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Who speaks for the idea of India?
By Aijaz Zaka Syed
Ramachandra Guha belongs to a rare breed of Indian intellectuals. Historian, columnist and author of such eminent works as India After Gandhi, he tries to make sense of the challenges and dilemmas faced by the 65-year young nation with an honesty that has become his hallmark. Guha is in the news these days for his latest book, Patriots & Partisans. While I am yet to get hold of the book, the rave reviews it has received have considerably whetted my interest. Guha's focus is once again on the idea of India and what he calls "a very reckless and daring political experiment." "(Our) enemy is this notion that India must be defined by one religion and one language: Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan," he tells Tehelka magazine this week. "It's a nationalism that mimics Pakistan and Israel, also defined by one religion, one language and one enemy. It reduces and homogenizes India and must be resisted."

Guha laments the fact that nationalism has been monopolised by Hindutva groups: "The Left and liberals have allowed the Hindu Right to hijack patriotism. The idea of nationalism as defined by people like Tagore and Gandhi did not privilege a single language or religion. The BJP thinks the idea of India is bashing Pakistan.

Patriotism doesn't mean close-mindedness. It's a shame that liberals and Leftists have ceded the ground of speaking for this country and allowed the Right to hijack it." In arguing so, Guha perhaps speaks for many of us--the silent majority that stands and stares while the lunatic fringe claims to speak and act on its behalf and get away with murder. I know you aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead. But look at the manner in which the media and the whole establishment endlessly grovelled and fawned before a dead Bal Thackeray.

From President Pranab Mukherjee to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, everyone turned reverential as they offered copious tributes to one of the most divisive figures in India's history. From Maharashtra chief minister Chauhan to industrialist Anil Ambani, everybody who's somebody turned up for the funeral that brought the city that never sleeps to a standstill. Thackeray, wrapped up in the flag that he seldom respected and with full state honours, was given a farewell fit for a king.

Arnab Goswami of Times Now couldn't control his tears as he presided over a mourning marathon late into the night. Yet this was a man who had terrorized the economic and cultural capital of the nation and the nation itself as long as he lived. The ordeal of two Mumbai girls for their innocuous Facebook remark questioning the shutting down of the city on Thackeray's death shows that his redoubtable legacy lives on.

Justice Srikrishna, who probed the 1992-93 pogrom when Mumbai burnt like hell for months, had this to say about Thackeray and company: "Shiv Sena took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of Thackeray who like a General commanded his loyal sainiks to attack Muslims."

Around a thousand people perished in those attacks following Babri Masjid's demolition, in which the Sena played not an insignificant role. No government however could even think of holding Thackeray to account. The law couldn't touch him as long as he lived despite a mountain of evidence. And he has now been canonized as a great national leader.

It's not just their terror tactics and the potential to wreak havoc at the drop of a hat that helped people like Thackeray perpetuate their urban legend. It was their patriotic posturing and claim to speak for the nation with shenanigans like digging up of cricket pitches, targeting Muslims as traitors and demanding a 'manly' response to Pakistan that helped them build their power base and fortunes.

While Sena's menace has largely been confined to Mumbai, the Hindutva groups have done this on a national scale and with much more finesse and dexterity all the time wearing their patriotism on the sleeve. We all know how the BJP metamorphosed from an obscure 2-member outfit in parliament to rule the country. After Ayodhya, it didn't take the party long to emerge at the head of an alliance of mostly secular parties. Of course, Vajpayee's avuncular gravitas did help. Everyone chose to overlook its ideological baggage and all that it did in the name of Hindu pride and "correcting historical wrongs" on the way to Delhi. But it's not just the Left and liberals who are responsible for this state of affairs. The Congress, which led the freedom movement, willingly surrendered the centre-stage to the Right. Instead of confronting the Hindutva spectre, it indulged it and not just under Narasimha Rao.

It's this Congress proclivity to be all things to all people that has been responsible for the rise of the Right which acts as if it alone owns and cares and speaks for the country. Unless you totally surrender your identity and beliefs, you are an outsider and a traitor to Mother India. The Muslims aren't any less responsible for this state of affairs. They are to equally blame for allowing the Hindutva forces to hijack the patriotism plank and stake an exclusive claim to the national interest. Forever weighed down by the historical guilt of the Partition, they have done nothing but wallowed in self-pity allowing themselves to be used and abused by just about anyone.

Instead of demanding and getting their due as a nearly 200-million strong community, Muslims and their leaders have reduced their whole existence to life-and-death questions like Muslim Personal Law and triple talaq. Perpetually besieged and driven to the margins of Indian society, the community is almost apologetic for its existence and is easily gratified by hollow rhetoric and empty gestures. So what are they afraid of? It's their homeland, after all, as much as it's of others. It has been for over a millennium. Muslims need no lectures on patriotism from anyone. Generations of their ancestors lie buried in India and even ruled it for nearly 900 years. They should be proud of their legacy and all that they have given India. Instead, they are so defensive and diffident in their approach that they can't even express their love of the land, let alone assert their ownership and rights. While others never miss an opportunity to flaunt their patriotic credentials, Muslims are content with a mere foothold.

How long will India's Muslims remain stuck in the cocoon they have built around themselves and flagellate themselves for imagined sins? Historians have conclusively established that the Congress leadership was as much to blame for the Partition as Muslim League was. Besides, whoever was responsible, it has nothing to do with the present generations born long after 1947. It's not easy but it's absolutely critical that Indian Muslims shed their perennial persecution complex and get out of their mental and emotional ghettoes, if they are to move on. As Guha puts it, you must have a commitment to the land you live in. If we really loved and cared for India we wouldn't watch from sidelines like spectators or hold ourselves when issues and concerns that do not just affect us but millions like us are involved. Muslims must get involved to get their due. There's no other way. Patriotism cannot be the sole preserve and prerogative of one community. Indian Muslims' future and well being lies in the well being of their country and in making it a better place.

*(The author is a Gulf based writer and can be e-mailed at aijaz.syed@hotmail.com)
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News Updated at : Saturday, December 8, 2012
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