By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
26 March 2021
With elections round the corner in West Bengal and Assam, the talk of Muslim ‘communalism’ has gained ground. Both these states have sizable Muslim population and it would be expected that Muslims would leverage their numbers to bargain and benefit from state policies. Instead, both these states have very low indices of Muslim educational and economic development. The vast majority of Muslims in both these states remain tied to the land with little or no educational capital. Partly, the problem has been the lack of political representation of the community. Different political parties have treated Muslim constituencies as their ‘pocket boroughs’ and have taken their votes for granted. The Congress and the Left, both benefitted from Muslim insecurity: the community thought that in return for their votes, at least they will be allowed to live in peace and security. Despite being in substantial numbers, Muslims never lobbied for any affirmative action plan to be specifically targeted at them. ‘Muslim’ representatives within different parties thought more in terms of their party interest rather than the interest of the community.
It is interesting therefore that both these states are experimenting with Muslim political formations. The AIUDF in Assam has an older presence than the newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) in West Bengal, but both have arisen out of a deep realization that without Muslims representing themselves, their social, educational and economic development will remain just a dream. The idea is that Muslims can leverage their numbers and bargain from political parties for programs especially targeted at the community. There is now a greater realization that so called secular parties have duped the Muslims; that in the name of protecting their lives, these parties have hardly done anything for Muslim empowerment.
This new assertiveness within Indian Muslims has caught many on the wrong foot. As expected, the BJP has charged these political formations with communalism and separatism. For a party which does not shy away from proclaiming itself to be a Hindu party, it is rather rich on its part to call these Muslim formations as communal. It must not be lost that Muslim political solidarity is happening because the community is so backward and under-developed. These political formations are not otherizing the Hindu community. At many places, parties like the ISF have given tickets to Hindus but the same cannot be said about the BJP which is systematically making Muslims into enemy of the Hindus.
Many progressive and so-called secular parties are also uncomfortable with such emerging Muslimpolitical platforms. After being called out for its alliance with the AIUDF, the Congress party clarified that they have drawn a laxmanrekha (lit. a boundary) beyond which the Muslim party cannot venture. The import of this statement was clear: that Ajmal’s AIUDF has all the potential to become communal and separatist, but the Congress was there to put a check on any such tendency. Such is the sorry state of affairs that a party which has been the architect of strategic communalism in India has the cheek to say that it will check the activities of a Muslim party. And this, when there is nothing in the activities of the AIUDF which can even remotely be termed alarmist. Even a seasoned civil rights campaigner like Akhil Gogoi can condemn the AIUDF as a communal party. But then, he has nothing to say on the murderous regime which was run by the Congress party for so many years. At most, parties like AIUDF can be termed as communitarian, but then there is nothing wrong if the focus of the party’s activities is to uplift a particular community from it current state of under-development.
Some Muslims have also bought into this narrative and have started arguing that the community should desist from creating their own exclusive political platform. They have argued that such Muslim political formations will only end up creating confusion and dividing Muslim votes, which will ultimately benefit the BJP. But this argument is not an ideological antithesis to the felt need for Muslim parties.Rather, the objection is that in the given political scenario, Muslims must unite to defeat the BJP and vote en-masse for any political party which is in a position to do so. Once the threat of the BJP is no longer there, then one can talk about Muslim parties and their efficacy.
These Muslims miss the point that there is never a right time in politics. The BJP will remain a formidable political force and Muslims have to operate within this political context. Moreover, the singular focus on the BJP as the mother of all evils obscures the role of other political parties in bringing this party to power in the first place. In a situation where an Akhilesh Yadav or a Mayawati does not even speak against lynching of Muslims, why should the community look towards them as an alternative? In a situation wherein Mamta Banerjee is forced to reduce tickets to Muslims in order to appease the Hindu majority, why should the Muslims be called upon to choose between her and the BJP? With Arvind Kejriwal becoming the latest turncoat, it is incumbent upon Muslims to become their own agency instead of putting their fate into the hands of such opportunistic political parties. And that’s why there is a need of Muslim parties for it is only through political power that effective changes can be made within the community.
Those who see this as an expression of Muslim communalism fail to appreciate the context in which this is happening. The faith and trust of Muslims in the country’s system is at an all time low. The executive, through a systematic attempt, has maligned and singed the Muslim community. Whatever faith Muslims had in the judiciary has very nearly evaporated after the Babri judgment which allotted the land of the mosque to the construction of Ram temple. These conditions are bound to create a deep sense of alienation in any community. A community under siege is in danger of falling prey to nefarious forces and thereby becoming a security nightmare for the country. But the Muslim community must be congratulated for its sagacity in keeping out such elements, maintaining its rational composure, and reposing its faith in the Indian political system. The formation of new political parties, therefore, is not an instance of communalism, as some are trying to argue, but an expression of implicit faith in the constitutional promise of this country. Instead of seeing it as communalism, we need to see it as an exercise in correcting the democratic deficit in the country.
It is entirely possible that this new Muslim assertion might benefit the BJP or some other party, but only in the short term. Part of the reason why this will be so is that overwhelming majority of Muslims are not ready for such an experimentation. The Muslim consciousness in this country is primarily a dominated consciousness and it will take years of political work to make them aware of their agency and power. In the long run, Muslims will benefit not just because they will be able to make their own political agenda but also because this process of political awareness will throw up new leaders within the community, wedded to the idea of development and prosperity.
Muslims and their well-wishers should be under no illusion that the burden of protecting secularism in this country lies on their shoulders alone. For decades, Muslims have acted and have been used as an ideological force. Such a strategy has brought very little benefit to the community and has in fact made them into the enemy of the ‘nation’. Muslims now must re-orient their political strategy: from being an ideological force, they should now become an interest group. If Dalits can make this transformation and derive much benefits from it, there is no reason why Muslims should not be able to do so.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com.
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