Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with a group of ‘Muslim intellectuals’ this week has sent the Bharatiya Janata Party into apoplexy. Muslim Appeasement! Election strategy! Secret meeting! Dividing India! Communal disharmony! A new partition! O my lord. Most of us did not make a big deal of the meeting. Politicians, party leaders and MPs routinely have meetings on many issues. A wide range of activists, academics, public policy specialists and experts across India participate in such meetings. We go and have conversations, and at the end of the day hope our arguments are persuasive, our concerns are heard. A democratic conversation with policy makers. End of story.
Well, the BJP clearly thought otherwise, putting on display what I must assume is its 2019 election game, to be crafted around virulent animosity to anything or anyone ‘Muslim’. So much so, that a mere meeting warranted a special ‘code-red’ press conference bursting with urgency and alarm. And the tone and tenor in which the defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the words – “Mussslim intellectuals” – with venomous, contemptuous emphasis, left no one in any doubt about her feelings for this group of Indian citizens.
India’s defence minister is free to attack her political opponents, including the Congress party all she likes, in whatever language she deems acceptable. But to so casually hold a press conference and impugn divisive motives to all those present at the meeting is a new low, even by the terrible standards of political discourse in this country. To suggest that all of us – academics, activists, writers, historians, economists, concerned citizens with a reasonable track record in civil society in a range of non-political fields – must be part of some sinister conspiracy to divide India merely because, in addition to all the other layers of our multiple identities, we also have Muslim names, is deeply offensive.
For the record, let’s bury the cynical fake news about Rahul Gandhi or anyone else present having said at that meeting that the Congress is a ‘Muslim party’, even though it would be interesting to speculate if Sitharaman seriously believes that such a party would have any democratic future at all in a country where 86% of the population are non-Muslims. Instead, what I want to figure out is why a politician – any politician, including the leader of any party – cannot meet Muslims as rights-bearing citizens with legitimate apprehensions? Unless the BJP is making the case that the only Muslims parties should meet are Muslim women victims of instant triple talaq. What precisely is the BJP’s argument? Are minority rights entirely off the agenda in democratic India today? Does the mere presence of people with Muslim names portend communal polarisation? Is one Muslim person ok? Perhaps eleven are too many? What on earth is going on?
Why cannot and should not all politicians have meetings with every marginal group in this country – whether Muslims, Christians, Dalits or tribals? Meet women’s rights activists. Meet LGBTQI people. Meet farmers. Or disability rights activists. Hear the voices of different groups of citizens, especially those who are being wilfully targeted and suffer in particular ways. It should worry us all if the party in power, seeking re-election in less than a year, does not believe in such conversations.
But of course the fact is that the BJP would not have tried to get away with such a baseless attack if any other group of people were being met. There would have been no angry press conference if an opposition leader met with a group of Dalits, or OBCs or tribals or women’s rights activists. Is it such open season on anyone with a Muslim name in India today that a Union minister no less, without the courtesy of seeking clarification from anyone of us, feels free to hold a press conference brandishing falsehoods, and tarnishing our reputations in this cavalier manner?
If the minister had done even a bit of fact checking, she would have found that the meeting was about an inclusive vision of India, with a shared goal of justice and development for all. An India of equality and equal citizenship. An India in which murderers and lynchers are not garlanded by Harvard-educated ministers. We spoke of the guarantees of the constitution. We spoke of a whole range of secular issues that Muslims confront and share with many other marginal groups in India – education, employment, poverty, and the terrible effect of a poorly implemented GST and demonetisation on those in the unorganised sector. No promises were sought, and none were given.
Many of us spoke of how increasingly fearful some of India’s weakest citizens feel today. Of the enormous damage the government has done to freedom and democracy in India. It has silenced speech, attacked academic institutions, slapped sedition charges on free-thinking students, failed to stop violence against women, curbed the movement of humble cattle traders, and promoted and encouraged the most unspeakable kind of violence against it’s own citizens – mostly Muslims, and Dalits, and now people from nomadic and denotified tribes (recently in Dhule, Maharashtra). This regime has unleashed the drug-filled high of mobocracy on all Indians. And I for one will accept the invitation of any politician or policy maker, to talk about these concerns, even if the fact of my having a Mussslim name puts the honourable defence minister in such a foul mood.
Farah Naqvi is an activist and writer who lives and works in Delhi.