75 Years on, Chicken and Egg Situation Pops up again


Indian Muslim dilemma: If they say they are Muslim first, they will be dubbed as anti-India, and if they say they are Indian first, they will be forfeiting their religious identity.

Syed Ali Mujtaba

AS we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of independence, once again the ‘Bajrangi Bhaijans’ are cornering Indian Muslims with an oft-repeated demand to specify whether they are Muslim first, or Indian first. The tricky question is sure to put the poor Muslims in a catch-22. If they say they are Muslim first, they will be dubbed as anti-India, and if they say they are Indian first, they will be forfeiting their religious identity.

This is not the first time this question has been raised in India. There is a long list of prominent Muslims who have tackled such a riddle. This question was first put to Maulana Mohammad Ali, one of the siblings of “Ali brothers” fame, who spearheaded the Khilafat movement in 1920.

Mohammad Ali is credited with having called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from South Africa to India. If he had not called him, then who had led the country is an imponderable that no one can answer. However, the point here is after Maulana Mohammad Ali left the Congress party and joined the Muslim League, he was asked the same question whether he is Muslim First or Indian first.

By his answer, the Maulana foreclosed all the speculations about Indian Muslim identity once and for all. He said both. He took pains to explain that it’s like answering a question about whether the chicken came first or the hen first, mother first or father first. The answer is both. Elaborating on his stand he said religious identity and national identity are like two wheels of a bullock cart and both are essential to make the cart work. So, there is no conflict between geographical identity and religious identity and it’s both first.

He further said since he is born Indian, he is an Indian first, at the same time he is born a Muslim, and hence he is a Muslim first. So, the short answer is I am an “Indian Muslim.”

The same question was asked to Khan Abdul Wali Khan, son of frontier Gandhi and the Pukhtoon leader; are you Pukhtun first, Muslim first, or Pakistani first?

“I have been a Pukhtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five years. I have all the three identities in tandem,” he replied.

It was presumed that the ‘Muslim first or Indian first’ debate may be closed forever with the Partition of India, but that has not happened. Rather it kept on haunting the entire community throughout the 75 years of ‘independent’ existence. The question is once again being raked up to embarrass the Muslims when India is celebrating its 75th independence. It is deliberate vilification of the Muslims aimed at putting them on the defensive by instilling in them a sense of alienation.

Multiple identities are an inevitable part of human societies and to be questioned to bracket them as first or second is a piece of human rascality. The question ‘Muslim first or Indian first’ is one of the smartest arrows in the quiver of the ‘Sangh Parivar’. It has no purpose other than to insult Muslims with a sinister design to ensure the acceptability of second-class status among them.

 Since Sanghis have no inhibition in equating religion with the national identity, it’s easy for them to say Indian first.

This is because they assume Hindus alone are Indian and the rest are outsiders. They want to create first-class and second-class citizens in India by asking the question ‘Muslim first of Indian first.  However, when the same set of people are asked whether they are Indian first, Brahmin first, or Hindu first, the veneer of Indian nationalism gets peeled away, and the identity of Brahmin first and Hindu second ooze out. Then such people come under the Muslim umbrella and say, all first!

Similarly, if they become a US citizen and question are you American first, Indian first, Brahmin first or Hindu first, they have to reconcile with their multiple identities and say all first, otherwise they will lose their US citizenship.

If we look into our past, India’s canvass welcomed all religions with equal zeal when they knocked at its shores. This is because of the openness of Hinduism that we find a beautiful spread of religions in our country. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians, all flourished and makes a nice mosaic of our plural society.

The southern shores of India welcomed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with open arms. We have a first synagogue, first church, and first mosque in Kerala, a synthesis that is difficult to see in any other part of the world. India, therefore, stands tall among the comity of nations where pluralism is the jewel in its crown. Even the most evolved societies of Europe are still grappling with the plural values that already exist in India. As a result, India is rich in terms of art, culture, architecture, and music from the rest of the world.

However, what is seen now in the country is that religion and nationalism are being entwined and put as bait for the Muslims. In this, there is a hidden agenda to make India a Hindu Rashtra and to corner the Muslims.

This idea is countered by the contemporary Urdu poet Bashir Badar, who answers the question of Hindu identity’s merger with the Indian identity. He says when a Hindu dies, his body is exhumed, his ashes are put in the river, the river merges with the ocean and no one knows with which water the body the ocean merges; (Kohre Tal Mile Nadi Ke Jal Se, Nadi Mile Sagar Mein, Sagar Mile Kaun Se Jal Me Koi Jane Na!)  The dead will never be born a Hindu again, so how can they claim the privilege, the title, and the ownership of India? In contrast, a Muslim is buried in the soil of his birth and his grave is a testament to the claim of being an Indian, the poet explains.

Well, religion is a personal thing to an individual. He cannot change his religion though he can change his geographical living space. So, loyalty to the religion is permanent, and to the nation is temporary. Today, a person is an Indian, but tomorrow he can be an American, Australian, or British. Whichever country one lives in he/she has to show his loyalty to that country to its people and freely practice his religion without any prejudice toward others.

In India, we are witnessing an agenda setting going on by mixing religion with national identity. This is to create a conflicting situation. With all identities stacked up, Muslims are being asked to identify which first. This is ridiculous because the individual has to live with all such identities and adjust to the society and country where he lives.

So, the final answer to the primary question, ‘Muslim first or Indian first’ is the answer to the question whether a glass of water is half empty or half full. The answer is both.

In the end, it can be said the only way to peacefully live in India is to steer the path of unity in diversity, secularism and pluralism, and peaceful coexistence.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. The views expressed here are author’spersonal. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com


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