Thursday, 12 May 2022\

Faced with Hindu Rashtra, what should India’s Muslims do?

In an earlier post I had it that Hindutva is out to get to Hindu Rashtra on the back of the popularity of Narendra Modi. Considering that Modi has about a decade of productive life left, the head of the right wing ecosystem, Mohan Bhagwat, telescoped the timeline to get to Hindu Rashtra to 15 years. Besides, right wing backroom boys attuned to international developments discern a window of opportunity. The West that might have been put out by India’s lurch towards authoritarianism and illiberal democracy will remain embroiled with the twin challenges posed by Russia and China. It would need India alongside, and would not be averse to looking the other way when India, as promised by Bhagwat, carries a ‘big stick’ to get Hindu Rashtra dissenters – including and especially its Muslims - to heel.

Since both the aim – Hindu Rashtra – and strategy – Big Stick – are now in the open, it behooves on India’s Muslims - prospective targets of the Big Stick - to get their act together. Since much is kept deliberately fuzzy – such as the nature of Hindu Rashtra – it is difficult for Muslims to arrive at their aim and strategy. If the Hindu Rashtra is based on the liberal and inclusive concept of traditional Hinduism, there is little worry since the usual Hindu accommodativeness will prevail, as hitherto. Only the label will be different, with Hinduism self-consciously taking credit for a liberal New India, as against liberal civic nationalism earlier. However, if the trends are a guide, liberal Hinduism might be eclipsed by Hindutva which is political or politicized Hinduism. Hindutva in the reading here bears a similar relationship with Hinduism as does Islamism with Islam. In such a case, Muslims will not only bear the brunt of the transition but will also be cast into second class status in the new Republic.

Muslims must therefore not only lend a hand for the triumph of liberal Hinduism in the battle internal to Hindus, but must also prepare for the worst, the triumph of Hindutva. By all accounts, the latter is on the upswing. Hindutva is calling the shots in political culture, with other political parties being pale imitations of its political standard-bearer, the ruling party. Some posit a social space in India’s infinite local transactions and negotiations where the pushback against Hindutva can emerge, but it’s a space Hindutva is increasingly invading. Even so, Muslim strategy for outlasting Hindutva must reckon with preserving these spaces, if any.

Strategising for the Age of Hindutva must begin where strategy does: getting the aim right. At the onset of the Modi era, I had opined that Muslims must keep their head down and allow Modi’s tenure to blow away. However, that did not happen in 2019, nor is likely to happen in 2024. While keeping the head down is a good in itself, it’s not enough, since Hindutva is interested in Muslims, even if Muslims might just want to be left alone. Clearly, the aim is to survive the Age of Hindutva. Maximally, Hindutva wants a subcontinent cleansed of Islam; Akhand Bharat of sorts. Muslim neighbours being populous, and one of them, nuclear armed, makes this a pipedream. Therefore, a minimalist version can be expected to begin with, restricted to India, within its current borders, even if the borders include slivers of neighbour-held territory. Therefore, Indian Muslims have their aim cut out: survive.

A limited aim as that makes for plentitude of options. Beginning with appeasement, in which Muslims fall in line with Hindutva expectations of them, the options – in strategic speak – are along the continuum: appeasement-defensive-deterrent-offensive. Defensive would be akin to the status quo, which can be visualized as the Jehangirpuri model in which the local community mobilised to face-off against saffronite intruders. Even so, as seen they were subject to reprisal by an assault on their livelihoods by dozers. Deterrence thus steps up as an option. It can be imagined as the Shaheen Bagh model in which the locals stared down the dozers deployed for intimidating them. Since Hindutva is unlikely to let matters rest at that – having lost that battle it will be looking to win the ones that follow and the war itself – taking to the offensive is the last option. This is open and widespread defiance, with proactive outreach to likeminded groups within India and outside. This is however predicated on the trajectory of Hindutva aggressiveness. Consequently, Muslims have only the first three options to choose from - appeasement, defensive and deterrent – with the fourth – offensive - thrust on them.

