It was all calm, except for the routine night curfew, when I reached Saharanpur a few days after the 2014 communal riots. Having heard many sides of the story, I decided to reach out to prominent members of the Muslim community.
A member of the local traders’ community suggested that I should get in touch with the local Naib Imam. The suggestion came with a warning that I should not enter the area where he lived. With a pre-conceived notion of what I was getting into, I called up the Naib Imam and we decided to meet at his residence sometime in the afternoon.
The journey from the hotel to his residence proved to be a torturous one – not because of the traffic but because of the apprehensive state I was in.
The lanes taking me to his residence looked like any other in most of our congested urban centers– filthy, children playing cricket in the middle of the road and groups of people engaged in animated discussion. Even though I had spoken to the Imam, I was a bit apprehensive about the kind of conversation I was getting into.
Liberals Did Nothing to End Stereotypes
But the memories of the meeting have stayed with me since then.
The Imam was as well-versed in the Gita as anyone I have met. He could speak Sanskrit and English more fluently than I do. He came across as an articulate scholar, far removed from the kind of bigotry we normally associate with such persons.
As I bade him goodbye, I cursed myself for all my pre-conceived apprehensions and notions.
Why was I so skeptical about entering an area considered “very volatile” by some people?
Such a perception is not confined to Saharanpur. Creating an image of a locality or ghettoisation on such lines is constant across most of India’s urban and rural centers. The standard answer of a typical liberal would be: blame bigots for creating dilon ki doori (a distance between people). They exist because bigots created them and keep sustaining such a “false consciousness”.
My question to such liberals, however, would be: what did you do to remove such stereotypes? Nothing.
You allowed others (dismissing them as fringe elements) to create “perceptions” and spread “misconceptions”, hoping that such groups will come and go without decisively altering the basic structure of society.
You proved to be wrong for the simple reason that you put yourselves on a self-created pedestal, finding occasional moments to look down upon others.
In fact, you converted yourselves into a group of fundamentalists, ever ready to issue certificates of good conduct to some and dismissing others as delinquents.
The Liberals’ Version of Fundamentalism
What became important for you was not the kind of issues being raised. People raising them became much more important. A case in point is the issue of triple talaq.
Why did the liberals not raise the issue as vociferously as they should have?
Pakistan got rid of this pernicious practice way back in the 1960s. Most Muslim-majority countries do not have this practice. But the liberals in India allowed it to fester just to keep some mullahs in good humour.
Similarly, on the issue of absurd diktats being issued by khap panchayats, liberals never took a bold or decisive stand. They allowed parties hobnobbing with khap panchayats go scot free, ignoring dangers of succumbing to such retrograde practices. But then you were on a high, liberally fed by favourable political patrons.
You lived with the fallacious assumption that such fringe elements would become extinct one day. You had let sleeping dogs lie. They did not.
A Fringe Group Now
Now the tide has turned decisively against you, the liberals. Shorn of patronage and bereft of credibility, you are now being cornered. Your voices silenced (the latest example being ban on plays to be staged at a cultural festival in one of Delhi University’s colleges), your eating habits sought to be curtailed (the move to push the entire country to embrace a vegetarian diet is a case in point) and there is a constant gaze on your movements, thanks to the ever-growing, so-called anti-Romeo squads, some formal and many others made up of ‘sympathisers’.
This current state of marginalisation is a result of your own doing.
However, all is not lost yet. Shed some of your arrogance and acknowledge the kind of changes taking place all around. The introspection must begin with the realisation that the dominant discourse is no longer in your control.
That the world view you stood for is thoroughly discredited. You need to engage with an open mind.
And for heaven’s sake don’t start calling all those who criticise you bhakts or something else.
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