INSIDE THE MUSLIM MIND ANGST & INSPIRATION
NO TO VOTE BANK POLITICS WANT GREATER OPPORTUNITIES
The old-world charm of the sprawling Aligarh Muslim University, with wide roads and floral dividers, stands out from the rest of this overcrowded Uttar Pradesh city. A small library on the second floor of the Faculty of Arts has been converted into a makeshift classroom, in which postgraduate students are gently milling in for a political science lecture. They are a curious mix. There’s a girl in a strawberry-pink headscarf. Another is carrying a bubblegum-purple handbag. Two boys are wearing flashy Nike jackets and stone-washed jeans. This splash of colour is accentuated by white kurta pyjamas and black burqas. Their lecturer Arshi Khan steps in, wearing a sherwani and a topi, to complete the surreal sketch. Over the next two hours, the conversation veers from political theory to political reality. They talk of fundamentalist Islam and the need to embrace modern ideas. They speak animatedly about shared democracy but more sombrely about possible voting patterns in the General Elections starting on April 7.
Muslims constitute 13.4 per cent of India’s population. Apart from Jammu & Kashmir, which is the only Muslimmajority state, their numbers are particularly high in pockets of West Bengal, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and Bihar. Forty-six of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies have more than 30 per cent Muslims, and estimates suggest that the community can make a decisive impact on the outcomes of about 110 seats. A mass swing in any direction can dramatically alter India’s complex political arithmetic. Parties across the land are falling over each other to offer them sops and promise them greater participation. But there are only 30 Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha, or 6 per cent of the House’s total strength. As many as 20 states did not elect a single Muslim MP in 2009. And almost half the 832 Muslim candidates in the last Lok Sabha elections were Independents.
Arshi Khan’s lecture room in Aligarh is a window into the community’s confusion. “Not just security, freedom and welfare, the impression among Muslims is that their identity itself is under threat,” Khan tells INDIA TODAY. “There is a deficit in the power-sharing system. They feel a sense of bewilderment about who to vote for because their vote doesn’t really matter. I sometimes feel my students are praying for a miracle.”
The Indian Muslim is still socially, economically and politically backward. The 2006 Sachar Committee report revealed that 25 per cent of Muslim children in the 6-14 year age group have either never attended school or have dropped out; only 3.4 per cent of the total graduates in India are Muslims; only 13 per cent of Muslim workers are engaged in regular jobs; and the overall percentage of Muslims in bureaucracy in India is just 2.5. In 2007, the Ranganath Misra Commission seconded this view, finding that one-third Muslims live in kuchha houses without basic facilities such as drinking water and toilets. These numbers, the latest available, highlight a need for Muslims to be treated differently, and given a genuine boost, rather than hollow assurances.
The sense of foreboding stretches across the landscape: From Assam to Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal and from Maharashtra to Andhra Pradesh to Kerala. As religious violence increases and political parties follow an agenda of polarisation for electoral gains, the Muslim community feels hemmed in. It feels that its attire and its way of life are being held against it. That it is suspected of being anti-national, discriminated against, and exploited every election cycle as a vote bank no one cares about.
Concerns of marginalisation are being voiced by Muslims in various parts of the country. A 22-year-old student from Kupwara in Kashmir, for example, talks about how he is scared
every time he enters a train because he feels he will be singled out in case of a crime. In Kishanganj, Bihar, 36-yearold dental surgeon Shadab Rehman was aghast when he found some neighbours were making discreet inquiries about how he had paid for his new SUV, suggesting that he may have received terror funds. In Meerut, 67 Kashmiri students of a local university were suspended for cheering for Pakistan during a cricket match against India on March 2. In Mumbai’s upmarket Bandra area, Captain Zainul Abidin Juvale, a Marathi Muslim local hero who saved the lives of 722 Indians evacuated from the first Gulf war in 1990, gave up his search for a flat in the locality. Most buildings in the vicinity do not admit Muslims. As the Sachar Committee report put it, “Muslims carry a double burden of being labelled as ‘anti-national’ and as being ‘appeased’ at the same time.”
