Book Title: Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian Muslims
Author: Muhammad Mujeeb Afzal
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 484, Hardback
Reviewed by Dr. Omar Farooq
To most people, the name of the Bharatiya Janata Party - one of the major political parties of India - is synonymous with Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), little regard for minorities, shunning of secularism and encouragement of Hindu militant doctrines, especially in the context of its association with the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Regardless of the prevalent image of the BJP over the years, the party has proved itself a worthy political adversary for the Congress, particularly in the elections, and has managed to find its way into the power corridors of New Delhi. The BJP’s rise has given birth to numerous questions in the minds of political analysts, researchers and the general public. What is the party’s outlook? Is it a threat to India’s secularism, its composite culture and notions of a liberal democracy? What is its relationship with minority groups of India? Does it want the Muslims and other Indian minorities (Sikhs and Christians, etc.) to adopt ‘Hindu’ culture? Muhammad Mujeeb Afzal has tried to answer these questions (in addition to many more) in his book ‘Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian Muslims.’
Afzal’s book is interesting because it contains useful facts, figures and references and also for its well-organized content. The author has touched on three phases of Indian politics - the British Raj, the post-independence Congressdominated period and the postindependence BJP-dominated time. The book systematically narrates facts, starting with the first chapter titled ‘Construction of Indian identities’. There is a detailed overview of the party’s outlook, its identity, how it views the Muslims and finally its stints in power.
The book also offers a unique insight into the mindset of the Indian Muslims, especially their thinking during the long years of British rule, the views of the Muslim nobility of that time, the overall perception (of both the nobility and the commoners), of their role in Indian politics and where they see themselves in the context of the Muslim Ummah.
The book highlights three schools of thought. The first believes that the Muslims and Hindus are two completely different nations with different ways of life. The second concentrates more on the reasons for antagonism between the two religions. This school regards Islam as the religion that was introduced by Muslim invaders who enslaved and subjugated the local population.
The third school advocates that religion and traditional values were used by both Hindus and Muslims as ‘tools’ to further advance their interests and to re-establish their hold over the ever-changing political landscape of the Indian subcontinent.
Afzal very correctly highlights a major game-changer for both communities - the British Raj. British rule and its laws had a very definite effect on the way things were run in the subcontinent. English became the official government language in 1837. The British Administration required well-educated, English-speaking Indians to run many of their services, especially at the clerical and mid-office levels. This resulted in the emergence of English-oriented schools and institutes all over the subcontinent with a large number of Indians enrolling in them enthusiastically. Although the Hindus were more eager to take up these opportunities, the Muslims also joined the fray soon, mainly due to the efforts of Muslim scholars like Syed Ahmed Khan.
These opportunities led to better education and job prospects for both groups and soon the middle class Hindus and Muslims ended up deriving benefits from them. The Hindu and Muslim middle classes also caught on to the Raj’s concepts and principles about the economy, education and politics. The earlier domination of Hindu Brahmins and Muslim nobles in the power corridors (by virtue of having better education and jobs) was threatened by the emergence of this new middle class. On both sides, this group was shaping its beliefs around the British/European system of justice, education and politics which had provided them an opportunity to make their presence felt in Indian politics.
This emerging middle class tried to strengthen its position by forming various anjumans and caste/ community-based associations. The purpose of these groups was to protect the community’s interests while emphasizing on their traditional identities. The organizations further developed into pressure groups that would force the implementation
of traditions that were considered sacred to a specific community. A prime example given in the book is that of the cow protection societies in Uttar Pradesh which worked towards banning slaughter houses in the state. Furthermore, the Raj’s insistence on remaining neutral in religious matters served as a ‘gap’ where these organizations could step in, patronize certain social, religious and traditional practices and create a new foothold for themselves.
The concept of ‘Hindutva’ initially rose from the efforts of reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Raj, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Gosh and Swami Dayanand Saraswati. They were instrumental in suggesting that the emerging modern value system (introduced by the Raj) should be adapted to preserve the core Hindu traditions.
In order to add legitimacy to this concept, a myth of the golden age of the Vedic era of Hinduism was highlighted. This philosophy was used as a reference to justify a set of proposed socio-cultural reforms. It was argued that Hinduism in its pure form denounced idol worshipping, caste system and ill treatment of women. Moreover, these were stated to be accretions to the original ‘pure’ religion. It was further stated that Hinduism in its pure form was equal to Islam and Christianity, if not superior. The concept of Shuddhi (purification) was also introduced to reconvert Muslims and Sikhs to the Hindu religion
Excerpts from the Bhagvat Geeta and Upanishads scriptures were utilized as references while personalities like Shivaji and Rana Pratab Singh were propagated as heroes. Bodies like Arya Samaj were put together by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who stressed that the original Hindu spirituality and culture had all the ‘answers’ required. The process had three categories: 1) Selection, 2) Manipulation and 3) Justification.
These philosophies served as building blocks of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) which further broadened its base and became the Bharatiya Janata Party. Under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party based its ideology in five commitments: promotion of Indian nationalism, national integration, democracy, positive secularism and value-based politics.
The BJP under Vajpayee also stressed on the concept of Gandhian socialism and human liberalism. Later, with Lal Krishna Advani at the helm, the focus was more on pragmatism and positive secularism. Advani argued that Hindu philosophy and religion was secular in nature since it had no organized church. This was to be highlighted and no religious community was to get any special preferences of any sort.
It is through utilizing these reforms that the BJP has expanded its power base. It has focused on the inclusion of middle class Hindus and exploited the Congress’ weakness to gain further political ground. The party has indeed become a major force in India’s political domain.