Education comes in many forms when experience is your teacher. I recall the day when I was part of a delegation to some muscular regional satrap. There was only one point on our agenda: the extent, quality and depth of education among minorities, with a stress on how to do far more for the Muslim girl child. A worthy cause brought together a worthy lot: an assortment of editors, educationists, NGO heads, marginal do-gooders. We sat in the room adjacent to the satrap’s office with beatific smiles on our faces. After the compulsory wait, we entered his sanctum in a solemn file.
The smiles became a trifle stretched in the presence of the Honoured Leader. A throat cleared. Something subdued was said. A paper was presented. The Great Man read it with a look of sincere attention, as if each sentence of our collective wisdom was leaving an indelible mark on his ideological compass. He nodded.
Then all heaven broke loose. Uncertain half-smiles were replaced with fawning by delegates that verged on froth, and managed to shock every cynical fibre in my very cynical nervous system. Everyone demanded, brazenly, something for himself. An editor-owner of a small newspaper wanted more advertising. Someone else wanted to fill a vacancy at the head of some institution. The passion and diligence with which they pursued their individual greed was worth a chapter in the book of trade.
I learnt, later, that quite a few of these requests were honoured. As for the community’s education, nothing much changed. Perhaps we can take some satisfaction from the fact that if it did not get better, it did not get worse either.
It was most interesting, therefore, to learn that the group of Muslim clerics who called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi about a week ago discussed something quite outside the traditional box of engagement issues. They went to talk about a reality that has been building up for some time, but has acquired quiet momentum in the last few years: the rising influence of a well-funded Wahhabi movement in the daily life of Indian Muslims, as well as control of their symbolic institutions.
The extraordinary strength of India’s inter-faith harmony lies in principles that are as old as faith: in sarva dharma sambhav and in verses of the Quran that say, with simple clarity, your faith for you and my faith for me. This was the inclusive message at the heart of our great struggle for an independent, modern India, in the famous speeches of faith-and-community leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, visionaries for whom a strong and united India was far more important than any partisan interest.
The British, who were certainly not fools, recognised very quickly that their rule could never be sustained against the power of a united India. They encouraged organisations, within all religions, that worked for separation rather than harmony, and nurtured the politics of division long before the concept of Pakistan came to the forefront. The partition of Bengal in 1905 is certainly not the sole example. This bred a reaction. What is remarkable is that the broad mass of Indians remained committed to co-existence despite pressure and periodic outbursts of violence that often peaked to vicious levels.
But advocates of social separatism have refused to accept defeat; they lurk in corners of our demographic and political framework, waiting to pounce upon a chink and turn it into a chasm. This remains the primary challenge for India’s Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
It is conventional, in policy discourse, to use the term “socio-economic”. This phrase has an extra resonance on our subcontinent, for cultural and faith factors have contributed more than their share in keeping sections of the people trapped in educational deprivation, inequity, indignity and horrendous poverty.
The problem is at the roots, the answers must also be found there. Nearly seven decades of freedom have been frittered away, as far as this dilemma is concerned, by outsourcing the management of minority problems to middlemen who have enriched themselves at the cost of the community. Their names are littered across the political horizon. Since their primary interest is personal welfare, these pseudo-leaders ally very readily with those who preach separatism, because their own shop finds customers only in the politics of bonded control.
Here is the good news. This old politics has a new enemy: the young of the 21st century. Today’s young recognise something that was either unavailable, or obscured, to their parents: the prospect of economic prosperity in an equal, shared and dynamic India. Give the young a chance through that great instrument of hope, education, and an opportunity through that formidable source of empowerment, an expanding, job-rich economy, and India will grasp that destiny promised so long ago, and elusive ever after.
—MJ Akbar is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.