Arfa Khanum Sherwani
August 5 was a difficult day for anyone who still believes in the idea of a secular and democratic India. The spectacle of a prime minister performing the ‘bhumi pujan’ for his political parivar’s temple in Ayodhya did no credit of the world’s largest democracy, one that incidentally is also home to more than 200 million Muslims.
In November 2019, the Supreme Court gave the disputed site where the Babri Masjid stood – till it was forcibly demolished in 1992 – to the Hindu litigants and said that an alternative site should be given to the Muslim litigants for their mosque. The court judgment – which, oddly enough, also accepted that the 1992 demolition was illegal – triggered an acute loss of faith among Muslims about the possibility of justice. And now, the open involvement of top state functionaries in the foundation-laying celebrations for the temple has put an official seal to the idea that the Indian state has a religion. Narendra Modi appeared there not as the leader of 130 crore Indians but as some sort of Hindu king who was marking the beginning of a new political and social order in which religion– his religion – would have pride of place.
As an Indian, a journalist and a Muslim, covering Ayodhya has been a tumultuous experience for me. After the Supreme Court’s judgment last November, I wrote a deeply personal piece on what my family and I – as a young girl in Uttar Pradesh – had to suffer in the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots and the imprints the violence left on my adult life. As the date of the August 5 ceremony came closer, the preparations for the event were being reported in the national press almost on a daily basis. From revisiting the horrors of 1992 to imagining what August 5 would bring, not a day passed without me wondering what had happened to the India my ancestors had fought for. As I flipped channels, I couldn’t recognise my country anymore.
What happened on August 5 may have brought home the change which has taken place, but this change did not come in a day.
Enough has been written on how, over the past six years, Narendra Modi and his party have single-mindedly and unapologetically done everything in their power to weaken the constitution. Virtually all their major policy decisions and the laws they took great pride in were aimed at turning India – a secular, federal democracy – into a state where Muslims and minorities, Dalits and Adivasis, live in fear. The fear of losing their rights, livelihoods, and access to resources.
Long shadow on the judiciary’s credibility
But what distinguishes the last one year from Modi’s first five years is the near abandonment of secular principles by India’s institutions. The politicisation and communalisation of the administration – particularly the law enforcement agencies including the police, lower bureaucracy and lower judiciary – underscore this shift. And when it comes to critical cases – like the Delhi riots investigations, the state crackdown on protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the illegal arrest and detention of Kashmiri leaders, activists and journalists – the higher judiciary’s lacklustre attitude and unwillingness to question the government narrative have cast long shadows on the credibility of the legal system.
The last few years have also seen the media – an important pillar of democracy that had earlier abandoned its duty as a watchdog against the powerful – cast away any pretence of secularism. The high decibel debates on national TV manufacturing a forced consensus in favour of the government politics, and attacking any contrarian views or delegitimising them as ‘anti-national’ is an old story. While many TV anchors continue to dehumanise Muslims and incite hatred and violence against them, it appears that this may not be enough to please the ‘master’. From top editors to junior reporters and anchors of popular news channels, August 5 witnessed the total surrender of Big Media to the saffron agenda. From hailing the Ram temple as a national accomplishment, shouting religious slogans and reciting prayers in the studio to declaring Narendra Modi as the Hindu king, it was almost impossible to distinguish some of these journalists from BJP/RSS workers.
Tired of carrying the ‘burden’ of opposing communalism, the Congress, India’s largest opposition party, finally resolved its ideological dilemma of oscillating between soft secularism and soft Hindutva. The party fielded none other than general secretary Priyanka Gandhi to hail the Ayodhya ceremony – which was a Sangh parivar-led event from start to finish – as a symbol of national unity and fraternity. Except for the Communists, no ‘national party’ could gather the courage to even explain to the people of India the actual significance of the event.
Twenty-seven years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the ‘nation’s shame’ is being termed as the ‘nation’s pride’ and there is virtually no political force that has the conviction or the intention to counter this narrative. While the country’s democratic institutions no longer feel obliged to uphold the constitution and almost all political parties find it politically inconvenient or even disadvantageous to stand for secular politics, it is pertinent to ask what remains of secularism. Disowned by politics and abandoned by key institutions, it is hard for Muslims to avoid feeling orphaned in their own country.
In the absence of a secular polity and an impartial administration, it is the Muslims of India who stand to lose their place as equal stakeholders in the country’s future. It is ironical that this lowest point in our secular-democratic life is coming right after the anti-CAA protest which was considered one of the most important – and peaceful – civil rights movements in the history of independent India. For a few months, it seemed as if the movement, primarily led by Muslim women, would succeed in stymying the RSS’s Hindutva project. But now that the anti-CAA protesters are being hounded and jailed for this ‘crime’, it is almost impossible that the protests will be resurrected once the coronavirus crisis passes and the lockdown is fully lifted.
And yet, something still remains. The protests may be over but history will stand witness that the Muslims of India fought not just for themselves and their rights but rose to defend India’s constitution and its democracy. Of course, it is not just the Muslims who have a stake in protecting the secular character of India. The abandoning of secularism goes hand in hand with the weakening of democracy. States that systematically discriminate against citizens on the basis of religious or any other ascriptive identity cannot also be democratic. And the burden of the resulting loss of rights will fall heavily on all. When the mandir euphoria is over, this realisation has to be the basis for new politics. The future of the Indian republic is at stake.