By Swapan Dasgupta
Last Tuesday, home minister P Chidambaram drew flak for attending a convention of maulvis in Deoband where, among other things, it was decreed that Muslims should shun Vande Mataram, India’s national song. The attack was both misdirected and misplaced. If anything, the minister deserved admiration for his sermon on democratic niceties to a gathering of theologians professing a wide range of certitudes. ‘‘The golden rule in a democracy,’’ he told the convention hosted by Darul Uloom, arguably the most influential Sunni Muslim seminary in the subcontinent, ‘‘is that it is the duty of the majority to protect the minority, be it religious, racial or linguistic. It is a self-evident rule... firmly rooted in the universality of human rights.’’
What seemed self-evident to Chidambaram, has been self-evident to most Indians for long. Stemming from Hindu sanatan dharma, diversity and negotiations have been at the heart of the Indian experience. From overcrowded railway compartments to modes of worship and even politics, ‘adjustment’ has been the euphemism for a nebulous humaneness that is at odds with intolerance, regimentation and the quest for super-efficiency. ‘‘We are like this only’’ may be a caricature of India’s blundering and chaotic ways but it is also a profound encapsulation of a civilizational resilience that has astounded outsiders. ‘‘The secret of (India’s) permanence lies,’’ wrote a puzzled Edmund Candler, an Englishman, in 1910, ‘‘I think, in her passivity and power to assimilate. The faith that will not fight cannot yield.’’
Since 1945, freedom in the West has been reduced to the right to offend and the freedom to pursue alternative lifestyles. Compared to the exhibitionism of same-sex marriages and the robust show of artistic freedom (including blasphemy and pornography), India’s commitment to democratic freedom may seem less marked. The right to offend is qualified — witness the mounting pile of banned books and the harassment of M F Husain — and there is a tendency to skirt thorny issues such as the Common Civil Code on the grounds that Muslim sensibilities could be hurt.
The spirit of ‘adjustment’ has meant looking the other way when convenient. The triple talaq may appear to violate the ‘‘universality of human rights’’ that Chidambaram referred to in Deoband. But to many Hindus, there is nothing universal about the gender bias in Muslim personal laws; it is a Muslim problem. Except on the touchy issue of cow slaughter, where Hindus are disinclined to look the other way, minority rights in India have been nourished by Hindu self-sufficiency, verging on indifference. Despite attempts by activists and reformers to motivate Hindus into looking beyond personal salvation and the well-being of their family, the ‘live and let live’ principle has sustained Indian democracy and prevented civil strife.
The Hindu ability to be blissfully self-centred has also rested on the absence of provocation. Chidambaram was right to lay the defence of the minority on the doors of the majority but he should have touched on a corresponding concern: Do minorities have obligations too?
Muslim objections to the imagery of Vande Mataram have been around for the past 100 years when the song first captured the nationalist imagination. This was perhaps the main reason why the Constituent Assembly chose Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Jana gana mana’ as the national anthem and relegated Vande Mataram to the status of a ‘national song’. Since then, it has repeatedly been clarified that it is not obligatory for all Indians to sing Vande Mataram. Yet, while the singing of the first verse of Bankim Chandra’s evocative anthem was deemed to be voluntary, it was understood there would be no disrespect shown to it either. Vande Mataram, after all, became the signature tune of the nationalist movement, not as a calculated disrespect to Muslim feelings; its imagery was located in a different tradition.
At the root of the problem is the spirit of accommodation. By putting its stamp on a fatwa, a religious decree against singing Vande Mataram, the Darul Uloom has violated the mutual show of generosity that is so essential for democracy. It is one thing to deem that singing Vande Mataram is voluntary; it is a separate matter to forbid Muslims from singing the national song. The first is an exercise of choice; the second is an example of doctrinaire intolerance, an act of provocation that will inevitably encourage hotheads to make Vande Mataram a loyalty test of Indian-ness. In 1997, A R Rahman bridged the Vande Mataram divide with his own tribute to Mother India; last week the Deobandis reopened an old wound.
It’s time the worthies in Deoband realised that minority rights can’t be nourished unless accompanied by an equal show of minority wisdom.