One community, many rights
The question of the Muslim vote, instead of being reduced to a monolithic entity, should actually be about justice and redistribution in accordance with the needs and aspirations of the community
Tanweer Fazal Delhi
Come elections, and among the many perplexities that stare at us, is this one: how are the Muslims going to exercise their franchise? All said and done, the fact that Muslims betray deep caste, class and sectarian cleavages amongst them remains immaterial to a public discourse centred around packaging the community (or communities, to be precise) in terms of its imagined monolithic attributes. Garrulous television talk shows aided by pollsters, commentators and op-ed experts quite wittingly contribute to this typecasting of the Muslim voter—one steeped in poverty and force of tradition and, on account of his under-developed state of being, is captive to one or the other ‘secular’ political formations. In this sense, Muslims are the poster boys of secularism, their zealous participation in the process reaffirms the secularity of the secular state, their representation within party structures and among nominated candidates certifies the party’s secular credentials; besides, the ‘Muslim vote’ is also considered a bulwark against communalism.
The irony of the situation needs to be underscored — despite this near-obsessive attention to Muslims during election season, empowerment remains a chimera. An analysis of the religious distribution of Lok Sabha representation leaves us with a rather sad history of marginality. Except for a brief period in the early 1980s, Muslim presence in the Lower House (including the present Lok Sabha) has languished at around 5-6 per cent. Rising communal polarization could an explanation, but how do we make sense of the shortfall even during interludes of relative peace, as in the 1950s and the ’60s?
Another argument advanced is about the dispersed nature of the Muslim population that deprives it of an elected representative from amongst itself, but concurrently bestows it with immense tactical advantage. Pursuing the line, a recent psephological piece estimates the Muslim vote as critical in some 220-odd parliamentary constituencies. In all these constituencies, it is presumed, Muslims vote en masse to keep their bête-noire, the BJP, away. However, as election studies conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, have constantly reminded us, there is no clear pattern. Let us examine the 2009 data from Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of Mandir-Masjid politics: Muslims split their votes among the SP, BSP and the Congress, a pattern that was repeated in the 2012 Assembly Polls, too, with the SP cornering a major share of it. In fact, if the community lens is put to rest for a while, we see that Muslim voting behaviour is no different from the prevailing mood. Regional analysis is more illuminating—in Assam, the votes were split between the Congress and AGP, despite the latter’s past association with anti-Bengali Muslim sentiments; in Andhra Pradesh, it’s the Congress, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (MIM) and the TDP (despite its flirtations with the NDA); in Jharkhand, it’s the Congress, the JMM and the RJD that divide the Muslim preferences between them.
The irony of the situation needs to be underscored – despite this near obsessive attention to Muslims during election season, empowerment remains a chimera
Far more pertinent is the question of methodology. That Muslims are as internally differentiated as any other community is axiomatic, but these caste, biradari and ethnic segregates rarely become units of analyses for election forecasters. What we are left with is the idea that the entire community acts in a symphony of action and purpose. Electoral behaviour of Muslims in most contexts defies such a portrayal. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, middle and low caste Muslims in western UP formed a formidable alliance with the Jatavs under the BSP. The Peace Party, formed in the backdrop of the 2012 Assembly elections, sought to mobilize Ansaris and others in central and eastern parts of the state. In neighbouring Bihar, caste tension between ashraf and pasmanda Muslims was successfully exploited by Nitish Kumar to breach Lalu’s impregnable ‘MY’ (Muslims-Yadavs) formula. In Kerala, the equitable politics of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is centred on building an entente of Muslim subalterns and other deprived communities. In contrast, the Kerala Muslim League is viewed as representing the interests of upper caste Thangals. In Assam, the na-Asamiya and indigenous Muslims are one with the Assamese majority in labelling Bengali-speaking Muslims as ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’. The latter has found its political expression under the Assam United Democratic Front. In much of West Bengal, and also in Kerala, large sections of Muslims were mobilized by the communist parties. Muslims, atypically, have divergent interests and choose their politics accordingly.
