By Irfan Engineer
Quite a few Muslim dominated and Muslim led political parties have emerged in India in about last decade or so. In 2005, AIUDF led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal was founded in Assam, in 2007, Mufti Ismail formed a Muslim led front in Malegaon and got substantial number of MLAs elected. Peace Party was formed in 2008 by a surgeon Mohammed Ayub in UP. In 2009, The Popular Front of India launched its political front – Social Democratic Party of India under the presidentship of A. Saeed. In his presidential address, Abubacker said SDPI wanted to unite Muslims to make them a force to reckon with. In April 2011, Welfare Party of India was launched by Jamat-e-Islami about seven decades after its mentor Maulana Abu Ala Maududi adviced Muslims to be apolitical and passively accept India as Hindu Rashtra. The founding president of Welfare Party was Mujtaba Farooq and the present president is SQR Ilyas. This is besides the recent forays of MIM into Maharashtra where it won 2 in Assembly constituencies.
In a democracy, specific interest groups have the liberty to participate in democratic processes to struggle for their fair share, to influence government’s policies and to defend and advocate their interests, provided they are within the Constitutional framework. There have been quite a few parties that represent interests of specific community or caste for all practical purposes and there hasn’t been a hue and cry about such parties, e.g., the parties that specifically represent the interests of the dalits – the Lok Jan Shakti Party led by Ram Vilas Paswan, Republican Party of India in Maharashtra, the Justice Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (initially at least); caste based parties like the Apna Dal representing the kurmies, regional parties representing the interests of the son of soil – the Dravidian Parties in the South, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and even parties that represent the interests of one religious community – the Akali Dal e.g. However, media in particular and people from non-Muslim communities in general get alarmed if Muslim led and dominated parties are formed or succeed in mobilizing electoral support. The Hindu nationalist have constantly dinned into our consciousness that Muslims are separatists, terrorists and communal. There is a suspicion that any political party led and dominated by Muslims would ultimately lead to a second partition of the country, and in any case, it is communal to advance the interest of Muslim community.
Identity politics can be oppressive, hegemonic and exclusionary to strengthen hierarchies and hierarchical structures, to defend the privileges of the social, political and economic elite. On the other hand, the excluded and the oppressed minority communities demanding equality and equity, socio-economic and political justice, mobilizing for inclusion, also respond by mobilizing on the basis of identity of the excluded. Identity politics can therefore be either hegemonic or democratic. The hegemonic identity politics often resorts to the language of nationalism, natural rights of a superior race or community, son of the soil, rights of original inhabitants vis-a-vis the migrants and demand/defend disproportionately large share in the national, social, educational and economic resources and structures of power, institutions, state apparatus and authorities. The Hindu nationalists in India use the discourse of younger brother (minorities) being obliged to serve the elder brother (majority community posing as nationalists). Democratic identity politics on the other hand seeks inclusion, demands due share in resources and structures of power and authorities and secure religio-cultural space. Democratic identity politics struggles to transform the state and make it responsive and accommodative to the demands of a multicultural society without essentializing the group identity, giving space to individuals within the identity groups to dissent, question, evolve, transgress and transform identities. For example the dalit and adivasi identity politics that questions oppressive socio-cultural, political and economic structures and instruments of discrimination not only for self or one’s caste and communities but in order to create just political order for all sections, including dalit women and the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of the working people.
MIM’s identity politics
MIM’s, and SDPI’s political programme would belong to the former category of identity politics – hegemonic. Though MIM’s media discourse appears to be resisting identity politics of the dominant majority community and therefore positions itself as democratic, it in fact is hegemonic as it essentializes Muslim identity. MIM’s objective is to infuse communal consciousness among the Muslim community and convert a religious community into a political community and be its political representative. It propounds political unity of the community in the basis of express differences and even feeling of superiority over “others”. MIM’s proposition is to unite Muslims and to flex community’s muscles. In order to unite this culturally, linguistically, ethnically diverse community divided on sectarian lines, MIM invokes the glorious past of the Muslim community and constantly construct revered symbols which can emotionally appeal, and mobilize the community around it. Sharia’h, the Holy Quran, the Prophet of Islam, Urdu language are a few symbols exploited by MIM in the past. Babri Masjid was one such symbol profitably exploited by it in the late 1980s and early 1990s. MIM goons even attacked a meeting being addressed by Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad. It has always demanded that visas to Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie be denied and their books be banned. A case has also been filed on Akbaruddin Owaisi for a hate speech delivered targeting non-Muslim communities where they are in a non-dominant position.
