Responding to Harsh Mander’s article lamenting that Muslims have been “rendered politically irrelevant”, even “untouchable”, in India today, the historian Ramachandra Guha, writing in The Indian Express on Tuesday, rooted the community’s marginalisation in the absence of a liberal elite that could lead it “out of a medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world”. To make his point, Guha quoted the late activist and writer Hamid Dalwai, whom he also held up as one of the three “secularising modernists”, alongside Sheikh Abdullah and Arif Mohammad Khan, who could have rid the Muslims of their illiberal condition.

Guha previously engaged with this subject in an article in The Times of India in March 2004. In that piece, too, he quoted Dalwai. It drew a response from the activist and writer Asghar Ali Engineer, which is reproduced below:

There is lot of debate about the role of Muslim intelligentsia in India.

It is contended that Muslim intelligentsia tends to be illiberal with a few honourable exceptions and that it is the illiberality of Muslim intelligentsia that has produced a reaction among the Hindus and, as a result, we see illiberal Hindu intelligentsia today.

Ramchandra Guha, in an edit page article in The Times of India, dated March 23, 2004, writes, “Nearly 40 years ago, Marathi writer Hamid Dalwai wrote a fascinating series of essays on the lack of a liberal movement among Indian Muslims. The leaders of the community, he argued, were incapable of critical introspection.” He goes on to quote Dalwai, “When they find faults, the faults are invariably of other people. They do not have the capacity to understand their own mistakes…” Dalwai also maintained that “the moment they became liberals they lost the confidence of their backward and orthodox community”.

What Dalwai says is hardly a revelation. It is well-known. Besides it applies to many other communities. It is true that many Muslim intellectuals have been reluctant to attempt critical introspection. But it is hardly peculiar to Muslims as such. If one seeks its social explanation, one would understand its underlying causes.

The trouble with Dalwai, and with Guha who quotes him approvingly, is that they do not try to understand underlying causes.

First, it is necessary to state that Muslims produced eminent intellectuals in the 19th century and the 20th century before Partition such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Justice Ameer Ali and several others who were highly critical of community traditions, practices and religious orthodoxy. They not only developed critical insights but had great courage to criticise these practices openly. Their Muslimness did not deter them from attempting critical reflections and blaming the community for what they saw as wrong.

And it was not only among such scholars but also great litterateurs (writers, poets and others) who were highly critical of orthodoxy and orthodox practices. Of course, in the latter case, they used poetry and fiction to attack orthodox practices. The progressive literary movement has a glorious history of its own. The problem with the likes of Dalwai is that they take a very static and superficial view of the problem. Dalwai had very limited knowledge of Muslim affairs. His entire knowledge about Islam and Muslims was based on secondary sources. What he read was mostly in Marathi and very little authentic information on Islam and North Indian Muslim movements was available in Marathi then. Now, of course, more and more information is being made available.

Guha unfortunately and uncritically buys Dalwai’s argument that the lack of a liberal intelligentsia among Muslims will create strong reaction among the Hindus and will produce illiberal intelligentsia among them, too. Thus, Guha quotes Dalwai, “Unless a Muslim liberal intellectual class emerges, Indian Muslims will continue to cling to obscurantist medievalism, communalism and will eventually perish both socially and culturally. A worst possibility is that of Hindu revivalism destroying even Hindu liberalism, for the latter can succeed only with the support of Muslim liberals who would modernise Muslim and try to impress upon these secular democratic ideals.”

Then Guha says that Dalwai’s “prediction has come chillingly true”. Hindu illiberalism has emerged with a vengeance. I do not think it is Dalwai’s prediction which has come true. The causes of the emergence of Hindu revivalism do not lie in the absence of Muslim liberalism but should be sought in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s unceasing efforts to bring about this revivalism and the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders’ ambition to come to power on the “rath”, or chariot, of Hindu revivalism.

It is a strange argument that Hindu liberalism will survive only on Muslim liberalism and will collapse if Muslim liberalism does not materialise.

It seems to be quite an erratic view of social movements. This is not to say that Muslim liberalism should not be strong and that Muslim intellectuals should not be self-critical. But Hindu liberalism should not be expected to walk on the crutches of Muslim liberalism.

