Patronising Secularism?

The Leader Article in today’s TOI (Patronising Secularism: Watching Dev Through Muslim Eyes by Farah Naqvi) got me thinking. On the onset, let me say that the author makes some interesting points. But at the same time there is much in the article that needs to be addressed. Let me also stress, that I’ve not watched the film, so I cannot speak for/against it; that’s not the point of this post at all.

The basic approach taken in the article is wrong — in that she first insists that Dev is about Gujarat, the Mumbai specific references notwithstanding, and then insists that to those events [i.e in Gujarat] Nihalani has done a grave injustice. This is strange to say the least. First you insist that it’s not a donkey but a bull, and then question why it doesn’t have horns! But that’s a minor point.

Far worse, Nihalani reinforces the action-reaction justification for the carnage. (The burning of the Sabarmati coach at Godhra and the killing of the kar sevaks is here substituted by a motorcycle bomb which kills devotees at a Ganesh temple.)

Again, as I’ve not seen the film I don’t know if it really justifies such a carnage. But then can a filmmaker start in a vacuum? Any communal riot starts with some event. That not same as saying the event justifies the riot, but just that the event still is the nominal cause.

While the true facts of Godhra remain a mystery (which we hope our new and esteemed railway minister will soon unravel), Nihalani does not engage with such bothersome detail. In his version, an evil Muslim don is responsible for the bomb blast which begins the cycle of revenge-massacre of Muslims.

Again this strange obsession with reading something wrongly, and then accusing the film-maker for ones irrational conclusions. It’s the author who’s insisting that the film is about Gujarat, not Nihlani. But the main point as far as I’m concerned comes much later.

At another level, Dev is a narrative about an Indian nation whose salvation lies in soft, patronising secularism. The upright police officer mouths platitudes about the samvidhan or Constitution. He will not violate the samvidhan at the behest of the wicked CM, he declares time and again, with portraits of Gandhi-Nehru prominent in the backdrop. It would be fine if things stopped here. But his secularism is made greater, its generosity even more generous, because he has ample reason not to worry too much about the samvidhan . Dev lost his young son to a terrorist’s bullets. (The religious affiliation of the terrorist is never specified. Nihalani leaves it to our imagination.) In this, Dev is India, a nation wounded by Muslim terrorists. Yet, Dev is magnanimous enough to embrace all religions in his secular person.

And what is wrong with that? The fact is, for those who have not lost their near and dear ones to terrorists supported by ISI money, it’s easier to be secular! As a film-maker, Nihalani through his protagonist, seems to be asking even those who have lost their keen to such religious fanaticism to not to forget the secular ideal, and not to lose the thought of what is right. Whatever else mica be wrong with the movie, I don’t believe this is wrong! Afterall, where else does India’s salvation lie? I’ll come back to it later.

Naqvi’s problem, however, is expressed in a nut-shell in this next few sentences:

Secularism, the narrative seems to suggest, is not a matter of right but of patronage by a large-hearted and forgiving nation-state. Indeed, so great and inclusive is this secularism, that Dev even begins to see Farhan as his dead son, wooing him away from the influence of Muslim don Latif…Finally, Farhan sees the truth. Only in accepting the moral leadership of Dev, the high secular Hindu, can the Muslim community get justice and salvation. Farhan (read as legitimate Muslim anger) is neutralised. Long live secularism.

The problem then is with (as the title suggests), watching Dev through Muslim eyes. (Why can Naqvi watch Dev through secular eyes?). There are so many contradictions here, that they deserve a full length article. But let me be brief in addressing them.

First, what is this legitimate Muslim anger? The author abhors the very possibility of Godhara being used as justification of Gujarat (so much so that she starts reading those things in a film). But by calling the Muslim anger (that misguides a youth to pick up a gun and join hands with underworld) legitimate, isn’t she justifying almost everything from terrorism in Kashmir to serial bomb-blasts, to latest Mumbai blasts? How can you have it and eat it too? Why is Farhan’s anger justified, whereas the anger of those hindus in Gujarat is not? This is a contradiction that the educated Muslims need to address very soon! Because India’s stability practically hangs by these issues. Any anger, that leads to killing innocents in revenge, is illegitimate. No amount of rhetoric can justify either Godhra or Gujarat or Akshardham or …

The other point about secularism being projected as not a right but a patronage or a favor is another point that the liberal Muslims need to introspect on. How do they want it? As a right? But then any rights in India (or any nation-state for that matter) are fragile — considering that it’s human beings who run nation-states. Laws can assure you rights (as they are already assured — to the level of appeasement), but not that those rights would be upheld. In a day to day word, it boils down to goodwill of the enforcing agents (who will be by statistical laws, more likely be from the majority community). Then again goodwill isn’t really a right. It has to be earned. And herein lies the paradox. That goodwill cannot come without magnanimity from the majority community, in the present scenario. To attack a film that urges the majority to be magnanimous and at the same time rooting for on paper rights is really suicidal for Indian Muslims, IMO. It’s these magnanimous ethos of the indic culture (call it Hinduism, or call it composite culture) that has sustained the fragile secularism in whatever form it has managed to survive. And the minorities need this secularism more!

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