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Shrinking space for moderate Muslim opinion


Two recent incidents of censorship help etch out how our freedoms are being circumscribed by private vigilantism because the Indian state is unwilling or unable to exert itself to enforce its writ. In both cases, the state took the easy way out, avoiding confrontation with aggressive hardliners. In the process of such acquiescence to the extremists, the state let down moderate opinion that supports the state’s own avowed position. The state either takes moderate opinion for granted or it is admitting its inability to protect moderate space against extremist onslaught. Either way, the space for moderate opinion that actually holds India together is shrinking. Can the state afford to assume that the moderates will thrive, and strive, to hold the centre even as the state cedes space to the extremists and abdicates its responsibility for upholding the law?
A brief recap of the two incidents might help clarify what is at stake here. I shall give political correctness a miss here because I think the issue is important enough to merit a frank examination without being bogged down by inane euphemisms.

In the first instance, Salman Rushdie was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) under spurious pretexts following objections raised by a few Deobandi clerics to his book (The Satanic Verses) and views. The state went to extraordinary lengths to keep up the pretence of not being involved in the decision taken to keep Rushdie out even as it changed its story and trotted out one excuse after another for shirking its duty to uphold the law. The message was loud and clear. The state had no stomach for confrontation with the extremist opinion in order to defend the rights of even an iconic figure like the author, the law be damned. What then of the moderates like us who often speak up against the extremists in order to support the state against them? Did the state owe us nothing?
But an even more insidious and corrosive process was at play in the discourse and this relates to Muslim moderate opinion within the Muslim community. Make no mistake, the opinion on Salman Rushdie’s participation at the JLF was sharply polarised along communal lines. The Hindutva brigade was baying for him to be allowed to attend and speak more in order to embarrass the Muslims than to hear the author per se. Moderate Hindus wanted him to do so as well albeit for a different set of reasons. What of the moderate Muslims, of which there were many? Some such as Javed Akhtar defended the author’s right to participate and voice his opinion. Others on Twitter upheld the author’s right to attend even if some of them did not agree with what he had written. But crucially, what was the state’s message to the moderate Muslims? Sadly, it is these very people, who are so crucial — nay critical — to sustaining our secular ethos that felt let down by the state and the media. What is worse is that they stood diminished within the Muslim community as gullible people who had bought the official narrative naively but discovered that the state had no intention of standing by it. Will their numbers not shrink and those of the extremists grow? Is that what we need?
The second episode relates to screening of Sanjay Kak’s documentary ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ on the violence in Kashmir whose screening was stopped and a whole seminar cancelled at the Symbiosis University in Pune. In this case the vigilantes were the Hindutva brigades led by its student wing. The story is the same as that of the Deobandi clerics against Salman Rushdie. A handful of zealots object, and the state shies away from confronting them instead of upholding the law and protecting the right of a university to discuss whatever it wants to openly without interference on its campus. Once again, sad to say, the opinion on the issue was polarised along communal lines. The Hindutva brigade pulled out its own narrow version of ‘national interest’ claiming that the documentary promoted ‘separatism’. Muslim opinion was that once again it felt that the majority did not care to hear what they had to say. Be that as it may, I would rather focus on the moderate Muslims who had supported Salman Rushdie’s right to speak at JLF. What did they think of the Sanjay Kak episode, and more importantly, what did they take away from it?
The reaction of moderate Muslims ranged from the cynical to extreme hurt. The same insidious corrosive process was at work again. Only the penetration was deeper. Firstly, there was the grouse against the state for not upholding the university’s academic freedom. But more important was the anger at being let down by moderate Hindus, many of whom were supportive of the university’s right to screen the film even as they were reluctant to entertain the separatist narrative. The point here is not the validity of Sanjay Kak’s depiction of Kashmir. That is beside the point. What should concern us is the sense of being let down not only by the state but also by fellow moderates from the Hindu community. In short, the narrative appeared to be, “We defy our extremists to support you but you will not defy your extremists to support us.” Again this formulation is not exhaustive. But there is no denying that the bond between the moderates on both sides of the communal divide had frayed a bit more.
Blessed as we are with a clueless leadership at the top, the problem of shrinking space for moderates within the Muslim community needs to be addressed in one way or the other without depending on the state. We could start by making them more visible in the media and by recognising them as common community leaders in their own right rather than have the clerics voice their outlandish opinions from TV studios. As Barkha Dutt’s interview with Rushdie showed, such initiatives do not require government intervention or permission and can be done by the media itself. Secondly, we need to avoid stereotyping. Our discourse needs to get more nuanced to make space for more opinion, more people. For instance, you could actually denounce Salman Rushdie as caricaturing a religion and still uphold his right to express his opinion. Likewise, you may not agree with the victimhood narrative that the Kashmiri Muslims push at you but why should that prevent us from also looking at the ‘war’ there with their eyes and sensitivities, at least as a way of gauging their feelings on the issue?

In a plural society like ours, it is for the majority community to make space for the minority opinion. The state, politicians and the media have reduced this obligation to tokenism. In the name of getting a contrary opinion, they bring in the extremists from the right tail of a normal distribution curve rather than an individual who is closer to the median. This shuts out the moderates from leadership positions, perpetuating a vicious cycle. It is time we looked deeper into both communities and help its true leaders come forward to lead, whether they conform to our preconceived template or not. Moderates from the two major communities must be enabled to converse and evolve a discourse that helps heal wounds inflicted by extremists. Absent a proactive state, the initiative must come from a concerned media and civil society.


The writer is a trader. She can be reached at sonali.ranade@hotmail.com or @SonaliRanade on Twitter

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 10, 2012 at 5:34 am

    It is the easiest task in the world to criticise any one. But it takes Tons of courage to face the criticism.
    Some people who have done masters in criticising, can not face the criticism themselves and shut the door to the world.

  2. Shailesh sharma
    February 13, 2012 at 1:39 am

    The problem in a nutshell is:
    Media & some seculars people encourage Freedom of expression irrespective of our national & moral duties towards nation!!!! – like in case of Mr Rushdie & Mr M. F. Hussain.
    2. The extremists use these expressions to encourage the political & communal rage!!!

    Actually we the great brains of india also use the word community or religion not the “society”!!

  3. June 23, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Do Muslims or the pseudos who attack Sanathan Dharam ever express their opinion on anything concerning their religion. Now take the recent Delhi HC judgement that Muslims girls at the age of 15 can marry or when they attain puberty. Not a word from Muslims or women rights activists on this negative judgement – 15 is no age to marry. Now suppose the HC had passed a order on Hindu girls all these psedos would be on the streets and subject of TV debates.

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