In the 1980s, Lal Krishna Advani coined the term “pseudo-secularism” to describe what he believed was tokenism towards members of India's minority communities. When he did so, he had no idea that one day, the Hindutva mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, would itself dabble in the practice.
On July 2, the RSS’ Muslim wing, the Rashtriya Muslim Manch, will throw an iftar party for ambassadors from Muslim countries. The proposed event has already caused a controversy with the RSS’ invitation to the Pakistan ambassador being withdrawn after the June 25 Pampore attack in which eight Indian paramilitary personal were gunned down by militants – a rather late realisation of the role Pakistan plays in Kashmir.
Iftar is the sunset meal at which Muslims break their fast during the month of Ramzan. In India, though, the meal has been raised from this rather utilitarian consideration and made into a political event. Politicians have used this to court the Muslim vote, even signalling their predilections sartorially: wearing prayer caps, scarves and other assorted seemingly Muslim clothing.
The case against iftar parties
This practice has been attacked by Hindutva supporters, who bristle at what they see as appeasement i.e. pseudo-secularism. So effective was the criticism that this year, the Congress party gave up hosting an iftar party altogether.
It’s also frowned at by secularists who see the state’s adoption of theological symbols problematic. Why should politicians court people with religious symbols rather than, say, better roads, schools or sewers, they argue.
This is an argument not without merit for a secular state. If the state is to rise above ascribed identities such as faith, it must surely give up pandering to their symbols.
But here's the conundrum: what if the state has given up on being secular? In a post-Modi era, when the Indian state is moving towards endorsing Hindu symbols, Hindu theological laws and religious worship-as-a-political-event, even the tokenism of the iftar party could maybe be a good thing, balancing out majoritarianism that lurks beneath the surface.
Iftar parties as a political event are a legacy of Indira Gandhi – a part of her overall strategy to employ communal symbols to outmanoeuvre both Hindu and Muslim communitarian parties. As historian James Manor pointed out, the most “astonishing development of the early 1980s was the adoption by Indira Gandhi of themes that have traditionally belonged to the Hindu chauvinist right”.
In the 1980s, this back and forth between Hindu, Muslim and even Sikh tokenism would send the Congress party into a communal tailspin. The police under Congress governments were openly partisan, as a wave of communal riots swept Uttar Pradesh. Indira’s successor, Rajiv Gandhi, in turn, backed the Ramjanmbhoomi movement, which wanted to demolish the Babri Masjid.
As the other side of the coin, the Congress made a show of denying Muslim women alimony in the Shah Bano case and adopted tokenism: hosting iftar parties, putting on the stereotypical Muslim clothes, visiting Sufi shrines and the such.
The Congress’s tightrope act didn’t last too long. Rather than outflanking Hindu chauvinists, it ended up boosting them. The BJP, the main political beneficiary of this period, grabbed the opportunity to attack this tokenism.
Worse than the disease
Of course, while the BJP’s attacks on the Congress' tokenism might have had some substance, the cures it held out were often worse than the disease. The BJP, for example, appeared to ostensibly back Muslim women’s rights in an attempt to oppose to the Congress' attitude towards the Shah Bano case. But all it really did was to vilify Muslims and use the issue to drum up anti-Muslim sentiment.
The BJP is also openly majoritarian. While measures like debarring Muslims and Christians from Dalit reservations meant the Congress did plenty to encourage Hindu chauvinists, post a full BJP majority in 2014, matters have reached a fever pitch. After his 2014 election win, for example, Narendra Modi performed a religious ceremony in Banaras and ensured that it was telecast live on television to underscore the political import of the move. Public religious worship has also been a part of Prime Minister Modi’s tours to neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. The open use of religious worship as a tool of political propaganda by a person no less than the prime minister is alarming.
In several states, BJP governments have ensured that the religious taboo on eating beef observed by many Hindus has been codified into draconian laws. In September 2015, when a Muslim man was beaten to death by a mob on the suspicion of eating beef, a Union government minister condoned the murder, calling it an “accident”.
The chief minister of Maharashtra, India’s most prosperous state, wanted to expel from India anyone who refuses to say "Bharat Mata ki Jai", victory to mother India – a slogan many Muslims consider unIslamic.
Recent reports suggest that Yogi Adityanath might even be considered for a cabinet post in the Union government. Adityanath, a religious priest and member of parliament from Uttar Pradesh, is an extreme right winger by even the BJP’s standards, being accused of communal rioting and letting lose a torrent of anti-Muslim hate speech – such as comparing actor Shah Rukh Khan to Pakistani terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed.
Assuaging minority fears
In these circumstances, how should one judge Muslim tokenism? If the Union government is itself openly majoritarian, does a charge of minority appeasement even make sense? On the other hand, the pseudo-secular act of, say, throwing an iftar party or visiting a dargah could actually act as a powerful signal to Muslims, assuaging their fears in a system that is increasingly shutting them out.
This phenomenon is not unique to India. In Bangladesh, Hindus have agitated successfully for a “national temple” as a counter to the country’s “national mosque”. In Pakistan, its parliament declared Holi and Diwali to be observed as national holidays. In Canada, Justin Trudeau made it a point to celebrate the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi, posing for photos in a bandana with the Sikh Khanda symbol on it.
Of course, this does not mean Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh will not face majoritarian discrimination or that there will not be anti-Muslim prejudice in North American. But even this tokenism is welcomed by minority communities, given that in any political system, even public signalling has meaning in parallel, rather than as a binary, to actual physical security and development.
In a situation in which powerful groups use their identity to extract concessions from the state, using signals such as iftar parties to give minorities a toehold in the Indian political space are useful. After all, they help counterbalance the stranglehold of dominant groups – just a little.