A Framework of Muslim Participation in National Politics
By Syed Shahabuddin
Milli Gazette Online
30 May 2006
Over the years the concept of secularism has been eroded or drained out of substance. Every political party claims to be secular and not one party has remained true to its secular professions in practice specially in the election season, when they are often identified as secular or communal.
In the national context, 80% of the people call themselves Hindu, though Hinduism remains undefined; the biggest religious minority are the Muslims with about 13.4% of the national population. The other religious minorities which matter are the Sikhs (1.9%) and the Christians (2.3%) apart from the other recognized religious groups namely, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis who form just about 1.8% of the total. Buddhists and Jains have been over the years assimilated in the Hindu order and through some brave efforts is being made by them to project their separate religious identity, socially they remain part and parcel of the Hindu society. Hence, in the final analysis the litmus test of secularism for political parties is their approach and behaviour towards the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Christians.
The Christians have no political party but they are well-organized under different Churches. The Catholic Church through its nationwide hierarchy is particularly effective in Jharkhand and Kerala and lays down the political line for the laity. The Catholic Bishop’s Council of India keeps itself well-informed on all political developments. Then there is the All India Christian Council which brings all churches under its umbrella. In any case the Christians are numerically substantial (above 1.05 million or 5%) only in a few states. In Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, AP, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu their numbers are small but they form the majority. The other States in which they are a political factor are Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Kerala and Goa.
In general elections, the Sikhs are a factor in the Sikh majority (60%) Punjab where 76% of the Sikhs live. Punjab is the stronghold of Sikhism as well as of Sikh politics. Its legitimacy accepted by all political parties including the Congress which is the only national party often pitted against the Akali Dal, the representative political party of the Sikhs which controls the management of the Gurudwaras through the Gurudwara Prabandhak Committees and of the Akal Takht, the supreme religious authority of the community. Technically, Akali Dal can be said to be a ‘communal’ party. But all parties vie for its favours, ignore Sikh religious practices and have at one time or other allied with it just as the Congress accepts the legitimacy of the IUML in Kerala.
Muslims are the only pan-Indian community and more than that, has always been viewed through the prism of history an adversary. The Muslims have the numbers, a historical memory and political experience but they are dispersed territorially with only 11 Muslim majority seats in the Lok Sabha. They are handicapped by the First Past the Post System and have never secured due representation in the Parliament or any Assembly. They also lack organization. Unlike the major Hindu caste groups they have failed to organize one or more Muslim-core secular political parties which can communicate not only with the Muslim masses but with all the deprived sections of the Hindu community. After the passage of 50 years, particularly since 1971, their political objective stand clearly defined - not to restore Muslim dominance but to share in governance in order to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The IUML in Kerala and the AIMIM in AP are not the models, because they are limited to a few districts. Their models are the Yadavs-controlled parties in Bihar and UP, the Ezavha dominated CPI(M) in Kerala, the Chamar-core BSP in UP.
But Muslims have one advantage! In the final analysis, secularism is the fundamental principle of the polity in the secular character of any party is judged, by its friends and enemies alike, on the basis of its interaction with the Muslim community. The Muslim community has many burdens to carry: the burden of history, the burden of Partition, the burden of ‘aspiration’ to restore Muslim rule. It is the constant target of Hindu chauvinism, it has been vilified, its history has been distorted, its religious leaders have been demonized, it is constantly attacked in public discourse, in the mass media, even in textbooks, accused of nursing sympathy for Pakistan, indeed it is sub-consciously treated as Pakistan’s fifth column in India. Its religious seminaries are seen as nurseries for terrorism and its Masjids and musafirkhanas, as shelter for the ISI agents and its mahallas, as breeding ground for anti-national elements. It is said to lack patriotism in full measure.
It is not prepared to merge its identity with the Hindus or even to place its national identity above its religious identity, it is said to be averse to modernization. In one word, it is targetted from all possible angles. Yet all parties constantly seek its vote in election and come up with many ideas or suggestions or proposals likely to impress it as keys to the kingdom. A party was considered ‘secular’ if it had better wares to offer or adopted the right sales pitch while its opponents accused it of ‘appeasement’ and practising ‘pseudo-secularism’. A party which did not find favour with the Muslim community was generally dubbed as communal. The trouble lies in that any social or economic programme, even a political strategy, is always analyzed in terms of a zero sum game between Hindus and Muslims!
