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M. J. Akbar, the renowned journalist and secular intellectual, was inter-viewed on NPR during a visit to America. He was asked what the main problem of Indian Muslims was. He said it was Hindu communalism. He was wrong.

The landslide victory of Narendra Modi in Gujarat has led many to question the future of Indian secularism. Some have speculated that violent Hindutva will spread to other states. While many in the BJP will try to make this happen, they are very unlikely to succeed. Politics and society in other states have moved along a very different path from Gujarat. The real threat to secularism and to Muslims in India is different and more subtle. That real threat is that Muslims will become progressively marginalized in politics, the economy, and in society in India.

There are three major models of tolerance relevant to India today. The traditional Indian model holds society to be subdivided into many small villages, castes, and sects, each with a distinctive mode of worship. Each person and community is required to respect the modes of worship of some others. This results in a trade in Gods in which communities import some Gods from others and worship them on occasion. The Hindu religion is shaped by this model of tolerance. In the model of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, different nations and religious communities were allowed to live according to their own institutions. Each person is marked as a member of one community and is then required to participate in its institutions. Another is the Western liberal model, which only recognizes individuals and permits them to follow any religious practice consistent with some overall laws. It has worked well in societies with limited religious diversity.

The mode of Hindu-Muslim tolerance in post-colonial India draws from the Ottoman and Western models. The traditional Indian model does not work. Few Muslims in India, at least since the middle of the 19th century, are willing to trade in Gods and rituals with Hindus. The Ottoman model is upheld in personal law and in secularist politics. Muslims are treated as a homogenous and separate community. This model is the most congenial with contemporary Indian Muslim identity and theology. However, this model has drawbacks in a democratic and capitalist order.

After independence, Muslims were attractive members of the Congress social coalition. The largest bloc of Muslims would give their votes to Congress yet make demands only in the area of religious symbolism. Hence the material benefits of state power would flow to other members of the coalition. The rising backward caste politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav took the same advantage. The cost that Hindus who coalesce with Muslims pay is that they give up a homogenous national identity. In 1998, for the first time, a coalition came to power in Delhi without the support of most Muslims. What the BJP offers is a more homogenous national identity, one that does not recognize legitimate separate internal identities. The BJP rejects the Ottoman model of tolerance.

The Western model of tolerance is for the most part institutionalized in the Indian legal system. This model is part and parcel of the modern state developed in Europe and adopted in the colonies. It arose mainly as a model of tolerance among Christian sects. Jews and Gypsies were not tolerated. As large Muslim immigrant minorities in the West have grown, the model is breaking down. Some European states are adopting Ottoman practices, such as separate schools for Muslims. In America after Sept. 11, 2001, tolerance itself is in decline. In India, the limits of the Western model was recognized early on, and an Ottoman-Western hybrid was adopted. Congress and other secularists continue to favor this hybrid. The BJP favors a hybrid of the traditional Indian and Western models. Vajpayee has explicitly favored traditional Indian models of tolerance. BJP support for a uniform civil code is in the Western vein. Most Indian Muslims reject the BJP hybrid, as do many Christians.

The principal motive for conversion of Hindus to Islam and other religions was avoidance of caste discrimination. The vast majority of Indian Muslims are from low castes. Initially, conversion did slightly elevate social status, but not enough to permit large-scale inter-caste marriage among Muslims or Christians. Hence the vast majority of Indian Muslims and Christians remain within their ancestral castes. However, with Hindu social reform in the post-colonial era low caste Muslims are falling behind Hindu Dalits in education and access to government. Through the recent creation of states Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, through VHP education and mobilization, and through the efforts of the Catholic Church, tribals are also getting increased access to education and government. Muslims are emerging as the only large group being steadily disempowered.

It is this disempowerment that constitutes the main threat to Muslims and to secularism in India. The trend predates the Vajpayee government by decades and is not caused by Hindu communalism. It is caused mainly by Muslim social insularity promoted by a long line of Indian Muslim leaders from Aurangzeb to Syed Ahmad Khan to Syed Shahbuddin. The trend is reinforced by the Ottoman-Western hybrid of governing religion. That is to say, the current version of secularism in India is disempowering Muslims.

The discussion about secularism in India is completely neglecting the issue of the marginalization of Muslims. If this trend continues, the results will be far worse than the Gujarat riots.

Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.


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