By Aditya Menon
New Delhi January 18, 2011
If there is one development that took place in 2010 that has the potential of significantly altering equations in Indian politics with reference to the Muslim community, it is the spectacular victory of the Nitish Kumar led National Democratic Alliance in the assembly elections in Bihar.
There are important lessons in Mr Kumar's victory for the Congress, as well as for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The support that Bihar's Muslims - who account for 16.4 per cent of the state's population - gave the NDA shows that forces like the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal cannot continue to take the 'Muslim vote' for granted by playing on the community's insecurities.
Moreover, the fact that the Muslim support wasn't restricted to the 'secular' Janata Dal (United), but also extended to the BJP, at least in some pockets, shows that the community as a whole may not consider the saffron party an untouchable.
While the Congress and the RJD tried to woo the community through the same old techniques of politics of identity and insecurity, Mr Kumar - through a number of small but innovative measures - addressed both the welfare and the selfrespect of the Muslims.
The state government reopened 27 cases related to the terrible Bhagalpur riots of 1989, in which over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed. One of the chief accused, Kamleshwar Yadav, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The chief minister appointed the NN Singh commission to probe the riots and the state government decided to provide a monthly pension of Rs 2500 to the riot victims.
Muslims have borne the brunt of most riots since Independence and the main complaint of the community has been that they have been denied justice in the aftermath of the violence. It is this perception that the Nitish Kumar government has successfully addressed - something that the RJD government did not do for all the years it was in power in spite of claiming to be the protector of Muslims.
Even in the Congress ruled Maharashtra, most of those accused of the 1993 riots went unpunished, in spite of the Srikrishna Commission report. The snub to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi - though symbolic - did touch a chord among the Muslims, not just in Bihar but outside the state as well.
For, the Congress has been unable to take on the Gujarat Chief Minister, who remains unapologetic for the 2002 pogrom. The Congress opposition in Gujarat has been inert for a long time now, but even the party's 'charismatic' general secretaries Rahul Gandhi and Digvijay Singh have been reluctant to take on Modi. In fact, the return of the Kosi flood money, and the cancellation of the state dinner by Mr Kumar, happen to be the only significant chastisement that Modi has received.
In addressing the backwardness of the Muslim community, successive Congress and Congress led governments at the Centre have adopted a hands- off approach. During the independence struggle, the party seems to have evolved an understanding with their Deobandi Ulema allies that the post- independence Indian state will not interfere in the social sphere of the Muslims and the community leaders, in turn, will keep religion away from politics.
While the arrangement did guarantee religious freedom, it prevented reform within the Muslim communities, as the state refused to interfere in their internal affairs and the Muslim leadership failed to represent the community's interests in state institutions.
Mr Kumar's policies appear to be a conscious break from this approach of the Congress. A case in point is the state government's scheme to provide Rs 10,000 to every Muslim woman who has been divorced or deserted. This sum might be too small to be of concrete help, but the effort is significant as it tries to promote the welfare of Muslim divorcees, while circumventing the vexed issue of personal law. It is a simple arrangement that the Congress government of the day could have considered in the Shah Bano case.
An interesting contrast between the approaches of the Congress and that of the Nitish government can be seen on the issue of Waqf land. Encroachment on land belonging to the Waqf board and the accompanying disputes are one of the major problems that the community faces across the country. The Bihar government has ordered the fencing of over 2000 Muslim burial grounds to prevent encroachment and land disputes that often lead to violent clashes.
In the recent controversial demolition of a mosque in Jangpura in South Delhi, the Congress' role was rather duplicitous. While the demolition was carried out by the Delhi Development Authority, which falls under the Union Urban Development Ministry, the local Congress MLA sought to gain political mileage out of the protests following the demolition. And, according to the Muslims, the land in question is Waqf land.
Nitish's most striking achievement is the creation of a new Muslim leadership in Bihar. The leaders of Bihar's Muslims are not the Ulema or even the token Muslim politicians at the top, but individuals who are proactively trying to work towards the state's development. One such person is Irfan Alam, who heads an NGO called the Samman Foundation which works with rickshaw- pullers in the state and helps them become financially independent by facilitating loans at easy rates. Abhayanand, a former IPS officer, though not a Muslim, is a mentor for the community as he runs Rahmani30 - an institute that coaches Muslim students for competitive examinations.
Nitish's policy of reservation for backward castes among the Muslims and his support for the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz has diluted the domination of identity oriented Ashraf ( upper caste) Muslim politics in the state. The fact that the controversial Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid was compelled to campaign during the Bihar elections in support of strongman Dadan Yadav, is said to be due to the fear of the eroding Ulema domination. The best example of this threat perception among the Ashraf Ulema was the letter written by Deobandi cleric Maulvi Anis- ur- Rahman Qasmi to Mr Kumar seeking the extension of reservation to the entire Muslim community.
The Congress has done precious little to implement the recommendations of the Sachar committee report, and the Ranganath Mishra commission. The equal opportunities commission and the proposal for affirmative action for Muslims have reached nowhere. The party must realise that they cannot take the community's support for granted, as they will be more than willing to move to a party that addresses their problems of injustice and underdevelopment better - as has been made amply clear by the Bihar poll results.
The attempt to resurrect the issue of Hemant Karkare's death is a clear attempt to again stoke insecurity among Muslims.
Karkare's contribution was undoubtedly significant. It is because of him that the almost inevitable harassment of Muslims by the police after any terror attack has been brought under control. Hindutva terror must be tackled head on and there are no two ways about it. But by doing so, the government will be doing its job, and not extending any favour to the Muslim community.
The Congress must understand that the Muslim community is undergoing change. Even the Deoband seminary has a new rector Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Wastanavi - who did not study at Deoband and also holds an MBA degree. The party needs to engage with the community more effectively rather than rely on token gestures.
The BJP, too, on its part must learn from the Bihar experience, that a more inclusive approach can be extremely beneficial at the hustings.
Source: India Today