Shashi Tharoor and the majoritarian strain that afflicts Indian liberalism

Indian secularism is under threat. Not from Muslims, but from a section of Hindus.

WrittenBy:Asim Ali
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Ever since the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act sparked off, one thorny question has divided the supporters of the protests. How much room is there for the assertion of a Muslim identity in the struggle for a secular India?

Shashi Tharoor waded into the debate on the side of those who argue that the entry of an Islamic idiom in a secular protest undermines the secular struggle. Tharoor characterised the chant “Say it on the barricades, la ilaha illalah, tera mera rishta kya la illala illalah” as representative of “Islamic extremism” and “religious fundamentalism” that was not consonant with “pluralism and diversity”.

This was a curious intervention by someone who never shies away from wearing his religion on his sleeve, right from ornately captured visits to temples to writing a book-length ode to Hinduism last year.

It’s useful to parse Shashi Tharoor’s comments because they are symptomatic of a majoritarian strain that afflicts Indian liberalism. This strain can be found both in the workings of the Congress party and in the commentary of certain liberal intellectuals. This “majoritarian liberalism” is characterised by three main features, all of which it shares, to varied extents, with the Hindu nationalists it claims to fight.

First, this majoritarian liberalism implicitly endorses the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s view that Hinduism is the “natural” religion of India and, therefore, the only religion that enjoys the privilege of being invoked in the public space. This is why Rahul Gandhi’s frequent trips to temples before elections are inherently compatible with secularism, but Owaisi can be flippantly labelled as the “other side of the BJP” without even the need to furnish any supportive evidence.

When I wrote an article last year arguing that Indian communists should engage more with religion, and Hinduism should not be ceded to the BJP, Tharoor shared it, calling it “brilliant” and “precisely what I have been arguing in my book Why I am a Hindu”.

This sleight of hand, making only the invocation of Hinduism kosher in our secular polity, is done by extolling the “uniquely pluralistic” nature of Hinduism. In his book Why I am a Hindu, Tharoor gushingly describes Hinduism as “that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and expansive of faiths”. Since Hinduism is “plural and inclusive” by its very nature, appeals to Hinduism by Messrs Tharoor and Gandhi can never fall afoul of the struggle for “plurality and diversity”, unlike references to Islam.

On this point too, this majoritarian liberalism shares the vocabulary of the RSS, which always insists that India is by definition secular because it is a Hindu country. 

As the RSS Sah Sarkaryavah Krishna Gopal explained: “It’s not that we came to know about secularism from our Constitution. Our seers looked at every religion with respect. That is the source of our secularism.”

Hence, the RSS’s Hindu nationalists believe that appeals to Hinduism are compatible in a secular democracy because Hinduism is not merely a religion but a “way of life” and constitutive of “Indian ethos” — a view endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1995 “Hindutva” judgment. Much like Hindutvadis, majoritarian liberals believe that appeals to Hinduism do not contradict secularism, because Hinduism supposedly undergirds India’s pluralist ethos. None of them would ever dare call Gandhi communal for making the achievement of “Ram Rajya” the central idiom of the freedom struggle.

Secondly, majoritarian liberalism is always wary of any expression of Islamic beliefs in the public sphere, which they are quick to label as “extremism” and “fundamentalism”. There is an element of Islamophobia here, since in extolling the “most plural, inclusive and eclectic” nature of Hinduism, the unmistakable context is the conscious contrast made to the supposedly “dogmatic” and “fundamentalist” nature of Islam.

Why else, it might be asked, does the most innocuous reference to Islam (“la illaha illalah” is the basic tenet of Islam which every practising Muslim subscribes to) become a threat to the pluralism and diversity of India? The context in which an Islamic reference is used doesn’t matter; by its nature, that reference becomes anti-secular. The “la illaha illalah” slogan used by protesters was clearly not a supremacist chant or one raised in the defense of Islam, let alone one calling for an Islamic State. It was merely an emotional cry of resistance, raised in the defense of their secular and constitutional rights, by Muslims who are being persecuted precisely for being Muslims. 

