Dividing India in the Name of Freedom of Speech
With a political leader from Hyderabad insisting that the Constitution does not ask him to say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and therefore he could greet the nation in whatever words he likes and another in this tribe placing the greatest nationalist organisation of the country on par with the internationally condemned ISIS as well as some student leaders raising slogans that warm up to the separatists of Kashmir, it appears the time has come to expose all that goes in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.
Asaduddin Owaisi, MP and leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a party popular only among one community in a Hyderabad locality, declared the other day, in a Latur village in Maharashtra, that he would not chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ even if a knife was placed on his neck. Later, explaining his statement he told some TV channels that this particular slogan or any other slogan had not been written down in the Constitution as the national identity.
“The different units of our Army have different rallying slogans and so what is wrong if different people in the country greet the country in the slogan they like best?” he told a TV channel, in words to that effect. He added that he had no objection if somebody preferred ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ for the same purpose. Therefore he should not be compelled to resonate with those who hail the country in the words that the RSS chief mentioned the other day. Even if we concede Mr. Owaisi his “freedom” not to respond in the same words of a national slogan, he does not have freedom to equate what is a historic as well as an inspiring greeting for any Indian with the RSS alone.
The RSS has reason enough to revive what was a historic rallying cry to recreate the nationalist spirit. But these words were not invented by it. It was Mahatma Gandhi who used them to project the diversity of India in a unity that could bind the people in an emotional bond. India that is Bharat is like a mother for all its people variant in creed, language, etc to challenge an outside power that was at that time oppressing it.
For instance it was the rallying cry of Mahatma Gandhi as well as of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, considered the most learned in Islamic texts among leaders of our freedom struggle. Millions have rallied under its inspiration; thousands have died facing British bullets with the words ‘Bharat mata ki Jai’ on their lips.
History is the witness to its emotional appeal. The RSS was only asking for the flag and the slogan to be projected to revive the nationalist spirit at a time when youth were being fed with weird ideas like desirability of the break up of this country, whose unity was secured and reestablished across its diversity in the six decades of freedom struggle. Most political parties, including the Congress use it in their day-to-day functions. The only exceptions are the Communist parties.
It appears that the revivalism to the extent of exclusionism that has caught Islamic followers across the world has made the Muslim leadership of the country disassociate itself from anything that has a truly national cultural content in it. And Mr Owaisi’s refusal to chant the Bharat Mata slogan is part of this revivalist move to take his community out of the Indian mainstream.
Significantly, when in the TV interview, when repeatedly asked what his objection to the most common, multi-party emotional cry that wishes success and greatness for India was the MIM leader preferred to avoid the question by saying that he did not object to the slogan being raised by others. However, some other revivalist leaders of his community have explained that their objection is the deification in it of India as the mother and depiction in the image of a goddess.
Indian Muslims used to identify with the practices, religious and cultural, of the other communities around them till but recently. Even now some of these practices draw Muslim communities into celebrations around them. But the revivalism and radicalism that is breaking into the community is seen in some leaders and organisations among them discouraging this tradition. For instance, even well educated Muslims occupying good positions in administrative and commercial organisations now recuse themselves from lighting the traditional brass lamps at public functions.
Muslim women are told that they must not seek jobs where men are also working. A renewed emphasis on wearing the hijab, covering the entire body except the eyes, is among the practices being propagated. When government agencies insist on, at least, the face being exposed at places, where identification is necessary, there are religious objections.
It appears that the Muslim psyche suffers from siege mentality and the community has become overly defensive and insular. Several Muslim intellectuals have been warning against this trend catching up. The insistence on a separate cultural identity is nothing but a disguised attempt by radical leaders to pit the community against the developed mainstream. The greater regret should be at the self-styled secular leaders like Sitaram Yechury and Rahul Gandhi rushing to support them or maintaining a studied silence when an entire community is sought to be fenced in from the mainstream in the name of religion.
Do they approve of the campaign to insulate the Muslim community from such national symbols as the slogan for success of ‘Bharat Mata’? Do they approve of the increasing tendency to keep out of lighting the brass lamp? Is it a sign of freedom of speech when public revulsion at decrying the nation in the name of Marxist-type liberation is sought to be decried and even driven out through a propaganda barrage?
When freedom itself is sought to be trampled under ideologies that justify authoritarianism, denial of dissidence and promotion of exclusivity, silence is criminal. “Islamists find it easier to propagate radical ideas in democracies and liberal societies as against repression they meet with in authoritarian ones” like Saudi Arabia, writes liberal Muslim intellectual Hillel Fradikin in Public Interest (issue of Spring 2004). When leaders like Owaisi demand the right to exclusivity and insularity for his community from anything that is common to a nation, like the slogan hailing Bharat Mata or lighting lamps at public functions, they, in effect, seek to promote the mindset that forced a bloody partition on the country. Should the country allow a repeat of this mischief in the name of freedom of expression?
The author is a Rajya Sabha member and political commentator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org