Irfan Engineer

(Secular Perspective November 1-15, 2014)


Muslim votes in post partition India have traditionally been mobilised by the politicians on three tropes – security, religio-cultural identities and fair share of Muslims. The recent victory of two All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) MLAs in Maharashtra Assembly elections held in October 2014 shows that Muslim votes could be mobilized on a fourth trope in the times when Hindu Nationalists are aggressively asserting themselves – that of counter assertion aiming at communal unity to take on the Hindu Nationalists. These tropes have been pursued through three different strategies – 1) withdrawal from electoral politics, 2) joining political parties not dominated by Muslims and 3) forming Muslim dominated parties.

Political strategies

Maulana Maududi, just before migrating to Pakistan, said that efforts of the Muslims to pursue their rights would invite prejudices of the Hindus. Hence, his recommendation was, to try to persuade Muslim community to keep its distance from government and administration, and assure the Hindu nationalists that there was no competing Muslim nationalism. This, according to the Maulana was the only way to remove the extraordinary prejudices that the majority had against Islam. For communal nationalists, there is either hegemony or subjugation, no middle ground of living peacefully together as equals. Maulana Maududi soon migrated to Pakistan and the Jamat-e-Islami that he established did not participate in electoral politics. However Maulana’s advice was not much of use to Muslims facing various challenges in their daily existence.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, initially representatives of Muslim League strongly demanded separate electorates, but after partition their voices weakened. The dominant discourse during the discussion employed by the members coming from non-minority community and even by some from minority communities was that minorities can survive only on the goodwill of the majority (and therefore accept only those “rights” which the majority is willing to “grant” to the minority). The minority community which chose India as their country of domicile and nationality rather than Pakistan were implicitly reminded that if they were unhappy with the rights “granted” to them by the “majority”, they could chose Pakistan.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organization of the Deobandi Ulemas had always opposed Pakistan. The Jamiat supported the Congress led freedom struggle whole heartedly hoping that Muslims would be free to practice their religion and would be at liberty to follow Muslim Personal Law. The Deobandi Ulema believed that despite different religions, Indian nationalism was shared and composite. The Jamiat perceived the threat to Muslim cultural identity from the Britishers rather than non-Muslim fellow Indians. Congress’s creed of secular nationalism and idea of India assured them in this respect. Jamiat was not interested in negotiating fair share of power of the Muslim community in the political arrangement and their concerns were limited to preserving Muslim Personal Law. For Jinnah and other Muslim nationalists on the other hand, a fair share of the Muslim community in political arrangement was their objective even while they were open to modernity. The Deobandi Ulemas were eager to carve out religio-cultural space and unite the community to defend that space even though they accepted that all Indians constituted a political community. Jinnah and Muslim nationalists on the other hand wanted Muslims to be an exclusive political community and a separate nation state for the community.

With Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad at the helm in post Independence India, Muslims felt reassured and enthusiastically supported the Congress. Security, after the post partition riots subsided, was not yet a major concern worrying Muslim leaders. Discourse of “minorities could survive only on the goodwill of the majority” dominated. Hence, seeking fair share for Muslim community in the social, economic and political affairs was unthinkable by the community overwhelmingly comprising of artisans, labourers, landless and backward classes left behind after the partition. The Jamiat and Muslim political leaders mobilised the community behind the Congress on the trope of religio-cultural identity on three issues. These three issues were – non interference in Muslim Personal Law (MPL) by the Indian state, promotion of Urdu language and warding off any threat to minority character of Aligarh Muslim University. In 1980s another issue became prominent symbol of religio-cultural identity – defence of Babri Masjid, which however was demolished in 1992.

The leadership was less inclined to work for educational achievements and economic advancement of the community. Reclaiming religio-cultural space needed to harp on a glorious past of the community – contribution of Muslim rulers towards India’s greatness and achievements like Taj Mahal and contribution of the community during freedom struggle. However, the leadership also needed to overcome the challenge of rich diversity within the community, not only sectarian based, but also in terms of that of caste based biradaries, language, cultural traditions, customary practices and even ethnic diversity. MPL is not codified law applicable to all Muslims uniformly. Priests of different Muslim sects and maslaqs (schools of jurisprudence) implement the law differently. The leadership nevertheless mobilized the community around the issue of non-interference by the state in MPL.

The Muslim leadership within the Congress party was oblivious to the fact that carving out a cultural space for themselves by emphasising cultural differences between Muslims and non-Muslims helped the Hindu nationalists, who were otherwise marginalised for their non-participation in the freedom movement and their role in assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The Hindu nationalists could play on apprehensions in the people that carving out religio-cultural space would promote separatist tendencies. In fact, assurance of religio-cultural freedom drew the Deobandi Ulemas towards the concept of composite Indian nationalism; and to oppose partition and communal nationalism of Muslim League. Muslim League had instrumentalist view towards culture. Their objective was not to preserve religio-cultural space but to use culture to redefine essentially a religious community as political community and to demand its “due” share in any political arrangement. The Hindu nationalists played on the fears and exaggerated the threats portraying Muslims as inherently having separatist tendencies, that they would be loyal to Pakistan and practice polygamy to over populate the Hindus in India and convert it into an Islamic state. The Congress Party was unwilling and unable to counter such gross misrepresentations. The growing feeling of insecurity among the minority would benefit Congress as it would compel Muslims to rally them behind it. The Congress Party did not work for extending equal opportunities to the Muslims in education, bank loans, in public employment, government contracts etc and to include Muslims in welfare schemes as equal citizens. It is only after the Sachar Commission Report in 2006 that some very minor steps were taken to formulate some welfare schemes to include minorities. However, it was more of tom toming and less benefits to the community with very poor record of implementation by the bureaucrats.

