Rising Muslim Political Assertion

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Dr Khalid Khan | Caravan Daily

MUSLIMS in India have generally associated themselves with the idea of Secularism. The long-time disappearance of Muslim-led parties or their distancing from electoral politics is a clear evidence of Muslims’ inclination, rather, towards secular organisations like the Congress. This approach developed in the context of a challenging choice between Muslims either diluting their nationalist perspective or being branded as communalist.

Those who denied accepting the idea of Secularism floated by a mainstream political party have always faced the risk of being labeled as communal. Though the understanding of Secularism has undergone changes over time, this idea itself is facing serious odds in the present context. The question of significance in the present-day Indian politics is: how Muslims are assimilating themselves to the newly evolving discourse of Nationalism disassociated as it is from Secularism?

In standard definition, Secularism is understood as a separation of religion from the affairs of the state. However, in India, Secularism is regarded as a concept revolved around the rights provided to minorities, particularly the Muslims. Even the withdrawal of facilities like Reservation in government jobs and a separate electoral college, which were given to Muslims during the British period, were justified in Independent India on the ground the nation was bound by the ideal of Secularism – a concept that worked for common good, beyond religion.

During the initial days of Independence, the idea of Secularism could survive odds, due to the first PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s personal offer to ensure equal treatment to all, including the minorities. This vision started disappearing after his demise, due in part to a widening schism between the Congress and the Muslims. The most frequent criticism of Secular parties, from a Muslim perspective, has been in terms of their appallingly huge under-representation in different institutions of governance. In this context, the nominal representation for the community in Parliament as also state assemblies is an important complaint from and concern among large sections of the Muslims.

Such discontent among Muslims has been reflected in both electoral experiments and political movements from time to time. On the flip side, such attempts have been branded, often, as an attempt at revival of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s separatist plank. This is also portrayed as a self-defeating attempt or a tacit agreement with right-wing forces to defeat Secularist parties. Any attempt at mass-mobilization through non-electoral methods has been frowned upon by vested interests. A deep-rooted fear that such attempts would eventually turn into radical Islamist pursuits has come in the way of evolution of a mass movement among the Muslims. The fate of organisations like the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is often cited as an example to condemn such social activism among Muslims.

The inability of Muslims to reformulate policies within the Constitutional framework and India’s vaunted culture of diversity has been a major problem for Muslim organisations to organize themselves under one banner. However, the recent times are witnessing a shift in the outlook of the Muslim minority as regards their political participation.

Till date, ordinary Muslims believed their emancipation lay in Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad’s prescription of Nehruvian Secularism as a panacea for their ills, and a feeling that the Congress represented this creed. Azad always stood for shared nationalism. He was of the view that Jinnah’s two-nation theory was bound to fail. This viewpoint has largely shaped the lives of Indian Muslims until 2014, when the nationalist, pro-Hindu BJP took power with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.

The reality today is that the idea of Secularism that Nehru and his colleagues had espoused has come to naught. The rise of the BJP and the gradual rightward shift of the  Congress after Nehru compelled Muslims to turn around and look for other alternatives. The rising political assertion among Muslim should be seen in this context.

The post-Sachar realization of an extreme form of backwardness among the Muslims as a community has created an urge among Muslims for self-empowerment, rather than waiting for someone to come and give them goodies on a platter. The so-called minority witch-hunt particularly before 2014, the appalling cases of lynching, the unabated hate speeches, the controversial citizenship amendment bill and a sense of threat posed to their religious pursuits and culture during the post 2014 period have both hurt and provoked the community to look beyond the existing frameworks of political patronage.

The present rise in Muslim political assertion is markedly different from the earlier attempts at least on two counts — one, the bold attempt to contest elections under the banner of Muslim outfits, and two, the sprouting of a rights-based social empowerment movement. The sprouting of Muslim politics in India can be divided into two sub periods  — before and after the 2014 general elections. The Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh and the All India United Democratic Front in Assam are the two widely-discussed electoral attempts by Muslims. The Indian Union Muslim League, based out of Kerala, is the only electoral experiment that successfully passed the tests of the times.

The post 2014 period is characterised by the rise of two prominent voices among Muslims – a pan India electoral experiment by the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM from Hyderabad, and a mass mobilisation by the Popular Front of India. Their rise is evident from their mobilisations and circulations in the social media. They are trying their best to exploit a vacuum left behind by the virtual eclipse of Secular parties in general and the Congress in particular.

Owaisi attacks Secular parties and the Sangh Parivar in the same vein in order to portray his image as a strong leader for Muslims. The latest victory of his party in Kishanganj (Bihar), apart from some successes in Maharashtra and its base in Telangana, has given a new hope in its aspiration to evolve as an important contender in Indian politics. Owaisi’s consistent dissenting notes on many Muslim issues, which even a mainstream party avoids airing in public, is a major reason for his popularity.

His comment on the recent Babri Masjid verdict, that the ‘Supreme Court is supreme, but not infallible’ is a manifestation of the kind of voice he provides to the Muslim community. The Popular Front of India, a cadre-based movement, was started soon after Babri Masjid demolition. It claims to work for the overall empowerment of marginalised groups, particularly Muslims. The latest mobilisation in Delhi in the name of a People’s Right Conference by PFI and a Dignity Conference by its student wing, the Campus Front of India, got wider social media attention. The speeches in these events revolved around Constitutional rights and criticism of the government on issues like National Register of Citizens, religious freedom, heinous acts like mob lynching etc.

Notably, the mobilisation of Muslims around rights-based issues manifests a growing political awareness among them. This needs to be seen from a progressive perspective rather than  labeling such attempts as communally loaded campaigns. In fact, identity-based mobilisation is a new way of questioning the right-wing hegemonic order. The future of any progressive movement at a national level will now be largely determined by its ability to mobilise, act in a united manner, and bringing under one umbrella all such movements for common good.

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Dr Khalid Khan is Assistant Professor in Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. The views expressed here are author’s personal.

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