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Indian Muslims: Trapped between the devil and the deep sea


‘If chutzpah nationalists brought the Babri Masjid down, chutzpah secularists did precious little to stop it from being torn down.’

‘If chutzpah nationalists ensured carnage in Gujarat, chutzpah secularists allowed Muzaffarnagar to become their next hunting ground.’

‘Chutzpah secularists readily banned SIMI, but dragged their feet when it came to banning the Bajrang Dal.’

The Indian Muslim is caught between the chutzpah nationalists and the chutzpah secularists, says Shehzad Poonawalla.

Vishal Bharadwaj’s award-winning Haider, that was set in insurgency-hit Kashmir of 1995, saw actor Shahid Kapoor produce his best performance to date, as the protagonist who returns to the Valley at the peak of conflict in the militancy-ravaged state, to seek answers about his father Dr Hilal Meer’s disappearance.

Haider, a visibly deranged poet played by Kapoor, in a most poignant and satirical four-minute solo dramatisation of the atrocities perpetrated on Kashmiris, elaborates in a riveting scene the meaning of ‘chutzpah’ — a Hebrew word that in his opinion, best described the brazen effrontery and audacity with which the Indian State and armed forces treated the people of Kashmir.

Haider gives an example in that scene to explain just what ‘chutzpah’ meant — of a bank robber with a gun holding up a cashier to steal all the money in the bank and then, without an ounce of remorse, guilt, regret or sense of personal responsibility, walking across to the next counter and asking another bank official for an account opening form, pretending or, worse yet, actually believing he had a legitimate right to open a bank account after committing a daylight robbery at that very same bank!

While impotently sympathising as much as I can with the plight of the Kashmiris as portrayed in Haider, I certainly cannot claim to have any credible independent commentary on their plight, given the lack of any first-hand experience and the over-reliance I have on my second-hand knowledge about the Valley and its issues.

But when it comes to the multi-faceted discrimination faced by Indian Muslims in general, being an active observer of it, an unfortunate recipient of its intended and unintended consequences, and a tireless, legal crusader against its manifestations, I certainly say this with all the authority at my command, that just like the average Kashmiri often feels trapped between India and Pakistan, the average Indian Muslim, as the protagonist of this piece, Haider from Uttar Pradesh, also feels caught between ‘chutzpah nationalism’ and ‘chutzpah secularism’, much like the proverbial sailor whose nautical misery landed him between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Here is how Haider from UP would explain what he means by the terms he has coined.

Chutzpah nationalism — the devil

Haider from UP lives in fear of the Hindutva brigade — the chutzpah nationalists. His relatives in Gujarat have been consigned by them to the saffron flames of a communal fire that burnt huge holes into the secular fabric of India. Justice, promised on paper, remained on paper. Injustice was done and seen to be done.

Puppy dogs accidentally run over by the wheels of a fast-moving ‘rath’ had a greater claim to an apology, but not those who were raped, murdered and butchered in Gandhi’s own land.

The chutzpah nationalists never fought as freedom fighters to liberate this country from the British. There was evidence that they served British interests instead. They refused to recognise the tricolour for decades and they advocated the two-nation theory.

Yet, post-1947 they transformed themselves into the sole custodians of nationalism — a religious, xenophobic and parochial kind of nationalism and not some broader idea of civic nationalism that truly elevates and transforms majoritarian chauvinism into a meaningful democracy.

With a history so depleted and bankrupt, these chutzpah nationalists co-opt as their own, heroes of the past — Sardar Patel, Netaji Bose and Dr Ambedkar — the very figures they once abused and faced stiff opposition from. They often attempt to rewrite history, very often at the peril of ignoring the lessons of the past.

Haider is acutely conscious of the loyalty test these chutzpah nationalists force him to take each day. He knows the first two verses of Vande Mataram though he fails to understand why singing Jana Gana Mana is not enough.

Co-opting the cow, they have turned him into a sacrificial lamb who can be slaughtered with the sharp knives of ‘beef politics.’

He wonders why claiming to build the Ram Mandir is patriotic even as the Ayodhya dispute issub judice, but expressing disgust about the illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid is anti-national.

Having revenge drool down one’s lips each time a Yakub is hanged is civilised, but questioning why not a single perpetrator of the 1992-1993 Bombay riots has been convicted reveals one’s perverted mindset.

