At an intimate dinner event last week, an elderly gentleman who had lived through the freedom movement asked me: “What do you think of Mahatma Gandhi?”
There was a sudden silence around the room.
We had been discussing American politics and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. This sudden off-topic question took us by surprise. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as the nonagenarian repeated the question.
Well, I pointed out, Gandhi had been a strong advocate of the Khilafat Movement even while most the Muslim world was in two minds about it. At the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had been dismembered.
By 1924, the Caliphate, the Islamic world’s central authority — as the Vatican is for Christendom’s Catholics — would itself be abolished. Gandhi was the most enthusiastic proponent of reviving the Caliphate. For the Mahatma, the Khilafat Movement served a political purpose as well. Muslims comprised nearly a third of undivided India’s population. An independent India would be unviable without peace between Muslims and Hindus.
His Khilafat Movement was an attempt to co-opt Muslims in his grand strategy of uniting Hindus and Muslims in the early 1920s to fight the British and create an undivided Independent India.
The strategy unravelled, partly because of the intransigence of a fellow Gujarati, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Gandhi had great virtues but great flaws as well.
His attitude towards Muslims and Dalits was often inconsistent. He was an insensitive father and a negligent husband. His experiments with celibacy were self-serving.
Cut to the present.
Gandhi’s attempt to co-opt India’s Muslims failed because he failed to read the Muslim mind.
Khaled Ahmed, an astute observer of India-Pakistan relations, wrote recently: “Gandhi was the leader of the greatest Muslim movement in history, the Khilafat Movement, whose leaders were not too enamoured of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Arun Shourie, in his book The World of Fatwas, says Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Maulana Shaukat Ali used to kiss the feet of Mahatma Gandhi for leading the Khilafat Movement. Hamza Alavi, in Ironies of History: Contradictions of The Khilafat Movement, writes that Jinnah was physically beaten by Shaukat Ali for opposing the movement. After 1947, Khilafat was not in Pakistani textbooks although most of the anti-Pakistan Khilafat leaders were accepted into the pantheon of Pakistan’s Islamic nationalism. Why not Gandhi?”
Why not indeed?
The answer: Islam in the mid-20th century was rootless. The Caliphate was gone. Saudi Arabia had yet to assert its influence over the Islamic world. Pakistan was becoming radicalised. Most Middle Eastern countries after the Second World War were virtual colonies of Western powers led by the United States, Britain and France.
In the 1960s, Iraq and Iran, both Shia-majority, were relatively secular.
Women walked to work in skirts. The hijab was rarely seen. Even Saudi Arabia was a more tolerant, laid-back country.
Islamism had yet to gain a headlock over the Middle East. In India though, Islam remained immersed in formaldehyde — preserved in antiquity. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), formed in 1972, had neither the sanction of the community nor reform on its agenda. Over the past several decades, it has been at the forefront of every major regressive act designed to keep Muslims in their backward, impoverished ghettos. It has opposed reform in Muslim personal law, opposed the ban on instant triple talaq, and opposed gender equality in Islam. Political parties have played a toxic role in exploiting the backwardness of the Muslim community to inveigle its votes en masse. With religious leaders failing them and politicians exploiting them, reform in Islam in India can only come from the bottom up.
Education is the key. Ordinary Muslims must rise above religion and embrace a national identity. Religion belongs to your home, not the public space. The same rule applies to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Jews and Christians.
The RSS has long been reviled as an anti-Muslim organisation. Some of that criticism is justified.
The RSS is hidebound but change seems to be in the air.
Its sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat conceded recently: “Hindu Rashtra doesn’t mean there’s no place for Muslims. If we don’t accept Muslims, it’s not Hindutva. Hindutva is Indianness and inclusiveness.”
He went on to say that if Muslims were not happy with the term “Hindu Rashtra”, then they could call it “Bharat Rashtra” and similarly if “Hindutva” grated on them, they should use the term “Bharatiyeta”.
Beyond semantics, Muslims in India must realise that reforming Islam is in their best interests.
Lack of education consigns ordinary Muslims to low-paid jobs or no jobs all.
Many fall into a life of crime. The answer lies in reform. Polygamy and nikah halala should be banned.
Nikah halala is a medieval practice where a Muslim divorcee is compelled to marry another man, consummate the marriage, then divorce him and remarry her former husband.
The regressive nature of Indian Muslim personal law can be gauged by the fact that triple talaq was banned in Turkey in 1926, in Egypt in 1929, in Tunisia in 1955 and in Pakistan in 1961. In India, a toxic mix of politicians and clerics has denied Muslim women the freedoms their sisters across even the Middle East have enjoyed for decades. It is time to reform Islam in India — from top to bottom.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)