April 17, 2002


 Search the Internet
E-Mail this guest column to a friend
Print this page Best Printed on HP Laserjets
Sajid Bhombal

Please give my India back

Dear prime minister,

I am writing this open letter to you, not only as an Indian but also as an Indian Muslim.

On January 12, when General Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, delivered his much hyped speech, I, being proud of Indian secularism, almost made fun of Musharraf's honest comment that 'masjids have to be given police protection in Pakistan'. I sent emails to Pakistanis I knew (including a number of well-known Pakistani columnists) and subsequently wrote an article on this Web site. I felt so proud of the fact that unlike in Pakistan -- 'the fortress of Islam' -- in India, Muslims have no such fears.

Even the Pakistanis were impressed. One Pakistani columnist passed on my observations to his readers through his column in The News.

So you can imagine my embarrassment when, during a recent visit to India, I actually saw the police protect a mosque in New Bombay. No wonder M J Akbar thinks Narendra Modi deserves the 'Nishan-e-Pakistan'.

Did I complain? It is definitely time to complain when the prime minister of India thinks in terms of 'us' and 'them'. In Goa you said: "We have allowed them to do their prayers and follow their religion. No one should teach us about secularism."

Mr prime minister, who are these 'we' and who are those 'them?' Who are the 'we' doing a favour to 'them' by allowing 'them' to do their prayers and follow their religion?

No one, Mr prime minister, is questioning India's secularism. We know India is secular. We are proud of the fact and often we do make it known to the world.

If India wasn't secular, you wouldn't be prime minister of India. A 'mukhauta', a 'naya Mussalman', a prime minister of whom the VHP is 'ashamed' -- is not the Sangh Parivar's idea of a prime ministerial candidate, is it?

What people are questioning is the damage being done to our secularism by communal forces, including your own party and its sister organisations. Let it be clear that the BJP, the 'Parivar', the Narendra Modis or, for that matter, the Atal Bihari Vajpayees are NOT India.

When something like Gujarat happens or is allowed to happen, it is but natural that people would be concerned about our secularism. We have seen Gujarats before. What we had not seen was a prime minister who thinks in terms of 'us' and 'them', worse when it becomes 'us' versus 'them'.

Did you ever realise or did anyone let you know that you are the only leader in the world who leads the largest and second largest number of followers of two of the greatest religions of the world? By virtue of being prime minister of India, you lead the world's largest Hindu population and world's second largest Muslim population. For all practical purpose, you represent them.

There is too much talk of a Muslim leadership in India. No one realises that there simply cannot be a separate Muslim leadership in India (or, for that matter, a separate Hindu leadership). Muslims are neither a homogenous group nor are they concentrated in one region of India. There is only one Muslim-majority state in India, Jammu & Kashmir, which is, unfortunately, a victim of both Pakistan's nasty designs and India's political blunders. In any case, Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir constitute less than 7 per cent of India's Muslims.

In a democratic society like India, there is only one way for a political leadership (which is politically viable, effective and accountable) to emerge. Through electoral politics. How then can there be an exclusive Muslim leadership (or an exclusive Hindu leadership) in India?

Ironically, just a few days ago it was you who advised one Narendra Modi to follow 'Raj Dharma' (to treat all subjects equally, in other words no 'us' and 'them').

It is not my case here that Muslims are beyond criticism. I believe Muslims have played their part in both the development and subsequent deterioration of India's secular values.

As the man who leads them, you have every right to criticise, reprimand or warn them, whenever you see they are in the wrong.

Apart from that 'us' and 'them' theory, what is disturbing is that you chose two different languages, at two different locations -- addressing two different segments of the society you are supposed to lead.

Whether your view that the entire [Indian] Muslim community is intolerant and 'force their opinion [on others] by terror and fear' is justified is a different issue, but if you really believe so, you should very well have said that when you addressed some of them in Ahmedabad.

Likewise, in Ahmedabad, you said you were concerned about 'majority communalism'. Why then didn't you make this known to your party workers in Goa? Why this doublespeak?

Let us first get the basics of Ayodhya right. There is a complex dispute there. If it were not, why would the court take so long to decide? If the court takes more than 50 years or for that matter 300 years, it is not the fault of any one community. So as far as Muslims are concerned, they are not at fault on the legal front.

The other option is a political solution. Can there be a political solution to the issue unless and until the government -- the central government -- takes an initiative? Three years ago, in an informal discussion with Kuldip Nayar, you had said that you were working on an amicable solution to Ayodhya. Recently you told the nation that you had failed in your efforts to bring about an amicable solution? Did you try to bring one about? If you did, you and your government have managed to keep it a secret! Could you please tell the nation which forces failed your initiative?

The problem I believe can be solved in an amicable way, if and only if, a correct political leadership takes up the issue in a correct way and does not allow communal forces to hold the nation at ransom.

For example, there is always a suggestion that Muslims, as a gesture of goodwill, hand over the site to the Hindus. Personally, I would go with this line. I think a vast majority of Hindus in India deserve such a gesture. But such a proposal needs to come from the correct people, in the correct way. You don't expect Muslims to have goodwill towards the Ashok Singhals and the Pravin Togadias, do you? Then why have you (and your party) allowed these forces to hijack the issue? Why don't you as prime minister of India come up with a solution and put it in front of the nation?

On what basis can the entire Muslim community be faulted on the political front? The blame for the political failure on Ayodhya falls entirely on the political class of India, the political class that represents both Hindus and Muslims. Then why does your party president (in your presence) call Muslims as those 'who provoke' and Hindus the 'provoked'.

