The script is now nauseatingly familiar. A prominent public figure expresses his disquiet about the growing intolerance in India. All hell immediately breaks loose. Polite commentary labels him a Congress stooge or challenges him to prove his patriotism equating Modi with the idea of Indian nationhood; the excitable immediately warn of that well trodden threat of shipping him across the western borders.
True to form, India’s cacophony of news channels organised platitudinous debates where all extremist voices were amplified. One particularly enterprising network even managed to assemble members of Mr. Shah’s extended family as they have some special insight on his comments!
Lost amidst this din is the actual import of the original comments. There is nothing which Mr. Shah said which was particularly exceptional or surprising. Let’s look at the extant case. A mob assembled and led by local Bajrang Dal sympathisers—euphemistically known as the sword arm of the ruling BJP—-ambushed a police officer in Bulandshahar. Three weeks later, under the watch of a chief minister touted by BJP sympathisers as 'no nonsense' and tough on crime, the prime accused have still managed to evade arrest. The UP police which has been accused of stage managing encounters appears helpless in catching those credibly accused of killing one of their own. The rabble rousing UP chief minister has made it amply clear to anyone paying attention that he views the cow slaughter which allegedly provoked the incident as a much higher priority. The local BJP leaders including elected MLAs have been even more forthright: repeatedly equating the life of a cow with that of human life. And despite all attempts at obfuscation by the usual suspects, there is little doubt that this is part of a larger pattern: the cow which is venerated by large sections of the Hindu population has been cynically used to encourage religious cleavages and often to openly justify mob violence.
Therefore, Mr. Shah is entirely correct in his argument that a cow is being placed at a higher pedestal than that of a slain police officer. That this otherwise anodyne point is somehow controversial vividly illustrates the distance India has traveled in the last few years. The only amusing aspect of this entire sordid tale is the immense sensitivity of those who have encouraged this climate of insouciance and impunity to any criticism of the natural denouement of their rhetoric and actions.
But here’s what makes Mr. Shah a tremendously tragic figure in Modi’s India. He is not only being criticised and ridiculed by one aspect of the political spectrum but the opposite as well.
His simple argument that his children have had no particular religious education in a very liberal household is taken as a convenient rejection of his faith to curry favor with the prevailing majoritarian climate. Mr. Shah’s heartfelt lament that his children, if accosted by a murderous mob, would be hard pressed to reveal their religion is dismissed as a convenient fig leaf and not a genuine discomfort with faith itself. You are either a fully practicing Muslim or someone who has no business voicing 'Muslim' concerns: a right which is exclusively available to those who embrace all aspects of the faith. Even though Mr. Shah spoke as a concerned Indian and not as a Muslim.
Mr. Shah is too Muslim for the Hindu Right and not enough of a Muslim for their ideological counterparts. This is a space sadly familiar to those who may identify themselves as cultural Hindus or heavens forbid as liberals with a Hindu name. They have apparently lost all right to comment upon Hindu issues as they may reject the visible trappings of their faith. And yet, unless they are prepared to label Hinduism as the greatest affliction in the history of humanity, they are viewed suspiciously by the other side as well. They are either deracinated fifth columnists or subtle enablers, and not citizens deeply invested in the idea of a pluralistic India. In India’s polarised politics, they are caught in the no man’s land. That the rejection of extremist positions can be a considered choice and not necessarily a cop out is an argument which is increasingly impossible to make. Mr. Shah is the latest victim of the same discourse; he just happens to carry a Muslim name.
This rejection of the middle liberal space has dangerous portends for India. The liberals may have been insignificant in India’s raucous electoral democracy; yet, they carried the aspirations of a more hopeful future. Reducing them to their identities despite all their protestations is another marker of the rise of a more illiberal India. For one of the most diverse countries in the world, that is surely not a sign of a more sanguine and successful future.
In his eponymous character in Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 'Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai', Mr. Shah plays an increasingly disillusioned and angry motor mechanic raging against the system and the unfairness it enables. Why are we not more angry he asks in his latest intervention; one can only hope that his renewed outrage is not the last vestiges of a more liberal India but a flame which can still burn bright.
Rohit Pradhan writes about politics and policy. He tweets @retributions