Salman Khurshid, lawyer and politician and former external affairs minister, argues in his new book that the BJP is pushing the triple talaq legislation but avoiding the real issue of empowerment of women, especially those who are abandoned.
“The real intention is clearly to chip away at the personal laws and bring in the Uniform Civil Code,” he writes in his new book Visible Muslim Invisible Citizen: Understanding Islam in Indian Democracy. The book sweeps through the issues facing Indian Muslims and looks at the contribution of Muslims to the republic. It also explores the dilemmas currently facing Muslims of the country. I
In a wide-ranging discussion with Sidharth Bhatia, founding editor of The Wire, Khurshid goes over some of the main issues explored in his book. The discussion was held in Mumbai under the auspices of the Asia Society.
Sidharth Bhatia: Salman, and thank you to all of you for coming. It’s been a very, very heartening turnout, I got a little worried that the rains might dampen our spirits.
Salman, your last line – hopefully, it’ll lead to an optimistic book. Is this a pessimistic book?
Salman Khurshid: It is a realistic book, and realism can sometimes be irksome and distressing, and the reality of our lives today, some people might say leaves a lot not to be concerned about. People often ask whether it’s fear, it’s a worry, it’s a dark tunnel, and they are being optimistic. There are lights around but the realism and the reality of our lives today must be admitted. And to that extent, you might see a little pessimism, but I hope that at the end of the day you’ll find this book to be realistic, hoping that something better than this realism will happen in the future.
SB: Now, I read the book and I really think anyone concerned about what’s happening in this country ought to. Your title – I found very, very evocative and interesting, ‘Invisible Citizen’. Muslims are a visible minority. I really think 200 million is not something that qualifies them to be a complete minority. Yet, as citizens, they are being marginalised from public life. There are hardly any Muslim MP’s.
The BJP chose not to give a seat to anybody and I’m afraid your party also distanced itself a bit. In terms of policymaking, not just public life, there is attention on them, the effort about them seems to be, you mentioned triple talaq, for example, which seems to be in ways that they are not kept in mind, I won’t say centred but kept in mind. The Congress brought out the Sachar committee report which is being talked about. So you say its not topical, but have you been feeling that they are receding into the margins of the last, say 5, 10, 15 years?
SK: This is a tough question to answer. I think the bottom line is yes, Muslims particularly, but I guess some of my statements would apply to other minorities as well, but they have different concerns and different parameters for judging their condition. Muslims certainly have retreated from public space. Now is that by design of others or is it by a careful strategy of Muslims themselves, is something that could be debated. When you mention my party, yes questions have been raised about my party and my party’s approach. I have said in my book, there is a difference between ideology and strategy, and it may well be that my party has taken to strategies in very difficult circumstances to ensure that there is the least damage caused to the party and to the very people whose causes we advocate as in any democracy.
But on ideology, I still say very firmly that we haven’t retreated. In the case of many other political parties, I believe there is a lack of ideology. There are only periodic strategies and sometimes they serve a purpose [to Muslims] and sometimes they don’t serve a purpose, so it’s only strategy. In our case, I believe there is a balance between ideology and strategy but the totality of the outcome is that they seem to be disappearing from the public space. Some of them have just carefully withdrawn and said ‘let’s wait for the ways to pass’, and some of them, I believe, have been pushed back. But at the end of the day, we need to think about whether what is happening is good for us as a country, as a democracy, or is it an aberration? Is it something that’s becoming the new normal, and that we’ll have to live our lives differently? These are the questions I think that are still open and the jury’s out with these questions.
SB: So, assuming that because I think I would go along with some part of what you said that there is a kind of, if not a tactical retreat, at least a sense of saying we are citizens of this country, there is a place for us, we need to get on with our lives. I, after talking to a lot of people around this city, and middle-class Muslims, have often heard them saying education may be one way ahead. Yet, there are definite personal societal and institutional prejudices working. Do you think there is a sense of being deceived or there is a sense of saying this is a phase?
SK: Well, I think my impression, from wherever I have been, is that it’s a phase, its an unfortunate phase and that this too will pass. There isn’t yet, thank god, a sense of feeling deceived, there isn’t a sense of feeling entirely alienated. And then I must pay tribute to the enormous number of people from the majority community who have stood their ground and have advocated and have fought for the cause of Muslims. I think that is extremely, extremely important. That’s what will keep us together. It’s important that we don’t allow Muslims to drift away and go back into intellectual ghettoes.