Haider over-compensates for his Muslim identity by his expressive hatred for all things Pakistan, but frankly all he wants is peace between the two nations.

He plays the perfect, defensive, apologist for his religion each time criminals, sometimes disguised as ISIS and at other times as Al Qaeda, choose to carry out mindless terror attacks in its name, though he doesn’t really get the logic of why the majority 99.99% non-violent, peaceful practitioners of the world’s second largest faith don’t have the legitimacy and claim over Islam that its misguided minority has, putting the guilt-ridden onus and spotlight on billions for denouncing the actions of a handful 0.01% as ‘UnIslamic.’

He doesn’t understand how terrorism becomes Islamic/Islamist if imperialism and the Holocaust weren’t Christian.

He is frustrated at the claims of his heart being in Pakistan even though his forefathers chose to keep their mind, body and soul in India in 1947. He remains at the bottom of every socio-economic and socio-political index, but he bears the brunt of being the most appeased.

He is told to be apologetic for the invasion and alleged atrocities of the ‘Mughal rulers’, notwithstanding the antiquity and authenticity of the claims of victimisation, yet when he demands an apology for the atrocities of 2002 or 2013, he is asked to not play victim but to ‘move on.’

Chutzpah secularism — the deep blue sea

Haider remains at the mercy of the chutzpah secularists. They have given him rights under a secular Constitution, but they have taken away the means to enforce those rights.

They have never really questioned his right to live in India, but are probably guilty of doing everything that makes it unliveable for him in India.

They have issued him blank cheques of safety, prosperity and security, but each time he has tried to encash those cheques from the vaults of our democracy, they have been returned marked ‘inadequate funds.’

Over six decades of being a democratic Republic committed to equal opportunity, the chutzpah secularists happily accepted his votes, but not his leadership.

Haider from UP could elect the prime minister of India, but never dream to be one. His community’s 14% vote share must be invested into the secular cause, but the payout could never translate into 14% of electoral representation for him, whether in the Lok Sabha or the state assemblies.

The chutzpah secularists haven’t felt it important, even for the mere sake of keeping alive this sorry charade of secularism, that not a state other than the Muslim majority one of Jammu Kashmir has a Muslim chief minister since 1982.

A mere 2.5% share in the civil services, a paltry 3% share in a million strong army and a dismal 4.3% share in the higher judiciary of India for Haider’s community that finds itself over-represented in only one category — as prisoners in Indian jails where their share is a healthy 26.4%!

Low employment in the organised sector, lower odds than Dalits in getting a job, highest school dropout levels, lowest presence of schools and hospitals in Muslim concentrated areas that anyway lack civic infrastructure coupled with one of the lowest per capita incomes and consumption levels make Haider and his co-religionists perfect candidates for affirmative action and reservation, but the chutzpah secularists are so weary of the chutzpah nationalists’ propaganda, that they actually buy into this ‘appeasement of Muslims argument’ and pay mere lip service to a legitimate demand.

If the police force under chutzpah nationalists organised fake encounters, under the chutzpah secularists they arrested innocent folks on terror charges, kept them incarcerated for years or killed them in police custody.

In both cases, Haider from UP suffered.

If chutzpah nationalists brought the Babri Masjid down, chutzpah secularists did precious little to stop it from being torn down.

If chutzpah nationalists ensured carnage in Gujarat, chutzpah secularists allowed Muzaffarnagar to become their next hunting ground.

Chutzpah secularists readily banned SIMI, but dragged their feet when it came to banning the Bajrang Dal.

Just like chutzpah nationalism is not real nationalism, but brazen audacity of appearing to be nationalistic, chutzpah secularism is far from Constitutional secularism that was promised to Haider.

It is only the illusion of secularism. It is the half-hearted implementation of the promises made to Haider’s forefathers by Gandhi and Nehru in 1947.

Today, between the false choices of two undesirable situations — situations Haider from UP can neither change nor avoid — he remains a helpless prisoner of circumstance. On the one hand is the devil and on the other, the deep blue sea.

The only option to break free from the cycle of victimisation by chutzpah nationalists and exploitation by chutzpah secularists lies in genuine empowerment — political, educational, economic and social, in that order. Organised political power can be the only panacea for millions of Muslims across India.

The time has come for Haider from UP to call out the chutzpah of his own bank robbers.

Shehzad Poonawalla is a lawyer-activist and founder-member of the governing body of the think-tank PolicySamvad.

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