Politics of recognition, centred on religious and community-specific symbolisms that dominated the ’80s and the early ’90s, is gradually getting replaced with issues of justice and redistribution. Despite regional variations, at the all-India level, a high degree of unemployment, coupled with low income and insecure employment, contributes to insurmountable poverty levels among Muslims. And this has only increased in recent years with the latest Planning Commission estimates putting urban poverty among them higher than all other social categories (including SCs and STs). Even worse is the condition of Muslim OBCs, more than 70 per cent of whom populate the poorest two quintiles of Monthly Per Capita Expenditure(MPCE) in urban areas (NSS, 2009-10). The pattern is repeated in almost all other spheres of human development, be it literacy, school enrolment, ownership of land and other immoveable assets, work participation, housing and sanitation. Politics of equity is what these sections of Muslims residing in working class locales, urban slums and ghettos and village habitats value and aspire to. It is this quest for equity that remains unrecognized, both by politics as much as by pollsters. That irresistible desire to predict the ‘swing’ in Muslim vote is everybody’s obsession.
The two poles of Indian politics—the Congress and the BJP, the UPA and the NDA, the secular and the communal—have responded in conceptually dissimilar but consequentially identical ways to this new-felt consciousness. Minorityism of the past continues to inform the politics of the present so far as the secular narrative on the ‘Muslim question’ is concerned. Minorityism is a package that privileges culture and identity over material and equity, that involves occasional showers of sops and is executed through deliberately pampered cultural virtuosos who thrive on perpetuating religious boundaries. Two such policy initiatives can be cited. The first was the announcement of 4.5 per cent minority quota within the OBC category on the eve of the UP Assembly elections. What was purportedly a game changer failed to impress the Muslims of UP. The other one is the recent announcement of the institution of the equal opportunities commission exclusively for Muslims (instead of the Sachar Committee’s proposal for all deprived groups).
The Hindutva framework, on the other hand, relies on the rhetoric of ‘minority appeasement’ to dismiss and deny any instance of targetted distribution of resources. In Gujarat, therefore, the state refused to implement schemes of minority welfare such as MSDP (Multi-Sectoral Development Programme) and scholarship disbursals. Minority appeasement is a recurring agenda item in Modi’s propaganda. In his Bengaluru speech (November 17, 2013), the NDA’s prime ministerial designate spoke disparagingly of ‘a pink revolution’—a clear instance of minority appeasement in his eyes—that the Centre had carved out to boost mutton production and export. This was then related to the loss of livestock, particularly the much revered ‘cows’ in the country. Instead, had the Centre concentrated on supporting software production and export, roared Modi, India could have addressed its enduring economic crisis. The meat production and the software industries, one dominated by the Qasabs or Qureshis, and the other the backbone of India’s new middle class—polemics of appeasement survives on these false binaries.
Muslim politics is changing, and the signs of it are clear and present. The conservative streak is on the verge of decline. The calls of religious leaders have been falling on deaf ears for a while (Mahmood Madani knows it better) but beyond that, a compulsion to amend the nodal points of community identification is being felt far and wide. In Chhattisgarh, and many other states of India, the government scheme of SPQEM (Scheme to Provide Quality Education in Madrassas) is adopted by the Barelvi madrassa with the legitimation that both deeni and dunyavi taleem complement each other. Its rival, the Jamiat-e-Ulema, though reticent in adopting the scheme, felt the heat and responded by announcing scholarships for students interested in pursuing technical education. The head of the Munger Khanqah, Wali Rahmani, today runs a coaching institute for IIT aspirants. The repositories of Muslim exclusivity have had to persistently shift their stance to adapt to emerging circumstances. A new middle class has gradually emerged whose absence was long felt but, unlike its pre-Partition antecedents, it is culturally and socially diverse. Its existence is evident in the mushrooming of minority educational institutions in Southern India, in growing civil society networks around developmental concerns, in their presence in the national media, in the assertiveness of backward classes. Muslim political consciousness stands fragmented. Accordingly, the political options for Muslims are assorted—surveyors need take note of it.