Having said that I must also flag failures of Muslim institutions. They have thought about themselves entirely and not enough about things that may concern other people. Their participation in public discourse, where the issue is not about Muslims and minorities alone, is very, very sparse and I think that is very sad. Secondly, the impetus for reform must come from within and I have advocated that, that the impetus for reform has to be much greater. It’s being done after all. Sir Syed who established a liberal university, having visited Cambridge and London, was obviously ridiculed for doing what he was doing, establishing a university like Aligarh and yet he stood his ground and said this is something we have to do and he did it. Therefore, why can’t there be more like Syed in our institutions today is the big question and that the community must answer itself.
SB: Well, so the last couple of points which are similar about the kind of reform, I actually read in a couple of places you also have talked about moving with technology, moving with societal changes, not being stuck in “Muslim issues” alone but participating. The general sense is that, and this may be prejudice or this may be just our perception, that progressive liberal voices often don’t get vocalised or heard. Of course, we should not fall into the trap of looking at channels for example, but the loony fringe is there because they shout, some you mentioned some vague fatwa from some vague mullah becomes headline news. He may not speak for anybody but the perception people walk away with, and this could be just lack of ignorance, is that only those voices are being heard. Now you take somebody like yourself, you are articulate but you are not visible in public life as much as you used to be. Similarly, there are a lot of other people, so does that add to the sense, even among other people, that Muslims want to be left alone or that they want to be represented by those voices?
SK: You’ve asked me a question in answering which I could have this audience sitting here for a week and certainly for me to be able to prepare the script of another book. I have no complaint at all that the system within which I operate finds limited space for me to be able to say things of the kind I have said in the book. I wish I had that space and I wish I could do it more effectively but it’s not possible because I’m not a journalist, I’m not a public speaker, I’m not an activist.
SB: But you’re a politician.
SK: I am a politician who can’t win his election. If you’re a politician who can’t win his election in 2014 to 2019 and there are many of us like that, but lets restrict it to a Muslim politician who can’t win his election in 2014 and 2015, I don’t blame people for saying, we don’t need to give them space because nobody listens to them. Now, why does nobody listens to me is because we have a political landscape in which there are certain people who will listen to me if I spoke the language of my dear friend Owaisi, and if I had a constituency in which those kinds of people lived, but I have to go and speak to a constituency like yours where I have to speak to everybody, and I have to speak a language that everybody understands. And when I speak the language that everybody understands, somebody else goes and speaks the language that only Muslims understand, and therefore I come back to Delhi and they ask me “did you get any Muslim votes” and I say, “Well, not really. It was Mulayam Singh who got all the Muslim votes”. And they say, “well, go back and sit in the green room, there isn’t any space for you because you don’t seem to communicate to anyone”.
SB: No, but there is a kind of complexion there because even in Farrukhabad, where you perhaps speak to the whole constituency, they may or may not vote for you, and I think lately they have been alienated from you, but that constituency also seems to have given up. So this is a personal question, are you falling in between those two stools, because you don’t seem to be pleasing the Muslim community and the so-called cosmopolitan…
SK: No, Farrukhabad doesn’t have a cosmopolitan, I mean I..
SB: No, neither.
SK: I should be contesting from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, etc. I should come away from rural constituency, it is looking for something that I am not being able to offer them today. But understand that I won that place twice and therefore its the same people, they may have changed, younger people might have come, it’s the same people. But today I lose an election because the people who have voted for me over the years suddenly says to me, “please, please understand, we can’t vote for you this time because if we vote for you we will be helping the BJP. So allow us to vote for someone, SP, BSP combined, allow us to vote for them because they have a chance to beat the BJP.” And I kept telling them that’s not going to beat the BJP because they can only get your vote and nobody else’s vote.
They can’t beat the BJP but people wouldn’t listen, people thought it was going to be. So I am actually in a sense falling between two stools for different reasons than you say. Now, I have to get out of those two stools and how do I get out unless I have a larger platform where people understand that there is something that has to be said to this country and that is this book and whatever I say to you here has to be said. Now, if I can’t find a platform in Farrukhabad, somebody must facilitate a platform for me, but are we concerned enough to bring in liberals to be able to speak this language or are we not? Secondly, there are lots of people who compete for this space, who compete by running down Muslims and I don’t want to name but they have run down Muslims saying they are very backward, very jurrasic, very silly etc. you must change.
