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Tackling Communalism

Interview With Shabnam Hashmi
Interviewed By Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander

26 February, 2010

Eminent human rights activist and founder of Act Now For Harmony & Democracy(ANHAD) Shabnam Hashmi in conversation with Srinagar-based journalist Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander on Hindutva, terrorism, communalism and Muslim issues

Q: Following the horrific anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, you and your team have been working there for justice and communal harmony. How do you look at the conditions of Muslims in Gujarat today?

A: Violence against Muslims continues to take place but is not well reported by media. A low intensity conflict is still going on. Muslims continue to be treated as second class citizens. More than five thousand Muslim families continue to live in refugee camps, too fearful to return to their homes. The hype created by the media about Gujarat being 'vibrant', 'rich' and 'prosperous' is completely misleading as more than six thousand farmer suicides have taken place.

Q: Are these economic conditions further communalising Gujarat society?

A: There is no doubt that in Gujarat the poor have become poorer but there is also a unique type of Gujarati mindset which is materialistic in nature. The middle class has grown but that too is only craving for jobs. I am shocked to see that students in Gujarat are taught to hunt for jobs and that rarely any of them go to libraries after schools or college hours. There is almost zero intellectual activity in most educational institutions. In this context, New Age Gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Murari Bapu, Aasha Ram Bapu and others are reaping bountiful dividends because they don’t need thinkers but only blind followers. Religion has become a big business and the masses continue to suffer. During 1995-2002 the all-India figure for poverty reduction was 8.5% but for Gujarat it was only 2.8%.

Q: The violence in Gujarat took place when the BJP-led NDA was in power at centre but now Congress-led UPA is at the Centre. Do you see any major difference between the two?

A: Since the last two years there has been surely some change, like the Sacchar Committee report, which shattered the myth of Hindutva forces about 'minority appeasement'. The report strikingly depicted the deplorable conditions of Muslims in India. Civil society groups are responsible for this change. It is they who pressurized the government to look into the nexus between Hindutva forces and terrorist activities, which surely exposed the Sangh terror network in form of Abhinav Bharat. There is surely some relief as compared to a few years back.

Q: But can we expect much from the change of regime as the bureaucracy and other state machinery remains the same?

A: Change in the bureaucracy is a slow and long process. So is case with the delivery of justice. But we must continue our genuine struggle for our rights.

Q: Recently, the Liberhain Commission gave its report regarding the Babri Masjid demolition. Do you think its recommendations are going to be honored?

A: There must be political will--which is lacking in this case--to get the guilty persecuted and punished.

Q: What, in your view, is the way to tackle the menace of communalism? Can Muslim condemnation of Muslim terrorist acts and Hindu condemnation of Hindu terrorist acts help?

A: Long term political education can help us overcome prejudices and decondition our minds, but the solitary fighting of Muslims and Hindus against their respective communalism will not suffice. I have myself never fought as a Muslim for my rights but as a citizen of India! Regarding resistance against communalism, few Muslims are coming forward, and it is the secular citizens who are taking up their cause. The Muslim community is backward on almost all counts. The Maulvis are reinforcing this backwardness and dragging the community further back by issuing unnecessary fatwas and so on. Reforms within Muslim society are long overdue.

Q: What role can the Muslim ulema play in awakening the Muslim community as they still hold sway and influence over the Muslim masses of India?

A: The Maulvis and other religious professionals should confine themselves to religion only, which is a personal matter between an individual and God, and not try to interfere in public matters, as people are not answerable to the Maulvis but to God alone. Interference by religious leaders is proving detrimental to progress as they oppose every progressive step and wish to keep the community in shambles.

Q: How do you characterise the ideology of Hindutva?

A: Hindutva represents a political use of religion. We must differentiate between Hinduism and Hindutva. Within Hinduism there is a rigid structure of caste, which is a tool of exploitation. It sanctions a high status to Brahmans. There is a hidden apartheid in India that is still practiced against the Dalits and others. Unfortunately, this casteism has also affected Muslims. Many so-called 'upper' caste Muslims have the same prejudices against Muslims from so-called 'lower castes', although Islam has no such concept.

Q: What you say about the media hype of projecting Muslims as “terrorists”?

A: This hype is an international phenomenon. Capitalism always needs and uses an 'enemy' to sustain itself. During the Cold War it was the USSR, and after its demise Muslims were an easy target to be projected as the new 'enemy'. There is an overtake of media and news channels by corporate capitalists. Previously, editors were not owners of newspapers but now the case is the reverse. They are not interested in the welfare of the marginalized and the poor. News about farmer suicides doesn’t sell and so the corporate media ignores them. On the other hand, stories about Muslims as real or alleged terrorists sell, so they highlight them.

Q: Regarding the question of Kashmir and the continuing human rights violations in this region, why is Indian civil society and the media maintaining silence?

A: There is only a small civil society within India which is vocal about political issues. Among Muslims, there are few human rights activists, and, then, Muslims speak only when they are under attack--more on humanitarian rather than political issues. Regarding the media, it only creates an atmosphere of fear psychosis and Kashmir is never covered unless there is a bomb blast.