By Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma
November 5, 2014
The Sachar Committee report makes it clear that Muslims in India are less educated, poorer and fewer of them can be found in the national and state legislatures and in the bureaucracy. Experiential evidence by social science researchers also indicates that Muslims are discriminated against in the job market and have a harder time in the rental market for houses and apartments in Indian cities. At the same time, the state stresses its secular credentials, that is, it is equidistant from all religions. In our view, the use of the word “secular” diverts attention from the real problems faced by the Muslim community. Secularism as a rhetorical political tool has done more harm than good in four ways. It has flattened the diversity of the Muslim community, redefined their interests primarily in terms of religion and privileged the Muslim elite. It has also given right-wing Hindus a political tool to mobilise votes by using the empirically questionable rhetoric of a Muslim vote bank.
Secularism takes the multi-dimensional interests of the Muslim community (economic, political and social) and flattens them by defining the community solely along a religious dimension. Muslims are seen largely as a religious community, rather than as a community that has religious beliefs that are Islamic. This has had unintended consequences. For the Indian state, a citizen belongs to a religious community defined as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc. On the ground, however, these identities can, and do, overlap. For example, a study describes a man in his mid-30s, living in rural Punjab and belonging to the Gujjar caste, who said that his idea of religion stems from what he had learnt at an ashram that follows a largely Hindu tradition. He reported that he does not see this as in any way coming into conflict with his Muslim identity. The Indian state and its enumerators have no way of addressing this complexity.
The Census of India also does not delve into the multiple religious practices of most Indians, but instead uses blunt categories to ask people what religion they are. Caste and its diversities have been accommodated but the same has not been done for religion. In the United States, for instance, there are 67 identifiably different sects of Christianity. Some of these exist in India, but the census only asks citizens if they are Christians or Muslims. For instance, we do not know the number of Muslims who are Shias, Bohras, etc. Further, for a religion as decentralised as Sunni Islam, with its multiple schools of jurisprudence, there is little acknowledgement of those differences. Citizens are classified on the basis of a large and encompassing group as “Muslim”. Similarly, the use of the all-encompassing category of “Hindu” is misleading because it hides the diversity within the community.
The words Muslim and Hindu take on unidimensional characters for another reason. According to Ashutosh Varshney, the Hindu/ Muslim divide along religious lines is a master narrative of independent India. Hindus see Muslims as a religious community first, and vice versa. The state sees Hindus and Muslims, especially the latter, as a religious community. Consequently, the religious elite and religious bodies become guardians of the community’s interests. It is the religious elite who, for many in the Indian state, define and understand Muslim interests.
The intellectual elite, especially those educated in the best Western tradition associated with the Congress or the left, often assert that only they, the secular, can address the problems faced by the Muslim community. Secularism reduces the entire set of problems the Muslim community faces to one of the state retaining its “Dharm Nirpekshita”. For them, the state must retain its secular credentials for the good of minority Muslims in a predominantly Hindu country. While there is some truth to this, these policies have privileged Muslim upper castes over others in the community.
The Congress party that has governed India for most of its post-Independence history has relied upon the support of Muslim elites (and not those who are economically downtrodden). The National Election Study (NES) 2009 by Lokniti-CSDS suggests that in states with sizeable Muslim populations, the Congress’s support is largely upper-caste Muslim communities (Figure 1). In Uttar Pradesh and Assam, where the party contested the 2009 elections alone, its support among upper-caste Muslims was approximately twice that among lower-caste Muslims. In states where the Congress had a pre-poll alliance, such as with the RJD in Bihar and the TMC in West Bengal, it drew less votes from upper-caste Muslims.
The repeated rhetoric of the secularists of protecting Muslim interests has also given the Hindu right (the BJP and its affiliates) an issue on which to mobilise its ideological extremes. Any step to accommodate Muslims economically and socially is projected as an appeasement to woo Muslim votes. This has resulted in the construction of a narrative of majoritarian victimisation that is violently manifested in parts of the country. The Hindu right also complains of a Muslim vote bank. We find this argument hypocritical.
All over the world, it is common for a community to turn out to vote for one political party in larger numbers — for example, African Americans and Hispanics vote for the Democrats in the US and immigrant populations in the UK support the Labour Party. Upper castes in India have voted as a bloc for the BJP. If the upper castes and Dalits can vote en bloc, then why can’t Muslims? The data presented in Figure 2 shows that Muslims and upper castes are more similar in their voting patterns than the Hindu right would like to acknowledge. Muslims and upper castes split their vote amongst the fewest number of parties (around five). In fact, the upper caste vote was the least fragmented in 2014 — that is, most upper-caste Hindus voted for one party in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections. The scheduled tribes (STs) are the exception, and they are least likely to split their vote. In case of STs, the lower level of dispersion is not surprising since they are geographically concentrated and party competition in these pockets is less fragmented.
Since Independence, non-Muslim secularists, by working with the Muslim religious elite, have focused their attention on maintaining their secular credentials rather than the fact that Muslims in India face discrimination and marginalisation in their daily life. The facts belie that the secular credentials of the Indian state are all Muslims need. This is certainly not the case. If this were true, Muslims should have been better off than they are today.
The Hindu right and especially the BJP should not gloat over the failure of the secular project as far as the well-being of Muslims is concerned. There is sufficient data to make it plainly obvious that Hindus discriminate against Muslims, and that Muslims have genuine grievances. If the BJP truly wants to see “one India” and a “prosperous India”, it has to address these concerns head on. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims to be not a man of tokenism but a man of substance, the BJP should pass and enforce strict anti-discrimination laws against any community in the private sphere. This would give Muslims and other marginalised communities a level playing field in the market.
Modi has often proclaimed that secularism for him means “India first”. For India to be first, he should create conditions so that the market opts for the best talent and does not discriminate on religious grounds. As the leader of a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, only he has the political capital to make this move. If he fails to do so, Muslims will largely stay with the Congress and the BJP will remain a sectarian party whose electoral success will depend on a divided India, and not a united and prosperous India.
Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley, US