Sunday, November 25

Calcutta Volcano - An Indian Muslim Speaks

Calcutta Volcano

By M.J. Akbar

A democracy does not eliminate alibis, but it certainly reduces them. There is a thin line between anger and violence, but that line is drawn very clearly in a free nation. Because democracy provides so much unique space for anger, it demands that its citizens do not cross that line.

Calcutta's Muslims crossed that line on Wednesday, during their protests against the presence of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in Bengal, and the publication of an article about her that they considered unacceptable.

Indian Muslims have much to be angry about. Some reasons are genuine, but some continue to be byproducts of that siege mentality that crept into the consciousness of the community at the beginning of the 19th century and has not quite left two hundred years later. This perhaps is why Indian Muslims sometimes forget that they also have a great deal to celebrate in their country, not the least of them being that their identity has found a powerful place in Indian democracy.

Indian Muslims are the only Muslims in the world to have enjoyed more than five decades of uninterrupted, unconditional, adult franchise democracy. They remain marginalised economically, but the polity has empowered them vigorously. In large and decisive states like Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh they control the swing of the electoral pendulum. They constitute 27% of the population of Bengal, but I suspect that they add up to more than 30% of the vote since they vote in larger numbers, which is excellent. If there is any tendency to become smug, all they have to do is take a look to the right and left, towards fellow Muslims who created separate nations in the name of liberation, first from India (in 1947) and then from Pakistan (in 1971).

Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved independence, but they have not found the freedom that should have come with it. Their freedom has been patchy. They have been imprisoned not by foreigners but their own elites, and subjugated by their armed forces who have distorted patriotism to seize power and institutionalise dictatorship. Pakistani Muslims today thirst for a democracy that Indian Muslims take for granted.

This, and it is important to stress it, is not a special favour to Indian Muslims. They have as much right to liberty as any other Indian. Democracy does not belong to any faith. Equally, no particular faith is synonymous with democracy. Islam did not make Pakistan a natural democracy; nor did Hinduism turn Nepal into one. Buddhism has not ensured democracy in Burma; its generals bow and bow and still remain autocrats in uniform. India is unique because of the ideology that won it freedom from the British: a commitment to multi-cultural equality and a celebration of the unequivocal rights of individual and collective liberty. But that freedom is not a licence to hysteria. Crowds have the right to gather, people have the right to be heard, but they have no right to descend into a mob. The means of protest also determines the degree of its acceptability.

What bands of Muslims did in Calcutta was, therefore, unacceptable. It is curious that, for a variety of seemingly unrelated reasons, a city that has enjoyed peace for three decades under Marxist rule is beginning to rumble dangerously. How many volcanoes have begun to smoke in its alleys? How many explosions will erupt and how much lava will flow through its urban ranges? The anger of one community, Muslims, is only a part of the story.

The causes of Calcutta's periodic outbursts are both visible and invisible. In the last instance there may have been festering fury against provocative remarks in a magazine article, and the presence of a writer. This is information at the news level. But an unknown, or barely-known, "minority" organisation cannot manufacture such a corrosive event unless it had succeeded in stoking the embers of many hidden fires. All you have to do is take a look at the inner city of Calcutta, by far the poorest part of the metropolis and populated almost entirely by Muslims. The young Muslims of Bengal, whether Bengali or Bihari, are feeling totally alienated from economic growth. Worse, no one has time to draw any kind of route map for their aspirations. It is as if because they have been permitted to survive and vote, they do not deserve anything more. They've got a life, why do they need a job?

The political class is either patronising, indifferent, exploitative or hostile. The code is not difficult: each one of those terms is applicable to one mainstream party or the other. The only adjective they could easily share is "exploitative". The BJP, which does not get the Muslim vote, is either indifferent or hostile. The Congress, Left and the "secular" regional forces treat Muslims as election fodder that can be mass-produced by an appeal to the mosque, or the manipulation of the mosque leadership. The political parties have no interest in encouraging genuine leadership capable of guiding the community's young through their problem towards that degree of hope which is rising as the Indian economy surges forward. The Muslims play an infinitesimal part in this "economic miracle". The cynicism of the Congress is acute. The Planning Commission, which is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's area of interest, has just rejected a comprehensive sub-plan for Muslim welfare as part of the Eleventh Plan, while approving similar plans for Dalits and Adivasis. No reasons have been offered for this partisan decision. How should Muslims react? By falling at the feet of the government? Don't wait for it; it won't happen.

Why should the mainstream parties wring their hands in hypocritical despair when mavericks or fire-breathers occupy the space that they have left vacant? Older Muslims may be tired or resigned, but the young are angry and volatile. We have seen but a glimpse of this volatility in Calcutta or Nandigram. It is only the beginning of a process that could become a horror story.

How do we prevent a pool of anger from becoming a cesspool of violence?

The silliest diagnosis would be to treat it as merely a law and order problem. The Army marched through Calcutta's streets last week; the last time it did so was in 1992, when a sudden spike of fear shook the city after the demolition of the Babri mosque. Fifteen years have passed between the two events. A child born on 6 December 1992 could easily have been a member of the mob in November 2007.

Is it only the child who is at fault?

1992 came and went; once calm returned, those in power confused it with peace. For fifteen years that child has watched India turning into someone else's paradise on the flickering screen of a street corner television set. No one has sent him an entry ticket to that paradise. He has not even been allowed to smell the flavour of the gate. No one has shown him a future to which he could belong. He has been told, implicitly, to content himself with squalor while others on the same level as him have begun to take tentative steps towards new horizons. How long would it be before the temptation to slash and burn seized him?

India's opportunity lies in democracy; India's solutions lie in economic growth. It is dangerous to provide the first and deny the second.

The Asian Age, November 25, 2007

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