For once, I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the left. Every right-thinking person (for once, the left is thinking right) has to be outraged by the absolutely inane move by the human resource development ministry, headed by the ageing Congress warhorse, Arjun Singh, to reserve 50 per cent seats in the Aligarh Muslim University for Muslims. This from a government that came to power on an anti-communal plank and is surviving only because of a negativist anti-BJP glue holding the UPA coalition together. Apparently, Arjun Singh was also the one who advised Rajiv Gandhi to enact the retrogade Muslim Women's Bill. And he is supposed to be one of the upholders of true secularism in the Congress!
Well-known left intellectuals like Irfan Habib and his AMU colleagues were the first to raise their voices in protest. The left parties have opposed the move as strongly as they do any economic reform measure. They have all said it is minority appeasement politics in its worst form and demanded its withdrawal. But while the government caves in to their protests about economic reform, it refuses to retract on this. Speaks volumes for the Prime Minister's oft-stated assertion that his government is committed to an open economy, doesn't it?
That apart, there are several interesting aspects to this issue.
One of them is the almost complete silence by those I term the `proper' liberals over this. All the disapprovals and displeasure have been expressed only by the left lobby. Come to think of it, even some of the other prominent leftists are silent on this. Why haven't we heard a word from Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Mushirul Hasan or Romila Thapar?
Second, is the left concerned about the communal overtones of the move or something else? If you read all their statements carefully, one sentence comes through in each case - that this move will result in the government playing into the hands of the BJP. So they seem more bothered about the mileage that the BJP will get out of this, rather than the inherent immorality of the action itself. It gives the impression that they would have kept quiet if the BJP is not likely to make political capital out of the issue.
I would love to be proved wrong but I have a feeling I won't. Because in the first week of April, there was another instance of blatant minority appeasement. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, assured a delegation of Parsis of all government help to help the Parsi community check the alarming decline in its population. Is that the job of any government, let alone a secular government?
Why did no one react to this bit of news? Because, unfortunately when all manner of liberals berate communalism, they are only talking about the BJP- sangh parivar-Shiv Sena. We are supposed to believe that these groups - and the odd fanatic fringe of the Muslims - needs to be decimated if the scourge of communalism is to be eliminated.
It would be foolish to think that the battle against religious fanaticism will be won with the obliteration of the BJP and sangh parivar just as it would be foolish to think that the battle against statism will be won with the defeat of the communists. The communists were in no position to influence policy through the 1990s (except for one and a half years of the United Front government) but statist economic policies continue to prevail. If true economic liberalism has not been achieved in India, it is not because of the communists alone. It is as much, if not more, because of opposition from rent seeking politicians, bureaucrats and other incumbents of the present system, none of who will be card carrying members of any of the communist parties.
Similarly there is ample evidence of communalism being alive and well in various other political and social formations. The banning of Satanic Verses, the Muslim Women's Bill, the opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid were all done by the secular Congress. In an earlier post, Hum to anything karega, I had cited various instances of blatant pandering to the Muslim votebank by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. All of them are supposed to be the torch bearers of secularism! Or look at the disgustingly casteist Mandal card played by V P Singh in 1990.
Forget politics and politicians. Look at one demand that the Parsi community has made. They want the government to step in to support health clinics for Parsis, which are few and badly maintained. It is both a communal and statist demand. And that too from a community from which many of India's liberal stalwarts are drawn and one that has prospered through private enterprise.
Or look at the reaction to an extremely forgettable film called Jo Bole So Nihal. A handful of Sikh groups - political and religious - have ensured that it is pulled out of all theatres of Punjab. What were the grounds for protests? The film had some semi-nude scenes and this was offensive because the title o f the film was a Sikh religious chant or war cry. There was organised violence at the theatres in Punjab and the distributors finally had to withdraw the film from the state. But the Sikh groups are not satisfied and are now crying for a worldwide ban on the film. And even as I write this comes news of bomb blasts in two cinema halls in Delhi that were screening the film.
Concentrating the guns all the time on the BJP-sangh parivar-Shiv Sena while keeping silent on other forms of communalism on the grounds that the former is more dangerous is not going to weaken them, let alone eliminate them. On the contrary it is only giving them a readymade plank of hypocrisy, one which they are using constantly to their advantage. Communalism has to be opposed because it is a detestable phenomenon, not just because a particular political formation is indulging in it.