After the Jabalpur Riots in 1961, Muslim faith in Congress received first jolt. Despite Nehru’s intervention, the violence engulfed many. For the Muslim leadership reclaiming their religio-cultural space, Jabalpur riots were a warning which they chose to ignore. In the 1952 elections, Congress Muslim candidates polled 64%, 72%, 56% and 57% of the votes polled by all Muslim candidates in Bihar, UP, WB and India respectively. In the 1957 elections, Congress Muslim candidates polled 65%, 58%, 51% and 52% of the votes polled by all Muslim candidates in the same states and in India respectively. In the 1962 elections, Congress Muslim candidates polled 52%, 47%, 52% and 52% of the votes polled by all Muslim candidates in the said states and India respectively. In the 1967 elections, the Muslim votes in favour of Congress declined drastically the those states to 39%, 36%, 47% and 40% in India. With the anti-Congress mood growing in the country in the late 1960s and Congress on decline the Muslim votes too declined as is evident from the above percentages of Muslim votes polled by Congress in the three states with higher percentage of Muslims.

Muslim voters were drifting away from the Congress, as the Party had utterly failed in ensuring security to Muslims on one hand and in including Muslims in governance and ensuring their fair share. Their emphasis was only on ensuring religio-cultural space as demanded by the patriarchal Deobandi Ulemas. Satanic Verses – a novel by Salman Rushdie was banned, Judgement of the Supreme Court in the Shahbano case was overturned through an enactment by the Parliament are some of the instances of political mobilization on the trope of religio-cultural space.

The consequences of mobilizing the community assertively and almost exclusively on the trope religio-cultural space were telling. Hindu nationalists could proclaim such an assertion as a threat to “Hindu culture” and therefore justified using violence to “curtail” anti-national Muslims and their appeasers – the Congress. They could din in prejudices against Muslims through their networks and prejudices led to exclusion of Muslims and increased discrimination. The community experienced decline in their economic status. Hindu nationalists used communal violence to put in place what Paul Brass calls institutionalised riot system which helped them mobilize non-Muslims across caste and region and politically consolidate Hindus progressively on the trope of nationalism – a Savarkarian project. The decade of 1980 saw communal violence in most towns with Muslim population of 10% or more, starting from Godhara in 1981 and culminating with Bhagalpur in 1989. After the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992, the Muslim voters by and large deserted Congress as the demolition signified that the Party could not even secure the religio-cultural space.

The Backward Muslims

While the Deobandi Ulemas defined religio-cultural space around the issue of MPL, status of Urdu and minority character of Aligarh Muslim University, the concept of cultural space of the backward classes among Muslims who constituted more than 85% of the community was different. Their notion of religio-cultural space was based on their experiences of social oppression on the lines of caste based hierarchy. While Islam promised them equality and justice, they were denied equality in status by the Ashraf Muslims – converts from upper castes or those who believed they had royal blood. Political-cultural space for the Ajlaf (low caste converts), also referred to as Pasmanda (backwards) identified culturally with their Hindu counterparts. Islam and their biradari culture were both their inheritance. Ali Anwar from Bihar, Shabbir Ansari from Maharasthra and other leaders were sponsored by regional parties. The pasmandas were mobilized on the issue of social inclusion and social justice. The issue of Urdu did not appeal to them much. Neither was minority character of a far away university when their children were struggling to get themselves admitted into a neighbourhood school, nor the Wahabi-Deobandi family code. Their focus was livelihood and education. In the South, particularly in Tamil Nadu and rural areas of Karnataka and Telangana, the Muslims identified with their Dravidian identity and with the social justice movements.

The security trope

The Muslim voters after the demolition of Babri Masjid drifted away from Congress as it utterly failed in securing the religio-cultural space. In 1990s, the trope of security had precedence over the trope of religio-cultural space. The Samajwadi Party in UP, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and other regional parties mobilized the community on the trope of security. Witness that the Muslim political leadership did not respond to many Supreme Court Judgments as their religio-cultural space was slowly being encroached upon. E.g. the judgment of Supreme Court that AMU is a university established by state legislation and therefore cannot be an educational institution established by minority went unprotected vociferously. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen were given visa, this generated some debate in TV studios but not on streets. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 which was passed by the Parliament to overturn the Shahbano judgment was interpreted by the Supreme Court to ensure even better regime of maintenance for a divorced Muslim Woman by her former husband and the judgment went unprotested. We could list several issues wherein the religio-cultural space that was being defended by the Deobandi Ulemas was encroached upon and went unprotected in 1990s.

The 15 year rule of RJD in Bihar was practically free from communal riots. During Mulayam Singh’s Chief Ministership too the intensity and frequency of communal violence went down drastically. However, the Samajwadi Party as well as the RJD found it convenient to negotiate with the Ashraf leadership as spokespersons for the entire community. Muslims in their imagination meant a homogenous religio-cultural community. Such a conception was inbuilt in the M-Y alliance propounded by them. Mulayam Singh even went to the extent of announcing Friday as weekly holiday for Muslim students in school but the circular was quickly withdrawn after the members of the community too protested.

The issue of security too did not mean reparations for the past violence but prevention and control of future violence. Reparation would not only guarantee security but deterrence on one hand and justice to the victims on the other hand. However, reparations would mean punishing the guilty and there were substantial number of them from the caste that supported them. What was necessary to guarantee security was a more accountable and inclusive system and regime that was blind and neutral to cultural preferences of not only the Muslims, but all citizens within the Constitutional framework.

….(In the next part we will examine the assertion of Muslim youth, their aspirations and significance of the MIM’s victory in Maharashtra)