Ramachandra Guha is one of the most brilliant minds of our times. Historian, columnist and author of such eminent works as India After Gandhi, Guha is in the news these days for his latest collection of essays, Patriots & Partisans.
I have had the pleasure of being briefly in touch with the globetrotting author and academic when he used to write for a Dubai daily. While I am yet to get hold of Patriots & Partisans, the reviews the book has received and Guha’s interview with Tehelka magazine have considerably whetted my interest.
Guha’s focus is once again on the idea of India and what he calls “a very reckless and daring political experiment.” He tries to make sense of the challenges and dilemmas faced by the 65-year-young nation with honesty — his hallmark. “(Our) enemy is this notion that India must be defined by one religion and one language: Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan,” he told Tehelka. “It’s a nationalism that mimics Pakistan and Israel, also defined by one religion, one language and one enemy. It reduces and homogenizes India and must be resisted.”
Guha laments the fact that nationalism has been monopolized by Hindutva groups: “The left and liberals have allowed the right to hijack patriotism. I refuse to call the Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalists. They are Hindu chauvinists. The idea of nationalism as defined by people like Tagore and Gandhi did not privilege a single language or religion. The BJP thinks the idea of India is bashing Pakistan. Patriotism doesn’t mean close-mindedness. It’s a shame that liberals and Leftists have ceded the ground of speaking for this country and allowed the Right to hijack it.”
In arguing so, Guha speaks for many of us — the silent majority that stands and stares while the lunatic fringe claims to speak and act on its behalf and often get away with murder. I know you aren’t supposed to speak ill of the dead. But look at the manner in which the media and the whole establishment groveled and fawned before a dead Bal Thackeray.
From President Pranab Mukherjee to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, everyone turned reverential as they offered copious tributes to one of the most divisive figures in India’s history. From Maharashtra chief minister Chauhan to industrialist Anil Ambani, everybody who’s somebody turned up for the funeral that brought the city that never sleeps to a standstill. Thackeray, wrapped up in the flag that he seldom respected and with full state honors, was given a farewell fit for a king.
Our friend Arnab Goswami from Times Now couldn’t control his tears as he presided over a mourning marathon late into the night. Yet this was a man who had terrorized the economic and cultural capital of the nation and the nation itself as long as he lived. The ordeal of two Mumbai girls for their innocuous Facebook remark questioning the shutting down of the city on Thackeray’s death shows that his redoubtable legacy lives on.
Justice Srikrishna, who probed the 1992-93 pogrom when Mumbai burned like hell for months, had this to say about Thackeray and company: “Shiv Sena took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of Thackeray who like (a) veteran general, commanded his loyal sainiks to attack Muslims.”
Around a thousand people perished in those attacks following Babri Masjid’s demolition, in which the Sena played not an insignificant role. No government however could even think of holding Thackeray to account. The law couldn’t touch him as long as he lived despite a mountain of evidence. And he has now been canonized as a great national leader.
It’s not just their terror tactics and potential and propensity to create nuisance at the drop of a hat that helped people like Thackeray perpetuate their urban legend. It was their patriotic posturing and claim to speak for the nation with shenanigans like digging up of cricket pitches, targeting Muslims as Pakistani and Bangladeshi illegals and demanding a “manly” response to Pakistan — which in Sena-speak meant the obliteration of the neighbor — that helped them build their power base and political fortunes.
While Sena’s menace has largely been confined to Mumbai, the Hindutva groups have done this on a national scale and with much more finesse and dexterity all the time wearing their patriotism on the sleeve. We all know how the BJP metamorphosed from an obscure two-member outfit in Parliament to rule the country.
After Ayodhya, it didn’t take the party long to emerge at the head of an alliance of mostly secular parties. Of course, Vajpayee’s avuncular gravitas did help. Everyone chose to look away from its toxic ideological baggage and all that it did in the name of Hindu pride and “correcting historical wrongs” on the way to Delhi. Also forgotten was the saffron link to Gandhi’s killers.
But it’s not just the left and liberals who are responsible for this state of affairs. Congress, which once led the freedom movement, willingly surrendered the center-stage to the Right. Instead of confronting the Hindutva specter, Narasimha Rao, the Nero who fiddled while Ayodhya burnt with the rest of the country, joined hands with it.
It’s this Congress tendency to be all things to all people that has been responsible for the rise of the Hindu Right which acts as if it alone owns and cares and speaks for the country. Unless you embrace their faith and worship their gods, you are an outsider and a traitor to “Mother India.”
The Muslims aren’t any less responsible for this state of affairs. They are to equally blame for allowing the Hindu extremists to hijack nationalism and stake an exclusive claim to nationality. Forever weighed down by the so-called historical guilt, they have done nothing but wallowed in self-pity allowing themselves to be used and abused by just about anyone.
Perpetually besieged and fearing for survival, the community is easily gratified by the contemptible crumbs thrown its way. Instead of demanding and getting their due as a 200-million strong community, Muslims and their leaders have reduced their whole existence to life-and-death questions like Muslim Personal Law and triple talaq.
Driven as we are to the margins of Indian society, we are almost apologetic for our existence.
So what are we afraid of? This is our homeland for God’s sake. It has been for over a millennium. Generations of our ancestors lie buried in the land and even ruled it for nearly 900 years. We should be proud of our legacy and all that we have given India. Instead, we are so defensive and diffident in our approach that we cannot even express our love of the land, let alone assert our ownership and rights.
While others never miss an opportunity to flaunt their patriotic credentials, we are content with a foothold.
How long will India’s Muslims remain stuck in the cocoon they have built around themselves and flagellate themselves for sins they haven’t committed? Historians have conclusively established that the Congress leadership was as much to blame for the Partition as Muslim League was. Besides, whoever was responsible, it has nothing to do with us — the generations born long after 1947.
This is our land and our home as much as anyone else’s and we need no lectures on patriotism from anyone. It’s not easy but it’s absolutely critical that we shed our perennial persecution complex and get out of our mental and emotional ghettos, if we are to move on.
As Guha puts it, you must have a commitment to the land you live in. If we really loved and cared for India we wouldn’t watch from sidelines like spectators or hold ourselves when issues and concerns that don’t just affect us but millions like us are involved. We must get involved to get our due. There’s no other way. Patriotism cannot be the sole preserve and prerogative of one community. Indian Muslims’ future and well-being lies in the well being of their country and in making it a better place.