The essential difference between secular and communal parties in the Indian context boils down to parties which want Muslim votes and those which do not really care, because either they are confident of securing adequate support through Hindu consolidation or know that in any case the Muslim voters will not look at them.
However, because of fragmentation of votes on ideology or in the name of caste or ethnic identity, the Hindutva flagship the BJP – the political front set up by the RSS and supported by the VHP – hit a plateau. After a spectacular rise in national vote from about 7.5% in 1980 to nearly 25% in 1999, it realized that it needed Muslim support not so much to fill up the gap of 5% which separated them from power but to secure the support of the secular voters among the Hindus who with the fall in the fortunes of the Congress were sitting on the fence. The BJP felt that if the Muslims visibly turned to the BJP that would ‘prove’ its secular credentials and the fence-sitters would jump to their side. So the BJP also began to sing the secular tune, and admit a few chosen Muslims in its party structure or list of candidates for legislatures.
But the BJP has failed to understand that masks do not help beyond a point, nor does rhetoric. The Muslim voters continue to perceive it as the political enemy because it is not prepared to change its basic ideology or character. For the elite, the BJP translates Hindutva into Cultural Nationalism but its objective remains the same: assimilation of Muslims in the Hindu Order and extinction of its religious identity. Its historic view has always been that Islam is a foreign element which has not been assimilated and needs to be absorbed in the Hindu order and the Muslim Indians have to look upon Mother India as a deity, adopt the Hindu way of life, forsake their religious identity and do away with their separate personal law, and forget their mother tongue if it is Urdu, ‘merge with the mainstream’, forget that they constitute a separate social group or a minority with constitutionally defined and guaranteed and internationally recognized rights, stop demanding their due share in the benefits of development or clamour for their place in the national economy or representation in legislatures, government, services or administration, army or police, leave themselves to the play of the ‘merit’ principle or the generosity of the Hindu community. In a slightly different accent, this has been the theme song of Hindu communalism which on one hand sees the Muslims as a creature apart, as the ‘Other’ and at the same time refuses to accept the logic of ‘Otherness’ in terms of rights and concessions. Its strategy is to steadily erode the identity of the Muslim Indians and create, over a period of time, political, economic, social and cultural dispensation and environment which would weaken their resistance to the process of absorption and, finally, lead to their total absorption in keeping with the historic track record of Hinduism.
It is this perception of the objectives of Hindu politics which has damned the BJP – the political front of the RSS – in the eyes of the Muslims as the avante garde of Hindutva, as the political party which refuses to recognize their identity as a religious minority, which indeed denies the existence of ‘religious minorities’ and asserts that the Hindus are the real Indians and Muslims are Indian first and that Islam is but a ‘panth" of Sanatan Dharma, the eternal Hindu religion, and which, while generously granting them the freedom to worship in their own way, preferably in private, is not prepared to recognize their political, economic, educational or cultural rights. The long-term strategy to unify India as Hindu Rashtra is to Hinduise the Adivasis (ST), confine the Achhuts (SC) within the Hindu fold, consolidate the hold on the Shudras through Sanskritization and by granting them a modicum of political and economic power absorb the Sikhs, the Buddhists and the Jains and, above all, to maintain the hegemony of the Savarnas in the Neo-Hindu Order with the Brahmins laying down policies and guidelines, the Kshatyas detailing political strategies and defending the faith and the Vaishyas acting as the keepers of the keys and managers of the house. This is Neo-Brahminism which aspires to take control of the destiny of Bharat Varsha. After Hindu consolidation in India, i.e. after marginalising and putting Muslims and Christians in their place, the Hindutva forces shall make a bid to unify the sub-continent – the Greater India – from Afghanistan to Myanmar – undo the Partition and restore the boundaries of 1947 or create a federation in which India through the Hindu nation shall exercise hegemony and will be acknowledged by the international community as the Regional Power and, therefore, one of the poles of a multipolar world.
It is this aspiration – howsoever distant in time which provides the meeting point of Indian Nationalism and Hindu Nationalism and explains the phenomenal progress of Hindu Communalism in secular India at the mass level. Hindu masses, in their outlook and approach, conscious of religious diversity within the Hindu community, are basically tolerant of other religions and denominations as but other convergent paths to the divine and, therefore, essentially committed to social co-existence and, therefore, they are secular.
