Secularist Silence on Islamic Bigotry: The Tribune India


Sudheendra Kulkarni

Former Close Advisor to Ex-PM AB Vajpayee & Founder, Forum for a New South Asia

TODAY there is a rising tide of anti-Muslim hatred deliberately created by the ideological ecosystem of the Sangh Parivar that supports the Modi government. Disturbingly, a large proportion of Hindus have been influenced by it. This tide must be stopped and reversed. However, this cannot happen unless secular forces and Muslim leaders correct their grave error of remaining silent about historical and contemporary wrongs on the Islamic side. A recent incident triggered this thought in me.

On April 21, the 400th birthday of the ninth Sikh Master, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation from the Red Fort in Delhi. The occasion underscored the need to commemorate the communal atrocities committed by some Muslim rulers. As is well known, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb at Chandni Chowk in Delhi in a style that has become notorious in modern times by the IS. Several of his colleagues were also tortured to death. Before his execution, Aurangzeb had given the guru two options – either convert to Islam or face death. Tegh Bahadur chose death.

This was not the only act of extreme intolerance and violence during Mughal rule. Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru, was tortured and killed in 1606 on the orders of Emperor Jahangir because he was a staunch advocate of religious tolerance and pluralism. Aurangzeb had also ordered the beheading of his own younger brother Dara Shikoh in front of his terrified son in 1659. Aurangzeb was angry because his brother had started to advocate for harmony between Islam and Hinduism. The liberal-minded Dara had authored Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Blending of the Two Oceans), which explored the spiritual affinity between Sufism and Vedanta. This was an abomination to Aurangzeb, who believed in Puritan Islam. Such acts of religious extremism in Indian history should not be forgotten; rather the right lessons should be drawn from them.

What was surprising – also disturbing – was the large number of comments on Twitter the following day from many secular-minded people. “Why is Modi ranting about something that happened four centuries ago?” They asked. This question is symptomatic of the reaction of most secularists to any debate about injustice and barbarism perpetrated by fanatical Muslims – medieval or recent history, in India or anywhere else in the world. The April 21 event may have been misused for a political purpose, but the fact is that such atrocities are deeply engraved in the minds of many Sikhs and Hindus. Blaming today’s Muslims for the crimes committed by some Islamic fanatics in the past is, of course, wrong. But it is also wrong to claim that such a story should be forgotten. Heinous crimes committed in the past find sanctuary in the collective memory of communities. Such a memory does more harm when suppressed. It must be purified through honest introspection, honest dialogue and mutual reconciliation.

Secularists are usually very open about Hindu communalism, which of course needs to be opposed. But in general they tend to either deny or downplay the crimes of bigoted Muslim rulers. Because they want to remain politically correct, questioning Islamic bigotry has become a taboo subject for them. Thus, the destruction of Hindu temples and idols in the past – a source of deep and enduring resentment among Hindus of all castes – is either glossed over or attributed to reasons other than religious intolerance. That’s disingenuous. If the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the age of global television, did not hesitate to destroy the statue of Bamiyan Buddha because they considered it an “idol of the Kafirs”, how can one deny that such religiously inspired idol-busting did not take place in the Middle Ages ? Forced conversions of minority Hindus and forced marriages of Hindu girls continue to occur in Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, in Bangladesh. So how can anyone claim that such things have not happened under orthodox Muslim rulers in the past?

India’s secular constitution guarantees equality before the law to all citizens, regardless of religion. In contrast, in many Muslim countries, religious minorities are denied equal rights and the very word “secularism” is considered anti-Islamic. This discrimination is not strongly challenged by Muslim scholars and non-Muslim secularists.

Secularists rightly raise their voices against unjust and inhuman customs such as untouchability and caste discrimination in Hindu society. However, their voice is often mute or muffled when it comes to much-needed reforms in Muslim society. For example, secular parties did not support calls for a ban on the inhumane practice of triple talaq, despite agitating against it by several Muslim women’s groups. When the Modi government introduced a law banning it in 2019, it was welcomed not only by Hindus but also by a section of Muslim women. I heard from friends in Uttar Pradesh that a significant number of Muslim women voted for the BJP in the recent general election for supporting the anti-triple talaq law. By contrast, in the 1980s, even though the ruling Congress party had 415 MPs in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi’s secular government capitulated to Muslim fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case and failed to bring justice to a widowed Muslim woman demanding alimony. Rajiv Gandhi’s surrender became an important turning point in India’s political history and contributed significantly to the rise of the BJP.

This is just a small list of issues on which the biased approach of secular forces has discredited secularism itself. It has given Hindutva adherents an opportunity to smear secularism as an anti-Hindu concept that promotes appeasement of Muslims. Although the BJP itself practices Hindu appeasement, this is being overlooked by a growing segment of Hindus. This hypocrisy must be exposed. Secularism is a fundamental principle of the Indian constitution and must therefore be defended. Without them, India’s national unity, integrity and social harmony would be seriously threatened. But the worst way to defend secularism is to become partisan and biased, either on the Hindu side or on the Muslim side.


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