Visiting the magnificent city of Delhi for a Pakistani is a spiritual, cultural and historical experience that one is unlikely to get anywhere else in the world. As the capital of India, constitutionally the world’s largest democracy, this ancient city with its trappings of modernity, a shiny new terminal at the Indira Gandhi airport and the world class Delhi metro, is also the heart of Indo-Muslim culture and identity that led to the creation of Pakistan. While the constitution of India grants Indian Muslims equality, the tragic reality of their marginalisation tells a different story. Indeed, visiting Lutyens’ Delhi and then the Muslim areas feels like visiting two different countries. The incredible poverty in and around the Nizamuddin mazaar (shrine) is the real cultural shock that a Pakistani receives.
While there are undoubtedly anti-Muslim prejudices that are inbuilt in Indian society, Muslims themselves cannot escape all the blame. The ulema (clergy) of India, the pampered darlings of Indian secularists, are in large part to blame for the pitiful condition of Muslims. They have kept them mired in non-issues such as personal law. The ulema and their religious causes were always the preferred handmaidens of the Indian ruling classes when it came to denying Muslims their economic opportunities. Consider, for example, the much-touted Hajj subsidy in India, presented by some as evidence of India’s secularism. In actual reality, the Hajj subsidy is really nothing but a government bailout for Air India. The Hajj subsidy was essentially introduced to cover the difference between sea fare and air fare after, in 1973, the government ended Mogul Line Shipping’s monopoly over Hajj travel, which had existed since British colonial times.
Today, the subsidy benefits Air India (which has overpriced tickets to Saudi Arabia) more than it benefits the Muslim community, if at all it benefits them. Thus, a religious issue is being exploited to give Muslims a ‘benefit’ that they do not need or even want, except a few. Would it not make much more sense to invest this money in the uplift of the Muslim community as a whole through education? Very few Muslim leaders have presented this as an alternative. The solution for the plight of Muslims lies in economic uplift and not tokenism but, unfortunately, even the Indian left and secular forces have engaged in tokenism vis-à-vis the Muslims. This tokenism has a long history that goes back to the Khilafat Movement in the 1920s. It is a trick by politicians to win Muslim votes and nothing else. Muslims who ask for socio-economic development and economic affirmative action are without exception denounced as communal but the ulema who raise religious demands are appeased in the name of secularism.
The other side of the coin is the Hindu nationalists who denounce all such subsidies as “appeasement of Muslims”. As shown above, the Hajj subsidy is not so much an appeasement of Muslims as it is a bailout for Air India but this charge needs to be discussed in detail. If the so-called Hajj subsidy is “appeasement of Muslims”, then clearly the billions spent on Hindu pilgrimages within India and outside of it to places such as Mansarovar in China are an “appeasement of Hindus”?
The problem vis-à-vis Muslims in India is that while there may be some appeasement of the ulema, no real effort is made to integrate Muslims into the Indian mainstream. Muslims do not need Hajj subsidy, personal law or state hosted iftar parties and Eid milans as much as they need guaranteed jobs, a fair share in development and an end to discriminatory spending.
The Indian Muslim community unfortunately is completely insular and even those who try to integrate into the broader Indian milieu face tremendous odds both from within the community and the larger society in general. A part of this also has to do with the fact that a great number of the would-be Muslim middle class in North India moved to Pakistan at the time of partition. And then there is of course the attitude of the majority community, i.e. the Hindus, towards Muslims. During my stay, I have come to know of several incidents where people of Muslim names have been refused accommodation outside Muslim areas precisely because they are Muslims. Now, with Modi’s rise, the fears of social ‘saffronisation’ are not without basis. Already the rewriting of history has been undertaken. A Supreme Court justice in India, A R Dave, recently declared that had he been the dictator of India he would have forced everyone to read Bhagwad Gita and Ramayana from grade one in school. The rise of the Hindu right-wing has no doubt emboldened even those who had previously kept a facade of neutrality.
Postscript: While I have stated these facts about India, I must also emphasise that Pakistan has no moral right to speak for Indian Muslims given what we have done to our minorities in Pakistan who are constitutionally not even equal citizens in the strict sense. If the condition of Muslims in India is bad, the conditions that non-Muslims are forced to live in in Pakistan are admittedly worse. Our Christian compatriots live in abject poverty for the most part. Hindu Pakistanis in Sindh face forced conversions and abductions. Another community — need I name which one — is denied even the fundamental right to life in Pakistan. If bigotry in India is an undercurrent, bigotry in Pakistan is in one’s face. Therefore, criticism of India’s treatment of Muslims should not, under any circumstances, be viewed as an endorsement of Pakistan’s own pathetic treatment of non-Muslims.
At the dawn of the previous democratic interregnum, circa 1990, at a dinner at a friend’s ...