By getting drawn into endless and needless controversies, Indian Muslims helping the Hindu Right

AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Caravan Daily

 IT’S seven decades since India became free. The world has changed beyond recognition. So has India from what it used to be 70 winters ago. The priorities, concerns and attitudes of its people have undergone a watershed transformation.  If anything has remained static in this forever-evolving landscape of mindboggling diversity, 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.

One day, he sees his Sharia under attack. At other times, either his religious places are threatened or there is a clear and present danger to his religious rights and sentiments. When he gets some time to breathe, he has to worry about his identity and physical protection. Many of these issues and challenges are recurring in nature. They fade away from time to time only to come back with 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 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. The 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 Anand Math (1882), the song has the poet addressing India as the divine mother or mother goddess and bowing his head in total submission before it. Look at this stanza from the popular English translation by Aurobindo:

Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,

With her hands that strike and her

swords of sheen,

Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned,

And the Muse a hundred-toned,

Pure and perfect without peer,

Mother lend thine ear,

Rich with thy hurrying streams,

Bright with thy orchard gleams,

Dark of hue O candid-fair

While this unusual tribute to India may make perfect sense to the Hindu majority, who find this marriage of the divine and the temporal in the motherland rather convenient and fitting, the Muslims have always baulked at treating the nation as a divine power and mother goddess.

This does not mean they love their country any less. It is just that their faith does not allow them to replace God with the motherland. Perhaps no monotheistic religion emphasises and celebrates the unity and oneness of God as Islam does. It does not tolerate any imitation and visual representation of God. It also strictly forbids visual portrayal of the Prophet and even of his disciples. This is something that Muslims have always found hard to explain to Hindu brethren.

The issue over Vande Mataram was ostensibly resolved after the Independence. Probably in view of the Muslim sensitivities and other religions, India’s founding fathers adopted ‘Jana Gana Mana,’ another great song by another Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, as the national anthem. Vande Mataram, however, remains popular.

(Personally, I believe nothing can beat Saare Jahan se Achcha Hindustan hamara! It brings out goose bumps all over. Ironically, it was penned by someone celebrated as Pakistan’s “national poet”. Visionaries like Iqbal, however, transcend the boundaries of nation states. They are the collective heritage of humanity.)

That decision on the national anthem by the Constituent Assembly should have put an end to the controversy. However, given the cynical, exploitative nature of our politics, the issue continues to pop up again and again. The politics of patriotism has been the bane of this country, with the Right repeatedly using it to target the vulnerable minorities.

India’s Supreme Court ruled long ago that singing Vande Mataram — or for that matter the national anthem of Jana Gana Mana — is totally optional and that nobody can be compelled to join in the collective crooning. But desperate politicians being what they are continue to flog this dead horse whenever they run out of original ideas.

And we have almost always played into their hands. We get easily worked up only to walk, eyes wide shut, into the trap laid by our adversaries. Remember the fatwa against Vande Mataram issued by Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind at its Darul Uloom Deoband convention some years ago?

JUH is an organization of eminent religious scholars that had been in the forefront of India’s independence movement and vehemently opposed the Partition. Hundreds of its scholars spent long years and even died in the infamous island prisons of Andaman and Nicobar for resisting the British rule over India. Darul Uloom Deoband, closely associated with JUH, is arguably the most respected Islamic university in the world after Al Azhar in Egypt.

Although I understand why we have qualms in saying ‘Vande Mataram’ what really beats me is why the Muslim leadership is forever fighting phantoms obsessing over non-issues at the cost of far bigger problems and challenges facing the community. By getting drawn into these endless and needless controversies and debates, we only end up furthering the Right’s agenda.

I have great respect for our Ulema. But is there no way of ignoring irrelevant issues and confrontational politics to focus on the real concerns and interests of India’s Muslims? My generation grew up in the 80’s on a heavy dose of oppressive, all-consuming Ayodhya mosque-temple politics. The Muslim leaders played right into the hands of Hindutva groups throughout those turbulent years, helping the very forces they claimed to fight.

Today, wittingly or unwittingly, they continue to play the same zero-sum game, reacting and responding to every balloon sent up by you know who. After all those years, they have not learnt a damn thing!  When do we realize that this disadvantaged and voiceless minority cannot afford to get bogged down by every issue and controversy raked up by the opposition? When will we learn to choose our battles wisely?

As if Indian Muslims do not already have enough of headaches, we are perpetually busy looking for fresh ones. In any case, under the current dispensation in Delhi whose love for all things Muslims is now legendary, you really do not have to go look for opportunities to get enraged.

This when the community, according to every social and economic indicator, performs worse than the lowest of the low in every respect. From education to employment and economic to democratic representation, the world’s largest minority remains at the bottom of the pit. What are our leaders, scholars and intellectuals doing to change this state of affairs? How long will they keep themselves and the community locked away in the past? Isn’t it time to let in the fresh winds of change? Indian Muslims need smarter, sincere leaders with smart strategies to deal with today’s challenges.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former newspaper editor. Email:[email protected])


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