All political parties define Indian secularism in terms of tolerance of religious diversity. But their concept of religious tolerance unfortunately does not translate into political equality or equality of economic opportunity and social justice for all sections of the national community.
In a modern democracy all self-conscious and identifiable groups inhabiting a defined territory are equally entitled to participate in governance and administration. They have the democratic right to demand their due place and reasonable share in assets and resources of the society. Some sections of the national community naturally consist of numerically small groups, call them minorities, because their religion or language or race or caste or place of origin is different from the majority at the level of enumeration. In a country of continental dimension, there are minorities at every level. Today because of social resurgence, no party is truly national or representative of all sections of the people, the communities or sub-communities, the caste, the sub-castes, the group or sub-groups, and each party has a well-defined social constituency. While paying lip service to equality of all citizens, it always ignores such sections which are not likely to vote for it, sometimes it does not even acknowledge their existence and leaves them out of its calculations if they belong to the adversary camp or are numerically too weak to matter. So, while glorifying secularism and justice, tolerance and non-violence, most parties are concerned not with the common good but with the consolidation of their existing social core or their political vote banks.
What does it boil down to for Muslim? No party can be trusted as a permanent friend though it may occasionally sympathize with or offer a kind word of solace and sympathy to the Muslims. Generally the parties for fear of losing ‘Hindu’ support are silent even at critical points on problems faced by the Muslim community. But they are not all ‘enemies’, all the time and everywhere. After all, given the present electoral system Muslims are important in States and Union Territories in which they constitute about 10% of the population. In others, they are too few or too scattered to matter even at the district or constituency level. Sometimes they form a critical factor in the equation of power, they are sought out with promises and resources.
On the other hand, there is social symbiosis among the Muslim Indians, wherever they live; faith binds them to each other. Indeed they have a pan-Indian consciousness, apart from and beyond their ‘baradari’ or tribal identities, their sect or denomination, their class, occupation or profession. They readily empathize with each other in distress and when targetted by chauvinist or communal forces anywhere in the country. The national parties with ambition to form the government at the Centre and in as many States as possible or at least to lead the governing coalition, think of securing support throughout the country, if they want to maximize their seats in the Parliament and in the Assemblies where they see a potential climb to power and thus project a secular image for the benefit of the Muslim voters.
The Muslim community is not in a position to change the rules of the game of politics. It cannot afford to ignore the game either. But it need not commit itself in perpetuity to any political party which claims to be secular, all over the country or even in all constituencies. It has of late been experimenting with electoral options and is beginning to master the electoral strategy to extend its support selectively constituency-wise to a given party, depending upon a number of relevant factors – its historical character, its social base and its traditional relation with Muslims, the place of Muslims in its structure and of Muslim problem in its agenda and manifesto, its record in office and in legislatures, the capacity, reputation and antecedents of its candidates and, above all, its winnability with and without the Muslim votes, the general appeal of the candidate, if Muslim, to various sub-sections of the Muslim community.
Muslims will be totally powerless if they opt out of the political process. They will be equally powerless if they adopt communal politics. But they have also become powerless by becoming the sole champion and guardian of secular politics, while the political environment has becoming increasingly communalized, forcing even genuinely secular parties to compete with the BJP for winning Hindu support.
After 60 years of secular vs communal politics, perhaps it is time to have a fresh look and devise a new paradigm. All that can be said at this stage is that the Muslim community should not shut the doors of dialogue during inter-election period in the face of any party which has the potential to form the government at the Central or State level. Such a dialogue cannot be useful in the context of an election on the horizon. That will be an exercise in opportunism and cannot produce a change of heart or even a sincere reconsideration by a party of its stand on any matter of Muslim concern. Such a dialogue should be part of a larger inter-community dialogue, built on Muslim recognition of the Hindu roots of Indian culture, the Hindu dimension of Indian Nationalism and the Hindu recognition of the religious identity of the Muslim community with natural linkages with the Muslim world and the realization that they do not jeopardise national interests, and the conviction of both sides that the recognition of the rights and interests of Muslims as a minority group and Hindu-Muslim understanding are the conditions precedent for accelerating the tempo of national development and for their common mother land reaching the pinnacle of glory.
(This article was written on 12 April, 2006 )