Jinnah episode: Uniting with secular to remain communal

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Jinnah episode: Uniting with secular to remain communal

While AMU flourished under the successive Governments at the Centre, it cannot afford to send an anti-national imagery with unrequited love for Jinnah, whose brand of politics of “two-nation theory” is a polar opposite to our Constitutional and national values: Democracy, secularism, pluralism and the maxim of unity-in-diversity

It is a pity that the name of Mohammad Hamid Ansari, former Vice-President of India, has been dragged into the controversy surrounding the Mohammad Ali Jinnah portrait at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Both Ansari and his family members have consistently upheld and promoted the vision of a unified India with its historical legacy of pluralism and diversities as well as they stood against the divisive-communal forces of all shades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself recalled Ansari and his family’s contribution to the public life of the nation on the occasion of farewell to the then Vice-President.

The controversy emerged in the context of the decision of Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union (AMUSU) to confer its life membership on Ansari, a rare honour that has been bestowed on persons of immense public importance in the past. As a mark of honour, Ansari’s portrait was to be unveiled in the main Hall of AMUSU. However, the momentous event could not take place as a BJP MP demanded the removal of portrait of Jinnah, leading to the clash among AMU students, police and some fringe elements under the garb of Hindutava. In the melee, a number of AMU students sustained the injuries, following which they demanded a judicial enquiry into the whole incident.

Some observers attribute the episode to the continuation of Hindutava’s attack on Ansari ever since he spoke about the issue of insecurity among religious minorities just before relinquishing the office of Vice-President. Many secularists and liberals read Modi’s farewell remark “Mr Ansari’s long public career” mostly in Muslim contexts as intended to deprive him his national identity. There could be a grain of truth as practitioners of hardcore Hindutva politics tend to assert the majoritarian Hindu identity of the Indian nation, unlike the practitioners of soft Hindutava who avoid the close identification of Hinduism and Indian nationhood, notwithstanding the fact Indianism shares a relatively liberal Hindu vision of the nationhood. However, there is one bitter truth: nation as “politically imagined community” is essentially a majoritarian construct. Thus, irrespective of semantic difference between hard and soft Hindutavas, there does not exist the term “Indian Hindu” in everyday usage and Indian political discourse, while the term like “Indian Muslims” or “Indian Christian” is pervasive. As Shikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are considered variants of Hinduism, there does not exist a term like Indian Sikh, Indian Buddhist or Indian Jain.

Given this structural limitation of the idea of nationhood or nation state, one is constrained to ask: how does AMUSU’s protest, boycott of the exam and its refusal to take down the portrait of Jinnah serve the image of university or advance the community interest or strengthen the regime of minority rights? All arguments such as “autonomy of the students’ body”, “life membership of Jinnah since 1938”, “another pretext to indulge in ‘the Muslim bashing’ by the fringe elements of Hindutava”, “existence of Jinnah House” or PM’s visit to Lahore, etc, that have been advanced to keep Jinnah’s portrait are at best shortsighted and lopsided. The refusal to take down the portrait of Jinnah while also stating that they are not defending Jinnah is the worst kind of “identity politics” and hypocrisy, which ultimately would harm the “legitimate Muslim interests” in India. A part of the reason for its refusal to take down Jinnah’s photo lies in the transformation of Aligarh Muslim University from an “educational space” to one of the major (identity) symbol of the Muslim community as well as due to a collective fear among the community that any concession related to its vital symbols may endanger or weaken Islamic faith in the long run.

While AMU flourished under the successive Governments at the Centre and became one of the largest Central universities in post-partition India, it cannot afford to send an anti-national imagery — whether real or perceived — as reflected in AMUSU’s refusal to take down the photo of Jinnah. No public institutions, how autonomous could it be, can be insensitive to constitutional-national values and sentiments. Jinnah, with its brand politics of “two-nation theory”, is a polar opposite to our Constitutional and national values: democracy, secularism, pluralism and the maxim of unity in diversity and diversity in unity, which guided the Indian politics for long before it started showing some fatigue in recent years. This partly explained why no major secular political parties, including the existing Muslim political parties or any major Islamic organisations, came forward to lend its support to the struggle of AMU students on the issue of Jinnah, save in the matter of police lathi-charge and deliberate provocation by the fringe elements.

While politics of hard Hindutava with its “hate discourse” has historically targeted the minority communities, particularly Muslims and Christians with specific purpose to humiliate, maim, denigrate and reduce them to second-class citizens as well as to communalise the politics and society, the Jinnah episode is just another instance in the annals of politics of hard Hindutava in this direction. However, by default it also offered an opportunity to AMU to undertake a course correction: it should have immediately taken down the photo of Jinnah along with rescinding its past decision of conferring life membership on him in 1937. Such a goodwill gesture would go a long way in addressing some of the concerns of Hindu nationalists as well as helping remove misperception among a good section of Hindu majoritarian community about Islam and the community. A refusal to undertake the same has a potential to be misconstrued by the public that the outlook of AMU has hardly undergone change since the Partition. One can easily trace the genealogy of the Partition of the country to AMU through All India Muhammadan Educational Institution, an entity founded by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1886, which gave birth to All India Muslim League in its 20th session in 1906 at Dhaka. It is true that Hindutava with Savarkar had its own share of divisive discourse of “two-nation theory”, but it came much later in the public domain (in 1937) compared to the Muslim League under Jinnah, who forcefully began to advocate and practice this divisive discourse since 1932. Similarly the formation of All India Muslim League in 1906 precedes the formation of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS.   

The Partition has forever made Indian Muslims suffer from “pathology of disloyalty” and greatly compromised their legitimate participation in national politics and their ability to partake in the national resources. Since Independence, the Congress and other variety of secular politics could only produce “pockets of Muslim spaces”, allowing Muslim elites to compete among themselves in those assigned spaces. The more the “Muslim politics” moves into the direction of “politics of minoritism” as symbolised by case of Shah Bano in mid-1980s, the demand for minority status of AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia and defence of Jinnnah photo, etc, the more it will compromise the scope of “politics of minority rights”, which has otherwise been significantly expanded over the years. It is indeed paradoxical that while Indian Muslims desire to live under democratic and secular polity in order to protect, preserve and promote their faith and identity, they hardly participate in the democratic struggle to strengthen the democratic and secular governance. Their traditional politics of “uniting with secular forces but remaining communal” would no longer be helpful either in protecting their identity-centred demands or advancing its material interest. It is high time Muslims rethought their “identity-centred politics and discourse”, more so in the age of political majoritarianism and aggressive nationalism.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Policy Perspectives Foundation, and former professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, all in Delhi)

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