindu group, Abhinav Bharat, that was behind them.

Pratinav Anil
Penguin Random House, Pg 438, Rs 999



Call us