As anyone who follows Indian public discourse is aware, the rhetoric of ‘Muslim appeasement’ is now ubiquitous. No longer limited to the rabid Hindu right, it has penetrated the language and perception of citizens who consider themselves secular and moderate, and who are, indeed, often opposed to the nakedly violent elements of the Sangh Parivar. These moderates nevertheless offer the word up as a reason, if not a justification, for the behavior of the rabid, conceding that the various phenomena of Hindutva in Indian political life were produced by the appeasement of minorities (specifically Muslims) by politicians (specifically the Congress and the Left parties). Effectively, then, they agree with a key plank of the Hindutva platform, and reflect its increasingly hegemonic presence in what constitutes common sense in both private and public life.
The word ‘appeasement’ has a wider history. Its popular usage began with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to postpone the Second World War by agreeing to Adolf Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in 1938. It soon became shorthand for a range of interconnected political faults: shortsightedness, cowardice, cynicism, betrayal. Its application in the Indian case has included all those implications. This is curious, because Chamberlain’s perceived mistake was to have appeased a foreign enemy. His appeasement was a foreign policy, rather than an ideological position. Appeasement in India, on the other hand, has been a discourse anchored in domestic politics and national ideology. It is more heavily loaded and pernicious than a handshake in Munich. The original implications of the accusation are very much present in India, but the line between foreign and domestic enemies has become blurred. Indeed, the rhetoric of appeasement is useful precisely because it blurs that line, continuously turning a portion of the Indian population into an alien entity and democratic politics into treason.
Objectively, the idea that minorities – and Muslims in particular – have been pampered by the Indian state is ludicrous. Muslims in India are, on average, considerably poorer than Hindus. Their presence in the institutions of government and public life does not remotely approach their percentage of the population, and they suffer from chronic discrimination in housing and employment. Harassment, intimidation and worse by the police, army and paramilitary forces is a fact of life. They are increasingly subject to the violence of vigilantes and lynch mobs that are either ignored or assisted by the state. They cannot complain about intolerance or criticize the Indian state – let alone the army and other sacred cows – without immediately provoking a firestorm of public outrage and being told to shut up or move to Pakistan. They are, moreover, subject to pervasive and unquantifiable abuse in what might be called personal interactions with the majority community. This abuse overflows into the public domain, saturating the press and online forums with vitriol about ‘mullahs,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘love jihad,’ people who have too many babies, and the rape of disinterred corpses. If Indian Muslims have been appeased for seventy years, it has not accomplished very much.
If we look at the body of evidence that is held up to demonstrate appeasement, it quickly falls apart. Nobody can demonstrate how this appeasement has hurt the majority community, let alone been illegitimate. Indian Muslims can vote, it is pointed out defensively, as if this is some sort of extraordinary generosity in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. They are allowed to live in India, it is proclaimed in the same vein. Again, what generosity, ‘allowing’ people to live and vote in their own country! Indian democracy and pluralism are not charity to an undeserving minority; these are gifts that, in the words of the Constitution, the Indian people gave to themselves. Not only are these the substance of freedom and the justification of independence (because otherwise, what is independence for?), they are essential to multi-ethnic nationhood.
The Muslim Civil Code and Article 370 of the Constitution (which gives ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir) are perennial targets of those who believe that appeasement is real. Such claims reflect a total obliviousness of the historical context of these policies. Article 370 came out of the extraordinary political, military and legal circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to the Indian Union. Without it, the National Conference would not have given its assent to the annexation of the state, and without that assent, the Indian position would have been untenable. The Instrument of Accession was not enough to ensure either legitimacy or order, and negotiators in Delhi and Srinagar understood that a measure of popular consent was needed that could be acquired only through political concessions. The ‘special status’ of Kashmir is not some inexplicable foolishness on Nehru’s part; it is a hard-headed compromise based on recognition of the actual specialness of the political situation. Muslim personal law is a product of the aftermath of the Partition, when it was important for the Congress to demonstrate its commitment to the principle that India was neither Pakistan nor Jinnah’s version of Hindustan, i.e., to ensure that the Indian state did not belong to any particular ethno-religious community. Moreover, given the horrendous violence that had just taken place, it was necessary to reassure the remaining Indian Muslims that they were safe in India, not just individually but as a community. That reassurance was essential to the stabilization of the fledgling state and its fragile institutions.
