It’s not every day that an alumnus reminds you of what the founder of his alma mater had articulated two centuries ago. In the last few days of his vice-presidential tenure, Mohammad Hamid Ansari somehow ended up doing that. In voicing his perceived anxieties, Ansari took us back to minoritarian alarm which marked the outlook of Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98), the founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Apart from establishing Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College in Aligarh in 1877, which later became AMU, Khan also left behind the ideological framework for formation of the All-India Muslim League (AILM) in 1906. Moreover, in ways that have attracted less attention, his leadership of the Aligarh movement preceded Allama Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah as forerunner of the Pakistan movement later in the 1930s and 40s. His political landscape was confined to raising the bogey about the fate of Muslims in an independent country where Hindus would constitute the majority.
Sample the apparent fearmongering in these bits from two different speeches he delivered in the 1880s. In his work Understanding the Muslim Mind (Penguin, 1987), historian and biographer Rajmohan Gandhi quotes Khan’s speech from 1883 in which he said: “Now suppose that the English were to leave India. Then who would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that two qaums – the Muslim and Hindu — could sit on the same throne? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them will conquer the other and thrust it down…The larger community would totally override the interests of the smaller community..And the measures might make the differences of race and creed more violent than ever.”
In 1888, The Pioneer, then published from Allahabad, carried the speech Khan delivered in Meerut exhorting Muslims to repose faith in British rule and stay away from Hindu-led political movements. Warning against the dangers that a national movement posed to Muslims, he told the Muslim audience, “If we join the political movement of the Bengalis, our nation will reap loss, for we do not want to become subjects of the Hindus…And as far as we can we should remain faithful to the English Government.”
That’s not to suggest that the worldview of the Aligarh Movement patriarch is shared by the former vice-president in its entirety. This tradition of being defined by a persecution complex is a fairly long one. Apparently, in choosing to become a diplomat in independent India and then the chairman of the upper house of the country’s apex legislative body, he doesn’t share the imperatives of Khan’s two- nation assertions. There is nothing in his body of public communication that suggests that.
What, however, is similar is Ansari’s assessment of threats- something that has been central to all kind of minoritarian public discourse (and by extension, politics) since colonial times- alarmist anxieties about majoritarian dominance. When Ansari, first in a speech at the National Law School of India University (NLSUI, Bengaluru) last week and then in an interview to Rajya Sabha TV, talked about “there is a feeling of unease, a sense of insecurity is creeping in” and “a sense of insecurity” among Indian Muslims, he was playing to this narrative of besieged victimhood.
In the process of conforming to the frame of perceived minoritarian concerns, Ansari might have scored some brownie points with people who have a default setting of batting for the assumed underdog- something that’s more rooted in desperation for virtue-signalling rather than fair scrutiny of perceived grievances at the first place. However, scoring such easy points don’t add up to statesmanship- something a person holding the chairmanship of Rajya Sabha for ten years should have aimed at. There are many clear ways in which Ansari’s parting shots at the current government lacked the political sagacity expected from the 6, Maulana Azad Road occupant in the capital.
First, the former vice-president attributes his assessment of insecurity and unease among Indian Muslims to what he has ‘heard’ from people, as he says in the interview, “I heard the same thing in Bangalore, I have heard from other parts of the country, I hear more about it in north India”. It follows that a few anecdotal accounts have led to his perceptions about the threat- a strange basis for the deputy to India’s head of state to form his views on. Anecdotal approach to fact-finding is poor journalism, let alone statesmanly conduct. Did he leave scope for examining the basis for what he calls “unease”?
In a world where every day violent skirmishes can easily be painted as ‘hate crimes’ or acts of communal violence, the critical examination of people’s claims is what’s needed from those occupying high constitutional offices, not reinforcing such perceptions. Also, what comparative facts and figures, say over the last ten years of his tenure, did Ansari have to conclude that there is a sudden ‘rise in insecurity’ among Muslims. Perceptions, shaped by particular sections of people and media, don’t constitute a statesmanly argument.
Politics of perception matter to directly elected members of the polity, say the Prime Minister (unless, of course,if you are Dr Manmohan Singh), who derive their mandate directly from people, and hence, are directly accountable to people. The indirectly elected office holders, obviously, can be expected to look beyond perceptions applying instead cold reasoning and critical scrutiny.
