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‘Being the Other’ – Book Review by Rita Payne

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Rita Payne on a lament for a vanishing secular culture in India, one in which Muslims could feel comfortable

There are three key messages one is left with after reading Saeed Naqvi’s perceptive and moving book on what it is like to be a Muslim in India today.

First, at a time when Muslims are increasingly facing attacks and victimisation, Naqvi seeks to drive home the point that it is possible to be a patriotic Indian and a Muslim. Second, the gradual alienation of 180 million Muslims, the country’s second largest community, is dangerous and divisive; syncretism is vital to hold the country together. Third, it is still not too late to reverse the trend of considering Muslims and other minorities as ‘the other’.
Naqvi traces the decline in pluralism back to Partition and the creation of Muslim Pakistan, and draws parallels with his own personal story. He says the book had been germinating in him for nearly six decades, but first came into focus because of what he sees as an act of betrayal. This occurred in November 1989, when he drove down to Ayodhya to watch the consecration of bricks to build a Ram Temple where the Babri Masjid stood.
‘Even though the Babri Masjid still stood, I knew that it was only a matter of time before it would be brought down,’ he writes. ‘And with its fall, the whole charade of secularism and protestations that all was well in our country’s politics and attitudes towards minorities, especially Muslims, would come to be seen for what it was. As an Indian Muslim who loved his country and was fully invested in it, I felt betrayed. And angry because it could have all been so different.’
Writing more in sorrow than in anger, Naqvi lists other watershed events in the history of India that have led to the steady and systematic othering of Muslims. In his view much of this was by design, but at other times it was due to bungling by political and religious leaders. The result, as he sees it, is the same – minorities, especially Muslims, became increasingly alienated and insecure.
Naqvi believes the blame lies with both Congress, which was in power for the majority of the period since independence, and the BJP. Those who profited the most from this phenomenon were hard-core Hindu fundamentalists, who felt that it would only be a matter of time before they achieved the Hindu Rashtra that had been denied to them since independence by India’s far-sighted founding fathers. Unlike Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who secured an Islamic state for his countrymen, they refused to pander to sectarian demands.
Naqvi’s book is a lament for the vanished syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture which shaped his liberal secular outlook as he grew up in Mustafabad, near Lucknow. Pointing out that more was written about Krishna by Muslim poets than their Hindu counterparts, he evocatively describes being brought up in a Muslim home where the derivatives of Islam were set against a broad Hindu civilisational framework.
This timely book should be widely read, especially when, under Narendra Modi’s government, Hindu activists feel emboldened to carry out attacks on Muslims in the name of cow protection and other religious interests. Young Muslim men are targeted because of an alleged ‘love jihad’ – the claim that they are deliberately seeking to seduce Hindu girls. These are excuses for mob behaviour, says Naqvi, though he detects deeper influences at work.
The author thinks the creation of Pakistan is at the heart of the religious faultlines on the subcontinent: ‘We created a theocratic state which we would hate for perpetuity. We are trapped in this triangle: New Delhi-Srinagar, Pakistan-India, Hindu-Muslim.’
Naqvi’s book challenges traditional perceptions of the early leaders of India and Pakistan, such as Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. His thesis is that ultranationalism didn’t sprout suddenly in India. Although Jawaharlal Nehru, brought up by a British nanny, was westernised and more comfortable with the British, he did not strongly challenge leaders like Sardar Patel, who were early advocates of Hindutva.
Another question raised is why India’s politicians, power brokers, and ordinary citizens have failed to reach out, to bridge the divide between Hindus and Muslims, a divide that became more pronounced after 9/11. The tolerance and syncretism that had marked Hindu-Muslim relations for more than a millennium began to give way to bitterness and hostility, with incipient communalism gathering force.

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Naqvi expresses the hope that readers of his book will gain a measure of understanding of what is lost to communalism. Muslims aren’t the only ones who will lose, he warns: every Indian will, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain or atheist. A country divided by sectarianism or shaped along communal lines will no longer be India, says the author, and one only has to look back to the bloodshed that marked Partition 70 years ago to see what happens when communal hatred is given free rein.

( credits: Asia affair Magazine)

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Rita Payne, born in Assam, India, is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News (TV)

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