Appeasement has a stench to it. Nevertheless, being non-provocative, it is worth serious consideration. Muslims, as a minority in India, cannot exercise a veto on where the majority wishes to take India. If to Ram Rajya, it is not a worry since that is synonymous with Nizam-e-Mustafa, the creation and sustainment of a just and humane society. So long as freedom, equality and solidarity are undimmed, Muslims can even participate in the enterprise of a New India. This will strengthen the liberal forces in Hinduism, allowing them to wrest the initiative from their illiberal coreligionists. The upcoming thrust towards a Uniform Civil Code provides an opportunity for Muslims to test waters by participating in the debate. They can afford to conform as a minority if invited on the basis of equality and spirit of brotherhood. If just another stick to beat Muslims with, they may not be able to go the distance. Thus, to begin with the choice can well be appeasement, with other options being forced on Muslims corresponding to the ascendance of hardcore Hindutva in the internal-to-Hindus power equations.

The defensive option is a non-confrontationist more-of-the-same. The local communities put upon by Hindutva have to respond with their own resources. This reflects the diverse nature of Muslim India, with Muslim communities being geographically and socially distanced from each other. Their mobilisation as a community once had the colossal consequence of Partition. Whereas the mobilization was to assert their position and power, the rug was pulled from under their feet with Partition being acceded to by minders of the Congress. The negative ring to mobilisation as a community was reinforced by the serious misstep in picking a cause: the Shah Banu case. That triggered off the chain of events beginning with the fall of Babri Masjid and that are yet to see a denouement, with the fate of the Mathura Mosque hanging by a thread. There is also a perennial deficit of national level leadership. Consequently, this is the default option, with the Muslim communities dotting India waiting for the local onslaughts as the Hindutva campaign catches steam. It will allow for the piecemeal whittling of isolated Muslim communities, which can serve to set the stage for the third option: deterrence.

Deterrence, in the Shaheen Bagh mould, is confrontationist. It takes up cudgels with Hindutva, not only intellectually, such as in Shaheen Bagh’s momentous defiance of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), but also physically, such as turning back the dozers sent by the local right wing administration for an arbitrary and selective discharge of its functions. Since Indian Muslim communities are disparate, with varying resources and nested in communities with differing interest in battling Hindutva, this option might serve better-positioned communities, such as in Kerala or in Muslim pockets as Hyderabad. Bengali Muslims, the primary targets of Hindutva ire, may be so inclined in areas of their presence, Bengal and Assam. However, this would be to leave their vulnerable brethren - the real object of Hindutva wrath – eking out a living elsewhere as at Jehangirpuri - exposed to reprisal. Defensive deterrence – prickly when provoked – has the advantage of sensitizing the majority against allowing Hindutva a free ride. This is already in evidence with corporate honchos advising caution that overzealous Hindutva can impact the economy negatively. It may prevent Hindutva from going the whole hog.

Hindutva may not be deterred, but instead spurred on by rebuff. Its aggression may require Indian Muslims to either throw in the towel, get on with ghar wapsi or ‘going to Pakistan’. The elite might have the resource to opt out of Indian citizenship, while some members on the borderline of faith, might Indianise and be integrated as Hindu Mohammedans. A writer has revealed that some Muslims have taken to changing their names to get by. Hindutva may find the doctrinal arguments to take into its fold returnees, who it believes left the bottom of the social pile under malign influence of Sufis or fear of the Islamist sword of fanatical Muslim rulers as Aurangzeb. It may provide the necessary incentives, quite like its cooption of the other backward classes into towing its line by sweetners either material or a piece of the leadership pie. There are enough internal Muslim furrows for Hindutva to exploit towards such an end, not least of which is the prominent sectarian one: Shia and Sunni. ‘Divide and rule’, being an Indian statecraft characteristic relied on liberally by British overlords, makes Muslims easy prey. Even so, enlightened strategizing of sweetening the pill may elide Hindutva as it closes in for the kill. Triumph looming large, Hindutva may acquire monster proportions, leaving Muslims with little recourse than walk into gas chambers willingly or be dragged into these reluctantly.