This is something the progressives were saying at one time, whether it was the Aligarh, whether it was the Muslim personel law Shah Bano, they have now taken a second look and said ‘well, we know that all these things had to change and we were against all of them but being against all of them we have landed up bringing in a demon who uses these very items to run another game here in this country’. But the liberals that keep it from amongst Muslims, don’t seem to have realised that.
They are still saying all this has happened because you kept looking at personal law, you kept looking at various other things etc. so there is a confusion of opinions that are coming out and therefore for me it was important that people who are Muslims and people who are not Muslims, who are Hindus and Christians and Sikhs, understand what is it that we are trying to say and it doesn’t matter if you don’t get back into parliament. The point is, there is a larger space than parliament, and it is this country and that’s why I am here today. If I can’t speak in parliament, I will at least speak to you here.
SB: Okay, which brings us.. you claim that this book is topical but only accidental.
SK: Not like the prime minister.
SB: So, you touch upon something which is really fresh even at this moment, it’s in the news, in different ways, that is triple talaq, and you have gone into a deep explanation of the religious or Islamic aspect of the triple talaq. In fact, you have nuanced it quite well by showing the triple talaq is just one way that women’s rights are otherwise protected. But you say that, and I would like to read a couple of lines here. You’ve said, “Shorn of all the noise and harangue, the issue is not really about the empowerment of women because then the government should have been looking at enhancing the benefit and protection given by Muslim women protection of rights on divorce act 1986, and other protective legislation”.
And then you go onto say “rather the BJP government chooses to continue the facade of acting for the empowerment of Muslim women while avoiding the larger debate around the UCC. And there slow but steady erosion of minority person laws.” So you are saying, that there is perhaps some mischief that ultimately they want to create in that direction. So I have a two-part question. Would you say that this is just a make-up that this government has been using to head towards UCC, for example, while all their pieties of rights of Muslim women notwithstanding, and secondly is UCC such a bad thing?
SK: Before explaining triple talaq, it’s important for a lot of people… UCC may be a very good thing but the question thats to be asked is what will UCC be? Is it going to be a replica of one particular religious system or will it be something completely new and different? Nobody has ever said that. Nobody has ever explained that. There is already an optional UCC available, and this is the special marriage right, where a couple can decide to choose the so-called secular law rather than personal law, but that’s a matter of choice.
SB: Sorry, I just want you to clarify that. So, therefore, even Muslim women can choose.
SB: And if she gets a divorce she gets it via that?
SK: Absolutely, no problem at all, that’s available. Now, for somebody whose argument UCC should say “its available today, it’s optional. We won’t make it compulsory”. And for me, a liberal, things should not be made compulsory unless there is a very good reason for doing so. But provide that many options and educate people about those options, etc. so that is one point. The second point is the triple talaq. Let’s just think about it carefully. The Supreme Court has said, right or wrong whatever, but it’s finally a Supreme Court judgement, there is no such thing as triple talaq, full stop. And the world over, similar legislations and similar judgements of courts have put an end to triple talaq, so you cannot have triple talaq.
But what do they mean by saying triple talaq? They have not outlawed triple talaq. Nor is this legislation that is coming in parliament outlawed triple talaq. It has only outlawed an instantaneous form of talaq. So if I say ‘talaq’ once and I expect that it works instantaneously, that is also bad. And if I say ‘talaq’ a hundred times and it’s not instantaneous, then it doesn’t matter. The problem is the period of three months that is given to a woman to get the protection she needs, which under the 1986 Act provides for a one time provision, which could be like a settlement during those three months – all that must happen before talaq kicks in. Before that, there should be reconciliation between the two sides etc. payment and so on. So whether you say it three times or whether you say it once, as long as it’s not instantaneous, as it cannot be, there should be no problem.
On the other hand, the three times means that the provision for reversing the process of talaq, that is not available to the man beyond the third time. So the third time you say talaq, that option is gone. So it is nothing to do with the woman, it is to do with the man, his option to reverse his talaq is over the third time. Any time he reverses, the women still has to come into the picture, give her consent etc. So what is it that they are saying today? In the legislation, they are saying that triple talaq is void. But neither the Supreme Court nor parliament is saying the triple talaq includes the first talaq. Talaq first, talaq second, talaq third.