A majority of Muslims, therefore, are torn between organisations such as the New Delhi-headquartered Tablighi Jamaat, which advocates a religious resurgence to fight against “deteriorating values” and “negligence of the tenets of Islam” as a way of preserving their identity, and more progressive Muslim thinkers, such as the Lucknowbased Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, who call for education and wholesome integration to keep pace with the changing realities. Another fraction is swayed by extremist groups.
“There is a dangerous game of creating divisions being played all around us,” says Sadiq, 74. “Unfortunately, Muslim clerics are adding to this by teaching people about communalism and emphasising archaic symbolism, rather than the true meaning of Islam. Education and awareness are the only hope. If we’re caught up in proving who is more rabid than the other, how can there be progress?” The sherwaniand-skull cap-wearing Sadiq, who is vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, had recently advocated that astronomical calculations be used to determine Eid, rather than human sightings, which were obsolete and often inaccurate. His suggestion raised the hackles among the more conservative clerics.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Kashmir insurgency, the Gulf war and the Babri Masjid agitation coincided to create a new politicised Muslim, to go along with the regional identity created by the implementation of reservation in government jobs as suggested by the Mandal Commission. This was not long after the 1986 Shah Bano case, in which the Congress nullified a Supreme Court alimony ruling, to appease Muslims by upholding their Personal Law.
Such factors propelled an Age of Disharmony, and the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was a huge dent to the Muslim psyche in India. “There was always social backwardness and political exclusion, but razing the mosque was a dent on Muslim identity,” says Arshi Khan. “When people start feeling that their identity is under threat, the legal security provided by the Constitution starts to feel tenuous as well.”
This situation of suspicion and fear was still festering when the Global War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001 intensified the tension. In India, the Gujarat riots followed soon, deepening the injury, further pushing Muslims into ghettos where their women and children were largely disconnected from the world. Now, with the media projection of Muslim terror suspects, and by what is seen in A MAJORITY OF MUSLIMS ARE TORN BETWEEN hardline clerics and progressive leaders who push for education and integration. India as a violation of the constitutional contract of security and equality, the strings of attachment are getting weaker—between Hindus and Muslims, and consequently between Muslims and the State. Several Muslims see the recent Muzaffarnagar riots and the rise of the controversial Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate as further evidence of this changed relationship.
“How would a minority feel in a Muslim country where a rabid Islamist is on the verge of coming to power? We feel the same way in India when people speak of the Modi wave,” says a 23year-old aspiring civil servant from Rohtas, Bihar, who asks not to be named. But Mazahir Mithiborwala, a resident of Godhra in Gujarat, sums up the sense of frustration when asked about Modi, whose government is blamed for not controlling the 2002 violence in the city. “Unfortunately the choice before Muslims is between evil and lesser evil. Congress, too, never gave us development and used us as a vote bank,” he says. Not for him the recent photo-op with the Gujarat riot victims and perpetrators or the endorsement of Modi’s ‘development for all’ slogan by Muslim leaders.
In order to break vote banks, one discussion raging among Muslim scholars is that India should repeal its firstpast-the-post ( FPTP) voting system and opt for proportional representation ( PR) instead. In FPTP, the election is won by the candidate receiving the highest votes. If a candidate has polled 30,000 votes in a small constituency, he could still lose to a candidate who has polled 30,001. The criticism of this system is that it forces voters to predict who is most likely to win, even if they would prefer another candidate, because a vote for any other candidate will be “wasted”. Several analysts consider this a relatively flawed system when there are more than two parties at play.
