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The price of exclusion

RANJIT HOSKOTE

Ignoring the Sachar Committee's recommendations may be lethal, even as India seems to be allying itself more closely with the U.S.

PHOTO: A.M. FARUQUI

Inclusive approach: Create conditions for a more equitable representation.

BUSH the Younger has proclaimed it, and therefore it must be true. In a recent statement, made in the context of the Indo-US nuclear deal, President George W. Bush Jr. assured his compatriots of the coincidence of India's goals with those of the U.S. Being the world's largest democracies, he observed, both nation-states have been menaced by global terror yet remain committed to spreading the message of liberty across the globe.

Naturally, it would have been churlish to point out, on such an august occasion, that both countries have been thrifty with the message of liberty even within their own borders. Nor did the First Lord of the War against Terror underline a far more crucial feature that the U.S. and India have in common: a marked propensity for creating and sustaining enemies, through the exercise of policies that are so misguided as to be suicidal.

The only difference is that the U.S. has pursued this propensity abroad (currently in West Asia, as formerly in South-east Asia), while India pursues it at home, among its own people.

More worrying aspect

The enthusiasm with which we have nominated ourselves for the role of the American Empire's regional ally in South Asia seems to have blinded us to this other, and more worrying, aspect of the script. In this regard, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to make the link between the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the report of the seven-member committee, led by Justice Rajinder Sachar, constituted by the UPA Government to study the social, economic and cultural condition of India's Muslims. However unrelated these two developments may seem to be, at first sight, their intersection bears profound consequences for India's future.

To spell out the scenario in the simplest terms: the more closely we ally ourselves to the U.S. and participate in its schemes for global domination in the 21st century, the more vulnerable we will be to attacks from its key adversaries, namely, the forces of Salafism, otherwise described as global jihad or, more loosely, Al Qaeda.

And those forces will inevitably find receptive recruits among a large community that has been kept down, denied opportunities and entitlements; a section of the population that has been regarded with suspicion, singled out for genocidal violence, and humiliated by being treated as though permanently on probation for citizenship.

Right-wing propaganda

What makes their situation more intolerable is the long-running Hindu right-wing propaganda campaign, which insists that Muslims have been beneficiaries of preferment and special treatment, with a sequence of secular governments allegedly having `appeased' them. As against this, the Sachar Committee has irrefutably revealed the profound lack of educational and employment opportunities, and the consequently attenuated life choices, that confront the majority of Indian Muslims. If there was any official appeasement, it extended only to a dangerously oppressive clerical elite that has, ironically, contributed to the Muslim community's backwardness and ghettoisation.

The price of ignoring the Sachar Committee's recommendations — and of the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee that preceded it by 23 years — may be lethal. The frustration, resentment and anger of many young Indian Muslims at their utter marginalisation from the mainstream of national life may well prompt them to embrace the sense of a mission and the belief in apocalyptic redemption that Salafism holds out to its adherents.

This prospect should be considered alongside the likelihood that Muslims around the planet will become increasingly radicalised in favour of their suffering fellow believers in West Asia, should the U.S. persist in its policy of losing friends and alienating people in that region. In which case, this Republic will have only its own grave misjudgements and errors of exclusion to blame.

* * *

To put it bluntly: India can ignore the travails of its Muslim citizens only at its own peril. It courts catastrophe by leaving its Muslim citizens out of the narrative of progress. Admittedly, it is unfortunate that we must now seek strategic reasons to justify ameliorative steps that should have been taken long ago, in a compassionate and humanist spirit; that we must propose, as emergency remedies, measures that we were committed to undertake by the foundational charter of independent India.

And yet there is a more constructive way of phrasing this harsh conclusion: one that restores the sense of hospitality that once distinguished India's national space while also recasting the discussion about India's future in a cultural, rather than a purely strategic tenor.

Development deficit

The answer to the problem of national security in the future may not lie in the maniacal acquisition of weapons or the mindless deployment of paramilitary forces; it could lie, more probably, in a sincere and concentrated effort to overcome what the Sachar Committee has termed the `development deficit' against which Indian Muslims labour.

Perhaps the historical urgencies of the moment should provoke us to ask why the problems of India's Muslims have been treated as issues pertinent to a community rather than the nation.


Perhaps we should ask why a community should be asked to prove its nationalist credentials over and over again, when its members have articulated their subscription to the idea of a non-theocratic, pluralistic nation-state. Why is this community grossly underrepresented in the administrative services and the police? And is it a coincidence that, in many regions, the communalisation of governance has become a major source of crisis?

Relatively low literacy levels translate as a cruel barrier to entry for many Muslims, so far as the processes of public life are concerned; and an inward-looking tendency fostered in response to national indifference has caused many of them to renounce the right to participate in the public sphere.

Sources of discrimination

Clearly, the sources of discrimination must be identified and conditions must be created for a more equitable representation of Muslims in the nation-state's dynamic of governance. Equally, we must address the cultural challenge of creating space for Indian Islam and Indian Muslims in our idea of India.

Many commentators have called for the closer integration of the Muslim community into the national mainstream: a call that conceals deep disquietudes. For the goal of `integration' too often implies merely the procedural assimilation of a group into a mainstream that has already been named and defined; in this case, an idea of India that is underwritten by a tacitly Hindu world-view and Indic civilisational assumptions set in contradistinction to the West Asian belief systems and cosmologies. Observe the etymology of the word `assimilation': from the Latin assimilare, to render something much the same as another, at the cost of its own distinctive identity.

Notion of integration

The tragedy with the modern nation-state's notion of integration is that, while often disclaiming an official culture, it tends to adopt the majority culture as its standard and demands that every minority group should define itself accordingly. The challenge before the 21st century Indian nation-state would be to emancipate the Muslim community from the syndromes of other-imposed marginalisation and self-imposed ghettoisation; to catalyse its participation in public life while assuring it of the right to a cultural distinctiveness, with the proviso that this should not permit Muslim ecclesiarchs to contravene the Republic's basic charter of human freedoms.

At the risk of stoking the wrath of Hindu right-wing commentators, this writer would argue for a model of understanding and sensitive engagement that goes beyond the cynicism of fostering a Muslim clerical elite that can deliver votes to a particular party or coalition. We need more than Republic Day floats and token bows in the direction of Sufi music to demonstrate the pluralism and diversity of this country; what we require, urgently, is the incorporation of Islamic culture into India's symbolic imagination, in our perception of this country's cultural spectrum.

Sensitive approach

A more inclusive and sensitive approach to the writing of history would be integral to this initiative. Through an initiative that should span school-level education as well as higher academia, literary activity as well as the electronic media, Indians must find means of overcoming the deep-rooted (or hard-wired, if you prefer) prejudices against Islam, Muslim culture, and the so-called Muslim period in Indian history. These prejudices are, invariably, the products of a deeply flawed schema of periodisation created by colonial and nationalist historians, a reading of India's past that has conspired to divide our present and thrown our future into doubt.

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