Shazia Ilmi's 'communal' remark isn't hate speech, it's just stupid

Shazia Ilmi meant to say something and said pretty much the opposite. She does not understand in a heated election cycle a savvy politician should never ever play sarcastic semantic games with words like “communal” and “secular”.

Sandip Roy April 23, 2014 13:20:20 IST
Shazia Ilmi's 'communal' remark isn't hate speech, it's just stupid

Shazia Ilmi clearly does not get the basic precept of Politics 101 in India.

In a heated election cycle, with everyone complaining to the Election Commission at the drop of a Gandhi topi, a politician does not -- make that: should never ever -- play sarcastic semantic games with words like “communal” and “secular”.

“Muslims are not communal. They have become too secular. This time they should be communal. They should think for themselves.”

A statement like that, whatever its context, however sarcastic, or “half-sarcastic” as she puts it, is electoral manna from heaven for AAP’s opponents and it leaves Ilmi with very little wiggle room. Her party realises this as well which is why Manish Sisodia, in desperate damage control mode, has been quick to say she should not have made these remarks because AAP does not believe in communal politics.

Ilmi is now protesting that was not her intent at all. In fact if you do listen to everything she said and its context she was making a pitch for voting for Arvind Kejriwal because he is “your own” rather voting for a Congress or SP just because that party says they are “secular”. But she managed to do it in the most addled self-defeating way possible.

Shazia Ilmis communal remark isnt hate speech its just stupid

Shazia Ilmi on the campaign trail, wearing a hat . Reuters

In this election cycle almost all the non-BJP parties have been trying to consolidate Muslim votes into their kitty by playing the Big Bad Modi bogeyman card.

Mamata calls him the face of riots. Congress appeals to the Shahi Imam to get Muslim votes. Mayawati says a Muslim vote for the Congress is a wasted vote. Even AAP’s own Yogendra Yadav tells the Muslims of Mewat that the only party really standing up to Modi for the horrors of 2002 is AAP because Congress has fled the maidan.

All of this begs an obvious question. Why is the burden of trying to halt the Modi juggernaut being thrust on the Muslims? As Shekhar Gupta points out in the Indian Express:

"The 'secular' group, led by the Congress, on the other hand, is pitchforking India’s Muslims into this unequal fight against the BJP. As if the responsibility of saving our secularism lies with our Muslim minority."

Ilmi was treading that line but completely flatfootedly. She was saying that in the name of protecting secularism, different parties were begging Muslims not to split their votes. Vote for us, they keep saying, not for development or jobs or policies, but because otherwise “the communal Modi” will win.

Enough with that kind of secularism, says Ilmi which yields the community no tangible benefits. It’s time, she says, for Muslims to be more selfish, to look after their own interest. But what she failed to add is the missing part of that sentence: be selfish and vote as other Indians do, for your personal interests and not as the community burdened with the task of keeping the BJP at bay.

What she vaguely said instead is, “Don’t be so secular. Look at your house this time… we should look at our own interest.”

That ‘interest’ presumably being good governance, lower electricity bills, freedom from rishwat culture – all the things that AAP promises. It’s not an unusual pitch from AAP – vote as citizens for the most qualified cleanest candidate, not as Muslims who must vote for whoever they have traditionally voted for – Congress or Samajwadi Party or whoever. It is also a logical argument for party fielding 'outsider' candidates to make to a community being urged to consolidate behind the person most likely defeat the BJP rival, irrespective of his or her merits.

Oddly this line of reasoning is also not at all in dissonance with the BJP’s official stance even though the party has gleefully pounced on her gaffe. Modi utters the sab ka vikaas mantra as if its tattooed on his tongue. At a BJP rally, its leaders, including and especially its Muslim leaders, lambast the other parties for handing out sops to Muslims like stipends for imams and muezzins instead of investing in their development so more Muslims get higher-paid jobs in the police force and administrative services like everyone else. So the BJP too is telling Muslims, vote in your self-interest because the BJP is promising a rising tide that will lift all boats.

As a friend quips, in this regard, much as they would strenuously deny it, AAP and BJP are actually in “violent agreement.”

The problem for Ilmi is that in trying to articulate her stand, she used words which are sacred cows in India’s politics – communal and secular.

“Communalism does not mean to incite hatred,” Ilmi has said by way of explanation. She is technically correct. The dictionary meaning of communal is “shared by all members of a community” or “for common use” like a communal kitchen. Or it can be used to mean “(of conflict) between different communities, especially those having different religions or ethnic origins.” In India the words communal and riot have been joined at the hip and we think of communal riots before we think of communal langars. Communal is the bad word evoking images of curfews, refugee camps and petrol bombs.

Secular, on the other hand is the good word, the one enshrined in the preamble as the adjective describing the sovereign republic.

Even the BJP has not dared to openly challenge that dynamic arguing instead that they are not communal, that their vision of secular is about uniform civil codes rather than appeasement. But it’s still Good Secular vs Bad Communal in our national morality play.

Trapped in the same oppositional debate, Ilmi ham-handedly flipped this Ram-Ravana dynamic on its head trying to argue that the Muslims should be good communal instead and think about the real interest of their community instead of falling for the entreaties of those who are seeking their votes in the name of a secularism filled with empty promises. Having ventured into entreating Muslims not to be 'too secular,' Ilmi foolishly ended up asking Muslims to be 'communal' instead.

Now she protests she said this “half-sarcastically” but alas, it will be up to her opponents and perhaps the Election Commission, not her, to decide which half was sarcastic and which half was not.

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