India’s Muslims and the quantum of democracy

Only the Holy Koran joins them. Otherwise, Shias and Sunnis, the two major denominations of Islam, are poles apart. Their estrangement towards each other is as entrenched as is the caste system among the Hindus. What is happening in Iraq today is the fallout from an antagonism that stretches back many centuries. Regretfully, there has never been any serious attempt for the leaders of the two sects to sit across the table and sort out their differences, which have given a bad name to Islam.

Left to the radical Sunnis, Shias would have already been declared non-Muslim, as has happened in the case of the Ahmadis in Pakistan. But the superiority of Shias in letters, arts and culture is a reality that cannot be clouded by prejudice or reproach.

India, a pluralistic society, could have tried to cite the example of its own tradition of tolerance to bring about reconciliation. But it has preferred to remain distant for fear that it should be blamed for fanning the flames of enmity. It has witnessed clashes between Shias and Sunnis in Lucknow and elsewhere. Even though the government has been scrupulously neutral, both Shias and Sunnis have tended to blame it for taking sides.

I wish New Delhi had done more in West Asia to bring about conciliation for two reasons: one, because it has a large Shia community and two, because hostility between Shia and Sunni has grave repercussions for India. There was a time when New Delhi was a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) due to the large Muslim population in the country. But it apparently withdrew because a secular India did not fit the mould.

Washington could not hide its responsibility for pushing New Delhi out of the OIC. The Americans did not want a parallel organisation to influence events in West Asia in which they did not have a dominant role, albeit behind the scenes. Lately, Moscow has been taking sides openly and supporting what it perceives as the ‘progressive territories’.

What New Delhi does not realise is that if Iraq is not sorted out amicably, it can set into motion an unending battle between Shias and Sunnis in different places. And India will be sucked into a battle of attrition against its will. That necessitates a more active role than the government’s stock statement that New Delhi is watching the situation, whether by front door, back door or trap door (secret activity).

Whatever the quantum of democracy, it has been introduced mainly by India not only to give a voice to the millions of Muslims in the area, but also to rebuff the West’s propaganda that Islam and democracy are not compatible. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, even though a dictator, was influenced by New Delhi into giving limited rights to people. But for some reason, President George Bush Senior developed a hatred against Saddam. The US was convinced that the Iraqi President was intent on developing nuclear weapons which, when it happened, would make Saddam unassailable.

Poor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistan President who became the country’s Prime Minister, had to pay the price for completing the same ambition of developing the world’s first Islamic bomb. Today, the West is trying to placate Islamabad by giving it both military and economic aid. But Islamabad’s suspicion that the West has some ulterior motive is responsible for anti-US sentiments in the country. Had India and Pakistan been on better terms, they could have jointly influenced the events in West Asia and thwarted Washington’s ambition to be an arbiter.

In politics as in other fields, the vacuum is filled sooner rather than later. Al-Qaeda guiding the Taliban movement has plugged the gap. The whole region faces the danger of fundamentalism spreading and even influencing the youth, as is happening in Pakistan, where young boys are growing the beard to confirm their Islamic identity.

This poses a threat to India in the sense that 15-16 crore Muslims in the country are beginning to draw their inspiration from what is happening to Afghanistan and northern parts of Pakistan. And since India has taken a turn ideologically to the right, as the parliamentary elections have shown, the distance between democratic India and the al-Qaeda inspired areas to its north will look unbridgeable as the days go by. Not only that, Hindu fundamentalism will become more assertive than it is today.

The idea of India, a democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian society, will be endangered. Leaders and governments will mix religion with politics, something they have successfully resisted all these years since Independence, even though Partition was on the basis of religion.

That necessitates greater strengthening of secularism to stall fundamentalism, however limited it may be at this time. New Delhi’s lack of initiative in West Asia to ensure better and democratic governance has weakened movements such as the Arab Spring, which were against autocratic rule in most West Asian countries.

The call by Anjuman-e-Haideri for volunteers to help defend the centres of Shia Islam in Iraq may invite a similar response among the Sunnis to get together to fight against the Shia consolidation. That may come later, but in the meanwhile the Shias’ assertiveness for identity will set into motion a process that may strengthen religious appeals and their leaders.

It is ironic that even the radical Hindus are volunteering to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Shias, who say they want to form a human chain to protect the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. The Shias, always feeling as if they were the underdog, should take heart from the example of such Hindus and try to influence New Delhi to take more interest in the problem than it has done so far.

New Delhi’s say will help the Indians economically. There are two million of them occupying different jobs in the area. Any tension may jeopardise their future. This has happened before, when Israel was resisting pressure from the US and the UK not to settle the Jews at the Golan Heights or other such areas. This is the time when India can become proactive and send a special envoy to bring about rapprochement among the different leaders of both Shias and Sunnis. Otherwise, the radicals may win.

— Kuldip Nayar