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March 21, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Kid gloves, please!

All of a sudden, in the last fortnight or so, several of our Muslims have been in the news, and provocative news at that. Being thoroughly incapable of reaching its views to the public at large except when it is controversially juicy, the Sangh Parivar's reaction to recent events will at best appear only in their amateurish propaganda sheets. Meanwhile, the general indifference to this cluster of happenings has once again reinforced the belief held by both, the common man and the elite media for over half a century.

We are witness once again to the belief that whatever be the circumstances, kid-glove treatment must be doled out to the minority Muslim community in this secular country.

It is difficult to choose the order of these Muslim newsmakers, but beginning with an active politician would seem to be good protocol. Alphabetically too, Abu Asim Azmi is apt enough to precede his namesake Shabana, though it must be conceded that the film actress's tonsured head could well claim precedence considering how it has hogged front-page photographs in our newspapers for over a month now.

A week ago, the Mumbai police registered a case under Section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code against Abu Azmi, chief of the Mumbai unit of 'Maulana' Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party which is a partner of the Congress-led coalition in Maharashtra. A publicly released audiotape of a speech he made at a public meeting in February was exploited by the Shiv Sena to force the Maharashtra government to charge Azmi with the offence of 'promoting enmity and inciting hatred between religious groups and communities.'

Now, this police charge is a joke considering that a rendition of the audiotape indicated that Azmi's speech also advocated further dismemberment of the nation. Had he belonged to the majority community talking of Akhand Bharat or of a Hindu Rashtra, he would surely have had his entrails torn assunder by the media and by the ensuing public protests.

But in Abu Azmi's case, there has been no such public wrath at all. There have been no dharnas in Mumbai where Azmi lives. Nor have there been demonstrations and slogans being shouted outside the Samajwadi Party's office in New Delhi. No BJP or any other MP even dared to raise the issue during Parliament's zero hour.

The least that could have been asked for is that Mulayam Singh immediately suspend Azmi from his party. But instead, the media chose to write editorials on Air-India's arrogant pilots or on some trivia apropos the Clinton visit. Kid-gloves are best you see, for hadn't the Mahatma himself pronounced the Mussalman as a bully? And moreover, shouldn't the minorities be protected in secular India?

Then there is Abubhai's namesake Shabana Azmi, the Rajya Sabha member who has been strutting around these days as the modern, sophisticated version of the Begum sahiba of yore. She and her tonsured head made an event of merely receiving Taslima Nasreen at the Mumbai airport the other day.

Taslima, the writer against alleged fundamentalism in Bangladesh, has been exiled from that country with which India seeks the closest possible economic relations as well as help for halting illegal immigration on to our soil. Is it proper then for an Indian MP to play the role of a perfect host to that country's exiled citizen?

Yes, it is a fact that the Bangla woman was given an Indian visa, but that is an entirely different matter compared to the fact that one of our MPs rolled out the red carpet for her. Incidentally, does Shabana Azmi have the guts to invite Salman Rushdie to India?

But Shabanabai will do anything to prove her "secular" and "liberal" credentials. Why, in Chennai the other day, she even said she was in favour of adopting a Uniform Civil Code. However, she was quick to add that 'the right-wing Hindu groups' were bent on thrusting the Hindu Civil Code on others in the name of the Uniform Civil Code, thus creating apprehension among minorities.

If the above extract from a PTI report of March 12 is authentic, then several questions arise:

Firstly, why is it that only one mainline newspaper, The Indian Express, published the report? And why was it on page 7 when it ought to have been splashed on the front page? And why didn't the Express headline mention the novel revelation of a high profile Muslim woman's support for a common civil code? Why this sidelining of an issue that has long been only an ornamental facet of our Constitution?

The answer is crystal clear: The 'secular' media will desist from doing anything that even vaguely upholds any of those contentious issues on the BJP agenda and thereby earn the ire of the Muslim community. Kid-glove treatment, remember? After all, hadn't the Mahatma himself pronounced the Mussalman to be a bully?

Secondly, there is the pathetic ignorance of Azmi, the Rajya Sabha MP, regarding the BJP's concept of a Uniform Civil Code although it is spelt out in the BJP's Election Manifesto of 1998 which says, 'The BJP will entrust the Law Commission to formulate a Uniform Civil Code based on the progressive practices from all traditions.'