The latter is prevented by the fourth - obstructionist – option: offensive. This has potential to escalate from a rash of outbreaks of unrest, such as tamed by the British in 1857, to localized civil war, unheard of in subcontinental history. Power-drunk, Hindutva may take recourse to a Kalinga-like crack-down. Neighbouring Muslim States may apprehend that they are next in its sights. The existential threat to Muslims might energise a subcontinental counter, a throwback to Europe’s religious wars. Alternatively all this might be on a slow-burn, with pogroms – as prognosticated recently by an academic who looks at intercommunity relations – in footsteps of lynching and the rash of recently-witnessed micro-riots. In aggression-by-stealth, pogroms will acquire a justification as they go along in the counter they provoke. Hindutva will set Muslims up for a comeuppance, leaving Muslims with a fight-or-flight option. Whereas communities contiguous to neighbours – such as Kashmiris or Bengali Muslims along the Bangladesh border - may put up an externally-abetted spirited counter, the Gujarat pogrom indicates that others stand to be decimated. The talk of genocide lately has such fears at heart.

Hindutva backroom strategists have war-gamed this. This is clear from the measured manner Hindutva has been baring its fangs. It has resorted to the ‘boiling the frog’ technique in upping temperatures. Its seeming one-foot-forward-two-steps-back stride is taking form. For instance, the CAA regulations - pending since the legislation - shall be put in place along with developments on the population register. The much-vaunted ‘chronology’ is getting into gear, in stride with Hindus being inveigled through gimmicks as the Ayodhya Mandir, Mathura Mosque, Qutb Minar, Taj Mahal, Islamicate names etc. Policy missteps that have done more to put a USD 5 trillion economy out of reach - than has Covid - forces a need for an Other to let-off steam on. Diversions in inaugurations and demolitions may not be enough, but a ‘security threat’ fits the bill as Chanakya’s most dangerous threat – externally abetted internal threat. India’s Deep State is past master at putting Muslims in the dock, with the media and strategic community complicit.

International outcry will be managed, foregrounding sovereignty and treating the unrest as internal disturbance. Neighbours will be fended-off with gray zone warfare. Given Pakistan’s nuclear cover, conventional blows will be avoided. The global Muslim community will be fobbed-off by assiduously forged linkages with Arab states (that famously included the kidnap by Marine commandos of the high seas of the daughter of a sheikh and her return by the national security adviser who ordered the operation to the oppressive patriarch). Any external support will be projected as support for terrorism, leveraging and explaining the disproportionate foreign policy investment India has put in its counter terrorism policy plank. This will be rather easy, given that Islamists might take an interest in whats happening to their fellow Muslims, carrying on their respective fights with their national authorities on Islam’s place in the world. Majoritarianism will be presented as the democratic will, giving the West an alibi to straight-facedly look the other way. To the extent, there is a Russian-Chinese axis persisting, the West – hypocritical in its defence of values at the best of times - will be quiescent. China will be prevented from fishing in India’s troubled waters by appeasing it – as now – on the borders. Besides, with India internally beset, there would be little reason for China to fuel India’s self-lit fires.

Of the four options – quiescent/appeasement; non-provocative/defensive; confrontationist/deterrent and obstructionist/offensive – India’s Muslims will likely have a local community-specific choice along the continuum. These will change as the situation moves along, transiting from one option to another and bouncing back. The potentially violent options will be dependent on and reactive to Hindutva’s propensity and sense of impunity.

What is clear is that the price of Hindu Rashtra will be steep and will not be paid by India’s Muslims alone, even if they will bear the brunt. It’s for Hindus to rein in extremists in their ranks. They need to have Hindutva stalwarts define where Hindu Rashtra stands in relation to Ram Rajya and where exactly does the Big Stick fit in the run up. If the Big Stick is fundamental to the journey and the destination is not quite Ram Rajya, then Hindus must revise their voting patterns. The onus cannot be on Muslims to play villain, stalling Hindutva in its tracks and upending Hindu Rashtra.