The first talaq gives him talaq, but the three months kick in, so there is no instantaneous talaq. It can’t be that you send a man three times to prison for two years, he comes back to the same wife, same home, same children, and says I am your father, your wedded husband, it can’t be. It’s absurd, it doesn’t make sense. Now, why don’t Muslims understand this and why don’t non-muslims understand it? And why don’t we consider that this comes in a packaged deal with no-fault, consent, divorce system in which the wife and the husband can come together and get divorced, or a wife can seek something like formal talaq by asking for a khulaq. There are certain formalities there also, just as there are formalities in a talaq. And this system is now being replicated in the world 1400 years later. And yet everybody says this is jurassic.
SB: But her rights are protected.
SK: Her rights are always protected. She…
SB: Under Muslim law?
SK: Absolutely. Now someone says, well it can be protected under Muslim personal law but, in fact, it does not happen. But in fact, a lot of things don’t happen. Strengthen the law, strengthen the enforcement of law, ensure that there are systems that will ensure she gets what she deserves, but what does she have in Muslim law? After talaq, she has a period of three months in which she must have maintenance, residence, now under 1986 Act, she must have adequate provision made for her, depending on the conditions in which the wife lives and the man has. That provision is a one-time settlement, no law in this country provides that so easily within three months. All that’s available, reconciliation, proceeding before talaq kicks in. After that, nahar must be paid over if it hasn’t been paid over. That’s what Islamic law provides. If she asks for a khulaq you go through the same procedure and she would be entitled. There is no-fault system, she simply has to say “I don’t want to live with this man anymore”, and she can get a khula. They can both come together in mubarak, they will get a divorce by mutual consent. All that is available to the woman. Now, I wish people that argue for this being jurassic, this being unfair to the woman, should say “this is what it offers, I still think this is not good enough”.
SB: But for the sake of argument, the Muslim women activists who were against it were also saying this is very very outdated and because women are being left to fend for themselves.
SK: They did, they absolutely did. They are the ones who came to the Supreme Court, and all of them I believe, if not every single one but most of them, actually said they are against the triple talaq bill. The same women. They are good to come and challenge it but they are not good enough when they challenge the bill. That’s very strange. That’s very strange. Now, those women can have different views and despite them having different views, you can debate with them to say “what else do you want?”. Has any woman at all questioned talaq? Talaq is never being questioned. All you need to do is, as some systems have done, they’ve said if you say talaq three times, it means only once. That’s the simplest way of doing it. So your real concern is if the women is provided for after talaq. And if that is provided, then what is the matter with talaq? And there are all other legislations that apply equally to a Muslim woman who is divorced. What about a deserted woman? What about a woman who doesn’t get a talaq, who doesn’t get anything? She just gets deserted and thrown out of the house. What is the protection she has? The same protection should be available.
SB: Which takes us back to the earlier high profile incident of a woman being deserted, that is Shah Bano.
SK: I thought you were talking about somebody else.
SB: No the high profile case. I can talk about it. but I think the Muslim personal law doesn’t apply there, as far as I know in that particular case, but in the Shah Bano case, the conflicts between the party that we belong to and a lot of people said then and I am sure you know that that you took highly conservative positions on it. So have you travelled since then and looking back do you feel that things need to move in a particular direction? And the other is how we look back on that particular moment, incidentally, your book does not take up that you have not gone in deep into it at all. There are a couple of references. But don’t you think that was a very seminal moment in terms of understanding community relations?
SK: Well, a lot of people believe it was and as I said, whatever I describe to you now on talaq is what I said then. I have not changed at all, so it isn’t that because of the consequences that we have suffered, if at all we have suffered consequences, I am not going to change my position and dress up triple talaq and present it in this form. I am still saying triple talaq itself is a meaningless concept. Supreme court has said so, it has said there is no such thing as triple talaq. But there are government ministers who are saying, even after the Supreme Court judgement there were 150 triple talaqs. But even after Supreme Court judgement on murder, there are 150 murders which doesn’t mean that they keep passing laws saying murder is outlawed, murder is not permitted, nor is triple talaq.
