Former Vice-President Dr. Hamid Ansari’s comment that there is a sense of insecurity among Muslims in India has been stridently criticised, particularly by the BJP.
The most interesting observation on Ansari’s remarks was actually made in a thanksgiving manner! Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Rajya Sabha:
“You were associated with West Asia for a major part of your career as a diplomat. You spent many years of your life in that circle, in that atmosphere, in that thought, its debate and amid such people. For a major part after your retirement, whether it was in Minority Commission or Aligarh University, you remained in that circle. But for 10 years, you got a different responsibility. Every moment, you had to remain confined to the Constitution and you tried your best to fulfil that responsibility”
Ansari’s Muslim identity, in this case, is not directly touched upon; however, his association with “That” inevitably Islamic atmosphere is seen as a problem. In other words, we are told, that there is an evitable contradiction between the discourse of minorities (read Muslims!) and the slogan like Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas!
A legitimate question arises here: Is it constitutionally appropriate to raise the issues concerning the Indian Muslim communities that are recognised as a religious minority?
Constitutional democracy versus ‘rule of majority’
The difference between “constitutional democracy” and the “rule of majority” is very relevant here. The “rule of majority” implies that the opinion of the majority should be the ultimate source of all governmental decisions.
But, the “constitutional democracy” functions on the basis of certain rules and norms in order to protect the spirit of all sections of society—majorities as well as minorities. Thus, there are certain “basic structures” which no government (even if it has an absolute majority) cannot change or amend.
The doctrine of “basic structure” of the Constitution of India evokes this aspect of constitutional democracy. In the Kesavananda Bharti case (1973), the Supreme Court says:
“The basic structure […] consists of the following features: (1) Supremacy of the Constitution; (2) Republican and Democratic form of Government. (3) Secular character of the Constitution; (4) Separation of powers between the Legislature, the executive and the judiciary; (5) Federal character of the Constitution. […] This cannot by any form of amendment be destroyed.”
It is worth noting that Ansari, in his address at the National Law School, Bengaluru, seems to underline the spirit of this form of constitutional democracy. He argued:
“Acceptance goes a step beyond tolerance. Moving from tolerance to acceptance is a journey that starts within ourselves….The challenge is to look beyond the stereotypes…that prevent us from accepting others. This makes continuous dialogue unavoidable. It has to become an essential national virtue to promote harmony transcending sectional diversities. The urgency of giving this a practical shape …in the public domain is highlighted by enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians.”
This remark, we must note, is not entirely about Muslims. Ansari evokes some of the core principles of the constitutional democracy to suggest that as a nation we must give up stereotypes so that the marginalised groups, including Muslims, might feel confident as citizens of India.
Principles versus politics
But why did Ansari’s observation become a contentious issue?
The contemporary BJP speaks of Muslims in two distinct ways. (a) Muslims as an unimportant constituent of a larger national community, therefore, they need not be addressed as a specific social group. (b) Muslims of India are part of an international Islamic umma, which does not satisfactorily respond to the nation’s patriotic demands.
The Prime Minister’s remark does not deviate from this standard BJP position. In fact, there is a consistency in Narendra Modi’s arguments. He refused to talk about the backwardness of the Muslims of Gujarat when the Sachar Commission approached him as the Chief Minister in 2006. His argument was that he was not the CM of Hindus and Muslims but a CM of Gujarat. He remained silent on mob-lynching for a long time. Despite the fact that Muslims were killed in all these incidences, he did not address the victims as Muslims. Even on a few occasion when he spoke on Muslim backwardness, he chose to call upon people like Deen Dayal Upadhayay, who always demanded a complete Indianisation of Islam and Muslims. This shows an unspoken norm of BJP politics: “ignore Muslims to make them the real other—of Hindus/India”.
In the similar vein, Modi responded to Ansari’s observation. His contention (that despite a successful diplomat and a scholar of foreign policy with regard to Middle-East, Ansari could not think beyond typical ‘minority’ driven world-view) reminds us that there is an inseparable connection between West Asia, Aligarh and the minorities’ commission. In this framework, therefore, raising any Muslim concern cannot be described as a “national” issue because it has certain “outside” linkages!
The Constitution, we must note, warns us against such attempts to alienate any social group. In this sense, Ansari is absolutely right when he says (in the same so-called controversial lecture):
“Citizenship as the basic unit is conceptualised as “national-civic rather than national-ethnic”…even as national identity remained a rather fragile construct. In the same vein, Indianness came to be defined not as a singular or exhaustive identity but as embodying the idea of layered Indianness, an accretion of identities.”
Following Ansari’s reading of the philosophy of the Constitution, it might be argued that addressing Muslims’ marginalisation in contemporary India is constitutionally appropriate and morally justifiable.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Ahmed1Hilal.