In the last article, we surveyed the state of Hindu-Muslim relations in India before Independence and how the minority politics played out in the making of the Indian Constitution. Through that analysis, it has become clear that pitching the Hindu-Muslim hostility as an outcome of the colonial state’s policy of divide-and-rule is a myth. As records from Ambedkar’s – the chief architect of the Constitution and a known figure of social justice in India – writings show, it was the Indian intelligentsia, the Indian National Congress and its icon Gandhi who were mainly responsible for mobilizing a pro-minority discourse. The criteria for deciding whether minorities should be accorded a special status was finally decided according to social and economic backwardness, rather than the numerical status of a group. Thus, while Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes were accorded special status, the religious minorities like Muslims were not.
However, the reasoning that underpinned the policy of Muslim appeasement continues to hold sway even today viz. catering to Muslim demands will lead to more peace and harmony. The upshot is that it has led to communalism in the country and also left the Indian Muslims more ghettoised and isolated than ever, by reducing them to a political vote-bank. Such results have been a direct upshot of Congress politics since Independence.
The Present Creation of the Bogey of Muslim Identity
It is well-known that much like any other community, Muslims are internally divided on the basis of caste, class and religious lines. Moreover, the way they respond to politics differs from state to state. As the upcoming elections will show, there is a substantial difference between the condition of Muslims in Kerala, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Yet, ‘secular’ political parties like the Congress have managed to construct a Muslim vote-bank, and on the basis of it, have been engaging in a policy of minority appeasement.
As we have already seen in the last issue, the existing divisions between the Hindus and the Muslims due to the inherently radical nature of Islam were exploited by Gandhi during the colonial era. After Independence, the policy was carried forward by Nehru who went out of the way to assure the Muslims that they were important political stakeholders in the country. In the name of secularism and personal atheism, he interfered extensively in reforming the Hindu personal laws, left the Muslim personal laws unchanged despite their oppressive nature towards their own community members and provided paternalistic subsidies to the Muslims. The actions clearly pitted the Hindus and the Muslims against each other and did nothing to actually ensure that, at least on a basic, albeit superficial level, Muslims can be included in the country’s social and economic structure in any real sense. This has only further isolated the radical community and augmented the vote-bank of parties like the Congress.
Other actions by secular political parties include ‘the appeal of non-Congress parties, excluding the Jan Sangh to create a social alliance of Muslims-Dalit and backwards in the name of anti-Congressism in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the rise of a ‘secular camp’ in the wake of Shah Bano and Babri Masjid controversies in the late 1980 and 1990s; the continuation of this ‘secular’ front in Indian politics throughout the 1990s to ensure that the BJP remains isolated and out of power; and finally, the proposal for Muslim reservation by the [Congress-led] United Progressive Alliance I and II, and the best efforts of Sonia Gandhi to introduce the virulent Communal Violence Bill which would have universally penalised the Hindus for every incident of communal violence in the country, have contributed to the making of ‘Muslim issues’.’1 This politics has been further supported by the intellectual-academic class of the country in the universities and the schools, where course-books have consistently sought to project a polarised view of history by depicting the Muslims as victims of Hindu majoritarianism. The extent to which the Congress, led by the party President Sonia Gandhi has exacerbated the exclusivity of Muslims can be grasped from the former PM, Manmohan Singh’s statement in the aftermath of the Sachar Committee report of 2006 viz. that Muslims have the first claim over the country’s resources.
Politically, that is how the Muslim ‘identity’ in India has been forged. Even a single question against Muslim radicalism invites a public backlash from the ‘secular’ class of this country.
The upshot is that – much like Gandhi’s Congress’s biased approach before Independence – the cases of communal disturbances are treated selectively. Every incident – the Dadri lynching, the assassination of rationalists, the Rohith Vemula suicide and now the JNU controversy – is made an occasion to pin the blame on the so-called ‘Hindu radicals’. Ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014, the country has witnessed a consistent trend, with the Opposition picking up themes from academic theories and magnifying the otherwise small incidents in their frame. Thus, while 2014 saw the Opposition training its guns on the government on ‘pro-poor’ socio-economic issues, 2015 marked the debate on intolerance and 2016 has witnessed the debate on nationalism, in the wake of the JNU controversy.
