When I first read the news about Asaduddin Owaisi’s speech at a public rally where he defiantly proclaimed that he would never raise the slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (Glory Be to Mother India) I winced. I knew that the speech would be covered extensively and would lead to enormous controversy. I winced also because the situation was very similar to one American Muslims had been through.
When an elite Imam with no grassroots presence declared in early December 2009 his grandiose plans to build a community center near the World Trade Tower site, he had no idea he would be offering Islamophobes like Pamela Geller a rallying cry. Exactly 10 months later on October 8, 2010, the New York Times published a piece describing how Imam Feisal Rauf’s plan had given Geller an issue to help coalesce different Islamophobic groups.
Geller’s hate mongering has helped usher in a climate of fear that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are exploiting today. Two weeks before Geller’s piece, I had told David Caruso of Associated Press and Anne Barnard of New York Times that had Imam Rauf consulted the Muslim community, he would have been advised the political climate in the country was not conducive to such an initiative; but now that the extremists were challenging the fundamental rights of Americans to build their place of worship, both the Muslim community and human rights groups were compelled to support the project.
I therefore winced and said out loudly “Oh no, not again,” as I read the news about Owaisi’s speech. Imam Rauf had no mass appeal, nor was Geller’s unholy alliance very organized, yet the Islamophobes were hugely successful on the issue of what they cunningly called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (it is more of a community center than a mosque and it was certainly not at ground zero). In comparison, the RSS with 6 million members is the largest and the most organized supremacist group in the world and Owaisi’s profile as a mass leader is well established. This controversy therefore has the potential to harm the Muslims and the pluralistic ethos of India much more than the harm done to US pluralism by the issue manufactured by Geller.
The progressives’ stance
In the US, the progressives always take the side of the discriminated-against minorities, even when the bogey of national security is used by the right wing. The civil rights groups are more organized than in India and the liberal media far more powerful. This is the reason that we have a Bernie Sanders here leading a different type of insurrection than the Trump/Cruz one. In India, many in the “secular camp” have already sadly put their bleeding foot in their mouth after having first shot it.
By agreeing to the demands of the Hindutva lobby to raise specific Hindu centric slogans and sing special Hindu-centric anthems as requirements of patriotism, they undermine the constitution. The founding fathers were wise and well-informed people who deliberated for years before drafting a great constitution. The constitution maintains and protects the pluralist ethos and the secular fabric of the nation. Many Indian secularists are anti-religion and those who have roots in the Muslim community are more so. The Muslim secularists are also under pressure to show that they are more anti-religion, for it was the Muslim community that had demanded the creation of Pakistan in the name of religion.
What the secularists fail to realize is that by getting on the slippery slope of creating new requirements for patriotism and citizenship, they strengthen the Hindu supremacists who wish to change India from a secular country to a Hindu nation. The secularists make such demands politically acceptable and this in turn leads to the expansion of the base of the BJP. The alienated and fearful Muslims turn in greater numbers to the Muslim-centric parties such as the Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen. The end result of getting on this slippery slope is that the leftists end up in a heap at the bottom of the slope after suffering electoral defeats. They start with the aim of combating what they think is Muslim obscurantism and end up strengthening Hindu supremacist and Muslim-centric political parties.
There would have been no controversy had Owaisi not raised the issue unnecessarily. The RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat had not demanded that Owaisi or indeed the Muslims should raise this slogan. He had initially planned to use this slogan to quash the nascent movement of the leftist students who were trying to organize against an increasingly authoritarian right-wing government. Asaduddin Owaisi is an astute politician as well as a lawyer. He ought to have known better.
He takes pride in his scholarship of the Constitution and the constitutional processes. His declaration, that he would not utter the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai” even under threat of life, appears to have generated exactly the controversy the proponents of the slogan wanted. They wanted to polarize the nation and rally the Hindu community around their saffron flag as well as create a schism among the Muslims, hoping that a significant portion of the Barelvi leadership will support the slogan. The RSS has also succeeded in putting the Congress and the Left on the defensive.
Fanning the slogan controversy is clearly a Machiavellian move by the RSS, the fountainhead of the Hindutva supremacist ideology. “Bharat Mata” does not refer just to the motherland but is generally understood to mean the embodiment of the motherland in the form of a Hindu goddess. By raising this issue just before crucial elections in India’s most populous state, the RSS is clearly laying a trap for the Muslim leadership. Owaisi has helped them lay it. While some Muslims say that he did so because he has a symbiotic relationship with the BJP, many think it was due to a lapse of judgment during a political speech. Still others blame his arrogance and lack of an inner circle of independent intellectuals and experts.
Irrespective of its etiology and motives, Owaisi’s stand will be supported by the organized Muslim religious leadership. This is not surprising as they are justifiably suspicious of the RSS attempting to impose Hindu hegemony over the country. They are also painfully aware that the “soft Hindutva” fronts have the same objective of weakening the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, the only difference being that they pursue their goal through the “back door.” The Muslim leadership is aware that their stand will help BJP in the elections but they feel that they have no choice but to resist this precedence setting move of the RSS to impose Hindu culture on the Indian polity. They are angry at Owaisi for dragging their community and the nation into this trap but feel helpless.
Owaisi must be criticized for raising the issue of “Bharat Mata ki jai” unnecessarily and handing to BJP a potent issue to further polarize India. Owaisi leads a party whose support base is fanatically loyal to him. There was therefore no political need to “activate” or mobilize this base. He appears to have gotten carried away in the heat of a political speech. It’s also possible that like many autocrats he does not think much about the consequences of his statements. However, to say that Owaisi is in cahoots with the BJP to explain his immature statements is not borne out by his track record.
Under the circumstances, the self-declared progressives such as Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar ought to have reacted differently to the controversy generated by Owaisi’s needless stirring of the hornet’s nest. They could have used this opportunity to educate the country about the rising threat to its pluralist ethos from the Hindutva radicalism fostered by the Sangh Parivar. There is a lesson in this controversy for the “secular” and “progressive” elites. They should follow the lead of the JNU students instead of scoring petty points over Owaisi. On his part, Owaisi the politician and Owaisi the barrister should also become Owaisi the statesman.
The pluralist nature of Indian society is facing its gravest threat in history. The time is now for people of conscience, whether progressive or religious, to find common ground in safeguarding the freedom of millions of Indians and of their future generations. This is the true litmus test of patriotism.
Dr. Shaik Ubaid is a New York based neurologist and community organiser