Islamic Perspectives

Islamic identity in secular India - ii

The phrase ‘vote-bank politics; coined by the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party), the Hindutva Party is now used by all political parties. Every party has evolved combination of caste and religious groups to win electoral battles. The BJP itself has its upper and OBC caste groups and wins elections on that basis though it accuses Congress of indulging in vote-bank politics. It accuses the Congress of ‘appeasement of Muslims’ to get their votes at the cost of Hindus. Such accusations appeal to a section of Hindus who then vote for the BJP. 

Two events became quite significant in mid-eighties from point of view of Muslim and Hindu identity – the Shah Bano case and Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid movement. Shah Bano, a Muslim divorcee, claimed maintenance from her husband under a secular law Indian Criminal Procedure Section 125 according to which she could get maintenance until she re-marries or dies. She was 70 years old at the time of divorce. Her case was upheld even by the Supreme Court and she was awarded maintenance under the secular law.

Her husband, however, maintained that both of them being Muslim only shari’ah law will apply according to which his divorced wife was entitled to no more than 3 months maintenance callediddah period. He made the Muslim Personal Law Board a party but lost the case. The Muslim leaders, launched a huge agitation that Islam and Islamic identity is in danger in India unless the Government changes the law in order to reverse the Supreme Court judgment.

They brought hundreds of thousands of Muslims on street to agitate on the issue and ultimately forced the Rajiv Gandhi Government to change the law. A new law called Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce) law which provided for 3 months maintenance along with payment of ‘mata’ (which was one time substantial payment according to the Qur’anic verse 2:241).

This unleashed a highly charged and controversial public debate on meaning of secularism and religious identity[4] The Muslim leadership, in mutual competition for power and pushing themselves ahead in political significance, caused great harm to the interests of Muslim masses. The Hindu middle class convinced of the BJP propaganda that the Congress government ‘appeases’ Muslims to get their votes and they began to express their solidarity for the BJP.

This was nothing but reckless and totally irresponsible exploitation of Islamic identity in secular India which proved totally disastrous for the Muslim community and immensely benefited the right wing Hindu forces represented by what came to be known as the Sangh Parivar which consisted of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), BJP, VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and Bajrang Dal. The Sangh Parivar represented Hindu identity in secular India.

Rajiv Gandhi Government almost panicked at the strong reaction of not only Hindus but also of the well meaning secular forces by changing the Supreme Court verdict and, in order to display another bout of opportunism, the Rajiv Government not only opened the Babri Masjid doors which were closed for more than 40 years for Hindus to worship Ram, but also laid the foundation of Ramjanambhoomi Mandir in the same complex.

He thought he would ‘appease’ both Hindus and Muslims but such opportunism was taken cynically by both and Congress lost support of both the communities and ultimately lost the election in 1989. It was highly critical period for Indian secularism and competitive identity politics was destroying its very core in India. Both the Government as well as opposition led by the BJP were cynically destroying secular values.

Unfortunately in this cynical game of religious identity, the Congress was loser and BJP the gainer. There were several reasons for that. The Congress had won most of the elections through combination of Brahmin, Muslim and Dalit votes but so far had played this game in a very subtle manner retaining its secular face. Mrs. Gandhi, after Nehru, was very shrewd politician and brought her shrewdness as well as experience in subtle maneuvers of religious identity. Rajiv Gandhi had neither experience nor such shrewdness.

On top of it the desperate and unwise Muslim leadership created insurmountable problems for him. The BJP, on the other hand, desperate to win lost ground by adopting secularism and Gandhian socialism in 1977 and merging with the Janata Party, also threw all caution to the wind and began to exploit grossly religious and emotional issue and even gave a slogan “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain i.e. say with pride that we are Hindus and also raised the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (long live Shri Ram) and made it an expression of greeting for all BJP members. This had great emotional impact in highly charged atmosphere of polarized religious identities towards the end of eighties. 

Added to this were series of major communal riots like 1985 Ahmedabad riots, 1987 Meerut riots, 1989 Bhagalpur riots and in all these riots large number of Muslims were killed usually in the range of 200 to 800) which intimidated Muslims and made them worried about their very existence. The Hindu communalism was at its greatest offensive. This was followed by demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 th December 1992 followed by Bombay riots in which again more than 1000 Muslims were killed. Besides Mumbai communal violence broke out in Surat, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Bhopal and several other places.