On the other hand, the country also saw various, comparable, if not worse, incidents implicating the other side, such as the brutal lynching of a young RSS worker in Kerala (how is this less worse than the Dadri lynching?), the vandalisation of offices of a media house by radical Islamists, and the Malda riots in West Bengal. The riots saw a complete failure of the state machinery, with only a handful of arrests from the large crowd of Muslims who had engineered the riots and their bail immediately afterwards. And incidents like the lynching of the RSS worker have become a regular feature in Kerala. The politics of that state, in which the Muslims and the Christians form an elite class, is deeply vitiated. And despite the well-known track record of Kerala as having a ‘progressive’ record across human development indicators, there is also deep and rising inequality.
Given this, where are we standing at the present juncture?
The Critical Factor
Today, we are at a critical, determining juncture. With Narendra Modi representing the rise of a direct attack on the communal, pro-minority attitudes, the forces on the other side have become more virulent, than ever, in their onslaught.
According to recent research, “Muslims and Christians enjoy unique and discriminatory benefits as compared to Hindus – whether they be SC/ST and Hindu OBCs – under some of these heads:
• State Minority Benefit Schemes
• OBC Benefit Schemes – Approximately more than 50 per cent of Muslims and Christians were moved to the OBC category by National Committee for Backward Classes (NCBC)
• SC/ST Schemes – A big percentage of Muslims and Christians were moved to SC/ST. Hindu SC/STs converted to Christianity continue to enjoy SC/ST benefits with Christian and OBC benefits
• Central Benefit Schemes for Minorities
The schemes listed…are not applicable for Hindu SC/STs.”2
And, with the by-polls in key states around the corner, Muslims are already being appeased by all the political parties. In states like Assam, Kerala and West Bengal, they constitute a critical mass of the population.
With the decades of distorted secular discourse burning in the country, the process of extinguishing it will be painful and protracted.
On a broader front, the immediate factor that will help will be the contestation of Islam itself by the Muslims. Already this is happening in various Muslim organizations in India, as the divisions in Islamic organizations deepen and the silent voices acquire a voice in public. But this will have to be a global movement. It will happen once the situation of Islamic extremism reaches a precipitating point, which it is already nearing. Now the tolerance for such fundamentalism has become zero, across both Western and Gulf countries. In fact, a top jihadi leader even said that Indian Muslims are in an extremely good condition.3
On the immediate political front, what is necessary is for the Muslims to recognize how they have been deliberately ghettoised by the ‘secular’ political parties like the Congress. These parties have used a paternalistic and condescending discourse of protection of minorities to ensure that they always remain an isolated community and never merge into the mainstream national fabric. Their vote-banks have thrived on this strategy. This has translated into marginal economic gains and material improvement of these communities. Now, even the Muslims have begun to recognize that nothing has really been done for them. So, for them, the choice of political representation lies between the lesser of the two evils.
What is needed in such a context is for parties like the BJP to ensure that the Muslim vote comes their way. This is a challenge, since the community does not relate to the language of mainstream nationalism. For them, it has always been Muslim first, allegiance to Muslim countries second and Indian last.
In the next issue, we will explore the future of secularism and of Hindu-Muslim relations in the light of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s writings.
1. Ahmed, Hilal. Economic and Political Weekly. March 8, 2014. http://www.epw.in.ezproxy.jnu.ac.in/blog/hilal-ahmed/what-muslim-vote-bank.html (accessed March 15, 2016).
2. India Facts. India Facts. November 27, 2014. http://indiafacts.org/list-discriminatory-bills-favouring-minorities-india/ (accessed March 16, 2016).
3. Jain, Bharti. Times of India. February 24, 2016. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Indian-Muslims-well-off-felt-top-jihadi/articleshow/51114708.cms (accessed March 16, 2016).