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Pan-Islam and Indian secularism
BY GNS Raghavan
August 25 2003

For a whole century now, since the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905 to create a new Muslim-majority province in the east, Indian Muslims have been favoured with special treatment. For the British rulers, this was dictated by the Imperial policy of divide and rule. In the case of Mahatma Gandhi who led the national movement for three decades, appeasement of Muslims flowed from his advocacy of unilateral, non-reciprocal love: He would time and again ask Hindus to stand before any Muslim assailants bare-chested and to "die without killing". For the Congress party after Partition and Independence, mollycoddling of Muslims and Christians has been part of electoral strategy to win bloc votes in a system which makes the candidate who wins the largest number of votes, even if much less than a majority, the sole representative of a constituency. 

A two-nation theory was implicit in the separate electorates provided for Muslims in the Indian Councils Act of 1909. This theory, promoted by the British, ignored the fact that, as Gandhi was to point out later to Jinnah, the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims (like Indian Christians) are descendants of Hindu converts. This fact is obscured by the unfortunate habit of Muslim parents giving their children outlandish names derived from Arabia, Turkey or other West Asian country. In contrast, many Christian families have not felt ashamed to bear Hindu names or to retain the surname of their converted forbears. Among notable examples are Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya, a leader of the agitation against Curzon's partition of Bengal in 1905, who proudly described himself as a Hindu Catholic, and Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa of Tamil Nadu, a patriot who was an exponent of Mahatma Gandhi's pro-nature and pro-people economics. 

Muslim separatism was unwittingly nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi when he extended support to the Khilafat movement though it was an expression of pan-Islam and a negation of nationalism. So keen was Gandhi on winning the goodwill of Muslim leaders that though he vigorously opposed boycott of British goods during his address to a Khilafat conference in Delhi on November 24, 1919, arguing that it was an expression of hatred, he reversed his attitude under Muslim insistence and made boycott part of his own eleven-point programme of non-cooperation. 

When, after the failure of the Khilafat movement (the Turks themselves overthrew the Sultan and formed a republic), Muslims of Malabar known as Moplahs turned on their Hindu neighbours in an orgy of violence and forced conversions, Annie Besant commented: "We have been forced to see that the primary allegiance of Mussalmans is to Islamic countries, not to our motherland." Gandhi, on the other hand, expressed regret that the Hindus of Malabar had failed to win the love of their Muslim neighbours. 

Both Nehru and Gandhi were irresolute in then-attitude to separate Muslim electorates. When the Lahore session of the Congress concluded on 1st January 1930, the time limit of one year set by the Congress for grant of Dominion status had expired. The all-party committee headed by Motilal Nehru had affirmed the democratic principle of territorial constituencies, and envisaged Dominion status as the immediate goal rather than complete independence. Elated at the lapse of the report known after his father's name because he would not be content with Dominion status (which is what he eventually accepted in 1947), Nehru as Congress president consigned the principle of joint electorates to the waters of the Ravi. 

By the time of Partition both Gandhi and Nehru had internalised the Two-Nation theory. This was strikingly demonstrated in relation to Jammu & Kashmir. Apparently finding it unnatural that a Muslim-majority State should accede to India, Nehru made his Government's acceptance of the Maharaja's accession provisional and conditional on ratification by a plebiscite to be conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. As for the Mahatma, he said at his prayer meeting on 25th December 1947: "The maharaja should clearly say that he is no longer the ruler: It is the Muslims of Kashmir who are the real rulers and they may do what they like." 

The rest is recent history: Nehru, the founder of Indian secularism, confining the reform of family laws in the mid-1950s to Hindus, leaving Muslim polygamy and instant talaq untouched; his daughter Indira Gandhi - who got the 1950 Constitution amended retrospectively in 1976 to write secularism into its Preamble - drawing up a 15-point programme for religious minorities as if they need to be treated separately from other citizens; his grandson Rajiv Gandhi getting Parliament to nullify the Supreme Court's judgement in the Shah Bano case; and the last Congress Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, conferring statutory status and the powers of a civil court on the Minorities Commission. 

The BJP stands for equal rights to all citizens and appeasement of none. Yet such is the hegemony of Gandhi-Nehru minorityism on the Indian polity that the Vajpayee Cabinet decided on February 4, 2003, to continue the subsidy of Rs 12,000 on air travel to nearly 72,000 Haj pilgrims. Abolition of the patently non-secular Haj subsidy is not part of the minimum common programme of the NDA on which the BJP-led coalition rests. Clearly, the emergence of secularism in the true sense, which alone can promote the integration of Indian Muslims with their fellow citizens, must await better times. 



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