MIM has done pretty little to defend the human rights of Muslim youth incarcerated under patently false accusations of being terrorists, including those arrested for bomb blast in Mecca Masjid. The civil society groups for human rights fought doggedly and forced the AP Govt. to admit on the floor of the Assembly that there was no evidence of involvement of incarcerated youth in Mecca Masjid bomb blasts. After the hard advocacy for the youth, MIM was ready to reap political mileage by arranging for bail petitions for the incarcerated youth.
MIM’s growth and expansion is both – a response to and pretext for rise of Hindu nationalists. MIM positions before the Muslim community that it and it alone would be able to meet the challenge posed by the Hindu nationalists, however, in reality it ends up fueling to their growth. The Hindu nationalists are overwhelmed with the entry of MIM in the elections to be held for Delhi Legislative Assembly. Even if MIM polls a few Muslim votes of the alienated and aspiring youth, it would contribute to the defeat of AAP party candidates. Therefore there is speculation in the air that MIM has entered the electoral battlefield on BJP’s bidding.
Votes casted by a significant section of Muslims in favour MIM in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly elections was a response to the communal polarization along with rise of BJP and the campaign against the so called “love jihad” by Yogi Adityanath – the campaign manager of the BJP during the bye-elections in 11 assembly constituencies in 2014; demonization of the madrasas by another BJP MP – Sakshi Maharaj – to be dens of terrorism and even by BJP Minister Maneka Gandhi who during election campaign for bye-elections in Rajasthan stated that profits earned from cow slaughter were being utilized for terrorism. A campaign was also taken up against loudspeakers on mosques and deliberate playing of music during namaz in front of the mosques in Kanth, near Moradabad are other examples of incessant demonization of the community after the victory of the BJP in the 16th Lok Sabha elections. Attempt was also made to celebrate birth anniversary of Raja Mahendra Pratap on the Aligarh University Campus to pander to the Jat sentiments and intensify tensions. Demonization of the community is also coupled with show of political muscles by the Hindu nationalists and punctuated by violence in Trilokpuri (Delhi), Ahmedabad, Vadodra, Somnath (all in Gujarat). During the entire demonization campaign, none of the “secular” parties effectively countered it. The community did not have too had little reassurance from any credible source.
In the context of marginalization, heightened threat perception and feeling of vulnerability, MIM’s proposition of uniting the Muslims and to flex community’s muscles was received sympathetically by a section of the community. The MIM’s political strategy has been to unite Muslim voters and make them vote en block while the non-Muslim voters are politically divided. In order to unite the Muslim voters, the MIM has to convince the voters that only a Muslim could truly represent their interests and political aspiration and secondly, they are the representatives of Muslims. It reminds us of Jinnah’s claim of being the sole spokesperson of the community. During the MIM’s election campaign for Maharashtra Assembly in Aurangabad and other places, the Owaisi brothers positioned themselves as being “fearless” and not afraid of any consequences and any force. They projected the injustice being done on the community and also invoked the past when they were the rulers, impressed upon their audience that they could rise to the occasion if they united and voted for MIM. However the strategy is basically flawed, except that it would help MIM win a seat or two outside Telangana and that is the limited aim of MIM. Posturing to be militant, MIM aims to occupy the political space by marginalizing other Muslim dominated and led parties. However, they can do so only in constituencies where Muslims constitute not less than 35% of the population. Only in such constituencies can a Muslim dominated and led party have a reasonable chance of winning. To overcome the fact that there are only 19 districts with more than 50% Muslim population, the MIM has been strategizing to forge a social alliance with dalits. However, that is an old and failed social alliance first propounded by Haji Mastan – a gangster turned politician when he formed Dalit Muslim Suraksha Mahasangh in 1985. He could not win a single election and forfeited deposits. MIM always rouses Muslim sentiments but has not been known to take publicly cause of discrimination and oppression of dalits inside or outside the Parliament. Naturally, dalits would not subscribe to such an alliance when they have their leaders addressing their issues in a far better manner.
