By Zakia Soman
05 June 2018
One of the important factors in Indian politics today is the plight of Muslims. There is no scope for their inclusion in the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Going by the statements of Congress leaders, however, there is not much of a secular political alternative either. De the Congress party’s pro-Muslim image over the years, Muslims have been consistently marginalised since 1947.
In a recent statement, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi said that her party suffered electorally owing to its image of being a pro-Muslim party. She indirectly highlighted the need to change this perception.
The Congress seems eager to change its image – we have witnessed the temple visits of Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat and Karnataka. It appears that the party wants to remain secular, but does not want to be identified with India’s largest minority any longer.
Perhaps Muslims do not link their collective fate with the inclinations of the Congress party as is demonstrated by their preference for regional parties in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala and Assam.
However, some critical questions need to be asked. Has the Congress really been a pro-Muslim party? If so, what explains the utter socio-economic marginalisation of Muslims before the BJP came to power in 2014?
At least two elaborate reports of Government of India appointed committees have highlighted the consistent marginalisation and backwardness of Muslims. Since 1947, large numbers of Muslims have experienced poverty, educational backwardness, economic marginalisation, fear of communal riots apart from political marginalisation. Lynching by Gau Rakshaks and violence based on the bogey of “love jihad” is a post-2014 development, as is the open espousal of Hindutva ideology by sitting ministers and members of parliament. Many of them regularly give calls for Muslims to be sent to Pakistan. Against this backdrop, Muslims have every reason to be fearful and apprehensive.
The Sachar Committee constituted by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, provided evidence of how Muslims fare poorly on all human development indicators. They live in poverty, with low education levels, without jobs, without access to government facilities on credit and without healthcare provisions. The Sachar report showed how only four out of 100 Muslims is a graduate. It also found that Muslim participation in salaried jobs stands at a mere 13%. It also narrated how Muslims live with a sense of alienation under a perception of fear and insecurity owing to communal riots.
The committee made elaborate recommendations to improve the situation. It is ironical that the Gopal Singh Committee, constituted by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, had found much the same problems being faced by the Muslim community in 1983. This committee too, like the Sachar Committee, had suggested elaborate measures to alleviate the condition of Muslims, including steps to bring them into the development mainstream.
The truth is that the need for the Sachar Committee would never have arisen if the successive Congress governments had paid heed to the recommendations of the Gopal Singh Committee.
A national study conducted by the Centre for Peace Studies (of which I am part of) and Action Aid called Broken Promises, a Study on the Socio-Economic Status of Indian Muslims: Seven Years Post Sachar Report found hardly any improvement in the lives of Muslims. It found that they continued to be left out from educational support schemes, Anganwadis, primary health centres, below poverty line benefits, credit facilities etc.
What is more, ordinary Muslims felt there was a lack of a political will to include the community in entitlements meant for the poor. This and some other stock-taking reports show that notwithstanding the Congress’s desire to be seen as pro-Muslim is one thing, the actual upliftment and inclusion of Muslims was not important to it.
Like all Indians, Muslims too want education, jobs, housing, affordable health services and so on. Additionally, Muslims want safety and security from communal violence. They have borne the brunt of communal riots ever since independence. The scars of riots through the 1980s and 1990s – Moradabad, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Nellie, Ahmedabad, Bhiwandi, Surat, Bombay – are still present. Various fact-finding reports by civil society groups have documented how Muslims got killed in large numbers, their properties were destroyed, women underwent brutal sexual assaults and the police and other state agencies remained mute spectators. Heart-rending testimonials of some of these atrocities have formed the basis of the central findings of almost every commission of inquiry that followed. What is worse, in most instances the survivors did not get justice nor were they compensated for their losses?
Islamophobia is a global phenomenon and has had its ramifications in India as well. Several Muslim youth who were picked up as terrorists following bomb blasts in Ajmer, Malegaon, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad have been acquitted by various high courts and the Supreme Court as they were found innocent. How could such wrongful arrests happen under the watch of a ‘pro-Muslim party’? The demonisation of Muslims is a fact but it is equally a fact that most Indians are peace loving people who are not against Muslims. The hope lies in this reality and not in any “pro-Muslim party”.
Clearly, the long rule of the Congress party at the Centre has not translated into better living conditions for Muslims. Nor has it led to freedom from communal riots.
On the other hand, the pandering to orthodox religious leaders such as the Shahi Imam and others has given rise to the “appeasement of Muslims” bogey. What happened in 1986 over Shah Bano is fresh in the minds of most Indians. This has formed a significant pillar of BJP’s politics. It has contributed to Islamophobia and led a section of the electorate to back the BJP.
Sadly, this kind of politics continues. The Congress party’s position on triple Talaq is still unclear. Its so-called Muslim faces are openly in denial even as thousands of Muslim women are struggling for justice. The Congress needs to come out of the self-serving myth that Muslims are happy being a mere vote bank. Most Muslims do not count on the secular Congress and have been voting for smaller regional parties.
Where Then, Does Hope Lie for Indian Muslims?
It lies in abiding by and demanding justice and equality based on the constitution. Nobody will take umbrage if the Congress or any political party attends to the legitimate needs of Muslims or Dalits or any other community based on the constitution. The triple Talaq movement led by Muslim women was hugely supported by a broad cross-section of citizens. It was yet another missed opportunity for the Congress party, as for the so-called Muslim leadership. Actually, no party needs to be ‘pro-Muslim’ to win Muslim votes. It would be enough if they are secular and abide by their constitutional obligations to all citizens and communities.
It is clear that politically Muslims were abandoned long ago. Perhaps counting on the Congress to alleviate the situation in the face of the Hindutva onslaught would be giving false hope to a beleaguered community.
Zakia Soman is co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.