But triple talaq of the kind in which there is instantaneous desertion of the wife, this is something that must not apply, and my position will remain the same. A lot of people believe that what we see today in terms of the political atmosphere in the country happened because of Shah Bano. I think it is about as simplistic as things can be made. A lot of people believe it has happened because a temple wasn’t allowed to be built in Ayodhya, I think this is also simplistic but less so. And a lot of people believe that because Aligarh Muslim University is still called a Muslim university, this is happening in the country. Now if it’s a matter of retreating on every position you think is a correct position, unless you’re persuaded that this is not a correct position, we are back to the topic of the book which is ‘remove your visibility and you’ll be fine’. Just stop being visible, by saying things you believe in, by doing things you believe are necessary, by exercising your rights under the constitution, stop doing all that and you will be fine.
SB: You mean lay low and keep your eyes down, and get on with your life.
SK: Change your names, look different, wear different, eat different, speak different, and then you’ll be fine. Now if that is the kind of country we want to live in and that is the country people have decided to live in, then that is okay. But I am convinced, and I have said so in the book and I will say it again, despite the huge majority that Modi has gotten in the 2019 elections, the majority of people in this country, and when I say this I mean majority of Hindus and majority of Muslims do not believe in a theological state and they do believe in the constitution and that they will never go wrong and support what is believed to be a mandate for turning us into one country, one system, one language, one food, one cloth.
SB: But I had to persist, you had not written a full exposition on what had happened then and why it is important in its own way and some of the positions you took. Do you feel there is no need for an explanation?
SK: No no, it’s been done elsewhere, I have done a book on triple talaq, Oxford University Press, where I talked about Shah Bano, but it happened a long time ago and for some people it is topical but for me it is no longer topical, because we have moved on from Shabanu to Shayara Bano. So I think it is better to talk about Shayara Bano than to talk about Shah Bano. But if somebody wants me to go back and write the history of all Muslim women one day, perhaps I will include it, but there are lots of people better equipped to do that and I am quite happy to help them if they want to write something like that.
SB: Again, do you think that there is, to put it crudely, a game plan to further marginalise a community because if you even look at NRC, though of course even non-muslims are part of that, but if you look at that, if you look at not giving votes, if you look at a population in which a political party can come to power overwhelmingly without bothering to say anything about minorities or marginalised people, so you said that Muslims might feel that they should now keep a low profile, but is there a plan to make them worse than low profile and just shut them out?
SK: I have not studied the mind of the government and people who have supported this government. But when I see ordinary people, and I said that people who voted for the BJP and voted for Modi, they don’t go around saying that now that we have won, you must conform. I don’t see people saying that. I see people being reassuring, saying India will prevail. I see people coming to events like this and speaking their mind and saying we are all there together. So I don’t really believe that there is a desire everywhere amongst people who voted for this, but whether this is in the minds of people who believe they have succeeded in getting India the vote for them, specifically on this point, I mean there are some crazy people who talk about ‘if you don’t want to do this, go to Pakistan’. Why should anyone?
SB: Well, even Hindus like me are told that on a routine basis.
SK: Well you are half Muslim. You have a beard and you espouse these causes so you are certainly half a Muslim, an honorary Muslim.
SB: Well that’s wonderful but I keep asking why I should go to Pakistan and not another country.
SK: Well I think the intention is if enough of you go to Pakistan, you will change Pakistan.
SB: On another point, I tend to slightly disagree with you because I think you scratched the surface or scratched the skin and maybe not even half an inch below that skin there are prejudices. Especially among the so-called middle classes and elites, I must tell you, during a lot of research here in 1992-93 which you would remember was a horrific time for the city, I found then something, I had never given a thought to, that there are companies which will not have Muslims for example and these are companies by extremely enlightened people, so I am not so sure if one can be so sanguine.
SK: Well I am not saying that it doesn’t happen. I am not saying that you can walk in and get a landlord to give you a flat despite but I am prepared to believe that it perhaps happens more in one side but it isn’t that it doesn’t happen on the other side either. There are reservations that people have and I think a landlord who is vegetarian saying to a Muslim that “I am happy to give you this place but we live downstairs and we are vegetarians and thus if you don’t mind, nothing more than just this, that we are vegetarians”. This is the kind of accommodation that one should accept.
