Enough space for constructive criticism of Hamid Ansari's politics without getting personal

Demitting office after serving a rare two full terms, former vice-president Hamid Ansari held that "the Chair is like an umpire in cricket or a referee in a hockey match, witnessing the play and the players, but without becoming a player."

Ironically Ansari, a career diplomat and an academic, couldn't resist becoming a player before finally leaving the field, delivering a parting shot that could be variously interpreted as a wholly justifiable opinion or an intensely political statement. Predictably his interview to Rajya Sabha TV, where he proclaimed that Muslims in India are suffering from a sense of "unease" and "insecurity" under the present disposition, has given rise to massive controversy.

Former vice-president Hamid Ansari. Reuters

Former vice-president Hamid Ansari. Reuters

Ansari is no stranger to controversy, however. A self-confessed stickler for protocol, Ansari had earlier courted controversies for not raising his hands in salute of the Tricolour or not attending Yoga Day celebrations. These 'teacup storms' were patently silly. His moves were perfectly reasonable and justifiable.

In his final address as the V-P last Sunday during a convocation ceremony at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, Ansari had claimed that a new type of cultural nationalism is being practiced which, according to him, is an "illiberal form of nationalism", that "promotes intolerance and an arrogant patriotism". He also claimed that Dalits, Muslims and Christians are suffering from an "insecurity".

These are unquantifiable and debatable claims that need to be backed by verifiable empirical data. India has been witness to phoney debates over intolerance before. Numerous 'church attacks' have later been found to be unconnected, random acts of pilferage. Dalit oppression, while reprehensible and self-defeating, didn't start yesterday. Short of a neutral evaluation, statements like these are meant to serve a political purpose. There is nothing wrong with that approach, of course, but then these commentaries cannot be simultaneously taken as sweeping generalisations and unvarnished truth.

There was enough ammo in his Rajya Sabha TV interview (read the full transcript here) to raise the hackles of the ruling party and its allies, many of whose representatives have since attacked the former vice-president. His comments have also received an inordinate amount of attention in social media.

BJP's general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said Ansari has "damaged the country's image". Surendra Jain of VHP said: "It is unfortunate that Ansari followed (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah rather than adopting the paths of former president APJ Abdul Kalam and freedom fighter Maulana Azad."

Venkaiah Naidu, who took the oath of office on Friday as India's 13th vice-president, told news agency PTI the day before that it is nothing but political propaganda to call minorities "insecure" and that they are "are more safe and secure in India and they get their due". The vice-president needs to be reminded that giving the minorities their due isn't an act of benevolence but a constitutional obligation.

Ironically, these over-the-top reactions and personal attacks have ended up providing a moral legitimacy to Ansari's observations. It isn't a smart move to ask someone, who is complaining of intolerance at home, to go to Pakistan. It only serves to validate the statement.

There are enough ways to criticise Ansari's policies and critical thinking without dragging the debate down to ad hominem attacks. Ansari belongs to an illustrious family whose members have been deeply involved with public life. As the prime minister noted in his speech during Ansari's Rajya Sabha farewell, Ansari's "paternal grandfather, as well as maternal grandfather, happened to be presidents of Congress and also served as members of the Constituent Assembly". Members of his family have also been involved with the Khilafat movement that recognised a pan-Islamic identity cutting across national divides.

For a man of intellect, Ansari has frequently held problematic positions on matters of public policy. For instance, while addressing the convocation of Jammu University last year in April, the V-P had called for a more concrete separation of State and religion to stay true to the tenets of secularism which he defined as "more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance; it is a positive concept of equal treatment".

In his exact words, according to an Indian Express report, "The State is prohibited to patronise any particular religion as State religion and is enjoined to observe neutrality… Programmes or principles evolved by political parties based on religion amount to recognising religion as a part of the political governance, which the Constitution expressly prohibits…”

It is a very measured and reasonable position, more so in a country where religion has been cynically used as an electoral tool to trigger riots, justify genocide, ghettoize minorities and deny them their right to equal partnership in India's growth. However, separation of State and religion would also require uniformity in law. Ansari is either silent on Uniform Civil Code or falls back on problematic positions like saying courts shouldn't interfere in matters of Muslim personal law that governs regressive practices such as triple talaq.

Asked about his opinion on triple talaq that has seen an apolitical movement rise among the ranks of Muslim women who have overwhelmingly spoken against it, Ansari denounced the practice as a social aberration but held the courts shouldn't step in because the "reform has to come from within the community". It is nothing but an abandonment of a cause that has far-reaching implications for Muslim women.

His argument about state's equidistance from religion is fair but he willfully skips the fact that Hindus, more than minorities, have been at the receiving end of state's interference.

As R Jagannathan had written in Firstpost last year, "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."

Ansari's advice for the government in inclusive development (sabka saath, sabka vikas) includes an urge for religion-based reservations. He spoke about it during his September 2015 speech at the golden jubilee session of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat in New Delhi. In his words, "a pre-requisite for this (inclusive growth) is affirmative action (where necessary) to ensure a common starting point."

He repeated this during the RSTV interview without mentioning the word 'reservation', which he said has come to mean a negative connotation. "Affirmative action is much better expression, you take action wherever it is necessary for whoever it is necessary."

Equitable growth seems to be already in peril in a paradigm where every caste group wants their share of the reservation pie, and hitherto land-owning upper caste groups have joined the bandwagon. The Patidars are up in arms in Gujarat, Jats are incensed in Haryana. In Andhra Pradesh, six upper-caste groups have decided to follow their example. On Thursday, a massive Maratha rally brought entire Mumbai to stand still, and the agitation stopped only after chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced a bunch of sops. It is a dangerous idea to introduce religion-based quotas into this mix.

Author and commentator Tufail Ahmad had one pertinent question for Ansari in his New Indian Express column, written shortly after the speech: "To Ansari: let’s assume all jobs are given to Muslims. Will that end the Muslim backwardness? Barack Obama became America’s first black president because he led all Americans, not just the blacks. India is yet to produce a Muslim who could present himself as the leader of all Indians."

That will sadly remain the legacy of Ansari, an erudite man who failed to rise above the constraints of his religious identity.

Updated Date: Aug 11, 2017 20:09 PM

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