And in a public speech, L K Advani, as BJP president, had made it clear that, 'When the BJP talks of a Uniform Civil Code, it does not contemplate imposing Hindu law on the country. If some of the laws relating to the Hindus today have to go, they have to go. Whatever has to be done, has to be done for all.'

Hence Shabanabai, by all means criticise the Sangh Parivar when they get steeped in antiquity, but please don't fabricate stories about it to the media. And the media too must certainly criticise the Sangh Parivar's ideologues -- with iron gloves at that -- when they speak of such hogwash as abandoning our Constitution, but shouldn't hang them first and give them a bad name afterwards.

Next there is Asghar Ali Engineer, the man who has been fighting for years to reform his Bohra community. Speaking at a national seminar in Thiruvananthapuram on March 8, he made some profound statements worthy of national attention and comment. As reported in The Indian Express, Engineer said: i. Muslims were not entitled to a nation on the basis of religion. ii. Nationality was a territorial concept, not a religious one. iii. The extent to which Islam determines a Muslim's culture is debatable since religion is just one of the factors of culture and iv. The existence of a universal Muslim culture is disputable.

What Engineer stated is uniquely praiseworthy for a Muslim and therefore worthy of widespread dissemination by all who influence public opinion. It should have been particularly welcomed by the Sangh Parivar that believes in a pan-India cultural nationalism.

Sadly, Engineer's speech will remain merely the news report of a day. The propagators of Hindutva probably haven't even read about it and if they have, they don't have a clue as to how to use it in their favour. The media for their part have no use for the speech because it hurts the Indian Imams rather than Hindu ideology. Kid-glove treatment, remember?

It has been the same story with minor differences in the case of a film called Gadar (Mutiny) based on the events of 1947. Terrified by the belligerent protests of various Shia organisations, known and unknown, that believed the film hurt their sect's sentiments, the beleaguered Lucknow district administration withdrew permission for shooting a musical scene of the film inside the Asifi Imambara built during the Nawabi era.

The crux of the Shia protest was that no musical instrument is allowed to be played in a religious place; another side plank of the protest was that the film's heroine bore the name Sakeena, the same as the Prophet's daughter.

Contrast the cause of protests to Gadar with those to Deepa Mehta's Water. The latter occasioned resentment because the Hindu widows of holy Kashi were painted as prostitutes in perpetuity. In the case of Gadar, the bone of contention was merely that music was taboo in a place of worship --- the status of men or women was not involved. Yet, the protests against Water and the subsequent ban on its shooting evoked a continuing torrent of iron-glove criticism, editorial and otherwise. In contrast, the Shia objections hardly evoked comment. An excellent example of the selective use of gloves.

Lastly, there is Yusuf Khan. Having assumed the Hindu name of Dilip Kumar after Partition when anti-Muslim sentiment was pronounced in Bombay, he didn't want to renounce a prestigious Pakistani award even when the Kargil episode last year exposed Pakistan's treachery. The vain fellow wanted to be advised on the issue by the prime minister himself!

That ruse confirmed the suspicions about his keenness to embarrass the Hindutva BJP. His campaigning for the Congress in the last general election was therefore no surprise. Nor is his recent nomination to the Rajya Sabha as a Congress candidate even though he was not even a member of that party.

The quarrel with that nomination is that it was in preference to Murli Deora, a long-time Congressman, whose business wisdom has been of value in the making of the country's economic policies and who has done so much to promote Indo-US goodwill as well as to spread computer education among lower income youth in Mumbai.

The elevation of an ageing film star to Parliament merely on his communal credentials while bypassing the expert whose only failing is that he does not possess that very qualification is an event which warrants criticism of the way in which Rajya Sabha memberships are being used to promote sectarian interests rather than national objectives. However, the media is as usual, dealing with this appointment with kid-gloves.

To rub salt over the wound, none less than Maharashtra's chief minister accompanied Yusuf Khan when he went to file his nomination papers and guided him on the formalities. And what is more, Deora stood behind the chairs!

The litmus test of how Muslims in our land are considered a very special minority came, ironically, from filmdom itself. The Anglo-Indian community disliked the way Ismail Merchant's latest offering, Cotton Mary, has portrayed it in a stereotyped manner --- a nurse smoking, girls flirting etc. Leaders of the community protested in a democratic, dignified manner. However, nobody took anything more than a cursory notice of these protests. After all, Ismail Merchant is Muslim and Anglo-Indians are not. Therefore, no need for any gloves at all here.

Arvind Lavakare

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