What is this hijab business?

Veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi was in Kochi for the release of his book Being The Other – The Muslim In India. He spoke to TOI at length on why India’s largest minority community should integrate better with the mainstream, why they should be open to western education and how Muslims in Kerala have always been refreshingly different. But he also struck a cautionary note on hidden biases and prejudices even among those claiming to be favourably disposed towards the community.

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By talking about ‘being the other’ being a Muslim minority in India you have ‘other-ised’ the majority. Don’t you think this will cause a problem in the relatability factor?

To write about a wall, you have to be the mason of that wall or a mason in general who understands the construction of that wall. I have that label of being a Muslim. You and I are not allowed to be sensitive about the problems the largest minority in the world faces. I have the advantage of carrying the label; I am a Muslim. I am a part of [those who are] privileged the privilege which would be available to all Muslims who came out of the madrassas, [if only] their parents were enlightened enough to put them in good schools.

In my family, there was a huge debate, whether we should go into western education or not. Because western education was considered harmful for our culture. But then they saw the writing on the wall; what would we do without such an education? We were all sent to the best public schools available in Lucknow. At one stage when I was here, Mohammad Koya became the CM for a short while. And when I went to the Kerala assembly, you could not distinguish him from Baby John or EMS Namboodiripad. They all wore the same clothes, ate the same food.

The term ‘other’ has many implications; the usage of ‘other’ in Edward Said’s Orientalism being an example. Does the ‘other’ used in your book has the same implications? Would you say you have the same moral right as Said to be a representative of the ‘other’?

In Said’s framework, the West set up the Orient as the Other to the Occident. Here the part thali-part amalgam process was ruptured by Partition. We could have two “other” Muslim states only if one-third of the Muslims left in India would be integrated into a secular thali-amalgam ­ an unreal pursuit. Othering is built into the situation.

Do you think Muslims themselves have a role to play in being ‘other-ised’, given the fact that practising Muslims are keen on highlighting their identity on the grounds of their religion, which is quite distinct and unblended with the ‘Indianness’ as such?

In fact, Kerala is a model state where I find it very, very strange to see Muslims beginning to distinguish themselves. This business of making a distinction from the vast majority of the people, I think it is very harmful. I understand there is this question of identity and so on. But why was it not there when I grew up then? Why would this distinguish be of any solution to any? I’m fortunate that I come from an eccentric family, which had culture as a dominating impulse and not religion. Religion is a private thing. Culture is what you share with the masses.

Every religion exudes a culture. Every religion exudes its own music and art. That art then becomes the heritage of everybody.

In this realm, this culture and art will become everybody’s property which should be shared. When people do the ‘hijab businesses’, you cut yourself away from this common reservoir of culture. There is no need of distinguishing yourself from others. This has grown as the problems of the Muslims have grown. It is tactless to promote it at this juncture. It helps only in oneself becoming a target. If all these children who are sent to madrassas, wearing skull caps, looking completely out of place in the cultural milieu, had the privilege of uniform education as the rest, the problem would be minimised.

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But even in other religions, people have a distinguishing identity – for instance, nuns.

The nuns have been wearing their habit forever, but this practice of Muslim masses wearing distinguishing attire is new, at least in our country.

India was never a melting pot of identities and cultures. It has always been a thali of different identities. How will the Muslims’ representation of their identity or not be a solution for the multitude of problems Indian Muslims face?

There is no such thing as an Indian Muslim identity. There is the Mapilla in Kerala, the Labbai in Tamil Nadu, then there are Bengali and Oriya Muslims. The Urdu-Hindi conflict is only in Aryavarta ­ the ancient Hindu area over which Muslims ruled. That is the problem.

Your book says that India from the very time of independence ran in the shade of ‘soft saffron’. How would you explain the consideration given to Muslims then, in the form of reservations and personal laws for the community as both are under scrutiny now?

What considerations are these in the big picture? If the Muslim community is happy with that, then be happy, wherein I believe personal laws is the thing to give up. Get out of the zone, open more educational and science institutions, universities and explore. A Muslim, wherever he spreads out his mat, he can say his prayers. He doesn’t need to go, ‘Oh we need more mosques’. No; we [Muslims] need more schools, more colleges, universities and scientific institutes. And it should not be ‘Muslims only’ or reserved for Muslims, but where it should be run by them, and make it into a harmonious institution for everybody. That is the need of the day.

Reservations are a completely defeatist way of looking at the community. The Muslim society has got to create a good secular forum of education. So long as they are busy building mosques and madrassas and religious sectarianism, they will remain exactly where they are and eventually go down the slump.

Many cases of atrocities against Muslims by the saffron elements are being constantly reported by media, cases like lynching and the like. Do you think this kind of reporting with a tacit sense of empathy is done because of the sensationalistic potential in the stories or because of genuine journalistic moral obligation? What is your opinion in general about the reportage of ‘the other’ in India?

Though issues have been reported, it has not been put under the microscope for a debate, a sensible debate; why this happened, who did it, what does it come from, what is the historical background for this to happen, what is the reach. How many Hindus are disgusted by it, why isn’t an opinion poll done about that? Is opinion poll meant for half a dozen people, to do it when it suits them?

Muslims don’t even have a media of their own. Muslims in the south are a powerful minority, why don’t you have a secular, harmonious media controlled by Muslims. Where unbiased debates can take place, where music is made, which is culturally harmonious, helping communities to come together. Muslims don’t have one. It’s a defeated community.

But there are many magazines which have done long-form features with researches and backgrounds, scrutinizing such issues.

In this day and age, you need electronic media. Such a thing which is controlled by Muslims doesn’t exist. The controlling point of the media should be by the minorities so that the manner in which communalism is spread by today’s media in India and the globe will be checked by the communalized.

So you believe there is no secular media in the nation presently.

Bits and pieces of them, maybe.

There might be media which does secular and independent stories which will make the public go ‘oh my God, how nice’.

But at critical moments they tip the scales when it suits them. At the moment, it [covering of stories of such saffron atrocities] suits the media, suits big business, and are therefore reported.


(Article that appeared in Times of India, September 17, 2016)


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