One shouldn’t get on a high horse about what is this, why should we all comply with your way of life and so on. I have often said there are times in religious events and festivals, roads get blocked. In Mumbai, you know that they get blocked when the processions take place here. Often it’s only seen as a complaint against Muslims praying on the road on a Friday. This is something on which I think a conversation and accommodation is possible. It’s a day for you, a day for me, it’s two days for you, one day for me. We shouldn’t be exactly and say you do two days so I will take two days. That is not the attitude in which civil society and people living in the civic sense approach each other. So some of these prejudices do exist but they are really harmless prejudices. That man who will not give you a job would not lynch you. The same person will say I didn’t take him out and lynch him, I only said I am not giving him a job because we have a system, we are happy with people who come from our area, we are happy with people who speak out language etc.
It happens everywhere in the world and I think we should work towards removing these kinds of reservations, I call them reservations rather than prejudices. But we shouldn’t get too upset about them, so long as there is enough opportunity. Let me just state to you that when we brought in Sachhar committee, there was a very critical idea for the next generation of affirmative action and that is equal opportunity commission. Now equal opportunity commission is not like reservations when you said reservations for Muslims, reservations for Parsis, reservations for Hindus, etc. we didn’t say that.
We just said “all of you are together in one place and we will check if everybody has equal participation and opportunity. You will not see Muslims here, Sikhs here, Hindus there. You would see them all together and you would ensure that everybody has a role and participation. The Equal Opportunity Commission seemed like a futuristic thing, normally the government would have supported it. I was alone too, to argue for it, and we did not succeed. I believe if we had pushed the Equal Opportunity Commission, we would have made the great leap towards affirmative action that has less divisiveness in it as affirmative action has today because of reservations, and would have been more of a bonding and bringing people together, of having different attributes, would have one clear single attribute of not getting equal opportunity. And that I think is a great loss to us.
SB: So it’s an idea that can still be pursued?
SB: You know, there are a couple of very interesting chapters and one of them is about the contribution of Muslims to things like social justice, education and the nationalist movement, and you have given the wonderful example of … your grandfather, that letter he writes about when he almost killed and how he gets saved, and, of course, he was not a politician at the time, he was a vice-chancellor. So there is a lot of that kind of positiveness about how Muslims at every level of society have, and the very fact that many of them voted by not leaving, and being hard and parcel of wanting to be in India, part of India and desiring to do their bit for the nation. From there to now, it’s quite a journey and I presume there are a lot of Muslims who still do this and still want to do this. So, where do you see things having gone wrong? And I just want to add to that, out of the 70 odd years, your party was in power for a long time. A lot of Muslims complain that it gave lip service, but where do you think things began to go wrong?
SK: Well, I think this is a critical matter of democracy. Every democracy suffers stress when there are pluralistic demands. People pull in different directions. In our country, this does not just happen between majority and minority, if that’s a concern. It’s happened between one community and another community. Its happened between Dalits and non-Dalits, between one kind of backward and another kind of backward, because the solution that has been thought of by the nation-state is a solution that becomes a bigger problem in due course. When the reservations were introduced it was in the hope that the reservations would bring people to the same level and then the reservations could gradually be eased out, but now what is happening is that more and more people are asking for reservations and suddenly people who don’t have a reservation quota are beginning to wonder whether they have any place in the sun and thus, governments are now having to say that people who are in the unreserved category, we’ll bring them in but through the economic considerations.
But that is against the jurisprudence of this land for 50 years when the Supreme court, the constitution’s amendments, constitution’s interpretations do not provide for economic reservations etc. What will we do? Will we change our entire jurisprudence in order to accommodate this or will it all collapse one day or will this be the final nail in the coffin of first-past-the-post in democracy and that democracy will have to switch to something else like the list system or the PR systems etc. These are things that will confront us in the next ten years and we will have to find solutions, and there is no solution of violence in the streets and confronting each other and breaking each other’s bones etc. We have to sit and talk, we have to sit and find ways of communicating. Therefore political parties, whichever political parties hold sway of the people in India must be responsible. There is a role for political parties. You can’t simply continue to fan feelings of division and then take advantage of that division to rule.
SB: Yeah, I am afraid in the present system where everyone is kind of going “bad,” it is a little bit of a tall order.
