“I charge you with communalism because you are bringing forward a law about monogamy only for Hindu community. Take it from me that the Muslim community is prepared to have it but you are not brave enough to do it.”
These words were spoken by J.B. Kripalani, who was decidedly not from the Hindu right, in 1955 during the parliamentary debate on the Hindu Code Bill. Kripalani was castigating then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru for being communal, a charge we agree with. Yet, it is Nehru who is upheld as a paragon of liberal and secular values, and generation after generation of intellectuals has internalized his dubious standard.
Malini Parthasarathy, director of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, echoed Nehru in a debate on Twitter, when she said that reform in the Muslim community should happen through “persuasion” rather than “imposition”. Parthasarathy said that India must take group rights seriously “if we want the world to believe that we are a genuine democracy.” But that does not answer why citizens affiliated to one religion should be “forced” to face difficulties in adopting children, for example—and if their religion is indeed opposed to adoption or other practices, why not let those individuals decide?
Even Infosys Ltd founder N.R. Narayana Murthy has argued that reform in the Muslim community should come from “them”. Delivering the first Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture in 2002, Murthy said on the issue of having a uniform civil code that the onus to introduce it should be on leaders of a given community “if they want their community to prosper.” Should Indians not care about the welfare and prosperity of their fellow Indians?
Many intellectuals and politicians dismiss as “communal” those advocating for dissolution of identity distinctions enforced by the state. Kripalani would have been called communal today. There are already special education schemes for minorities. Now, the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi has recommended that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme should have a special minority focus. Special courts are being created to expedite trials for Muslims. Don’t undertrials of other communities deserve swift justice? Why not reform the judicial system to speed up justice delivery for all Indians?
India rejected Nehru’s economic ideology of state control and government-led industrialization, embracing economic liberalism in 1991 with impressive results for all sections of society, as Columbia University economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya have comprehensively documented.
In the interest of social harmony and national integration, it is high time the Indian state breaks from Nehru’s construct of seeing religious minorities as “separate from us” and stops indulging in the “soft bigotry of low expectations” from certain communities. It is a construct that manufactures distrust in society and encourages Indians to be suspicious of each other because the state emphasizes our differences, rather than our common heritage, while making us compete for goods and services for which an artificial shortage is created by faulty economic policies.
Hamid Dalwai, a Marathi Muslim who faced ostracism from his community for being a radical reformist, understood this. He advocated women’s emancipation through education and employment at the social level, and for a liberal-secular government at the political level. In his book Muslim Politics in Secular India, he critiqued minority politics for continuing to further the separatist mindset of the pre-partition Muslim League.
The real problem, Dalwai wrote, was Muslim—or what would today be called Islamist—obscurantism. Dalwai also argued that the right answer to Muslim communalism is not its Hindu variant, but genuine secularism. Indeed, Hindu communalism is largely reactive whereas the Muslim opposition to separation of state and religion is theologically central is globally visible. Despite this reality, the intelligentsia attempts to falsely draw an equivalence between both.
Dalwai wrote that Indian Muslim intellectuals are more likely to blame Hindus rather than introspect. Things have not changed much since his advocacy for Muslim reform—indeed, leftists are more likely to support Islamists.
Advocates of religion-based group rights do not admit that social backwardness is hardly exogenous. It is not scientific to call for socio-economic adjustments across communities without asking why those disparities exist in the first place. In the case of the Muslim community, it is clear that some backwardness is endogenous because of the community’s attitudes towards women, especially women’s employment, as documented in the Sachar committee report.
Reform is the need of the hour, and entails confronting what Dalwai characterized as “obscurantist medievalism” rather than evading it under the deceptive label of “minority protection” and “secularism”. The new standard should be that anyone who claims that such reform is a “Muslim problem” is communal, for it is a problem for all Indians if a large section of India’s society is consumed by religion-sanctioned and state-enforced orthodoxy.
Scholars like Partha Chatterjee have pointed out that the Indian Right is simply not threatened by genuine secularism, and that if a strict separation of religion and state is accepted, this would—in his left-liberal view—be incompatible with religion-based positive discrimination.
This exposes the game of left-liberals—“formal” equality is not enough, the ever-subjective “substantive” or “contextual” equality is what will be demanded. Unfortunately, sections of the Right fall in this trap by failing to advocate the former, which would force the Left to explicitly defend the latter.
In their everyday lives, Indians continue to resist the divisive messages issued by the intelligentsia and are forging a deeper, common identity. In India’s melting pot—and urbanizing landscape—customs are cross-pollinating more than ever before, making for a unique and constantly evolving culture. It is government’s insistence on telling Indians what their identity is that creates fissures in society. Unfortunately, India’s first prime minister set this standard—it is time we changed it.
Rajeev Mantri is director of GPSK Investment Group and Harsh Gupta is a Singapore-based finance professional.