Second, while answering a question on the concerns regarding Indian Muslims being attracted to the extremist and violent ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ansari argued, “No, I don’t think. The official figure estimates are that if there are numbers, they are miniscule. There is no evidence that any process of extremist indoctrination is underway in India, an individual can always go off the track.” Surprisingly, Ansari resorts to ‘official figures’ here, a privilege he didn’t extend to actual number of cases which really made the Indian Muslim feel uneasy or even threatened. With this selective use of official reasoning, Ansari would have no defence against the accusation of being in denial mode about the spread of Wahhabi influence on sections of Indian Muslims.
By arguing that acts of terrorism inspired by Islamists have nothing to do with the average Indian Muslim, why doesn’t he think that violence attributed to gau-rakshaks are also a case of certain individuals or groups going “off-track’’? If the majority shouldn’t feel threatened by a few ‘individuals’ of the minority community joining terrorist groups, what makes Ansari believe that the Muslim population in this country is having a ‘sense of insecurity’ because of the actions of a few ‘individuals’ from the majority community? This exceptionalism of the Indian Muslim turning terrorist, and assertive Hindu groups threatening every Muslim in India, are clearly the stuff of Ansari’s selective imagination.
Thirdly, in his speech at NLSUI last week, Ansari said that placing cultural commitments at its core made any form of nationalism illiberal. Interestingly, replying to a question on judicial intervention in matter of triple talaq in the RSTV interview, he sought to discount the religious commitments of Muslims from the state. “You don’t have to, the reform has to come from within the community”, said the former vice-president. He went on to add, “Modernity has to be caught up with, without letting go of tradition. You address modernity with tradition and tradition with modernity.” Well, that’s what modern states try to do when they accommodate “cultural commitments’’ within modern state apparatus. Something Ansari was rejecting two days ago in Bengaluru.
One may remember that the Indian National Movement, led by Mahatama Gandhi, had to take an obscurantist turn during Khilafat Movement (1919-1922) to accommodate demands of Islamists in India as they were trying to exert pressure on British government to restore the Ottoman Caliphate against the progressive and modernizing forces of the builder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In pursuit of Muslim support for the national movement, Gandhi had unfortunately espoused the cause for resurrecting religious orthodoxy. In reminding how Ansari’s ancestors were associated with the regressive movement, Prime Minister Modi succinctly paid a left handed compliment to Ansari for his selective understanding of progressive discourse.
Fourthly, the minoritarian streak in Ansari’s vice-presidency was also visible in what he suggested to Supreme Court last year. On April 3, 2016, The Indian Express reported that, speaking at a convocation ceremony at Jammu University, Ansari exhorted the Apex Court to “reflect on how to protect minorities from majoritarianism”, and to clarify “contours within which secularism and composite culture should operate so as to remove ambiguities”. Clearly, Ansari had decided that his vice-presidential responsibilities were restricted to being the voice of minorities and a partial reading of constitution and governmental functioning.
In a piece for right-of-centre publication Swarajya, Arihant Pawariya rightly argued that it’s fallacious to ask about the place of minorities in a country where in addition to the fundamental right to freedom of religion, the minorities have been constitutionally empowered with wide ranging rights to run religious and cultural organisations (Articles 25-28). Moreover, he lists 12 schemes run exclusively for the welfare of minorities by the central government alone. The organised cultural clout of minorities, and political sensitivity tied to that, have ensured that their religious rituals escape the judicial scrutiny, while the ‘majoritarian’ festive rituals like Dahi Handi, Kambala and Jallikattu, to name a few, attract judicial restrictions.
The Prime Minister’s short, substantive and thinly disguised send-off to Ansari’s misplaced alarmism also partly explained why Gopalkrishna Gandhi would have been a bad choice for vice-president. Three days after Modi won a historic mandate for the government at centre, Gandhi was busy raising a bogey about the times to come, and writing pedantic prescriptions for the new Prime Minister. That’s a sure recipe for disaster when seeking opportunities to work with the political head of the country, more so when the alarm is imagined. In his own ways, Ansari’s parting shots show why the Aligarh Movement’s cocoon has not shed its insularity. Not among its elite beneficiaries at least.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @anandvardhan26.