Nov 14, 2009

Fighting phantoms in India

Aijaz Zaka Syed | Arab News

The more things change for India’s Muslims, the more they remain the same. It’s more than six decades since the country won independence from the British. Meanwhile the world has dramatically changed.

India is incredibly different today from what it had been 62 monsoons ago. Its priorities and concerns have changed. Its people have changed and their attitude to life has undergone a watershed transformation. And India has truly arrived in every sense of the word.

If anything hasn’t changed in this land of mind-boggling contradictions, it is the Indian Muslim. He remains where he had been in 1947. His concerns, issues and priorities remain what they had been at the time of independence. His religious freedom is perpetually threatened. One day, he sees his Shariah under attack. At other times, either his religious places are threatened or there’s a clear and present danger to his religious sensitivities. And when he gets some time to breathe after all this, he has to fight for protection and justice. Most of these issues are recurring in nature. They fade away from time to time only to come back with a vengeance, like a mutating deadly disease.

Look at this Vande Mataram business. This is not the first time we are debating it. It has been there since as long as I can remember. In fact, it precedes the partition of India in 1947 to create Pakistan and goes right back to the early years of the independence struggle, which once had the Hindus and Muslims fighting the British together — shoulder to shoulder.

Bengal’s militant nationalist poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s song celebrating Mother India has been around for over a century. And controversy surrounding it is almost as old as the song.

The all-embracing, magnanimous Hindu who sees the divine in every manifestation of nature easily identifies with Vande Mataram. Originally part of a novel and play, “Anand Math” (1882) by the same author, the song has the poet addressing India as the “divine” mother or “mother goddess” and bowing his head in total submission before it.

While Hindus find this marriage of the divine and the temporal in the motherland rather appropriate and convenient, Muslims have always baulked at treating the motherland as a divine power.

This does not mean they love their country any less than fellow Indians. It’s just that their faith doesn’t allow them to replace God with the motherland. Perhaps no monotheistic religion emphasizes and celebrates the unity and Oneness of God as Islam does. It doesn’t tolerate any imitation of God. It strictly forbids visual portrayal of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and even images of his companions, lest they are deified by overzealous followers.

This is something that Muslims have always found hard to explain to their Hindu brethren. This is a predicament that has always been there.

The issue over Vande Mataram was ostensibly resolved after the independence. In view of the Muslim sensitivities, India’s founding fathers decided to adopt “Jana Gana Mana,” another great song by another Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, as the national anthem. Vande Mataram, however, was designated a national song and remains widely popular.

(Personally, I believe nothing can beat Iqbal’s Saare Jahan Se Achcha Hindustan Hamara! It brings out goose bumps all over, especially when played by the army band on special occasions. Ironically, it was penned by someone who’s been adopted by Pakistan as its national poet. But visionaries like Iqbal can’t be imprisoned by the fragile walls of nation states. They are the collective heritage of the mankind.)

That decision on the national anthem by the Constituent Assembly should have put an end to the controversy. But it didn’t. Given the cynical, exploitative nature of our politics, the issue continues to pop up from time to time. The politics of patriotism has been the bane of this great country. The Supreme Court ruled long ago that singing Vande Mataram is totally optional and that nobody can be compelled to join in the collective crooning. However, desperate politicians being what they are continue to flog this dead horse whenever they run out of more original ideas. And Muslims have always played into their hands. Predictably, they get all worked up and come out on the streets — only to walk, eyes wide shut, into the trap laid by their enemies.

Look at this new fatwa issued by the Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind at its convention at Darul Uloom Deoband. JUH is an organization of eminent religious scholars that had been in the forefront of India’s independence movement and vehemently opposed the partition. And Darul Uloom Deoband is arguably the most respected and influential Islamic university in the world after Al-Azhar in Egypt.

The 30th convention of the Jamiat during which the fatwa was issued had been attended by federal Interior Minister Chidambaram, where he emphasized that protection of minorities was the duty of the majority and the first golden rule of democracy.

So what was the need for this fatwa, especially when there already exists one, issued by Darul Uloom Deoband in 2006, which argues that parts of Vande Mataram go against Islam’s monotheistic philosophy?

Although I understand why most Muslims have qualms in saying Vande Mataram, what really beats me is why Muslim leadership — if there’s such a thing — is constantly obsessing over frivolous, nonissues at the cost of far bigger problems and serious challenges facing the community.

I mean this is not a life-and-death issue. Why do we have to get bogged down in such never-ending controversies and debates that haven’t solved anything over the past hundred years?

I have great respect for our ulema and religious leaders. But is there no way of ignoring such stupid, totally irrelevant nonsense such as this to focus on the real concerns and problems of India’s Muslims?

My generation grew up in the 1980s and 1990s on a heavy dose of the oppressive, all-consuming mosque-temple politics. The Muslim leaders played right into the hands of the Hindutva brigade throughout those turbulent years, helping the BJP multiply its ranks in Parliament from two to 200 plus. And they continue to play the same game of nihilistic reaction politics. They haven’t learned a damn thing all these years! We are forever fighting phantoms.

Is it any wonder then this new fatwa has given a new lease of life to the saffron clan, which had been licking its wounds sustained during the recent electoral battles with Sonia Gandhi’s Congress? Suddenly, the Thackerays and the Singhals are crawling out of the woodwork threatening to drive over 200 million Muslims into Pakistan.

Who should we thank for this? As if Indian Muslims do not already have enough problems, our leaders and ulema are forever inventing new ones. India’s Muslims are, according to the findings of a government-appointed commission led by Justice Rajinder Sachar, worse placed than the lowest of the low caste in every respect. From education to employment to representation in power, the world’s largest minority is right at the lowest rung of social-political-economic hierarchy. What are our leaders doing to change this shameful state of affairs? How long will they keep us the prisoner of our past? Isn’t it time for India’s Muslims to move on?

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based commentator and can be

reached at


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