According to 2001 census, there are 25 districts with more than one million Muslims. The largest was Murshidabad (3.7 million) followed by Malappuram and South and North Twenty-Four Paraganas. All the three most Muslim populated districts are outside the cow-belt. Only 9 out of 593 districts of India could be considered as predominantly Muslim with over 75% population. These include Lakshadweep and 8 districts of J & K. In 11 disctricts, Muslims are between 50% to 75% of the population – six of these are in Assam, two from J & K and one each from Kerala, Bihar and West Bengal. There are 38 districts with Muslim population proportion ranging from 25% to 50% – 12 districts in UP, 5 in WB and Kerala each, 4 in Assam, 3 in Bihar, 2 in Jharkhand, two in Delhi and one each in AP, Haryana, J & K, Uttaranchal and Pondicherry. In 182 districts, proportion of Muslim population was between 10% and 25%. Muslim population in these 182 districts accounts for 47% of total Muslim population and 65% of Muslims live in districts where their population is less than 25%.
In the districts with Muslims between 10% and 25%, they can influence (not determine) the electoral outcome on their own strength only if degree of communal consciousness is high, which rarely is the case, and if non-Muslims are hopelessly divided along caste, cultural and political party lines. That means, for the 47% of Muslim votes to be casted with communal consciousness, they would have to align with a section of non-Muslims and vote tactically en block. Muslims are more likely to vote en block and tactically when they are 10% to 25% of the voters and when they perceive challenges to their security . In the constituencies where they are more than 50%, the reverse may happen, i.e., Muslim votes get divided as more than one political party seriously contending for Muslim votes tend to nominate Muslim candidates from the constituency and, non-Muslims may vote en block and tactically to assert themselves. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, for example, BJP’s Nepal Singh won from Rampur constituency with 51% Muslim population according to 2011 census. While the degree of polarisation along religious lines was high due to recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, the BJP could mobilize votes from across castes. Muslims were divided between Samajwadi Party candidate Naseer Ahmad Khan, INC’s candidate Nawab Kazim Ali Khan and BSP’s candidate Akbar Husain.
Congress candidate from Sahranpur Imran Masood tried polarizing the electorate by proclaiming, “There are only 4% Muslims in Gujarat. There are 42% Muslims here. If he (BJP’s Prime Ministerial Candidate – Narendra Modi) tries to convert this into Gujarat, then we will chop him.” (of course his claims to population figures are questionable). Partly this seems to the reason for the lowest representation of Muslims in Parliament. Take e.g. Aligarh. With 40% Muslim population, Muslims voting en block and division of Hindu votes should have ensured victory of a Muslim candidate. However, Muslim candidate of Samajwadi Party – Zafar Alam – came third after BSP’s Dr. Arvind Kumar Singh (with 2,27,886 votes and BJP’s Satish Kumar Goutam (with 5,14,622 votes). It is the Muslim votes that got divided while BJP’s strategy of communally polarizing and making Hindus vote en block succeeded with rumours being spread on the day of polling that all Muslims were queuing up to elect Zafar Alam. In Moradabad with 45.5% Muslim population, BJP’s Kunwar Sarvesh Singh won polling 4,85,224 votes with Dr. S T Hasan of SP polling 3,97,720 votes. In Bhiwandi with more than 35% Muslim population, Kapil Moreshwar Patil of BJP won polling 4,11,070 votes followed by runner up Vishwanath Ramchandra Patil of Congress polling 3,01,620 votes and Ansari Mumtaz Abdul Sattar polling highest number of votes among Muslims -14,068. Subramaiam Swamy admitted in his interview that BJP’s strategy was to split Muslim votes on sectarian lines and consolidate Hindu votes.
Muslims do not need polarization, they want democratic representation of their interests and contribute to nation building without essentializing their community based identity. Polarization and any efforts to construct Muslim vote banks in fact reduces their representation as is evident from both Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Legislative elections. What we need is politics to be based on social justice where the marginalized come together to transform the state to make it more accountable and human rights compliant. We do not need communal consciousness, we need cultural ethos of equality, liberty and justice which is need of all the marginalized – religious minorities, linguistic minorities, dalits, adivasis, women and working people.
Irfan Engineer, writer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism.Irfan Engineer, writer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism