With the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dominated by the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to power at the Centre with an overwhelming majority, the next five years are likely to prove a testing time for the country’s religious minorities, especially the 185 million-strong Muslim community. It’s hardly a secret that a prime objective of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) — the ideological mentor organisation of the BJP and several affiliated formations collectively known as the sangh parivar (RSS family) — is to eliminate “minority appeasement”, a dog whistle phrase to show the minority Muslim and Christian communities their place within Indian society and the political space.
For Mahatma Gandhi who masterminded India’s uniquely non-violent freedom struggle against the British Raj, religious tolerance and Hindu-Muslim harmony in particular, was a non-negotiable priority. Therefore in deference to Gandhiji’s commitment to religious harmony, the founding fathers of the Constituent Assembly of Independent India enshrined the right of religious minorities to practice their creeds without fear into several Chapter III (fundamental rights) provisions of the Constitution.
No respectable historian of India is likely to challenge the assertion that although it ruined the high-potential economy of post-independence India by imposing socialism upon the country, the Congress party which ruled the country for 54 out of its 70 years as an independent nation, substantially respected the constitutional rights and equal status of the country’s religious minorities. However, the emergence of the BJP as a major pan-India political party in the new millennium has cast a shadow over the country’s secular consensus with the BJP and sangh parivar formations insistent upon ending state patronage and alleged appeasement of the Muslim community.
Confronted with the real prospect of an unsympathetic government at the Centre and in several states, India’s Muslim community needs to unite across sectarian divides, and its educated middle class must wrest leadership control from the clergy, a long overdue coup. Within this community, there is no shortage of secularly well-educated individuals who can provide the country’s largest religious minority the political and socio-economic leadership it urgently requires. This is the time for the best and brightest to step forward and lead this beleaguered community out of the religious exceptionalism cul de sac in which it is trapped.
Within the global Muslim community, the sagacious leadership of the Aga Khan and his council of highly educated members of the Khoja Ismaili community provides a perfect example of how Indian Muslims can avail the sufficient protection and egalitarian provisions of the Constitution and India’s independent judiciary to emerge from religious obscurantism and build upon its refined egalitarian, entrepreneurial and charitable traditions in difficult times ahead.