The Myth of Muslim votebank

By Shahid Siddiqui

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The myth of Muslim votebank, although denied by all sociologists and debunked by most of the respectable sephologists refuses to die. It reasserts itself with new vigour at every election. Even those, who know that it is just a figment of their imagination, can’t resist the temptation of laying the foundation of their arguments on this very convenient tool. Like everything else about Muslims, it helps in categorizing them, labelling them and putting them into convenient brackets. It was done in India to explain the political behaviour of Muslims across regional, linguistic, caste, class and social divide. Today it is done globally to explain away any inconvenient behaviour of Muslims, no matter how different they are from each other. The behaviour of Muslims is easily explained away whether they are Thai, Chechen, Palestinian or European, with the same convenient arguments, blaming everything on their faith and beliefs. It is always such a smooth open and shut case, where you know the crime, the culprit, the cause, the evidence and the punishment.

The idea of a Muslim vote bank is also such an all-purpose tool which explains away all their political behaviour. The idea that there is something called “Muslim votebank”, which, behaves uniformly across the board, suites both Muslim leadership and the right wing Hindu analysts. Muslim leaders can bargain with political parties on behalf of this vote which can be delivered if the right price is paid to any buyer. 

It also strengthens the bargaining power of these Muslim middlemen, who claim to herd them in any direction they want. It suits the communal Hindu organizations as they can easily play on the threat posed by this “vote bank” to manufacture their own “Hindu votebank”, and herd it into any direction they want. It suits the “Secular parties”, because they are able to claim that this so-called “Muslim Vote” is safe and secure in their “banks”, which they may “cash” at any convenient political moment .They also claim that since they have this vote in their pockets, they can claim to be the saviours of the minorities and hence require no more proof for their secular credentials.

This idea of a “MVB” also suites the overnight “experts” and 24x7 analysts on our TV screens. They are able to explain away the political behaviour of “Muslims” neatly packaged and distributed along the political divide to prove the conclusions they have already arrived at. So this MVB is such a wonderful tool that nobody wants to let it go, knowing fully well that it is too crude and simplistic.

I know my assertions will be criticized or disliked both by Muslim and Hindu communalists as they will explode the myth on which they have built the edifice of their arguments.

Muslim ulama refuse to accept the ground reality of Islam in India, which is as much mired into caste divisions as any other Indian religion. Muslim society is as divided as Hindu society along the caste and regional lines. Caste is such a formidable Indian/Hindu institution that Islam, Christianity, Marxism, rationalism, modernism all have floundered and surrendered on its shores. Islam became acceptable in medieval Indian society as a caste group and not as a religious group. Mughal, Pathan, Turk, Sheikh, Syed were regarded as sub-castes, and all other Indian converts to Islam were accepted very conveniently as outcastes. It suited those Turk/Pathan/Mughal rulers to be treated as caste and not purely religious groups by other ruling castes of India.

Anyone, who has basic knowledge of Western U.P. Muslim society, knows that there are castes like Jhojhas, Ranghar and Gharhas which are peculiar to Muslims of this area. Then you have all the Hindu caste divisions like Muslim Rajput, Mode Jaat (Muslim Jat), Khatri Musalman, Gujjar Muslims, Tiyagi Muslims, Teli Musalman etc. etc. You have Ansari, Qureshi, Rayani, Sulemani, Saifi,who are as divided socially as any other caste  group. Apart from this, Muslims have Shia/Sunni division, Deobandi/Baralevi divide and a dozen other divisions on the bases of various schools of thought. Before independence these divisions were not as sharp as they are today. The most important issue then was the fight against the common enemy: the British. However, as electoral politics took roots after independence, the caste and sub-caste divisions became sharper. The easiest and fastest way of becoming a political leader, with some bargaining power, was to raise the slogan of your caste or sub-group getting step-motherly treatment.

Caste divisions in Muslim society were never as sharp or as rigid as they are in Hindu society. However, with the advent of democracy they became distinct political groups, especially since the Mandalisation of North Indian politics. Today, Muslims in rural India do not vote as a single religious group. Their caste rivalries are so strong that if, for example, Qureshis vote for one party the Ansaris will vote for another. It won’t really matter whether the candidate is a Muslim or a Hindu.

 Yes, there emerges from time to time a “Muslim vote”, though temporarily, when the community faces a common threat like the “Ram Mandir” movement of the Sangh privar, or a very major riot as in Gujarat, Meerut or Bhagalpur. In fact it is BJP, which by raising the bogey of the Muslim votebank, turns this fragmented vote into a political entity. Muslim leaders had to raise the bogey of “Islam/Muslims in danger”, whether real or perceived, in order to unite them under one banner. Muslim vote for Congress, Samajwadi Party, or RJD, is never 100%. Before Independence, even Muslim League could never get more then 50% of the Muslim vote in U.P. So when analysts talk of Muslims voting for this party or that as if they have no mind of their own and are swayed by one fatwa or the other, then they are often off the mark. Muslims voting behaviour is as varied as that of any other religious group, based on their socio-economic, rural-urban, caste-religion divide.

In the last 40 years of my active journalistic life I have always been asked this question by my friends from the media: “What will be the impact of Bangladesh or an India-Pak war or the situation in Iran or a Saddam Husain death or Salman Rushdie on Muslim voting behaviour?” My reply has always been that these issues do influence the minds of a section of Muslims but they do not influence their voting behaviour. They voted for Mrs. Gandhi in spite of her being responsible for the break up of Pakistan. They voted for Janta Dal in 1977 in spite of the presence of Jana Sangh in that camp. They went along with V.P. Singh inspite of his association with the BJP. They voted by and large with Left Front in West Bengal but moved towards Mamta as the general mood changed in that state.

The point I am making is that Muslims don’t generally vote against the trend in their state. Even when they vote for a particular party it is never cent per cent. The media and analysts should stop looking at Muslim voters from the prism of a “votebank” and start treating them as individuals and groups. The subconscious contempt which we have for the “other”, leads us to believe that they, unlike us, behave irrationally, as a herd led by their fanatic leaders.

I know that the myth of a Muslim votebank is so convenient that inspite of all the protests and denials, they will go on using this tool to explain their political behaviour in this season of elections. However, for a better understanding of Indian politics we must try to get out of this syndrome as soon as we can.

The writer is editor of Nai Duniya Urdu weekly

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-29 February 2012 on page no. 1

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