A Curious Silence and an Un-Crossed Line: In the Wake of A Disbanded Exhibition
A news item from some weeks ago, which has gone curiously unremarked and un-commented upon has made me think about the limits that the freedom of expression debate and the discourse on secularism in India unwittingly or knowingly does not seem to be able to cross, despite repeated provocation.
We all know that when the Hindu right comes to town - declaring that this or that text should not be taught in the university, or this or that painting should not be seen, or this or that film should not be shown – the secular left-liberal intelligentsia in India automatically gets outraged, signs petitions, holds press conferences and generally vents it righteous anger. I know this because I do all these things, along with all my friends. I sign the online petitions, attend the demonstrations, express my anger and do some (or all) of that which needs to be done, that should be done. We should never give an inch to the hoodlums of Hindutva.
However, when it comes to responding to the equally aggressive, reactionary and utterly arbitrary actions of sections of the Muslim clergy and other self appointed leaders on the ‘Muslim Right’ a strange inertia seems to take hold of the best and boldest foot-soldiers of secularism in India.
At best, there is an embarrassed looking away, a mortified silent wish that the troublesome objects and subjects of a specifically Muslim variety of intolerance would just melt away. Substantially, this pained reticence amounts to a secret hope that there were no living differentiated Muslims in our midst to actually engage with (to stand with and stand against, depending on context and circumstance) as opposed to simply undifferentiated dead Muslims that can be elegantly mourned forever.
As any dedicated watcher of the great secular institution of the Hindi cinema will attest - generally – a good Muslim dies sometime after the interval. That is how we know he is good. And so, curiously, a broad swathe of the left-liberal intelligentsia and Hindutva hoodlums arrive at the same conclusion, in a roundabout fashion. Both their worlds would be better off without the troublesome Musalman.
The Indian left-liberal’s critique of Hindutva amounts to an engagement with the presence of a Hindu way of life. It is in the end affirmative of something in Hindu life-worlds that is beyond Hindutva. Correspondingly, The Indian left-liberal’s refusal to develop a robust, concrete critique of Muslim fundamentalism (and its consequent denuding of the Islamicate cultural space) is symptomatic of a profound apathy regarding Islam and what happens to Muslim people. Which is why some liberal commentators have even found it possible to say that whatever is wrong with Hindutva is because of its ‘semitization’ – betraying thereby their profound prejudices against the ‘semitic’ (Judeo-Arabic) peoples and their cultures and beliefs.
Actually, lets face it, as long as Muslims are not being torched by Hindu mobs, the Indian left-liberal could not care less about what happens to Muslims. And when people who call themselves Muslim are sat upon by Muslim hegemons, the Indian Left-Liberal really does not give a damn.
A few weeks ago, an exhibition centered around translations of the Quran organized by the Ahmediya Community was being held, peaceably, at the Constitution Club in New Delhi – (a mere few minutes away from the office of SAHMAT, the self appointed guardian of secular values). This exhibition was then forcibly shut down by a posse of ‘eminent’ Muslims who threatened to come to the venue and create a general ruckus. They included prominent clerics (including the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid) claiming to represent mainstream Islam in India who were angry at the fact that Ahmediyas were ‘masquerading’ as Muslim, and displaying Quranic texts in public. The Shahi Imam and some of his retinue were briefly detained at the Darya Ganj police station. They were let go after being reassured that the exhibition had been closed. (it would be interesting to know how the administration prevailed upon the organizers of the event to shut down the exhibition). The incident was reported in the press. But no one seems to have found the time or the inclination to react to it.
The Ahmediyas (also known as Qadianis) who think of themselves as devout Muslims, are denounced by the leading lights of other Muslim denominations as apostates because of perceived differences on the interpretation of the role and limits of prophethood within Islam. Ahmediyas are a small minority, mainly active in South Asia. There may or may not be doctrinal reasons for mainstream Muslim clerics to express their distaste at the details of Ahmediya belief and practice. But that is of no interest to me. Exactly as the ‘sincerity’ or otherwise of Hindutva’s irritation with Ramanujan’s reading of the Ramayan is a non-issue for me. What is crucial is whether or not some people will go unchallenged if they decide to prevent others from reading, looking at, or talking about something that happens to touch upon the questions of a shared world of faith and belief.
If this is a secular polity, as we claim it is, then what the Ahmediyas believe or do not believe, and how they interpret or translate a scriptural text is their business, and should not be anybody else’s. They can be criticized for it (in the severest possible terms if necessary, by those who feel obliged to do so, or by those who are offended or put upon), but they must not be silenced. And no call for their silencing should be tolerated. By no means should the state allow a powerful group to dictate terms to a less powerful group about what it should or should not be doing. And if any organ of the state does succumb to this form of egregious blackmail, it should be held to account for its failure of nerve.
No one is compelling, let alone asking an orthodox Deobandi to attend an Ahmediya event, or to read an Ahmediya text or translation. Precisely for that reason, the orthodox Deobandi, (or Shia, or Barelvi, or Ahle Hadis) personage has absolutely no right to prevent anyone else, Ahmediya or not, from attending an Ahmediya event, or reading an Ahmediya text or translation.
If we concede that Ahmediyas should not be allowed to peaceably assemble and disseminate their views, we have no right to protest against the hijacking of our cultural space by Hindutva. Then, we might as well anoint the Sangh Parivar as the rightful custodian of all that pertains to Hindus, Hindu belief and Hindu practice.
I was dismayed at the non-existent or at best lukewarm response that the Indian left-liberal establishment could offer up when Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie’s books were attacked by the Muslim right, and I remain dismayed at the utter indifference to yet another attack on the freedom of expression that has just occurred in broad daylight at the very heart of New Delhi, simply because the source of that attack came from a nominally ‘Muslim’ quarter of public opinion. I understand this as being a patronizing indifference and a lack of serious engagement with Islam and with people who call themselves Muslim. It is what prevents many (thankfully, not all) amongst the left-liberal intelligentsia from taking a strong stand against the misogynist, homophobic and downright reactionary tendencies that continue to go unchallenged amongst the self declared ‘leaders’ of the Muslim communities of South Asia. Ultimately, those who suffer because of this indifference are Muslims, including Muslim women, including minorities within minorities,because they are left to deal with the diktats of their ‘leaders and elders’ without any effective solidarity.
If we (and I have no hesitation in including myself) are to seriously challenge the nomenclatural assault of ‘pseudo-secularism’ that Hindutva hooligans hurl at us, we have to take a far tougher stance about intolerance, regardless of where it comes from.
Someone needs to say, and say very loudly, that Ahmediyas can and must be allowed to hold as many exhibitions and publish as many translations as they see fit. My ‘sentiments’ as a citizen have been grievously injured by the fact that some thug who calls himself a religious eminence has taken it upon himself to decide whether or not I can go and see a painting by M. F. Husain or an exhibition of translations of the Quran by a small religious sect.
Should my doubting self now feel compelled to threaten to commit arson, murder and unleash general mayhem and terror in order to have my ‘sentiments’ taken seriously? Or is that a privilege that our ‘secular’ polity only affords those who are more demonstrative in their piety?
POST SCRIPT : I recently came across an excellent article on the Outlook webste by the always illiminating Prof. C.M.Naim on the harrassment of Ahmediyas in India – here is a link to the article – http://outlookindia.com/printarticle.aspx?277774