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The post-independence story of liberal Muslims in India has been a story of studied detachment from the mainstream discourse for reasons of self-preservation

In a piece which has attracted considerable attention in progressive circles, a prominent liberal Muslim commentator has noted with some anguish that he has, of late, become “increasingly quiet on many issues” because it is impossible to have a sensible discussion on anything in the current politically charged climate. And he believes it is best for one’s own “self-preservation’’ to not be drawn into this coarse discourse.
“Some of this self-imposed silence is actually tactical. Since communal polarisation is the staple of current discourse, the best step some of us can take for self- preservation is to fall deafeningly silent. On provocative issues, if you say nothing, those trying to provoke you cannot retaliate. If you do not present yourself as a foil, communal polarisation cannot be affected. Of course, this tactic of silence is offered with the full knowledge that sometimes nothing works,” Saeed Naqvi wrote in his blog.
Sense of despair

Mr. Naqvi is not alone in holding such a view. Anyone closely following the so-called “debate” on religious conversions would have noticed that generally liberal Muslims have kept a low profile. Clearly, it flows from a sense of despair and helplessness. But is it the right response? While there’s no doubt that much of the current public discourse is extremely distasteful — dominated as it is by shrill polarising voices — the answer surely is not to hunker down and retreat into a shell.
Liberal Muslims, especially left liberals, have made this mistake before. The post-independence story of liberal Muslims has been a story of studied detachment from the mainstream discourse, precisely on grounds cited by Mr. Naqvi. They didn’t want to be drawn into cheap tu tu main main. So, with a few honourable exceptions, most opted out saying, we don’t want any part of this; let the mad mullahs and their Hindu counterparts sort it out among themselves. For years — until shaken up by the Ayodhya crisis — we remained in this “silent” mode leaving the field open for fundamentalist elements to thrive. And look what happened.
Mr. Naqvi says: “On provocative issues if you say nothing, those trying to provoke you cannot retaliate. If you do not present yourself as a foil, communal polarisation cannot be affected.’’
In an ideal world, such logic would make perfect sense: remain silent in the face of provocation and the provocateur will go away. But, alas, it doesn’t work like this in a climate of competitive communal polarisation. Those whose sole aim is to provoke in the hope of reaping political dividend from its fallout will find other ways to provoke even if you turn the other cheek. And there are elements — Muslim fundamentalists — who welcome such provocations because they themselves flourish in such a climate.
There is a notion that it is a fight between two lumpen sectarian groups who will sort it out eventually and there’s no need for “us” civilised people to intervene and dirty our hands.
Flawed notion

This is a flawed notion because it presumes that these groups are interested in sorting out their differences, and if left alone would reach an amicable settlement. The problem is that they have no interest in doing any such thing because their respective agendas feed on each other. Indeed, their very raison d’être depends on prolonging, not ending, the confrontation. The fact is that the only people who would not want Muslim fundamentalism to die are Hindu fundamentalists and vice versa. Every time someone from the Sangh Parivar makes an inflammatory comment, it means a boost for the likes of Shahi Imam who then seize on it to justify their own actions.
Recent activities of groups such as the Bajrang Dal have given a new lease of life to the Muslim Right just when it appeared to be coming under pressure
Recent activities of groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have given a new lease of life to the Muslim Right just when it appeared to be coming under pressure. The air is thick with talk of “retaliatory measures” to “protect” Islam, the latest being the remarks of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Asaduddin Owaisi that “every Indian is born a Muslim.” The long- dormant Babri Masjid Action Committee has even threatened to raise an armed Muslim militia to deal with the so-called ‘ghar vapsi’ programme. Other groups have weighed in with plans to launch an “Islam ghar ghar” campaign, and push more aggressively the practice of dawah-proselytising and preaching Islam. There has been a flurry of “fact-finding” visits by self-styled Muslim leaders to Agra — the site of ‘ghar vapsi’ stunts by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-linked groups — in a bid to exploit the situation handed to them by their right-wing Hindu comrades. Naturally, moderate Muslims are deeply concerned at this communal polarisation which is certain to feed into Hindu extremism. But here’s the irony: they are repeating the mistake they made before, when they failed to intervene.
In doing so, they are missing the bigger picture. However sensible might be their reason for not speaking up, they seem to ignore the fact that their silence has an effect on the broader fight against religious fundamentalism and cultural chauvinism. They are letting down liberal Hindus who are engaged in fighting such elements. Their efforts would be greatly strengthened if more people were seen to be doing the same, especially Muslims who are in direct line of Sangh Parivar’s attack. Liberal Hindus have consistently stood up against divisive groups — not because of their love for Muslims but because they believe such groups pose a threat to their own and India’s fundamental values.
It is true that it is a lot harder for liberal Muslims as they must fight on two fronts simultaneously — their own fundamentalists and those from the other side. But opting out is not an option even as a tactic. Of course, it is the easiest thing to do but it has long-term consequences. Silence is not always golden, however noble the motive behind it.
(Hasan Suroor is an independent columnist. He can be reached at

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