The Vice-President of India, like the President or the Prime Minister, represents the whole country – all the people, and not just some of them, or the community he or she comes from. Unfortunately, the Vice-President of India, Hamid Ansari, has sometimes been talking like a spokesman for Muslims in India. This is not his job.
On 2 April, Ansari must have raised hackles all around when he called on the Supreme Court to reflect on how minorities can be protected from majoritarianism and clarify “the contours within which the principles of secularism and composite culture should operate with a view to strengthen their functional modality and remove ambiguities”
He also wondered aloud, without any sense of irony, whether Indian democracy may not be better served with a “more complete separation of religion and politics” – when this is precisely what Muslim organisations oppose. Throughout India’s journey from 1947, Muslim institutions have opposed a uniform civil code, the triple talaq and several other things. Recently, the Jamiat-e-Islami-e-Hind had the effrontery to tell the Supreme Court it had no business looking into triple talaq, a simple gender rights issue that should have nothing to do with religion. Nor has he spoken aggressively against the Haj subsidy, something that directly brings the state into a religious activity.
Ansari also didn’t stop to think whether India’s brand of secularism is impacting Hindus more than Muslims, where states directly control major temples (Tirupati in Andhra, Siddhivinayak in Maharashtra, and Sabarimala in Kerala). The state directly controls thousands of temples in the south, and even in some places in the north. Nor does he even seem aware that courts happily intervene in Hindu religious practices, but never those of Muslims or Christians. The constitutional protections given to minorities to run their own religious and cultural institutions excludes Hindu institutions in practice.
Also, is Ansari unaware of recent history, where Hindus have been ethnically cleansed from two neighbouring countries, and also from a Muslim majority state in India (J&K)? Majoritarianism, if it existed, would never have allowed the majority community to be cleansed from one of its states.
It is possible to take a more charitable view of Ansari’s speech, but given the context in which he asked for these clarifications, it is obvious that he is only talking about Muslim concerns when the state is run by the BJP, which has obvious links to Hindu organisations.
At the outset one must make it clear that the Sangh parivar has not helped matters by making “nationalism” a big issue, especially its narrow view of it, including the need for Indians to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” or “Vande Mataram.” The beef controversy was not only avoidable, but needed opposing. What people will eat, wear or speak cannot be imposed from above, whichever be the party in power. This statement applies equally to narrow definitions of secularism, where the Sangh alone is designated as communal, excluding many parties that are caste-based or based on support of minority communities (as in Hyderabad, Assam, J&K, Kerala and elsewhere). “Sickularism” is as bad as narrow nationalism.
However, Ansari has shown that he too is not above sectarian thinking from the way he is voicing the concerns of Muslims to the exclusion of the so-called majority.
Consider his various other statements, made at the 16th convention of Jammu University:
He said “any public discourse on India being a ‘secular’ republic with a ‘composite culture’ cannot overlook India’s heterogeneity…A population of 1.3 billion comprising over 4,635 communities… religious minorities constitute 19.4 percent of the total… Our democratic polity and its secular state structure were put in place in full awareness of this plurality. There was no suggestion to erase identities and homogenise them.”
One must ask: who is seeking to erase plurality? It is not the Sangh or the BJP government, despite the outlandish statements made by some members of the Sangh on “Bharat mata ki jai”. It is interesting that till some time ago, the Left used to proclaim India’s “composite culture” in order to deny its Hindu underpinnings; now Ansari is rubbishing the whole idea of a “composite culture” and says India is about “4,635 communities”.
Then he contradicts himself by referring to 19.4 percent minorities, as though they are some solid block that needs defending from the remaining 80-and-odd percent majoritarians. If India is a composite of 4,635 communities, we are all minorities and Hindus are not one solid phalanx of religious unity. There is no majority or minority. And certainly a Muslim population of 180 million cannot by any stretch of imagination be called a minority.
Ansari also failed to look at his own community’s efforts to erase plurality, with organisations like the Tabligh seeking to weed out any traces of Indian influence in Islam – worship at dargahs, veneration of pirs, etc. In Tamil Nadu, where Muslims were till recently more Tamils than Muslims, there is a concerted effort to Wahhabise them.
Elsewhere too, Muslims are learning to grow beards to emphasise difference rather than common citizenship, and even something as basic as “Ramzan” is being Arabised as Ramadan in some quarters. Ansari’s silence on this deliberate effort to separate Muslims from Indian syncretism is eloquent.
If attempts to homogenise Indians are reprehensible, surely attempts to homogenise Muslims are equally reprehensible?
Ansari also said that the “three accepted characteristics of a secular state were liberty to practise religion, equality between religions in state practice, and neutrality or a fence of separation between the state and religion.”
There is no bar on anyone practising any religion in India. So the first point exists in India. The second, equality between religions, does not exist, because Indian politicians have used the rights of minorities under Articles 25-30 (to run their own institutions without state interference) to ringfence minority institutions but Hindu institutions have become personal fiefs of politicians to run their rackets. We have made a mockery of Article 14, which guarantees equality before the law, by excluding Hindu institutions from the right to administer their own institutions. And some laws primarily apply to Hindus. A recent case in point is the Bombay High Court decision to force the Shani Shingnapur temple to give women the same rights as men (which is commendable) to enter the sanctum sanctorum. But the same is not explicitly applicable to the Haji Ali Dargah or other mosques.
And then Ansari made this remark: “The difficulty lies in delineating, for purposes of public policy and practice, the line that separates them from religion… The ‘way of life’ argument, used in philosophical texts and some judicial pronouncements, does not help… identify common principles of equity in a multi-religious society. Since a wall of separation is not possible under Indian conditions, the challenge is to develop a formula for equidistance and minimum involvement. For this purpose, principles of faith need to be segregated from contours of culture since a conflation of the two obfuscates the boundaries of both.” (italics mine)
Since it is obvious that only Hinduism describes itself as a “way of life”, Ansari’s target is clear: he wants the state de-Hinduised. Not objectionable in itself, but Ansari seems to want not only separation of state from religion, but also culture from religion. This is the only interpretation one can give to his statement that “principles of faith need to be segregated from contours of culture since a conflation of the two obfuscates the boundaries of both.”
Can faith really be hermetically sealed from the culture in which it grows? Is there no such thing as Indian Islam, where elements of local culture are inextricably mixed with elements of Islam?
Is Ansari a closet fundamentalist, who wants his faith to be untainted by local culture?
In fact, he contradicts himself again when he uses a quote from Left historian KN Pannikar, who said: “Whether India developed as a melting pot of cultures or only remained a salad bowl is no more the issue. The crucial question is whether Indian culture is conceived as a static phenomenon, tracing its identity to a single unchanging source, or a dynamic phenomenon, critically and creatively interrogating all that is new.”
This Pannikar observation was meant to tell Hindus to stop looking only at their past for identity validation, but Ansari seems to want to retain Indian Islam is a pure state that has nothing to do with local culture. Does he want to deny the right of Islam in India to Indianise by “critically and creatively interrogating all that is new?” If Muslims want to sing Vande Mataram, as AR Rahman did, would Ansari think this is an unwarranted mixture of culture and religion?
The real tragedy is that Ansari has reduced himself to a spokesman for his community rather than the Vice-President of all of India. And this is not the first time he has done so. In September last year, he made a specific plea to give Muslims reservations in jobs, when the constitution does not allow quotas based on religion.
Ansari has to be make up his mind whether he is just a Muslim or the V-P of India who happens to be a Muslim.