The suave communalism of Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

Last week, Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, tweeted a photograph depicting a woman—with flowing locks—reading a book amid a mass of burqa-clad women going the other way. The tweet was captioned: “This poignant photo is the work of an Afghan artist named Shamsia Hassani, 33 years old, Afghan graffiti artist and teacher at Kabul University If we share, we will be giving her a voice and all Afghan women who are living in hell.” He added a disclaimer at the beginning of his caption: “Posted as received”.

When it was pointed to him that the image was in fact the work of an advertising and the truth couldn’t be farther from his caption, Tharoor issued an apology, but refused to take the photo down. “Sorry it turns out to be the work of an advertising agency: [Link to the ad]. Wondered whether to delete but decided the message was worth retaining even if I was initially misinformed about the source.”

It came close on the heels of another Afghanistan-related tweet where Tharoor heard Malayalam in a video of Taliban fighters on the verge of taking Kabul on 15 August. Twitter users quickly pointed out that the language in the video was not Malayalam. But the tweet still remains on his timeline. He didn’t see the need to follow up with a clarification with this one though. The message was worth retaining, one would imagine.

Kerala has over 26% Muslim population and there has been a constant stream of malicious stories linking Muslims of the state with radicalism. The right-wing bogey of “love jihad” has long been hanging like a dark shadow over the community with one alleged case going all the way to the Supreme Court. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) was involved in the case to probe “love jihad” but ended up finding, as one memorable headline put it, “love but no jihad”.

The conspiracy was ratcheted up further earlier this month when a prominent Christian community leader, Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt, accused Malayali Muslims of indulging in “love jihad” and added one more conspiracy into the mix—ostensibly of his own creation: “narcotics jihad”.

Tharoor, as an MP from the state’s capital and a man with formidable command of the English language with over four decades in politics and diplomacy, knew he was stirring a pot that was better left untouched, but he couldn’t help himself.

These are not aberrations. Tharoor’s litany of Islamophobic remarks runs long.

At the height of the nationwide anti-CAA protests during late 2019 and early 2020, Tharoor equated the mere proclamation of the Islamic faith—La ilaha illallah (there is no one worthy of worship except Allah)—at protests to religious fundamentalism. He tweeted, “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either. We who’re raising our voice in the #CAA_NRCProtests are fighting to defend an #InclusiveIndia. We will not allow pluralism&diversity to be supplanted by any kind of religious fundamentalism.”

Leaving aside the irony of the author of a non-fiction work titled Why I Am a Hindu, commenting on another people’s right to assert their religious identity, the tweet throws literally every Muslim under the bus. Taking Tharoor’s assertion to its logical end, no Muslim can proclaim the very basis of their faith in public without being labelled a fundamentalist.

It’s a bit rich coming from a politician whose Twitter timeline is a cornucopia of him lighting lamps at inaugurations, visiting temples or smashing ritual coconuts.

He doubled down on his initial pronouncement with a subsequent article in The Quint, writing: “You can’t fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. Identity politics will destroy India.”

Tharoor failed to see the imbalance of power between an all-powerful state, whose high-ranking office holders have variously labelled Muslims “termites”; questioned their utility to the country (Yogi Adityanath: “Muslims did no favour to India by staying here”); and dog whistled about them being violent (Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “violent protesters could be identified by their clothes.”)

He perhaps also failed to see—or chose to ignore—the fact that almost all large-scale anti-CAA protests were held in Muslim localities and were organized and run by Muslims. If other communities saw the protests as a way to protect the country’s “pluralism and diversity”, as Tharoor claims, then sit-ins like the ones at Shaheen Bagh and Jaffrabad could also have been held at a Kalkaji or a Shalimar Bagh.

Clearly, it didn’t happen.

Moreover, the successful efforts to paint the Shaheen Bagh sit-in as a women’s protests was a rather subtle way of projecting the belief that the only kind of Muslim assertion acceptable in the mainstream discourse would be one that doesn’t remain limited to the followers of the Islamic faith. If it could be hyphenated with women’s emancipation or gender equality all the better.

AG Noorani in his book, The RSS: A Menace to India quotes from Donald Eugene Smith’s work, India as a Secular State, on how Indian Muslims would become acceptable in the land they call home.

In the words of a Hindu Mahasabha leader: “First, they would have to accept the Ramayana and Mahabharata as their epics and reject the Arabic and Persian classics. They would have to regard Ramchandra, Shivaji, and the classics and the Hindu gods Rama and Krishna as their heroes and condemn various Muslim historical figures as foreign invaders or traitors.

“The Muslims would also need to discard their Arabic names (Abdulla, Mohammed, Ibrahim) in favour of Hindu names such as Ram, Krishna, Hari etc. If the Muslims of India would accept the Hindu manner of dress, personal laws, and customs from birth to death, they could retain their own religion!”

The implication is clear: Hindu is the only acceptable Indian.

Tharoor, a PhD at 22 and author of over 20 books—both fiction and non-fiction—should know better. Perhaps he does, but he just can’t overcome his majoritarian bias.

His prejudice manifested again when he tweeted about Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Tejasvi Surya’s act of unabashed communalism at the peak of Covid-19 second wave in the country. Surya in May had singled out all 17 Muslim employees at a Covid-19 ward for alleged “widespread corruption” in bed allocation system of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP).

But Tharoor didn’t see the naked bigotry in Surya’s action. When he linked a news article, detailing the trauma suffered by the 17 employees—who were subsequently labelled “terrorists”, Tharoor termed his Lok Sabha colleague smart, passionate and talented, not fundamentalist, bigoted and communal.

“My young colleague @Tejasvi_Surya is smart, passionate & talented. But i urge him to avoid this kind of behaviour,” wrote the Thiruvananthapuram MP.

In his essay, After Nehru, historian Perry Anderson cuts to the essence of the problem with Indian secularism by calling it “Hindu confessionalism by another name”.

He writes: “At partition, most middle-class Muslims in Hindu-majority areas had emigrated to Pakistan, leaving a decapitated community of poorer co-religionaries behind. The great mass of those who remained in India thus started out in a very disadvantaged position. But what is transparent is that the Indian state which now claimed to cast an impartial mantle over them did no such thing. Discrimination began with the constitution itself, which accorded rights of representation to minorities that were denied to Muslims. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were granted special constituencies and seats in the Lok Sabha, subsequently also reservations in public employment, and in due course further Hindu groups—‘Other Backward Castes’—acquired the latter privilege too. But Muslims were refused both, on the grounds that conceding them would violate the precepts of secularism by introducing religion into matters of state. They were thereby denied any possibility of acting collectively to better their lot. If a Muslim party had possessed any proportionate share of national representation, its interests could never have been ignored in the coalition politics that have been the norm since Congress lost its monopoly of power. To add insult to injury, even where they were locally concentrated in sufficient numbers to make an electoral difference, these constituencies were not infrequently reserved for castes supposedly worse off than they, but actually better off. In mechanics such as these, Indian secularism is Hindu confessionalism by another name.”

Perhaps it’s not just opportunism but also the lack of ideological difference among a vast majority of Indian political parties that sees leaders from across the spectrum jumping ships. The BJP has been the biggest collector of turncoats since 2014 and those leading the exodus are from Tharoor’s own party. From veterans like SM Krishna and Narayan Rane to relatively younger ones like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada, the list of Congress leaders now in the BJP runs long.

Tharoor would be a natural fit if he were to drop the secular posturing and don the saffron colours.

Wasi Manazir is an independent writer.