By Dileep Padgaonkar
31 May 2013
Every opinion poll on voter preferences at the next general elections points to the certain defeat of the Congress and a more than plausible victory of a BJP-led alliance. That is hardly a surprise considering that on issues that matter most to the electorate — price rise of essential commodities, slowdown of the economy, corruption, weak governance and a deteriorating security environment both within the country and along its borders — the overall perception is that the UPA has slipped badly.
What is truly remarkable about the opinion polls however is the absence of any mention of an issue that continues to be a source of concern to the health of the republic: the plight of minorities. Hardly a day passes without an incident that shows how they are at the receiving end of forces inimical to them. So the subject won't go away. And when it is debated, neither the self-styled proponents of secular virtue nor those who denounce it as the fountainhead of all that has gone wrong in the nation are likely to draw much comfort from its outcome. The reason is simply this: the minorities, and especially Muslims, have had enough of both.
What they seek is nothing more than a strict adherence to the spirit and fine print of our Constitution. Its framers, cutting across India`s perennial fault-lines, affirmed that political democracy — where every vote carries equal weight — would be incomplete without the social and economic empowerment of the most vulnerable sections of the citizenry. That is why they included reservations in education and government employment for the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes. The V P Singh government later extended these to the Other Backward Classes. They also made provisions aimed at safeguarding the rights of minorities.
While all parties have upheld reservations for the SCs, STs and the OBCs — many no doubt for electoral reasons — they have not been able to evolve a consensus on the rights of the minorities. Parties claiming to be secular have paid no more than lip service to their constitutionally-mandated welfare. This is especially true of Muslims who form just under 15% of the population. The reports of Justice Rajinder Sachar and Justice Ranganath Mishra have knocked the bottom out of that vile dirge about the 'appeasement' of India's largest minority.
Much of the responsibility for this shameful neglect must be placed at the doorstep of the Congress which has been in power at the Centre longer than any other political formation. However, the BJP and its affiliates have sung another, ominous tune altogether. They challenge the very idea of special rights for minorities on the grounds that all citizens form a seamless continuum and must therefore subscribe to what they call 'cultural nationalism' — a barely disguised term to assert Hindu hegemony.
The minorities are thus caught in a pincer movement. On the one hand, the secular parties have failed to deliver on their constitutional obligations to them. On the other, outfits belonging to the extended Sangh Parivar have created an ambience that intimidates them. Meanwhile, under both regimes, innocent Muslims have been rounded up, interned and denied bail without due process, and often subjected to third degree methods.
Perhaps the only silver lining on this dark cloud of Congress-style opportunism is that its rhetoric at least steers clear of demonising minorities, particularly Muslims, as the irksome 'Other'. You can therefore challenge it to prove that it is able and willing to walk the constitutional talk as regards minority rights. That is not the case with the Sangh Parivar. Its anti-Muslim attitude was in full evidence during L K Advani's Rath Yatra culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The riots in Mumbai and elsewhere in the country that followed this desecration and the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat led to chilling consequences: they radicalised Muslim youth as never before.
Both sides of the so-called secular-communal divide now need to reaffirm their commitment to the imperatives spelt out in the Constitution: transparent, accountable and effective democratic governance, a level-playing field for disadvantaged groups, and respect for religious and cultural pluralism. This is what all patriotic Indians in their overwhelming numbers aspire to.