One of the enduring myths of Indian politics is about the appeasement of Muslims. As India girds up for the 2014 electoral battle and the two principal political parties sharpen their attacks on each other, the issue is back in the spotlight. So is the bewildered community, uneasy at being forced from the margins to the center-stage.
While the ruling Congress once again portrays itself as an inclusive political force representing the resplendent diversity of the nation – a claim not easy to ignore despite its myriad flaws and a long history of political opportunism – the opposition BJP has resurrected the same old, familiar ghosts of the saffron pantheon. Muslim-bashing is back in fashion albeit not as virulent as in the past for obvious reasons as the BJP accuses the Congress of vote-bank politics.
“The Congress hides behind the burqa of secularism to cover its failures”, thundered Narendra Modi, the BJP’s new face and possibly its prime ministerial candidate, recently targeting both the grand old party and the community it is supposed to be mollycoddling.
Congress’s Shashi Tharoor, the former UN diplomat and suave author of many a tome on modern India, was quick to respond: “Burqa of secularism is preferable to khaki shorts of the Italian fascists of the 1920s.”
Unlike in the past, the Congress isn’t running away from this so-called debate about secularism versus communalism and familiar accusations about minority appeasement. Tharoor rejects the notion that the Congress is either falling into the trap set up by the Hindutva party or is deliberately playing along the agenda set by Modi to deflect voters’ attention from issues such as corruption, runaway inflation and the state of the economy. “We will just not allow the claims made by Modi go unchallenged”, asserts the federal minister.
This is a welcome change. At last, the ruling party seems to have mustered the courage to take on the BJP head on and confront it on its brand of hate-laced politics. All these years the Congress has tried to be all things to all people. And when pushed to the wall, it even preyed on both the misgivings of the majority and the insecurity of the minority, playing one loyal constituency against another. Indeed, having ruled India for the better part of the post-Independence period, the Congress has perfected the art putting it to use with deadly effect in election after election.
In the wake of the Partition, the traumatized Muslims instinctively rallied around the Congress and stayed with it largely because of the sheer force of personality of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister known for his liberal image, and stalwarts like Maulana Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Dr Zakir Hussain. Besides, there had been no credible alternative to the Congress.
In dutifully voting for the Congress even after Nehru’s exit, the Muslims hadn’t necessarily bucked the national trend. If they supported the Congress, so did the rest of India because of the simple fact it had led the country to Independence. But Muslims had been nothing more than a vote bank for the grand old party even as its condition steadily worsened. Battling for survival, it lagged behind all communities in all areas. Under Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, things went from bad to worse.
The Muslims faced the combined onslaught of the Hindu right and the increasingly communal police and administration in recurring religious riots across India – from Bhagalpur to Bhiwandi and Maliana to Muradabad – while the Congress exploited the insecurity and fear psychosis of the community to keep it forever under its thumb.
Paying lip service to the grievances of the community and successfully using the dumb politics of tokenism – throwing an Iftar party here and putting up some Muslim showpieces in ceremonial positions there – the party has presided over the meticulous marginalization and political and economic dispossession of Muslims all these years.
The community has successfully been driven to the margins of Indian society within six decades of Independence. Today, it’s struggling well below the lowest of the low according to the government’s own social and economic indicators.
When the Congress returned to power nine years ago – with Muslim votes having played a significant part in its victory – there had been great expectations. Under Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it was perceived as a different party altogether. But clearly the more things change for the Congress and Muslims, the more they remain the same.
The elaborate studies and recommendations by the Justice Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Commission remain on paper. Thousands of the usual suspects have been languishing in jails across the country or summarily dealt with as Ishrat Jahan, Qateel Siddiqui, Khalid Mujahid and numerous others had been.
No wonder angry Muslim intellectuals insist there’s no real difference between the Congress and the BJP when it comes to this community; one is an open enemy and the other plays games – forever calculating in terms of political constituencies and electoral profit and loss.
Rajiv Gandhi had to turn over Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid to Hindu groups apparently to assuage their hurt feelings over the Muslim Women’s Bill brought in the wake of the Shah Bano verdict. How an issue that is essentially an internal affair of a community affects Hindus is something only the Congress pundits could explain.
The nation is still paying the price for those electoral gimmicks of the party. Ironically, it was the Ayodhya agitation that helped its bête noire BJP transform itself from a two-member minor player into the party of power and one of the two major parties today.
The Congress is so preoccupied with its too-clever-by-half calculations about the minority vote and majority sentiment that it does not realize that it ends up squandering both. And it’s not just the Congress; other late arrivals like Mulayam Singh Yadav are fast catching up.
But Muslims are the real losers in this cynical game of electoral poker and political one-upmanship. Repeatedly betrayed by the Congress and other parties and fearful of the Hindutva brigade, they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Instead of fighting for their genuine demands and share in power like other communities, they are grateful for shallow tokenism and crumbs thrown their way.
So this perpetual tirade about ‘Muslim appeasement’ isn’t just unfair and absurd, it’s downright silly and ridiculous. If Muslims had been ‘appeased’ and successive governments had doted on them all these years, would they be in the pathetic state they are in today? They are seen as second-class citizens in their own country.
Yet this brazen lie and narrative about Muslim appeasement has been going around for so long and is so pervasive that everyone, including the media, has unquestioningly embraced it. It’s not just the likes of Arnab Goswami who are beside themselves with righteous rage over proposals like fast-track courts to deal with Muslim ‘terror suspects’, more reasonable voices are peddling the same nonsense.
It’s perfectly fine if innocents are locked away for years without trial and without due process, as Delhi’s Mohammad Aamir and numerous others have been, but heavens would fall if hope of justice, however faint, is held out to Muslims. Let them rot away in their ghettos but governments mustn’t move a finger to grant them rights and assurances that are guaranteed by the Indian constitution.
If this isn’t unfair, what is? God knows Muslims want no special treatment from anyone. They are not looking for extraordinary attention and lollipops from governments or those pointless photo-ops like political iftars. What they need is justice and their just and fair share of the pie with dignity in accordance with their numbers. Is that asking for too much?