The Muslim problem
By Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri
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The constitution of India envisages a system
which seeks to promote political unification of the
society while giving the ethnic groups in it a wide
range of rights to preserve and develop their own
distinct cultures. Important particularly for religious
minorities are those provisions of the constitution that
deal with the right of freedom of religion.
Religious groups are not only given the freedom
to pursue their religion but also the right to propagate
it. Additionally, they have the right to manage their
own religious affairs and to establish and maintain
institutions for imparting religious instruction. The
latter are also entitled to receive financial assistance
from the state.
No constitution, however, can
resolve complex social issues all by itself. It merely
provides a normative basis for their resolution. The
task of resolving social problems is ultimately that of
politics. It does so by translating the broad normative
statements of the constitutions into concrete policies
and actions. In an open society like ours the political
realm, however, is above all the realm of public
preferences and pressures, with those in power compelled
to act within the constraints of public opinion.
As such, finding solutions to complex problems
necessarily becomes a matter of social consensus. When
such a consensus exists, even the most difficult problem
becomes amenable to a solution and when it is absent, no
amount of effort on the part of those in power helps.
Even the tallest of leaders fail, in the absence of
social consensus, to carry through the measures required
to handle a given problem.
This has precisely
been the problem in relation to the integration of the
Muslims in India. In spite of the constitution providing
the basis framework, the necessary consensus has been
lacking due to persistence among the dominant majority
and the Muslims of suspicion and fear and negative
beliefs about each other sustained primarily by memories
of the near and distant past.
basically memories of an adversary relationship
characterized throughout by conflict and confrontation
and by a sense of humiliation and injured pride in one
group of the other at different points of time. With
each of the two groups having experienced reversal in
their status role at different times, their relationship
ultimately took the form of a "destiny conflict", though
in the eyes - mainly of the Muslim middle class and the
As a consequence, the Muslims
in particular became, from the late 19th century, an
embattled community bent on retrieving their lost
status, suspicious of all "outsiders" and inclined to
see in the actions of others a well designed conspiracy
to frustrate Muslim aspirations and harm Muslim
interests. Pakistan was the logical outcome of such a
frame of mind.
But if the creation of Pakistan
in 1947 satisfied the subcontinental Muslim dreams of
regaining lost supremacy, it also made large numbers of
them who remained in India a minority, with nothing
except the psychological baggage of the partition days
bequeathed to them by Muslim chauvinism. Not
ideologically equipped to cope with the new situation in
which they were neither the rulers nor the beneficiaries
of special privileges of the kind given to them by the
British, large sections of them remained captive of
their attitudes, fears and prejudices, paralyzed
additionally by "minority panic" and anxiety about their
They were, furthermore, as pointed out
by Gardner Murphy, "A minority acutely blamed by the
Hindus for the partition of the country, a minority
regarded as representative of an anti-Indian, hostile,
divisive and subversive influence which had shattered
the aspirations for national unity." The sense of
bitterness produced by partition was so great that even
a person with such impeccable liberal credentials as
Acharya Kripalani opposed, at the time of first general
elections, giving Muslims the right to vote.
the popular level, partition gave right to the feeling
that, having got a state of their own in Pakistan,
Muslims in India had no grounds for complaining about
their conditions or talking of their interests in India.
Under the circumstances, the ability of politics
to handle the problems of Muslim integration was
inevitably impaired. Because of strongly negative public
opinion, direct Muslim participation in politics was
problematic, for it would have only aggravated the
majority's suspicion of Muslim divisiveness. The Muslim
League was revived but only in the south and that too
much against the wishes of the community's leaders
elsewhere in the country.
For the same reason,
it became difficult for the union government to give
substance to the constitutional provisions seeking to
conserve the cultural distinctiveness of the ethnic
minorities, including the Muslims.
difficulty in giving substance to the provisions of the
constitution relating to the cultural, educational and
religious interests of the Muslims is often attributed
to opposition from Hindu extremists. Hindu extremism is
indeed a fact and not an unimportant one. But it does
not by itself explain the reluctance of successive
governments to translate the various guarantees of the
constitution into concrete acts of policy.
more important factor has been the ambivalence among the
Hindus who are neither communal nor obscurantist about
the best way of actualizing the autonomy envisaged by
the constitution. Most of them are convinced of the need
to help the Muslims preserve their religious and
cultural distinctiveness, but they are also worried that
the measures required to make this possible will only
reinforce Muslim separatism.
This is a dilemma
which most multi-ethnic societies operating a pluralist
strategy of integration face. There are no tried and
tested ways of resolving it, certainly none that are
valid for all social and historical contexts. Each
society must find its own solution to this dilemma.
There is, though, an added sense of poignancy attached
to it for a plural society like India, given the
antecedent experience of pre-partition politics.
That is presumably why some suggest modifying
the constitution's pluralist strategy through a
restrictive redefinition of the areas of minority
autonomy, particularly in matters and culture, education
Events often have a way of
resolving the problems of ethnic and religious
minorities by creating conditions conducive to their
resolution. In the absence of such conditions a society
finds it difficult to handle the outstanding problems
through normal working of its institutions. The breakup
of Pakistan in 1971 was one such event. If partition had
discredited the "two-nation" theory at the ideological
level, the breakup of Pakistan and creation of
Bangladesh have made it a totally nonviable principle
for the organization and legitimacy of politics in the
Because of such developments the
conditions today are far more propitious for completing
the task of building a vibrant and dynamic pluralist
political system envisaged by the constitution. What is
required is that all the groups concerned recognize this
and abandon the attitudes, beliefs and prejudices shaped
by events and memories of the past.
Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri, MA, PhD, DLitt, Emeritus
Fellow University Grants Commission New Delhi. India.
Formerly Professor of International Relations, Oxford
Speaking Freely is an
Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to
have their say. Please click here
if you are interested in