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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Statute vs sacred: Owaisi’s game has a familiar ring

The By Swapan Dasgupta 

Those who maintain that the sky won’t fall down if either the Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi or his party’s MLA in Maharashtra refuses to say Bharat Mata ki jai are no doubt right. India is a large country with diverse political orientations. Consequently, if a small number of people choose to be wilfully contrarian, India’s nationhood is unlikely to be irredeemably jeopardized. Unlike many liberals who flaunt their “idea of India” as being the only acceptable philosophy, the reality is that nationhood lends itself to competitive visions. Some of these are grounded in understandings of India’s civilizational ethos and others are based on rights and entitlements. The contests between these conflicting perceptions constitute India’s democratic politics.

In shunning the imagination of India as a divine mother, Owaisi was harking back to the bitter pre-Independence conflict when the cultural underpinnings of the freedom movement were contested. The Muslim League’s portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘Hindu’ leader, the portrayal of Vande Mataram as ‘un-Islamic’ and the demand for a Muslim homeland were facets of a clash that culminated with the triumph of freedom and the parallel tragedy of Partition.

The roots of Owaisi’s misgivings over Bharat Mata can be traced back to earlier battles, and even to the desperate bid of the Razakars to maintain a sovereign Muslim enclave in the heart of India in 1947-48. In tune with his new project of expanding beyond the Deccan, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader was wilfully resurrecting an old controversy for a new generation that has a tenuous awareness of the past.

Owaisi’s grandstanding is, however, not a carbon copy of the old Razakar project. Those who see the MIM as a separatist force, committed to some Pakistani agenda, are wrong. Despite its controversial origins and the inflammatory rhetoric it employs in the ghettos, the MIM is not assaulting the integrity of the Indian Union — at least not yet. In invoking the Constitution to uphold his right to spurn any mandatory chanting of Bharat Mata ki jai, Owaisi is attempting to delink Indian nationhood from its historical inheritance. In the context of the wider churning on the meaning of Indian nationalism, he is seeking to forge a link between Muslim politico-cultural assertion and the tide of ‘constitutional patriotism’ centred on individual rights and group entitlements.

That Owaisi’s project is not unique is also clear. Over the past few months, beginning from the unfortunate ‘beef’ lynching in Dadri and stretching to the sedition controversy in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the varied detractors of the Narendra Modi government have sought to complement their opposition to ‘intolerance’ and even ‘fascism’ with a deification of the Constitution. Indeed, they have lost no opportunity to posit the Constitution against the BJP’s ‘nationalism’.

On the face of it, there is no apparent disagreement on the centrality of the Constitution as a rulebook of statecraft. The Constitution sets out the dos and don’ts governing public life and outlines a lakshman rekha. The Constitution does not, however, determine the basis on which Indian nationhood is forged. To those who make the Constitution out to be the proverbial last word, the voluntary union of a billion people is on the strength of a statutory commitment to democracy, individual rights, some group entitlements and even secularism and socialism.

The alternative suggestion is that India is the Constitution and much more. Nationalists believe India didn’t begin in 1947 but dates back to antiquity and that Indianness includes emotion, history and collective memory. They feel nationhood is constituted through complementary and overlapping cultures that make Bharat more than just a piece of land. The perception of India as sacred geography, possessing a divine representation was an underlying theme of Vande Mataram, the invocation that inspired the battle for national sovereignty. The belief in India and the divine motherland are inseparable.

Rebuffing a symbol that is at the heart of the popular imagination of the nation naturally invites outrage. When Owaisi invokes individual rights, it is immediately viewed as a bid to convert India into a purposeless, fractured majority browbeaten by an organized minority with unitary beliefs. The Constitution is a part of the national philosophy; it is not the whole. Comprehending the totality is the challenge of our times.


Sunday Times of India, March 20, 2016

1 comment:

SatyaK said...

Owaisi seems to be following the path that he hopes will lead to a partition in the future, or at least a J&K type province where he or his anointed successor can become the "Prime Minister". His language is confrontational and motives behind it clear. It goes far behind what an opportunist politician might say. Dr Subramanian Swamy said in a speech many years ago that in Islam there are concepts of Dar-ul-haram and Dar-ul-Islam standing for the society of infidels (where Muslims are in a minority) and believers (where they are a majority), respectively. The goal of all believers is to take the former to the latter. Owaisi's efforts are to be seen in this light. His' is no innocent adherence to the constitution, for the world knows that constitutions don't mean a thing to the religio-political Muslim.

The strategy for the rest of us therefore is to find a way to splinter his efforts, and marginalize/neutralize him .. unless of course, idiots in the opposition start co-opting him in the guise of "freedom of speech". One has to look at the strategies employed by the FBI in the USA where they successfully neutralize such rabble rousing leaders who can be a threat to the unity of their nation even in the distant future. The key to such a strategy lies in neutralizing efficiently and deceptively without making it obvious. Are our intelligence agencies listening and working behind the scenes to do so? I hope they are ...