So, Digvijaya Singh shared the stage with Zakir Naik? Big deal!
Just before the release of My Name is Khan, NDTV invited Shahrukh Khan, Karan Johar, Alyque Padamsee and a few other guests to discuss whether Hindi films were stereotyping Muslims. As the star spoke one by one, discussing the portrayal of Muslims in Bollywood, a wiry man in a dark suit and a white skull cap, waited patiently for his chance on the stage. His name: Zakir Naik.
Around the same time, The Indian Express included Naik in its annual list of 100 Most Influential Indians, ranking him just below Sri Sri Ravishankar and above the likes of E Sreedharan and Akshay Kumar. "Comparative religion specialist Dr Zakir Naik has emerged as a cult figure of sorts among Muslims. His public lectures are broadcast on Peace TV (a channel aired in 125 countries that he runs with the help of donations) and recorded and sold in CDs," The Indian Express wrote explaining the preacher’s inclusion.
A few years before this, drawn by Naik’s reputation and arguments, Sri Sri agreed to discuss with him the nuances of Islam and Hindutva. While Naik spoke extempore, rattling off lines from various scriptures, Sri Sri appeared a little ill-prepared for the debate and had to even apologise for being lax, a point that was duly noted by those who followed the debate.
Naik, it is apparent, was a well-established Islamic scholar among media houses and religious gurus. He was accorded intellectual legitimacy and recognition across platforms, the privilege of company, debates and entry into elite lists.
Is it so surprising then that Congress leader Digvijaya Singh also shared stage with Naik, appeared on his Peace TV channel during one of his signature debates? Does that make the Congress leader a terror sympathiser, a villain?
Singh’s vilification for appearing in a TV programme with Naik is laughable considering that the Islamic preacher has been a public figure for almost a decade. For several years he has been organising TV debates where hundreds, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, participate in large numbers—some out of curiosity, some out of faith. And some, like Sri Sri, to compete with him in the battle of ideas.
Though Naik is in the middle of a controversy since investigations revealed his speeches allegedly inspired perpetrators of the recent Dhaka attack—and a few before that—it should be clear from the initial response of the Indian government that he has never been charged of complicity in any hate crime or a terror attack. So far, he has all the rights of an Indian citizen, including the freedom to speak his mind and meet anyone he wants.
The outrage against Singh is hilarious also because during his meeting with Naik the Congress leader actually exhorted the preacher to spread the message of peace. How does that make Singh guilty of endorsing hate-speech?
It is true that Digvijaya Singh starts salivating every time he sees an opportunity to influence minority voters and his appearance on Peace TV may have something to do with his eternal quest for appearing more secular than thou.
But that makes him an opportunistic politician, not a fan of Wahhabi ideology.