India’s cultural pluralism its best defence

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram did well to assert that "a nation can ignore its minorities only at its peril", and that India was for Muslims, the land of their "forefathers" and their "birth". Photo: PTI  

As the anniversary of the cataclysmic event of 26/11 draws near, undoubtedly the country will relive the painful and humiliating memory of its powerful financial capital held hostage for more than 36 hours by a group of murderous terrorists sneaking in from Pakistan, challenging the might and capabilities of the Indian nation. But instead of replaying those dark moments, Indians ought to remember with pride the aftermath of the tragedy. The days after the terror strikes saw a spontaneous nationwide outpouring of sympathy for Mumbai with all communities united in their anger and outrage at the impunity with which Pakistan-based jihadi terrorists had struck at India.

Indeed the Indian national spirit triumphed in that dark moment with thousands of citizens of diverse cultural and social identities rallying together to support Mumbai in that traumatic phase. There was a remarkable absence of communal violence with even the Shiv Sena in Mumbai resisting the political temptation of baiting Muslims in that stressful period. As a new generation of Indians made the political class and the political system the targets of their ire, one refreshing change was that there was absolutely no focus on communal and social identities. Projected was a collective sense of “we Indians” against the external intruders. All this showed that the enduring sense of national unity was a solid asset that helped the country tide over what could have been a deeply disintegrative challenge.

It is clear that with the United Progressive Alliance government emphasising its commitment to secular governance and the preservation of cultural pluralism, the minorities, especially the Muslim community, find little conflict between their civic identities as Indian citizens and their cultural and religious affiliations. When national identity is defined in cultural nationalist terms, the loyalty of minority groups to the national identity comes under intense pressure. In an increasingly disturbed security environment with terrorism sharpening in intensity in Pakistan, it is imperative that the UPA remain unswerving in its acknowledgment that without secularism and internal communal harmony, it would be difficult to fight terrorism.

In a departure from its usual reticence, the election campaign for the 2009 Lok Sabha saw both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi asserting that terrorism and communalism were two aspects of the same challenge and that a country divided by communalism could not fight terror. The logic of that argument needs to be sustained forcefully today in the face of renewed challenges to the minority groups’ assertions of their cultural rights. The UPA must not allow the BJP which is battling its own internal demons to resurrect majoritarian Hindutva campaigns mounting pressure on the cultural rights of the minorities especially Muslims. The latest incident in which BJP leaders Murli Manohar Joshi and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi have sought to put Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and a section of the Muslim community on the defensive is a case in point. The 30th general session of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind at Deoband, western Uttar Pradesh adopted a resolution on November 3, upholding a fatwa of 2006 by the Deoband Ulema, describing the singing of the Vande Mataram as anti-Islamic because some of its verses were against the tenets of Islam.

The Deoband clerics apparently took pains to ensure that their objections to the singing of the Vande Mataram were not to be seen as being unpatriotic. The resolution that was adopted said categorically “Patriotism does not require singing of the Vande Mataram. We love our country and have proved this several times but Vande Mataram violates our faith in monotheism that is the foundation of Islam … We love and respect the mother but do not worship her.” It went on to demand that “the issue of Vande Mataram should not be deliberately raised for causing communal discord and threat to law and order.” It was also pointed out after discussions amongst the participants in the meeting that the resolution was necessitated by the fact that the song was being introduced in several government schools in BJP-ruled States.

It must be recalled that historically the Vande Mataram song did not become the national anthem precisely for the reason that it had strong Hindu connotations by depicting the Indian nation as Goddess Durga. Not only did Muslims object but virtually every other minority had objected, leading to the Jana Gana Mana being adopted as the Indian national anthem. The essence of the idea of cultural pluralism is to ensure that every religious or social group is allowed its own cultural space in which it has the right to practise its own beliefs and traditions. How would it be right to question the patriotism of Muslims and other minority groups because of their rejection of a song that is by no means the national anthem?

To accuse the Deoband Ulema, a critical support group in the fight against terror, given that it issued a fatwa against terror last year, of “a separatist mindset” as the BJP’s Mr. Naqvi did on Wednesday is to needlessly provoke a confrontation. Mr. Chidambaram who had clearly made a special effort to underline the UPA’s commitment to cultural pluralism by participating in this conference did well to assert that “a nation can ignore its minorities only at its peril”, that Islam could not be viewed as “an alien faith” and that India was for Muslims, the land of their “forefathers” and of their “birth”. But subsequent attacks on his participation in the Deoband conference by Dr. Joshi and Mr. Naqvi, asserting that his presence gave legitimacy to the resolution opposing the Vande Mataram song appear to put the Home Minister on the defensive with his stating that he was not present when the resolution was passed.

The UPA government, which in its second term has promised that it views communalism and terrorism as two equally dangerous aspects of the same challenge, must not waver in its defence of the rights of minority groups to have their unique cultural assertions. Given that the Indian national identity as defined in the Indian Constitution is anchored to civic and territorial parameters, there is no inherent conflict between loyalty to the Indian nation and a community’s own religious beliefs. To question the patriotism of the Muslim community on the ground that it refuses to “worship” India as a concept is to make a mockery of the real meaning of patriotism and national loyalty.

As the framers of the Constitution wisely concluded decades ago, when they rejected the idea of including a reference to God in the Preamble to the Constitution, imposing such a concept would go against the spirit of the Constitution. As H.N. Kunzru told the Constituent Assembly during the debate on the Preamble, “Such a course of action is inconsistent with the Preamble which promises liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship to everyone. How can we deal with this question in a narrow spirit?”

For Dr. Joshi and his cultural nationalist colleagues to persist with describing the Deoband fatwa against the singing of the Vande Mataram song as “against the provisions of the Constitution” would be to misread recent Indian history. There can be no clearer assertion of the responsibility of the Indian state to provide for cultural pluralism and also of the rights of the citizens of India to enjoy cultural and religious freedoms, than is set out in the Indian Constitution. Cultural pluralism remains India’s strongest card and its best defence against attempts to wreck its integrity or weaken its national structure from inside and outside.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 7:31:07 PM |

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