The argument that the chant becomes communal because of its association with the Pakistan movement seven decades back is absurd. Every religious expression must be interpreted in its context. It would be an equally absurd argument to claim that “Jai Shri Ram” has become intrinsically communal because it has been used in concurrence with lynchings, riots and breaking mosques.

Similarly, this majoritarian liberalism is quick to cast doubt on the secular credentials of someone like Shehla Rashid or Umar Khalid, as soon as they start talking of their Islamic faith, but Rahul Gandhi proudly claiming to be a “janeudhari Hindu” is defended not only in terms of strategy, but also in terms of principle. Secular Hindus, after all, can wear their religion on their sleeves, but secular Muslims must confine their religion to their private sphere. If straight people policed the boundaries of the expression of homosexuality of LGBTQ people, or if men policed the boundaries of the expression of femininity of women, it would unambiguously be labelled as homophobia and misogyny, respectively. But this policing of the boundaries of the Islamic faith of Muslims by liberal Hindus, in the name of secular gatekeeping, is tolerated even in progressive circles, without being called out for the Islamophobia it undoubtedly represents.

Thirdly, majoritarian liberalism always keeps Muslims, as it were, on probation. Seventy years after Independence, they not only have to prove their secularism, but also their very patriotism. 

Shekhar Gupta recently wrote that the “flavour of the UPA decade “was that “India had to be generous to Muslims so they won’t go rogue”. “For almost three decades now, the concern has been, what if the Muslims get really frustrated and take to terror?” 

Gupta praised the rise of a “new Muslim” who is “not afraid to look Muslim, and not shy of flaunting her nationalism. With a willingness to fight carrying the Constitution, the flag, the anthem, Ambedkar, Gandhi and the chant of ‘Hindustan Zindabad’.”

However, contrary to Gupta’s claims, the problem was not so much the “old Muslim” but the stereotype of the “old Muslim” that commands widespread currency even in India’s liberal circles. The stereotypes that held Muslims as being under the constant threat of “going rogue”. This distrust of Indian Muslims, again, is a shared quality of both Hindutvadis and majoritarian liberals. Indeed, the very fact of the conscious sprinkling of nationalist paraphernalia at Jama Masjid spoke not so much to the growing patriotism of Muslims (Muslims have always been equally patriotic) but to the reflexive understanding among Muslims of the need to counter their stereotypes. 

Therefore, it is always amusing when Hindu liberals take to themselves to lecture Muslim on the “optics” of the protests. As if the daily cascade of hateful propaganda over the last few years have not made them painfully aware of the mechanics of such propaganda.

Indian democracy and secularism is under an existential threat. And every reasonable person would agree that this existential threat comes not from Muslims, but from a section of Hindus. It is not Muslims who are voting for alleged terrorists for Parliament, neither are they voting for parties that threaten the citizenship of others, or for the principles enshrined in the Constitution. 

It is no one’s case that the Muslim community is perfect. Like every other community in India, Muslims are largely conservative, and many ordinary Muslims hold problematic views on a range of issues, just like many ordinary Hindus.

But, in the final analysis, Muslims are right now broadly on the right side of the struggle for secularism, democracy, and the Constitution.

Therefore, clearly, the burden for proving their adherence to secularism and patriotism does not lie with Muslims, but on the majority community. Muslims have carried that burden, unjustifiably, for a long time. In this present fight for a vision of a “plural and inclusive” India on the streets, Muslims have provided the vast majority of numbers, and have almost exclusively shed their blood. If they have no patience for the lecture of a Hindu ally queasy about their faith — and Tharoor remains an important ally in this fight — it is perfectly understandable. Ultimately, Muslims do not owe anyone an explanation for how they protest. Indeed, they are the ones owed an explanation for why they are risking their life and liberty, being forced to protest for something as basic as equal citizenship.


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