By Saif Shahin
Wanted: A leader for Indian Muslims. That advertisement hasn’t quite appeared on the Classified pages of newspapers yet, but you can read it in the anguished conversations of many a woebegone Muslim overcome by the ills of his society and the plight of his fellow travellers. “Leadership is important: you must have good leaders,” professedly secular non-Muslims also shake their heads and say, while ruing poverty, illiteracy, religious obscurantism and general Muslim disempowerment.
It’s true: Indian Muslims have never had a Chosen One. Dalits can flaunt their Jagjivan Rams and Mayawatis, Yadavs and Kurmis their Lalu Prasads and Nitish Kumars. Dravidians can stick Annadurai posters on their walls, Marathas can show off Pawars and Thackerays, and even tribal communities, much divided though they are, can swear by Sorens and Mundas. But there isn’t, and never has been, an Indian Muslim Leader who can claim to have the whole community by his side.
That is not to say there are no politicians who are Muslims. Every political party clamouring for the Muslim vote has had them: Salman Khursheed and Ghulam Nabi Azad in the Congress, Sikandar Bakht and Shahnawaz Hussain in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Azam Khan in the Samajwadi Party... the list is long. Indeed, there also are political parties claiming to be Muslim: the Indian Union Muslim League, for instance, and the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and the more recent All India United Democratic Front led by Badruddin Ajmal.
But none of the above mentioned leaders, or any of their ilk, has enjoyed widespread support from the Muslim community; and the influence of the so-called “Muslim parties” too has been limited to a few constituencies at best. Muslim religious leaders, such as the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami have similarly tried, and failed, to muster broad political influence over India’s Muslims.
What’s so wrong with the community that it can’t produce a single decent political leader of its own? Commentators have often pointed fingers at the geographical spread of Muslims in India. The community, although constituting only about a sixth of the overall population, is dispersed across every state and union territory, permeates every electoral constituency and perhaps every police station. That means while Muslim voters exercise some say over who wins elections almost everywhere, there are only a few pockets where they determine the results. The condition, say experts, is not conducive to the rise of a powerful Muslim leader.
Or is it? Diffused demography isn’t really the bane of Muslims alone; other communities also suffer from it and have yet produced leaders they can look up to. Dalits, for instance, are only marginally more than Muslims in numbers, constituting about 15% of the national population compared with Muslims’ 13.4% (2001 census). They are similarly spread all over the country. Both communities have an above-average share of the population in Uttar Pradesh: Muslims at 18.5% and Dalits nosing ahead at 21.1%. Yet, no Muslim Mayawati has emerged even from this state; forget a nationwide following within her community, there has been no UP Muslim leader who could claim even statewide support.
Another, albeit less commonly touted, explanation for Muslim leaderlessness is sectarianism. It goes like this: while most Indian Muslims are Sunnis, Shias constitute a sizeable chunk as well, undermining the evolution of a Muslim leadership. But once again, Muslims aren’t the only community to suffer from schisms: sectarian, sub-regional or sub-caste ruptures exist in every Indian community. Also, if sectarianism was that strong a sentiment among Indian Muslims, at least “Sunni leaders” and “Shia leaders” should have emerged if not Muslim leaders. That, too, hasn’t happened.
India’s lack of Muslim political leadership perhaps reflects an unarticulated reality: Indian Muslims don’t constitute a political community. In other words, “Muslim” is not a strong enough political identity in this country.
Diffused, not Distinct
The claim admittedly flies in the face of common wisdom. Ever since its creation through a Partition that happened on religious grounds, India has seen its domestic politics split along the secular-communal divide, with policies towards Muslims defining which party stands on which side. While “communal parties”—the Jana Sangh, the BJP—have supposedly pushed an anti-Muslim agenda, the definition of a “secular party” has not been non-religious but rather pro-Muslim. And yet, Muslims, the centre piece of Indian democratic politics, have failed to produce a single towering political leader of their own.
Political communities need two basic qualities—while being internally cohesive, they should also feel distinct from others. Members of a political community should identify with each other and, at the same time, consider themselves, their beliefs, their concerns to be different from everyone else. This is what leads to them to choose leaders from among themselves—people they identify with, people who share their beliefs and who they expect will help them answer their concerns.
Muslims’ lack of leadership suggests that, despite all the talk of secularism and communalism, they don’t feel all that distinct from the rest of India. They don’t just identify with other Muslims, they can as easily identify with and share the concerns of non-Muslims too. Admittedly they have some concerns and grievances as Muslims too, but they haven’t been acute enough to turn Muslims inwards politically.
And so they have been happy to vote for non-Muslim leaders and parties as if they were voting for their own. Beneficiaries of the Muslim vote have ranged from the Upper Caste-dominated Congress and the BJP (yes the BJP too) to the Backward-dominated Janata Party and its offshoots (Janata Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal-United, Samata Party, Samajwadi Party, etc.) to the Dalit-dominated Bahujan Samaj Party and even the “godless” Communist parties.
Muslims’ lack of leadership thus shows they are much better assimilated with the rest of the country than is usually assumed. Demographic diffusion, far from being the reason for lack of leadership, is a symptom of this integration.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Is lack of political leadership good or bad for the community? There is always the theoretical possibility that internal political leadership can benefit the masses, help them identify and avoid pitfalls as they lurch ahead. A far-sighted Muslim leader can, for instance, tell Muslims it is important to avoid religious orthodoxy, gain modern education and work for their prosperity rather than lie back and blame others for discrimination, and so forth.
But this rarely happens in practice. Emerging political leaders who voice real or perceived grievances of their communities¬, particularly minorities, may initially have the community’s concerns in mind—but once given the mantle of leadership they don’t necessarily want to see these concerns go away. For if they do, the reason why they became leaders will also go away.
Being a leader can easily, and often does, become an end it itself. Political leaders, thus, find it in their interest to manufacture grievances, create artificial concerns, bolster their community’s political identity by building more walls between them and against others—all the while buttressing their own claims to leadership.
Indian Muslims have seen many such attempts. Religious leaders have spoken of the evil of modern education, particularly for women, to cut Muslims away from the rest of Indian society. Politicians, both from within and outside the community, have waxed indignant about “systemic discrimination against Muslims” and warned speciously against the “threat of communal parties”.
Occasionally, these efforts have succeeded in instilling fear and building walls. That is why there are Muslims who choose to live in ghettos and send their children to madrasas. But largely, these efforts have failed. That is why the bulk of India’s Muslims are scattered across its cities, towns and villages, dissolved in its essence like sugar in water. And that is why they don’t have, and don’t really need, a Muslim leader.