There are very good reasons for weak liberal movements among Muslims in India. Firstly, there never was a strong capitalist class among Indian Muslims. The Muslim ruling class was basically feudal and that was either ruined by the anti-zamindari laws passed by the Congress government or because many of the zamindars migrated to Pakistan. Muslims left in India were mostly from artisan classes and most of them were poor, backward and even illiterate.

A new middle class began to emerge again after Partition from among the low caste artisan classes, then referred to as “ajlaf”. The middle class that migrated to Pakistan mostly came from among the upper classes known as “ashraf”, who were highly educated and cultured. The new Muslim middle class emerging in India has seen much insecurity due to frequent occurrence of communal riots since the early 1960s, besides the rough and tumble of economic uncertainties.

This new middle class has been much less sophisticated for lack of traditional culture and liberal values. The Hindu middle and upper classes, on the other hand, suffered no such loss because of migration. On the other hand, it drew all the benefits of capitalist development after independence and had the best available education. Also, Hindu upper classes did not have to suffer any sense of insecurity because of communal riots. There is no reason their liberalism should be weakened and that such weakening should be blamed on a lack of Muslim liberalism. It seems strange logic by any account.

The reasons for the weakening of Hindu liberalism and the emergence of revivalist movements should be sought elsewhere, particularly in the politics of the Sangh Parivar. If at all the “weak Muslim liberalism” argument is to be applied, it could be applied (with little justification) to North India. What about Gujarat, where the Muslim presence has never been strong historically and Muslims have never been competitors either in political or cultural fields. Yet, the Hindu revivalist movement today is the strongest in Gujarat.

Also, as pointed out earlier, one should not take a static view of social and cultural movements. The Muslim scenario is also changing, particularly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. New awareness has emerged among Muslims in general and Muslim intelligentsia in particular. The trend towards gaining education is growing and liberalism and secularism are much more acceptable to Muslim intelligentsia today. Shah Bano-like movements are history now.

But I do not think the Sangh Parivar’s revivalist ideology will be influenced much by this positive development among Muslims in general and Muslim intelligentsia in particular. Again, it was the Sangh’s politicians who challenged the Nehruvian concept of secularism and dubbed it “pseudo-secularism”. Even orthodox Indian Muslim ulama, or religious leaders, never challenged Nehruvian secularism despite their illiberalism. One can argue that Muslims accepted Nehruvian secularism because it guaranteed their security in India. But this argument is not historically correct. Members of Jamiat-ul-Ulama, including Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, accepted the concept of secular nationalism much before Partition and never deviated from that line.

The RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and related organisations never accepted secular nationalism, before or after Partition.

They consistently opposed it. The only thing is that before Partition and after until the late 1970s, they did not succeed in widening their social base. They succeeded in doing so only in the early 1980s, when the Indian politics took a new turn in post-Emergency and Indira Gandhi also played the Hindu card. In the Rajiv Gandhi period, the Shah Bano movement, corruption scandals such as the Bofors and the Ram Temple controversy were cleverly exploited by the Sangh Parivar to win over Hindu middle class intelligentsia, which was tired of the Congress rule and was seeking political change.

There is another important reason for the emergence of the revivalist movement among Hindus. The BJP, in order to widen its political base, tried to win over backward class Hindus from all over India; this class among Hindus had been neglected and was seeking to fulfill its political aspirations. The BJP gave it the ideology of Hindutva through which it could seek its political aspirations. This is one of the very important causes for the strengthening of revivalist movements in contemporary India. Its cause should not be sought in weak Muslim liberalism as Guha does. Socially and politically, it would not be correct.

Backward caste Hindu leaders such as Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti, Pravin Togadia are the most vocal revivalists and supporters of the Sangh Parivar, and they have become high achievers, holding high positions in the Sangh Parivar hierarchy as well as in the political field. Thus, one has to survey the entire socio-political panorama to understand the causes of Hindu revivalism rather than simplistically blame it on a lack of Muslim liberalism.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. It has been lightly edited for style.