SK: Just a couple more questions. There are two parts to my next question: you have said that, the central question that Muslims need to ask themselves is how to continue adherence to their fundamental beliefs and yet make their religion compatible with modern times. There are a thousand examples of technological and scientific innovations that obviously could not have found a direct reference in the Holy Quran and the Hadis. Are you saying that this grappling with the idea of modernity is something that is vital for the community to move with the times? And the second part of my question is don’t you think that this messaging is actually getting drowned out by the clamour within the community by these self-appointed spokespersons who are not concentrating on that – never mind what the community is doing – I am talking about what these people are doing. For example, I found recently when I went to a school in a so-called Muslim neighbourhood, and the Urdu school is shutting down and the English school is thriving because people want to do it–so that’s what’s happening on the ground level. So what would you like to say about this, and whether there are enough people articulating this.
SK: Islam has a very significant concept of Ishtehaar, which is an exercise by which you internalise whatever changes are confronting you, and find solutions. It cannot be done by everyone, it is done by people with special training, understanding, scholarship whose status is accepted by the community. So it is done by specialised people. They can do Ishtihaar. It was almost ten years ago that King of Saudi Arabia articulated this when he said, “the doors of Ishtihaar are not closed.” So you can actually do this intellectual exercise, there are questions that, maybe in the normal course, are not answered by Muslims. We do not have an easy answer to organ transplant.
Similarly, there would be many other issues that would not have an easy answers because these issues were raised long after the early centuries of Islam. And we need to grapple with them. I think if you do it in the right spirit, the right niyat as they call it, all that is acceptable. Islam is actually a very flexible religion, it allows for enormous freedom. Let just give you an extreme example: roza is kept from sunrise to sunset – it could be a longer day in Europe or it could be a short day in certain parts of the world. But if you were in the north pole or the south pole, would you be keeping roza for six months? We would just get back to the wristwatch, and say, “I am from Delhi, this is when a roza begins and ends in Delhi, that’s the time I will keep my roza.” So there are ample examples in Islam where the flexibility allows you to do something so long as your niyat and intention is pure. And I believe that’s the kind of religious leadership we need, those are the kind of people who can take us forward. And this has been done in the past. Allama Iqbal did it and I have mentioned his work in the book. There are people like Maulana Thanvi, who has done this and that’s referred to in the book. There could be any number of people who could do this exercise, we have some fine institutions.
SB: Are they coming up, those voices?
SK: I would imagine not as much as we would like to see them. And there is a major problem because many of them confine themselves to Arabic and Urdu, whereas, even amongst the Muslim youth you need to speak Hindi and English to get your message across, and this is a great challenge that political and religious leadership have to come together to provide, to give a modern interpretation. If we could have the Madras lectures of Iqbal called the Reconstruction of Islamic Thought, why can’t there be a reconstruction of Islamic thought in our day and age, that’s the critical question.
SK: My last question has nothing to do with the book: what do you think about the current government’s foreign policy?
SK: Well you are asking this day after President Trump said that he was asked to mediate
SB: Meditate, not mediate…
SK: Maybe the prime minister said, “Why don’t you meditate and do some Yoga” and he thought he was being asked to mediate. So it is a problem of communication, but diplomacy is about communication isn’t it. If we are not able to communicate, what kind of diplomacy or foreign policy will we have? We have a very bright foreign minister, he has a remarkable record in diplomatic service, and what can I say for him, I guess I feel sorry for him that he has to deal with the situation in which things are far beyond him.
SB: Our best friends in the neighbourhood are also alienated, Bangladesh and Nepal for example. Forget the other two, forget even Sri Lanka. Far east, less said the better. US – we’ve thrown our lot with US and Israel, and the Chinese are, I am just summing it up. And I have seen you closely and how you worked as a foreign minister. So surely, that is an intervention that perhaps you should be making in public spaces.
SK: Well certainly, but I tell you, it’s very tricky and a very delicate matter because it is another matter that is very delicate to nationalistic pride, so if you say “why did you say this to Trump”, you will immediately be called the betrayer of the nation because our Prime Minister can’t ever say anything that is wrong and Trump’s people say he says wrong things all the time. So that’s a very different choice to be made about Trump and Modi. But the point really is that one does become a little self-conscious in an area when we are dealing with other countries and you’ve been foreign minister, and you don’t want to say something that sounds as though you are letting your country down. But there are moments in which it becomes impossible to keep your lips shut and you will have to speak. Fortunately, I have some good colleagues in parliament who don’t allow people to notice that we haven’t said anything, so Shashi Tharoor and Anant Sharma, they immediately offer their comments and therefore I can bask in that comfort.