The Muslim Civil Code is quite rightly a contentious body of law. It authorizes the most reactionary elements of Indo-Muslim society to speak for the community, and consequently it infringes upon the rights of women as equal citizens of a democratic state. It can also be argued, albeit tenuously, that a nationally-organized society should have a uniform code of civil law. (Why? The assumption is reminiscent of the case for a national language that was abandoned in 1965.) In any case, the Indian Constitution unambiguously looks forward to a uniform civil code; religion-specific legality was originally intended to be a temporary arrangement. But while the activism of Muslims who want to abolish triple-talaq and reform unjust divorce laws is entirely admirable, the professed sympathy of Hindus must be viewed with great suspicion. Hindus can legitimately protest the plight of divorced Muslim women only when they give up their own habit of turning away Muslim renters, and are ready to welcome Muslim sons-in-law. Until then, they would do well to examine the reactionary elements within their own civil code (there is a considerable body of scholarship on this), to stop beating their wives and bullying daughters who make their own sexual choices, and to insist upon the recognition of marital rape as a criminal offense – none of which they are willing to do. They might also try to understand that the reform of Muslim personal law will become politically feasible – i.e., acceptable to those Muslims who are themselves ambivalent about it – only in an environment of security and tolerance, or in the absence of the naked hate that now runs casually through Indian society and its public discourse. A beleaguered minority will cling to the symbols of its identity even when those symbols are themselves oppressive. Not even majorities are exempt from this dynamic: it is worth noting that the ‘reformed’ Hindu civil code became possible only when colonial rule had ended. Until then, the most repressive laws and customs were zealously protected as markers of national sovereignty, and even Vidyasagar found it necessary to oppose the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which outlawed sex with girls under the age of twelve.
For the appeasement-wallas, there is also a constant accumulation of petty and local complaints: about municipal authorities telling Hindus to desist from playing music near mosques, state-subsidized Haj, government support for madrasas, Muslim criminals who are supposedly protected by politicians, and the tendency of non-Sanghi political parties to protect (occasionally) what are understood as ‘Muslim interests.’ They barely notice that Hindu pilgrimages are also subsidized by the state, Hindu criminals also receive the patronage of politicians, and that Hindus are louder and more effective than Muslims when it comes to demanding that the state protect their ‘sentiments’ from assorted insults. They forget that so-called 'vote-bank politics' - the articulation and protection of particular interests - is the normal stuff of democratic politics, and not the equivalent of giving in to a foreign enemy (unless Muslims themselves are imagined as aliens) or some peculiar ‘pseudo-secular’ vice. Do Hindus not form 'vote banks' when they organize themselves by caste, class and language? Democracy without vote banks would require a level of individuated citizenship that does not exist anywhere in the world, let alone India. These complaints are typically accompanied by outrage at the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits and religious minorities in Pakistan, the implication being not only that the ill-treatment of Muslims in India (and Kashmir) is a reasonable retribution, but also that Pakistan is the preferred model of the relationship between the individual, the community and the state. For them, democracy and politics – i.e., the need to work through constitutional means and make concessions at the negotiating table – are weaknesses. They would prefer that the Indian state simply bludgeon its way to produce the results desired by ‘the majority,’ even if that means killing, terrorizing, disenfranchising or expelling a hundred and fifty million people. Those options are still voiced mainly as wistful fantasies and in private conversations, but the overflow into the media and the street – slogans of ‘Pakistan ya kabristan’ (‘to Pakistan or to the graveyard’) – is already apparent.
‘Appeasement’ in the Indian context is thus a fundamentally anti-democratic discourse in more ways than one. It equates the citizenship – i.e., freedom – of a minority community with an intolerable weakness of the nation-state. Any sign of the political equality of the minority becomes not only a sign of treason (by minorities and their sympathizers), but a sign of the superior power of the minority, inverting the actual status quo in a perverse nightmare of Hindus ‘losing control of their own country.’ The ultimate version of that nightmare is the frequently-expressed anxiety about the ‘Muslim birth-rate,’ or the fear that Hindus will cease to be a majority in India. Not only is this highly paranoid and numerically improbable, it negates a basic principle of the liberal-democratic nation state, which is that there can be no permanent majority and minority. Today’s minority must, hypothetically, be able to become tomorrow’s majority without nullifying the nationhood that is expressed in the state. If that prospect is so horrifying that one would rather resort to ethnic cleansing or invent a mythology of appeasement/treason, then it is necessary to ask what kind of nation Hindus (or Israeli Jews who resent having to share their state with Arabs, or white Trump supporters who also complain incessantly about 'pampered' minorities and the 'neglected' majority) inhabit. An objectively dominant majority that feels, acts and speaks in the mode of an oppressed and aggrieved minority is one of the surest symptoms of fascism. It is a danger to itself as well as to others, because its peevish violence inevitable rebounds against itself, eroding its own democratic rights and freedoms. That erosion, in which the state has repeatedly compromised its own liberal principles at the behest of the majority, is where 'appeasement' is truly manifested in India.
In this situation, ironically, the fate of liberal democracy comes to rest more with the minority, which is invested in it, than with the majority, which chafes against it and longs for the unrestrained ability to coerce. The idea that minorities are the conscience-keepers of liberalism has a history that goes back to the early twentieth century. It has generated one of the roles played by Jews in American political life until the late 1960s, and as Faisal Devji has pointed out, by Muslims at one point in the history of the subcontinent. I will go a step further and suggest that democracy needs minorities to survive. Majorities are thuggish by nature, undeserving of democracy and resentful of it. They do not ensure the democratic rights of minorities; it is the other way around. Freedom - understood as a rights-bearing relationship with the liberal state - is inherently a minority condition.
April 18, 2017