In the PR system, on the other hand, the number of seats won by a party is proportional to the number of votes received. So, for example, if 30 per cent of voters support a particular party then roughly 30 per cent of seats will be won by that party. Muslim scholars in India, such as Arshi Khan, feel that this would break the current system where their community is represented poorly in city councils, state Assemblies and in Parliament. Assam has a 30.9 per cent Muslim population but only 2 of its 14 MPs are Muslims. Uttar Pradesh has an 18.5 per cent Muslim population but only 7 of 80 are Muslim MPs. And Karnataka, which has 12.23 per cent Muslims, doesn’t have a single Muslim MP. The PR system is used in several European and South American nations, including Brazil, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Russia.
The fear of their vote being wasted is prompting several young Muslims to say they will not participate in the electoral process because their candidates do not get elected anyway. But older
thinkers, such as Kalbe Sadiq, are uncertain. “It’s a strange conundrum,” he says. “If you vote, someone you do not support will come to power. If you don’t, you are removing yourself from the entire process, which could be even worse for our community.” Supporters of FPTP, however, point out that it is the system in several major democracies, including the US and UK, and that a simple plurality is the only logistical mechanism for a country as large as India where the next election will have an estimated 814 million voters.
So in a situation where they have to pick from what is available, the burning question is which way the Muslim community will swing. Thirty-six per cent of all Muslims had voted for Congress in 2009 as opposed to only 3 per cent for BJP, according to the National Election Study 2009 done by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. But the flurry of sops being offered to them comes from a wide political spectrum, stretching from the Hindu nationalist BJP, which remains the party they are least likely to support, to the Samajwadi Party, which has been at the receiving end of severe criticism from Muslims for its handling of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
In February, BJP President Rajnath Singh said that the party was ready to apologise to Muslims for past mistakes, hinting at a possible apology from Candidate Modi for the Gujarat riots. Modi, on his part, praised the entrepreneurship of Muslim youth and women at a conclave organised by Muslim businessmen in Ahmedabad on February 7. The UPA Government has offered reservations in government jobs for Gujarat riot victims for a five-year period and set up the Equal Opportunity Commission to check discrimination of minority communities in jobs, education and housing. But the Congress suffered a huge setback when it failed to table the Communal Violence Bill in Parliament.
Over in Uttar Pradesh, SP and BSP are locked in a tussle for Muslim votes. Though SP has traditionally enjoyed greater support from the community, BSP is sensing an opportunity. “Only BSP can give an equal share in power to the
Muslims,” party chief Mayawati said in a rally at Lucknow. Akhilesh Yadav, meanwhile, is confident that the community, though angry at the moment, will eventually side with SP. “We have a long-standing relationship. We have addressed all their issues raised after the Muzaffarnagar riots,” he says. “This is Netaji’s party. Our Muslim brothers will always be a part of it.” SP got 30 per cent of the Muslim vote in the state in 2009, a drop of 17 percentage points from 2004, but still comfortably ahead of the 18 per cent Muslim vote share that went to BSP.
In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been making a series of symbolic gestures. On March 5, she announced that seven of her 42 MP candidates, or 17 per cent, would be Muslims. She declined to meet US Ambassador Nancy Powell in Kolkata, after several Muslim leaders protested. A TV show based on a story by Taslima Nasreen was taken off by a Bangla channel in December last year. And Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie was not allowed to visit the Kolkata Book Fair in February 2013.
As this political ping-pong continues, Muslims find themselves at the centre of attention once again. Unsure of whom to believe, uncertain who is telling the truth, afraid of being targeted by a possibly hostile government, and nervous that they will be ignored until the next polls come around.
Inside the layers of the politics of division lie muffled voices that need to be heard, and repressed sentiments that are begging to be acknowledged. Only then will the social indicators start telling a different story. Only then will the fences of “us” and “them” be uprooted for growth for “all”. Only then will the idea of a modern, vibrant, secular India genuinely hold true.
MANMOHAN SINGH, SONIA GANDHI AND RAHULGANDHI INTERACTWITH RIOT VICTIMS ATARELIEF CAMPATBASSI KALAN IN MUZAFFARNAGAR