Like today’s ‘secular’ or ‘moderate’ Muslim, a species called the ‘nationalist Muslim’ was extremely sought after, and equally rare, in pre-Independence India. The nationalist Muslim was the counterpoint to the problem of Muslim disaffection that surfaced after 1857 — a statist problem to which the colonial solution was the creation of a set of collaborators. In turn, the nationalist retort was to create a nationalist Muslim i.e., one willing to consider mutual agreements to resolve disputes rather than the colonial state as a bulwark. That is to say, a Muslim who ratified the Congress was a nationalist, one who did not was a communalist. But since even the best nationalist Muslims remained disaffected — read Maulana Azad’s ministerial correspondence — and many who started as nationalists ended as communalists or separatists — take Jinnah, Mohammed Ali Jauhar or Iqbal — a Muslim’s only respectable political choice was to become a communist.
Between the Scylla of disaffection — can an Indian Muslim be unmoved by the condition of Muslims — and the Charybdis of the illegitimacy of communitarian posturing, hangs the fate of the modern, secular Muslim. The mainstream demands that he shed his Muslimness, the community urges him to display it. Varieties of sectarianism — caste, regional, nativist, linguistic — are permitted, even accepted, but it is difficult to articulate religious sectarianism; hence the proliferation of stories about Muslim artisans for Dussehra, Muslim actors in Ramlila and so on. Is there space to assert that I will not celebrate Diwali or Holi because my religion does not permit me?
Simultaneous with the insistence on the erasure of difference — we are all Indians, join the mainstream — through a sleight of hand comes the reminder of the particularistic. So, on purdah, Shah Bano or education, the secular Muslim should affirm his Muslimness but speak as a modern. The ‘acceptable’ Indian Muslim, therefore, does not look or behave like Muslims do, but carries the burden of speaking for them. In addition he must glorify the syncretic past and create versions of Islam that harmonise with the current definition of religion. Men like us must speak as does the rest of India and must simultaneously goad other Muslims to speak like us or let us talk for them. The problem, as we all know, is that sub-human category, the Mullahs.
Rules of endogamy, if nothing else (no UP Muslim wants to marry a Bengali or Malyali Muslim), give the lie to the category of something that can be called ‘Indian Muslims’ — the group is more diverse than any other in India. But the problem called ‘Indian Muslims’ continues, as opposed to the problems that all Indian Muslims have in and with India. Muslims in different parts are different but every city in India has a Muslim ghetto. Why do they stick together wherever they are? What is wrong if they do? And are they all the same?
Let me explain my locus. I am an atheist, I follow none of the Islamic taboos, but I live in a locality in the capital that can only be called a ghetto. I lived here for five years, when I was a student, when I was very self-consciously opposed to the Indian Muslim stereotype. I had grown up on Chandamama and Nandan, Holi was my favourite festival, Karna my hero, Shiva the great God, Hinduism a highly tolerant religion and I had dreams of attaining martyrdom fighting Pakistan. I was studying history and detested medieval Muslim rulers; I would expatiate on the reasons why Islam had trouble with modernity; I admired Naipaul and Rushdie; supported Mushirul Hasan during the Satanic Verses controversy — a novel I deeply admire in spite of its undoubted blasphemies — and I detested many things about Indian Muslims, except, predictably, Urdu literature and Sufism. I was, in short, a model Hinduised-Indian-Muslim, who always put India before Islam. I was desperate to leave Okhla.
But I am now back in Okhla, arguing simultaneously for the legitimacy of difference and the fact of a universal human. Between the self-hatred of my youth and the current uneasiness with my earlier positions lies, possibly, a series of adult defeats — perhaps they have dulled my passions and my hatreds. However now I have, you could say, chosen to live here, after a series of eliminations — Defence Colony, Greater Kailash-I, Jangpura — on grounds of my being Muslim and/or not having a company lease. But, crucially, I came here because I was sickened by South Delhi and because I was incipiently aware of Okhla’s hospitableness.
Most of my neighbours know about my non-conformist life-style but there is a surprising tolerance for my ways. Indeed, most Muslim ghettos I know of are content to house persons like me provided we do not ruffle public feathers. It is a tolerance that obviously sits easily with an utter conviction of the falsity of our ways, similar to the mixed feelings Amitav Ghosh generated in that Egyptian village where he was unexceptionably welcomed and equally unexceptionally reminded of the falsehood of Hindusim and the superiority of Islam.
More than this, however, my views, in conformity with the rest of the academic world, about the virtues of egalitarianism, liberty and a democratic welfare state are now far less uncomplicated than they were in my youth. I still search for vestiges of the narrative of liberty in Islamic pasts, I continue to valourise streams of pluralism in Muslim sultanates and extol those Indian Muslims of the past who were ecumenical and tolerant. I would still challenge descriptions of the medieval past that underline forced conversions or bemoan the second-class treatment of Hindus. If I do not have much truck with Islam, why then do I continue to search for narratives of tolerance in the Islamic past? Why do I smart when Vajpayee says that there is trouble and violence wherever Muslims live? Why is my attitude to Islam so defensive?
I am eager to tell the world that Muslims of the past were different, as they indeed were, but the hidden presumption is that the current Indian Muslims are a fallen lot, in need of reform. We are not entirely sure whether it is they or Islam itself that needs reform, but we are absolutely certain that reform is needed. The West is reformation itself, Christianity has been protestantised, Hinduism has been reformed by the State, but Islam we have been trying to reform for the last 150 years and have been on the defensive for as long as well. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote letters justifying the British racial hatred of Indians — “They are right to treat us worse than dogs,”— before pleading that there is no contradiction between the Quran and science, that Islam was enlightenment and enlightenment Islam. Why must even those defending Muslims reduce all debate surrounding Muslims to Islam? Why do I continue to become perturbed by the treatment of Islam from both sides?
I am confused. On the one hand I bemoan the condition of Muslims in India; on the other, I am strongly aware of the fact that this State, like most others, delivers mostly to its elite, outside whose pale are not only Muslims but also most other marginal groups. On the one hand, I feel that we should have the space to be critical of certain strains in the world of Indian Muslims; on the other, I feel that sometimes we make too much of freedom of expression. I want Muslims to be different from what they are, but cannot tell how much of that desire is an internalisation of a vein of criticism and interrogation that has now gone on for over 200 years, not merely in India. What I do know is that the stereotype of the exceptionalism of Islam as a religion and the inexorable Muslim urge for separateness from the mainstream is one that cuts both ways. You can use it to condemn Muslims, you can invoke it to celebrate difference in a world where history has ended, where all roads lead to New York. That cannot be our only fate.