This piece had appeared in The Hindustan Times, October 30, 2001. Although it is a response to an article by the Chief Editor of HT, it raises problems that are endemic to Indian media and its view of Muslims and Islam. We have therefore decided to reproduce it here with author's permission--Ed.
Vir Sanghvi's 'Waiting for the Hindu backlash' (Counterpoint, October 14, The Hindutan Times), has some disturbing implications. The sum and substance of his argument seems to be that if there is a backlash against Indian Muslims they will only have themselves to blame. It is well-known that in the Indian context 'backlash' is a euphemism for a pogrom. The term became current against the backdrop of militancy in Punjab during the early Eighties.
By its extensive, uncritical and irresponsible usage of this term at that time, the media contributed towards moulding the mindset which gave rise to the November 1984 massacre of Sikhs. This was by and large unintended. But then that is what the interface between the ideological and the material is all about.
One wonders whether Sanghvi is really serious about what he is saying. First, his stereotyping is all too familiar. Muslims are either liberal or fanatic. However, as with the followers of any religion, social reality is much more complex. Leaving aside questions of class, linguistic and cultural diversity, conflicting political affiliations and sectarian divisions, one would like to suggest that the vast majority of ordinary Muslims go about their daily business without taking an explicit ideological/political position on a specific issue, particularly if they are not directly involved in it.
Given the low level of literacy in our country and the very limited reach of the media in rural areas, can one assume that poor agricultural labourers (Muslim or otherwise) in remote villages are even aware of what is going on in the world - let alone take a position?
Second, there could be any number of ideological positions and shades of opinion between a liberal and a fanatic. A person could, for instance, be anti-America and at the same time anti-Taliban. Incidentally, most Left-wing and liberal Muslims were anti-Taliban long before the US political elite turned against the present regime in Afghanistan. Besides, just as 'liberal Muslim' is a very vague term, so too is the label 'fanatic Muslim'.
Someone could adhere to religious rituals fanatically, though sincerely, without being sympathetic to any militant cause. On the other hand, a person might be totally insincere with regard to the basic tenets of a religion while at the same time demonstrating a fanatical attachment to some of the symbols associated with that religion in order to pursue a terrorist agenda. The latter is precisely what Osama bin Laden has been doing. The Taliban too have simply appropriated various religious symbols to create a fascist State.
The real precursors of the Taliban State are Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, Tojo's Japan, Ian Smith's Rhodesia, the apartheid State of South Africa, and above all Hitler's Germany. The Taliban are as ruthless and undemocratic in their pursuit of absolute power as the Nazis were. What distinguishes the two is that Germany was an advanced and highly industrialised capitalist country while Afghanistan is an underdeveloped and backward third world nation. The Taliban are as much a product of the modern capitalist world as German fascism was.
The problem with looking at this problem in religious terms is that one overlooks the close ideological affinity between the Taliban and the Nazis. Sanghvi seems surprised that there is some amount of support for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in several countries extending from Britain to Indonesia. This is not very difficult to explain.
A number of Right-wing groups/movements throughout the world are now using Bin Laden as a symbol to mobilise support among some Muslims to carry forward their own agenda. Does not the Sangh parivar attract an audience by playing on religious sentiments in order to promote its politics? Then why should the use of Bin Laden as a symbol by Right-wing groups in India and elsewhere be found inexplicable? After all, Hitler inspired many ideologues of the ultra-Right (both Hindu and Muslim) in India during the Thirties and Forties.
One is not sure as to how Sanghvi would like to define a 'liberal Muslim'. There could be Left-wing liberals, middle-of-the-road liberals or Right-wing liberals. A large number of urban upper middle-class liberal Muslims are extremely pro-American in their outlook and are appalled at the kind of State that the Taliban have created. Left-wing liberal Muslims often tend to be anti-American. However much one might like to have a neat categorisation (which is what the creation of stereotypes ultimately aims at), this is not always possible.
A Right-wing liberal Muslim like Salman Khurshid could in a given situation be as Rightist in his political outlook as a K.R. Malkani. And then what about those whose ideological/political positions lie further to the Left? Most of those who belong to the Left and happen to be Muslims prefer to articulate their positions in political rather than religious terms. For them the struggle against communalism is a political one and has to be carried forward as part of the democratic struggle of which electoral processes is an integral part.
All those (and this includes 'liberal Muslims') who have been consistently championing the cause of secularism, individually and/or through Left and other political organisations, are doing exactly what Sanghvi exhorts 'liberal Muslims' to do - to "fight their own fanatics". What they have been engaged in is a broad-based political campaign, a campaign which never gets adequate exposure in the media.
This brings us to the third problem which needs to be posed. One would like to draw attention to the complicity of the media in promoting Right-wing religious politics. Is it not true that during the election campaign of 1977, it was the media which systematically built up the image of the imam of Jama Masjid as the spokesperson of Indian Muslims? In this it went along with the leadership of the Janata Party.
This leadership, it should be recalled, included Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, both of whom actively involved the imam in the Janata election campaign at that time and shared the dais with him on several occasions. Today, the speeches of the present imam compete with the utterances of the minuscule Delhi unit of the Shiv Sena for space in the media.
Besides, hardly any space is made available to those who have dedicated themselves to combating communal politics of all brands. Once in a while a high profile 'liberal Muslim' like Shabana Azmi may get prominent coverage. (One is not sure whether Azmi would prefer the label 'liberal Muslim' to that of 'Left-wing activist'.) But otherwise, it is only the rabble-rousers who make it to the headlines.
Where and how would Sanghvi like the 'liberal Muslims' to speak up? Issue individual press statements which will be ignored if the person concerned is not high profile? Organise protest marches and signature campaigns which will rarely get reported? Write letters to the editor which will seldom be published? Or send in articles/rejoinders which might not even be acknowledged? All this and more are being done, if only the media would care to have a look.
Yet, in the long run, only a sustained political movement against communalism, intolerance and obscurantism is the answer. This movement could do with a little support from the media.
Nevertheless, one would like to assure Sanghvi, the struggle for a secular India will continue even if that support is not forthcoming.
(The writer teaches history at Hans Raj College, University of Delhi, and is Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)
Three Essays Press for books on history, education, culture, media, society and politics with a South Asian accent and a contemporary slant.