(An edited version of this book review was published in Business Standard on August 1, 2019.)
The jacket of Salman Khurshid’s new book proclaims, “Visible Muslim, Invisible Citizen explains Islam to those non-Muslims who do not know enough about it, places the identity of the Indian Muslim in the context of Indian democracy, and deciphers the Muslim mind in social and political contexts, beyond theology.” Only a man with credentials as impressive as Khurshid’s could venture to write a book so ambitious in scope. He is an illustrious Muslim politician who has served the Government of India on multiple occasions, holding important portfolios such as External Affairs, Law and Justice, and Minority Affairs. He also runs the Zakir Husain Memorial Trust named after his maternal grandfather, who was not only the third President of India but also Vice Chancellor at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University.
Despite all that access and influence, Khurshid has churned out a book that offers nothing new, insightful or thought-provoking by way of historical analysis or a vision for the future. He comes off as an apologist for the Indian National Congress, the political party he owes allegiance to, and not as an enlightened commentator who can speak authoritatively on matters concerning the diversity of Muslim citizens who live in India. While addressing the possibility of a uniform civil code for India, which might conflict with Muslim personal law in relation to marriage and separation, he wonders if India is ready to legalize same-sex marriage following the lead of other countries. He does not take into account the fact that a significant number of young Muslims are now organizing around LGBTQ rights. These are Muslims who are negotiating with their faith on the one hand, and their sexual orientation or gender identity on the other, through democratic institutions. Their voices are absent from Khurshid’s book.
Khurshid engages with the question of citizenship only insofar as it concerns the equation between the individual and the state. He seems fairly uncritical of the role of patriarchy in determining how Muslims — women in particular — access their rights as citizens. The book makes a passing reference to the work of Bohra women who have begun to challenge the practice of female genital mutilation in their community. Khurshid frames this as an issue of faith versus claims of constitutional right to dignity, instead of clarifying his position on this issue or providing space to the perspectives of these women. They are actively resisting oppression, and creating spaces of solidarity for survivors. Khurshid refers to gender justice only while engaging with the triple talaq debate and, here too, he dismisses it as a ploy by the Bharatiya Janata Party to inflict injustice on Muslim men.
The fact that Muslims are more vulnerable to violence as a result of cow vigilantism, and the paranoia around the so-called love jihad, is well-documented. It is crucial to bear witness to what is happening right now under the watch of the BJP but it is shocking to see Khurshid use it as a ruse to cover up his party’s complicity in the Sikh genocide of 1984. He writes, “It was not easy to stifle the careers of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, both of whom retain considerable popularity, including among a section of Sikhs, despite decades of criminal proceedings and Commissions of Inquiry. The dogged pursuit by activists and the expectation of politically correct behaviour by party colleagues forcing conspicuous aloofness about them must have had a heavy impact on their morale.” He makes a connection between Indira Gandhi’s assassination and this genocide but conveniently omits any mention of Operation Blue Star.
Visible Muslim, Invisible Citizen appears half-hearted, insincere, and hastily written. It reproduces large chunks of material from Khurshid’s previously published writing, and also from newspaper columns written by various commentators. Instead of exploring policy mandates and civil society responses that would uphold the rule of law, improve socio-economic indicators for Muslims, and also address deeply entrenched societal prejudices, Khurshid ends up using this book as a platform to come clean on controversies that have got him into trouble with his own party members, fellow Muslims, or the media.
“Muslims constitute 14 per cent of the country’s population, but only 8 per cent of the police force. On the other hand, they represent 21 per cent of the total under-trials and 16 per cent of all convicted prisoners,” writes Khurshid. What are the structural barriers faced by Muslims who want to enter the police force? How can this situation be remedied? What kinds of offences are these people undergoing trial for? How can anti-discrimination training for the police force ensure that Muslims are not falsely implicated? Khurshid leaves us with the statistics but does not ask any of these questions even as he talks about Muslim men killed in fake encounters. The weakest part of this book, however, is the moment when Khurshid advocates for the urgency to modernize Islam, and the model he comes up with is Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.