Who provoked whom? Who politicised the Ayodhya issue? Who carried out the rathyatra, provoking people? Who demolished the Babri Masjid (an act on which your views are well known)? Who was responsible for the 'darkest day' in L K Advani's life? Who gave you deadlines? Who threatened to violate court orders? Who called you 'naya Mussalman' for merely, I repeat, for merely upholding the Constitution and the rule of law?

Who is ashamed of the prime minister of the country? Who stormed the Orissa assembly (an act equitable with the terrorist attacks on the J&K assembly and Parliament)? Who threatened to commit suicide? Who dared to tell you to keep off what they believe are religious affairs?

As soon as the BJP goes into this Hindutva mode, the spin doctors of the party become active. They reassure the nation that the BJP is bound by the NDA agenda and it was political compulsion (presumably to placate the 'Hindutva' forces) which made the prime minister say whatever he said. Does this work?

M J Akbar, a brilliant political analyst, is convinced that 'one party that understands Indian Hindus the least is the BJP'. We don't need a political analyst to tell us that the BJP does not understand Indian Muslims at all.

It is said that a man's thoughts are developed in the environment he grows up in, especially the early formative years. I was born and schooled in a small coastal village called Saitawda in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. My primary education was in Urdu, secondary in Marathi (in a school run by the Muslim Education Society -- I am deliberately mentioning this because it is widely believed that Muslims only run madrassas). My early religious education came from an old uncle from my mother's side, a deeply religious man who also took us to different wadis to see fascinating Ganpatis during the Ganpati festival.

Politically, the village was a Congress bastion. The elders like my mother and aunt would not vote for anyone except Chacha Nehru's Congress. The reason, as articulated by my aunt, was simple. Chacha Nehru, she said, gave them sweets on August 15, 1947!

Did any other political party try to break the Congress stronghold? Well, the BJP did. It was in 1980, when the late Kusumtai Abhyankar, a Marathi novelist, contested the seat from Ratnagiri on the BJP's symbol.

I was 14 then. One statement made by Kusumtai left a deep scar somewhere in my young heart. Without anybody asking her, she said: "We [the BJP] are not against Muslims, what we want is that Muslims should be loyal to India (or something along that line)." As a young boy, I had never thought I was anything else but Indian, so what was that lady talking about? I knew then that she wouldn't get any votes there. She didn't. (Note: It was a BJP woman, not any Muslim cleric -- and definitely not that old man who took us to show Ganpatis -- who told me I was Muslim first and Indian later.)

It is interesting how a political transformation took place in that small coastal village. For too long, the Congress had only one strategy -- tell Muslims that if they didn't vote them, the communal forces would come to power. It worked for the party. The Congress, however, did not do much work.

Then suddenly, perhaps in 1998, Muslims outsmarted the Congress. They made a deal with -- hold your breath -- the Shiv Sena. The equation was simple: we give you our vote, and you do our work. It worked.

On Bakri Id this year I saw Shabana Modak, a Shiv Sena representative, wearing a scarf on her head, sitting in her STD booth with an imposing poster of Bal Thackeray. I went in and asked her the reason for joining the Shiv Sena. The answer came in three Konkani words: "Te kaam kartaat (They work)." Period.

There is a lesson for the BJP here. Why did the Shiv Sena, which came much later on the political scene, reach the Muslims while the BJP could not? Why did the Sena succeed where Kusumtai had failed?

If the Muslim support to the Shiv Sena in Konkan was tactical, the Sena's wooing of the Muslims was strategic. The Sena knew that Hindus wouldn't vote for them aggressively if the communal equation in towns and villages was disturbed. It was in their interest to reach out to the Muslims. They tried, in an almost businesslike manner, and succeeded.

Muslims, on the other hand, also realised that they couldn't keep away from a political party, which had chances of forming a government.

But what happened to my mother and aunt? No, they haven't switched over from voting for Chacha Nehru's Congress!

Dear prime minister, no political party aspiring to be a national party can ignore 20 per cent of the Indian population. It is not a question of 'appeasement', or the Babri Masjid. The Sena did not 'appease' Konkani Muslims, neither did they promise to rebuild the masjid. The simple fact is that they worked (in the Konkan), and that is what matters. This is not political analysis, this is common sense.

A columnist on this Web site advised you that 'instead of feeling ashamed [of what happened in Gujarat], you should advise [Indian] Muslims to sing Sare Jahan Se Achcha in thought, word and deed'. It seems that in Goa, you took his advice seriously.

Iqbal's tarana doesn't end with that verse. It reads: Sare jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara, hum bulbule hain iski ye gulsitan hamara".

What happened in Gujarat -- Godhra included -- doesn't have any place in the concept of a gulsitan.

Dear prime minister, your task is cut out for you. Let us repair that gulsitan so that you can stand up and sing the tarana in thought, word and deed and the nation can join you in chorus.

Please give us our India back, an India of which we all are proud, not ashamed, so that you can go abroad with a better face (and don't forget to proclaim that along with the largest Hindu population, you also represent the world's second largest Muslim population). And I can go back to sending emails to Pakistanis telling them how proud I feel to be an Indian Muslim.

As for the Nishan-e-Pakistan, let Narendra Modi take it. The entire BJP, including its secular face, does not need to compete. We have our Bharat Ratna, don't we?

An Indian, awaiting his India back

Tell us what you think of this column