By Tanweer Alam
December 11, 2017
As the Gujarat assembly election campaign drew to a close, the din got shriller and attempts were made to polarise the atmosphere on religious lines. A section, which believes in adverse references to Indian Muslims in campaigns, has begun to talk about Hajj vs Ram (we versus they) to reinforce the majority’s apprehensions about ‘their’ intent. Such polarisation never fails to bring rich electoral dividends.
Muslims dread such electioneering and, over the years, they have perfected the strategy of staying clear of any involvement in this discourse. They do not even refute unjust allegations made against them from poll platforms.
However, a new spectacle stunned them during this campaign: some community leaders vociferously demanded equal representation in assembly tickets at a time when a mere mention of the Muslim issue can be easily communalised. As BJP would prefer minimum, or no representation from Muslims in assembly, this group is making the demand from Congress.
These self-proclaimed guardians of the community, by making such demands that appear concerned ‘only’ about Muslims, are actually counter-mobilising. As if to indirectly reinforce negative vibes about Muslims, all kinds of community organisations and feather weight leaders have joined a chorus of condemnation of ‘secular parties’ who, according to them, have failed to raise ‘Muslim issues’.
They want Muslim leaders like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakur in Gujarat. These leaders talk about the interests of their respective castes only and demand their fair share in power and the national cake.
To clarify matters, a higher representation in legislature does not always ensure safety, security and well-being. The Muzaffarnagar anti-Muslim communal riots in 2013 happened at a time when the number of Muslim MLAs in UP assembly was the highest since independence. During 10 years of UPA, issues concerning Muslims were discussed for the first time in a development framework and policies were initiated which mitigated their difficulties, even though Muslim representation in Parliament was not particularly high.
With the Partition of India and creation of Pakistan the option of a national-level identity based party was closed. Secondly, Patel, Mewani and Thakur represent the genuine aspirations of their respective castes within the Hindu religion. They are “in-groups” for Hindus while Muslims and Christians are not.
They will be tolerated, even endlessly so, while Muslims and Christians will not be allowed such luxury. Thus, any talk of their model being appropriated by Muslims is counterproductive. For their model to be followed, the majority have to be convinced that Islam is a caste within Hinduism.
Let me clarify further. The issue of representation is important, but not a panacea for all problems. However, Muslims have equal citizenship rights and obligations like anyone else. Even after 70 years of Independence the wounds of Partition have not healed fully. Any aggressive assertion of faith-based identity provokes primal fears in the majority.
Those fears are played upon profitably, which ultimately forecloses any secular discourse and undermines secular politics. Muslims need patience and forbearance. The highly avoidable public posturing by religious Muslim groups eats up the space for common concerns like jobs, security, economy, farmers’ suicides, encroachments on privacy and corruption in public offices.
For Muslims, it is time to reboot their political discourse and think in larger terms of citizenship and rights (which take into account and protect religious and cultural rights also) rather than resorting to a fist-in-the-face communal rhetoric. What they are doing in Gujarat now (as indicated above) has the potential of destroying secular politics.
It is important to remember that nowhere in the world do minorities flourish by isolating themselves and unilaterally abdicating from national life. In the UK and US minorities have benefited substantially by articulating their concerns in the framework of universal citizenship and basic rights rather than demanding special treatment.
We would also do well to keep in mind that minorities in the US and UK are fairly well off even if their representation in legislatures is low compared to their population. The landmark Sachar Committee Report also recommended the need of integration of Muslim community with the majority community.
It is not my case that Muslims should give up on representation, but simply that they have to prioritise according to the ground realities of society and time. Muslims need a radical rethink of their stance.
By saying all this I do not mean that I am not cognisant of the organised, periodic riots against Muslims that have largely gone unpunished. I am deeply aware of the terror of cow vigilantes, anti-love jihad squads, harassment of Ghar Wapsi and other forms of anti-Muslim intimidation and violence that are part of our daily lives.
Even with that, we have to move away from the communal discourse, resort to legal measures only and shift the language of political discourse from helpless victimhood to that of empowered citizens like others. The common language of shared citizenship, constitutionalism, equality before law and regard for human rights binds Indians together as all this is common between us. The articulation of issues in terms of faith community does not work as we do not have a common faith.
Muslims have to learn to emphasise what is common to us and gradually shift to an idiom that is level-headed, realistic and non-emotive. There is no point in blaming secular parties at this moment. A radical recalibration of Muslim discourse is imperative. Sooner, the better.