Amartya, Ajmal and Arvind: The Growing Gap Between Liberal Intellectuals and Secular Politicians
Politicians can sometimes be slow to grasp the realities of a changing world, especially when their world is changing drastically and rapidly. It happened to the secular-liberal politicians of India in the present century, when they slowly but surely disappeared from the national political arena as they lost to the worldview of Hindu nationalism.
But, it seems, finally, that at least some of these ilk have learned their lessons, even the hard way. Recently, in a media house broadcast, Amartya Sen urged the people of the country to come out and honor Umar Khalid (who faces subversion charges and was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act ). Because, Sen thinks Khalid cultivates “bold political thoughts”. Even a few years ago, such statements by a prominent secular liberal intellectual would have encouraged many political leaders in the secular liberal camp to echo this sentiment. But no one dared on this occasion.
Take also, for example, the recent controversy over statements by Lok Sabha Congressman Trinamool Mahua Moitra about the goddess Kali. Notably, even his party, the TMC, distanced itself from Moitra’s comments. Evidence suggests secular liberal parties are changing course.
Some leaders have changed their positioning to honor the feelings of Hindus. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal corrected course a few years ago. The latest example is Badruddin Ajmal, the top Muslim leader in Assam, a state with a 35% Muslim population. Recently, Ajmal urged Muslims in Assam not to slaughter cows on Eid day. “When our brethren in the country profess the Sanatan faith and are Hindus, who revere the cow and regard it as their mother, why should we sacrifice the animal?” Ajmal told the media.
Ajmal heads the minority political entity, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which has a strong base in the Muslim-majority areas of Assam. In the 2021 Assembly polls in Assam, Ajmal’s party ran for the first time as part of the Congress-led mahajot (grand alliance). He obtained 16 seats out of the 20 in the running. Of the remaining 106 (out of a total of 126 seats in Assam), the mahajot was only able to win 34. Hence, the appeal of Ajmal, an Islamic theologian and leader of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind for the Assam, is significant. But this is not something new.
Nationalist Muslim leaders like Maulana Mohammad Ali, Shaukat Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani and others conceived the idea of Muslims refraining from cow slaughter in 1919. These leaders were active in the movement Khilafat ruled by Mahatma Gandhi. Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a learned Sufi leader, wrote a book, Tark-e Ga’o Kushi, or refraining from slaughtering cows, in 1921 on the subject.
Ironically, nearly all of the 20 states that have enacted laws banning cow slaughter did so during congressional governments in those states, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. But then everything changed. The “sensibility” for “Hindus” was completely lost. The Congress-led secular narrative, aided by liberal intellectuals (who also dominated the media), paid little attention to the great exodus of Hindus from Kashmir under duress. Later it became extreme, especially from the beginning of the current century. When more than 60 Hindus were burned to death in a train compartment in Godhra in Gujarat in 2002, the “secular liberal” intelligentsia and political leaders observed a disconcerting silence.
This marriage between radical secular-liberal intellectuals and political parties has been unrestricted since the post-PV Narasimha Rao days until at least 2019. However, after Narendra Modi’s second consecutive victory in the national polls with an absolute majority, it was quite clear that the country had changed: the BJP had replaced the once-dominant Congress, which had only won an absolute majority in 1984.
So, under duress or as a calculated political measure, secular-liberal politicians and parties eventually began to distance themselves from ultra-radical intellectuals like Amartya Sen and also from their own colleagues, like Mahua Moitra. The developments clearly show that secular politicians are accepting India’s new reality, which is characterized by Hindu aspirations and assertions.
It’s a welcome move, no doubt. While secular parties appreciating the sentiments of Hindus may restrict the space for freedom of expression regarding the religious sentiments of all communities, in the political space this will limit the reach of the BJP following a policy based on religion, for example this policy can only survive if challenged by political opponents. After all, it was the Ram Temple of Lal Krishna Advani against the opposition of all others that laid the foundation stones for the ultimate victory of Hindu nationalism.
Without such challenges, religious appeals become much less politically appealing. If the secular parties do not give the BJP more leeway to reap benefits by mixing religion with politics or playing chauvinism, in the future the Hindu nationalists too will have no choice but to limit them. to secular issues regarding the creation of a new, assertive and proud India.
(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.