By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
26 August 2020
A series of political moments have produced a level of anxiety within Indian Muslims which is unprecedented since the partition of the subcontinent. The almost routine lynching of Muslims, their otherization in the political discourse, police brutality to the extent that even Muslim educational spaces have become unsafe, arbitrary arrests of Muslim political activists and doubts on their very citizenship have singed Muslims.
What is most painful for India’s Muslims is that except for a handful of individuals, no political party wants to be seen to be defending even their genuine interests. Not just the political class, but increasingly it appears that even the judiciary has abandoned them. All this has produced a condition of perpetual anxiety amongst Muslims as they are trying to understand their place within this new imagination of the nation state. There is churning within the Muslim community as they try to find answers to remain relevant within the national space.
One of the important suggestions doing the round is that Muslims should float their own all India political party. The latest articulation of this strategy comes from none other than the fugitive Zakir Naik. It is hoped that this political party will become the voice of the beleaguered Muslim minority. But this is better said than done. We already have an aspiring party of Asaduddin Owaisi which has been trying to transform the Hyderabad based AIMIM into an all India party. In the recent elections, it has had meagre success in pockets of Maharashtra. However, largely, Muslims themselves have rejected it. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Muslims have been rather cold to the overtures of AIMIM, despite the fact there is a fan following of Owaisi amongst the Muslim youth.
Muslims need to think if an all India party is a viable option for them. Muslim numbers vary in different regions of the country. Also, Muslims face issues which vary from state to state. It will be far better if Muslims form regional parties instead of a single all India party. In places like West Bengal and Assam, where Muslims have a substantial presence, they must float their own political party. While in Assam, this is already in practice, some Muslim groups are trying to do this experiment in Bengal also. One of the first obstacle that such parties are going to face is to convince the Muslim electorate to vote for them exclusively. Through years of political socialization, Muslims have been led to believe that their interest will be best served if they are represented by others. For this reason, Muslims have voted for parties ranging from the Left to its arch rival the Trinamool Congress. Muslims have developed a dependent psychology and the first task of a regional Muslim political party would be to fight against such tendency and instil political confidence in them. At some point Muslims will realise that despite trusting various political formations, they have only be used as vote bank and very little development has come their way. Once this consciousness arises, Muslims will surely see that they should decide their own political future. If such a Muslim party, say in Bengal or Assam, ends up having a substantial number of Muslim votes, then it can enter into any alliance of its choosing and on its own agenda. That agenda should only have one focus: to better the educational and economic conditions of Muslims.
Certainly, this model will not work in places where Muslims are in a minority and where a Muslim political party will not have much effect. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims must adopt a different strategy and support only one political party en masse. Before doing so, they must float an agenda of empowerment and see which political party is most suited to fulfil this promise. This agenda again, has to be truly educationally and economically empowering so that it touches the lives of ordinary Muslims rather than serving the interests of a select few.
Muslim political presence at the national level is thin and it is going to be so for years to come. Creating a national political party is not going to change this reality. But at the same time, it should not be forgotten that Muslims are being increasingly negatively defined in terms of their religious identity. It is important therefore that Muslims should assert their voice at the national level also. For this purpose, they should create multiple platforms to address and amplify the concerns of Indian Muslims. Such platforms must regularly liaison with all stake-holders like parties, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia with a view to engage them on the Muslim question.
At all these three levels, Muslims must be clear on certain things. First they must realise that their interest will be better served by becoming an interest group rather than an ideological force. Muslims are counted as reliable partners by other political parties only with the express intention of defeating the ‘communal forces’ represented by the BJP. Muslims will do well to remember that ‘riots’ have occurred even when so called secular regimes are in power, like in Uttar Pradesh. While in other cases, where riots have not happened, they have remained backward, uneducated and heavily under-represented like in West Bengal. Thus Muslims have no option but to rely on themselves. In this process, they should become de-ideological and should have no hesitation in allying with any political formation to secure its own interests.
Second, efforts should be made to make Muslim politics as diverse as possible in terms of gender and caste. Traditional Muslim politics has been driven largely by men of upper caste which needs to change. Over the years, women and Pasmanda Muslim leaders have emerged and they must be included into the leadership structure of Muslim politics. The old patriarchal politics having the sanction of a few outmoded Ulama of Deoband or Bareilly has created deep resentment within Muslim women, apart from doing much harm to the Muslim cause. Similarly, keeping out the majority of Indian Muslims, who are lower down the caste hierarchy has done indelible damage to Muslim empowerment. Upper caste Muslim leadership, largely educated abroad, have no organic connection with ordinary Muslims. Instead of empathising with the everyday struggles of ordinary Muslim, the upper caste leadership has largely remained aloof and has become the exemplar of hypocritical politics. So while these politicians have educated their sons and daughters in the best of English schools, they have at the same time defended and advocated Urdu and madrasa education for the vast majority of Muslims. An alternative Muslim politics is not possible without calling out such duplicity.
Thirdly, Muslims must steer clear of the mistakes of the past. Muslim politics in the past has revolved around largely symbolic issues which had no intention of bettering the lives of millions in whose name such politics was carried out. Issues like the preservation of Muslim personal law, protection of Urdu and madrasas should be done away it. In its place, Muslims must demand the complete abrogation of good for nothing state sponsored institutions like the Muslim Personal Law Board. Through its retrograde defence of decadent traditions within Muslims, the Board and its activities have created a very negative image of the Muslim community. Instead of madrasa and Urdu medium schools, Muslims must demand to be educated in the English language. Without acquiring the language of power and a modern idiom, Muslims will never be able to inaugurate a transformative politics.
Another major problem with Muslim politics has been its exceptionalism. It demanded from the state which it was not ready to concede to others. Muslims wanted the public sphere to bow down to its demands while not recognising that living together with other communities demanded a more secular and tolerant attitude from their side too. The argument that faith cannot be legislated upon came first from Muslim leadership but then Hindus also started raising the issue of their faith and the polity of the country has never been the same ever since. It is in the interest of Muslims to talk in a more secular language, engage all parties and operate within the limits of constitutional morality. An alternative Muslim politics can only begin with a genuine critique of its past mistakes.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
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