The failure, and hope, of Muslim politics in India

Partition meant that the community's population was vastly reduced, impacting their political influence.

 |  6-minute read |   11-02-2018
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The recent Gujarat state elections were marked by the BJP and its supporters campaigning against Muslims, and the Congress avoiding the subject. The one candidate who did speak on this issue was Jignesh Mevani, an independent candidate supported by the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, fighting for a seat reserved for Dalits.

Weeks ago in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, as rioters disrupted a Republic Day hoisting of flags by Muslims and called them “Pakistanis”, the one legislator to raise the issue as one of fundamental rights was Asaduddin Owaisi, representing a regional party with one MP in the Lok Sabha. His ability to influence national politics is next to non-existent.

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The marginalisation of Muslims in national politics is almost complete. Their position is that of the eternal stuffed toy, to be vilified at will, with almost no legislator willing to speak of the fundamental right to life of more than 170 million people in the world’s largest democracy.

The virtual political disenfranchisement of Muslims in India is a corrosive problem, with potentially catastrophic impact on Indian democracy, but there are no Muslim political leaders of note to address this.

At such points, there is the usual lament about the fact that Muslims have not been able to produce a leader of the calibre of Abdul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister, and who was elected to the post of President of the Indian National Congress, on par with Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.

What these lamentations ignore is that Azad was a politician of pre-Partition India. The loss of the large Muslim population in Punjab and East Pakistan/Bangladesh meant that the national base of Muslim politics was vastly reduced after Independence.

The Muslims who would have voted for the Congress and a Congress Muslim – bear in mind that in the 1937 elections, the Congress won 25 of the 59 seats reserved for Muslims, including all 15 from the then-North West Frontier Province – were gone (the Unionist Party in undivided Punjab won 101 seats, almost on par with the Muslim League total of 106, and its base was largely the part now in Pakistan). They had to, and still do, navigate politics in different states.

With the loss of large mass bases, Partition meant that there was literally no state in the Indian Union where Muslims accounted for a majority, apart from Jammu & Kashmir. Given that J&K accounts for one per cent of the Indian population, and the role of Chief Minister of J&K has basically been reduced to asking, “How high?” when the Centre says, “Jump”, its impact on national politics is hardly worth considering.

In the rest of India, the chance of a Muslim party dominating a state, or even playing a major part in its politics, was doomed from the start. In the first-past-the-post elections that we have (we can see from Germany or South Africa that proportional representation better manages diverse polities), a candidate usually needs between 30 to 35 percent of the vote-share to win. There are almost no constituencies in India where Muslims have that much of the population, even if they were not factionalised among themselves to begin with.

Lastly is the issue of finance. After Partition, not only did Muslims no longer have a mass base, they lost many of their most prosperous community members, with only a very few of the elite remaining. These were deeply disconnected from the conditions and concerns of, and often in exploitative relationships with, their poorer brethren.

Today, if Muslims are found on the national landscape, their wealth is largely tied to the arts – and the attacks on people like Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan when they question anti-Muslim rhetoric or actions highlight exactly how precarious their position is, despite their fame or success.

Given these conditions, post-Independence Muslim politics has been dominated by two types of Muslims, the “sarkari mussalman”, who kowtowed to the ruling dispensation in return for a share of the spoils, or the “unlettered mullah”, who spoke of Muslim concerns as religious difference, as distinct from the national agenda.

In both these cases, what these politicians offered to the ruling parties is a vote base that they could energise, whether by patronage or polarisation. Neither offered an investment in the principles of the Constitution, in fundamental rights, in the life of the nation, in issues of poverty alleviation and sustainable development, in deepening democracy, and the importance of federalism and the identity of regions.

Why would they? They were in the business of being doorkeepers, and if doors were easily accessible to all, their own value would plummet.

This corrosive failure is most clearly seen in Kashmir, where Muslims have largely adopted a “nationalistic” line that is deeply at odds with Constitutional values. The cost of this has been that a political issue has been handled as a communal issue.

Today, as many of the same features of misgovernance in Kashmir find their way into the national agenda, Kashmiris snarkily comment to Muslims – who ignored these very same issues of the degradation of democracy, the gutting of institutions, of impunity and murder – that they have got what they deserved. And frankly, it is true.

Too busy fighting little turf wars to protect their “privilege” to serve the rulers, or in highlighting their difference from mainstream debates, Muslims have found themselves completely on the sidelines of democratic debate. In many ways, the failure of the elite is far greater than that of the mullahs.

Most of the community members who attend madarsas, or are trained as ulema, come from under-privileged families who have few options, and have not had the depth and breadth of education or experience to engage well with politics. The elite do not have this excuse.

If there is hope for Muslim leadership, it lies in the fact that the prosperity of the nation as a whole has allowed a wider educated middle class to emerge. While the Sachar Commission report highlighted the woeful socio-economic condition of Muslims, what should not be forgotten is that Indians as a whole are far better educated and living in better conditions than at the time of Independence.

As part of that progress, Muslims have benefited too, if not as much as others. This rising base of capable young men and women are the ones in the frontlines of the battle for Constitutional values, it is on their shoulders that the future of Muslim politics in India rests, and the future of India as a whole, because there is no good future with such a large part of the body politic going unrepresented.

Also read: Why men like Modi can't take Renuka Chowdhury's laughter

Writer

Omair Ahmad Omair Ahmad @omairtahmad

The writer is the South Asia editor of www.thethirdpole.net, reporting on water issues in the Himalayan region.

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