The Muslim masses now understood the game their leaders were also playing and began to ignore their calls for identity politics. These leaders who had by using these religious controversies raised themselves to high political stature became suddenly marginalized and Muslim masses now became more assertive. Meanwhile the implementation of Mandal Commission Report by V.P. Singh Government in 1990 brought many OBC (other backward classes) leaders like Mulayamsingh Yadav of U.P., Laluprasad Yadav of Bihar and Kanshi Ram and Mayavati to the fore who shunned communal politics but asserted caste identities. Thus the OBC identity began to weaken upper caste communal politics indulged in by BJP and Muslims got an alternative to the Congress and BJP. This by itself was a great relief for Muslim masses.

Though OBC caste politics was also basically identity politics but much less dangerous than religious identity politics of BJP as far as minorities were concerned. For example, Bihar which was a communal tinderbox for long witnessed no communal riots after Laluprasad Yadav came to power with Yadav and Muslim votes. He became a challenge to the BJP communal politics.

Thus regional and caste based politics has become an effective counter to communal politics on which BJP or entire Sangh Parivar tries to thrive. In south also Telugu Desam Party, DMK of Karuna Nidhi and AIDMK of Jayalalitha, though enter into alliance with BJP at times, do not directly promote communal politics and in these regions Muslims prefer to vote for these regional parties. South has much less been communalized compared to north India. But now BJP has succeeded in entering Karnataka which it calls gateway to south.

Earlier for all terrorist attacks in India Muslims were blamed by the Sangh Parivar and large number of young Muslim boys were arrested by the police as suspected terrorists ruining their professional careers in most cases. The RSS even spread, through SMS, that though all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims. It was certainly not so. Now, after thorough investigation by some honest police officers it has been established that Hindutvawadis belonging to Abhinav Bharat and Hindu Sanatan Sanstha were involved in terror attacks on Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Dargahsharif, Malegaon in 2008 and also probably on Samjhota Express near Panipat going to Lahore. Further investigations are going on.

Due to arrests of innocent Muslim boys Muslims were feeling highly unsafe, most unsafe after Gujarat riots. There is apparent peace though one can hardly say how long this peace on the surface will last. It appears that people are not keen to respond to communal violence and BJP is undergoing serious political crisis.

It is facing internecine fights, groupism, and corruption scandal, charges of fake encounter deaths of Sohrabuddin, his wife and colleague Tulsiram Prajapati. The CBI has accused involvement of home minister of state Amit Shah and has arrested him. Also Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court is investigating role of Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi himself. Thus political credibility of BJP has been seriously eroded.

But in politics fortunes change quickly and unpredictably. Also, RSS is quite active in spreading communal propaganda and therefore, absence of communal violence, does not mean absence of communalism. People’s political attitude is moulded through communal propaganda and riots can erupt on petty issue as communal polarization exists in the society and is increasing day by day.

Much will depend on how Muslim leadership charters its political course. As pointed out above there are no leaders of all India stature who can inspire confidence among Muslims. The ulama or theologians are too conservative to lead Muslim masses in this complex political geography. They are more worried about dogmas and doctrines than safety, security and progress of Muslims in India.

Muslim masses are drowned in poverty and illiteracy. And in communal riots too, it is these poor Muslims who suffer the most. But in the last few elections it is these poor Muslims who have shown more wisdom in voting and defeating communal forces. Also in this complex web of casteism, communalism and regionalism it is secularism which gives hope for unity and co-existence. Not only minorities but a large number of majority Hindus also realize this and Islamic identity in secular India faces acute crisis in certain critical phases but also guarantees their safety and security as well as progress.

[1]. This tract written in Urdu has now been translated into English.
[2]. See for details Asghar Ali Engineer ed. Communal Riots in Post-Independence India (Sangam Books,1984) for communal riots in post-independence India; see also Asghar Ali Engineer Communal Riots After Independence – A Comprehensive Account (Shipra Publications, Delhi,2004)
[3]. See Maulana Azad who discussed these proclivities in his 30 pages published 30 years after his death in his book India Wins Freedom (Orient Longman)
[4]. See Asghar Ali Engineer ed. The Shah Bano Controversy (Orient Longman, Mumbai, 1986)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 April 2011 on page no. 28

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