//The Muslim voice gets stronger

The Muslim voice gets stronger

Prakash Patra, Hindustan Times, May 29, 2006

Muslim politics in India is at a crossroads. The clerics (ulema), whose writ was supposed to be confined within the social structure, are becoming increasingly more assertive in the political arena.

In Assam, a Mumbai-based perfume trader with no political background but who had the backing of the clergy, plunged into politics and managed to corner 10 seats. His successful foray into politics denied the Congress a simple majority in the state. Thus, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, better known for the style in which he wears his turban, has suddenly become a key character in Assam politics.

In Kerala, even the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front was blatant in playing to the Muslim community’s sentiments. It didn’t hesitate to espouse the cause of Abdul Nasser Madani — languishing in jail for his involvement in the Coimbatore blasts that left more than 50 persons dead. The Congress too did not lag behind in appealing to minority sentiments. The most literate state saw poll posters in Arabic.

Uttar Pradesh will witness the mother of all electoral battles early next year. Here, a section of powerful clerics has floated its own political outfit — the the People’s Democratic Front (PDF). “If the 7 per cent of Yadavs can rule UP, why can’t 23 per cent Muslims?” asks Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawad who heads the PDF, essentially an umbrella organisation of a number of Islamic outfits. This is a genuine question and is being asked in a state where backward caste leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, often described as Maulana Mulayam by Hindu fundamentalists, is ruling the state. Yadav sustains his political clout by way of the formidable electoral combination of Muslims and Yadavs in UP. His concession to fundamentalists is evident in the fact that he has a minister in his Cabinet, Yaqoob Qureishi, who made it to the headlines with his blatant offer of Rs 51 crore for the ‘head of the man’ who drew the Prophet’s cartoon.

Maulana Kalbe Jawad’s confidence in floating the PDF stems from the perception that there is a underlying deep resentment in the minority community. Considering the huge response that the anti-Bush rally had in Delhi and the anger expressed by the community over the cartoon issue, Kalbe Jawad feels that his PDF would be able to translate these sentiments into votes and be in a position to determine future electoral politics in the Hindi heartland.

What we are witnessing is the fragmentation of political movements across the country on the lines of caste, region and religion. People are losing faith in the ability, or willingness, of the major political parties to provide a platform where people with diverse aspirations can resolve their grievances. After the growth of a string of regional parties and the political assertiveness of a section of the Hindu community through the BJP, it is now the turn of the Muslim community to throw up some leaders who will strike out on a separate political course.

For a long time after Independence , the Muslim community remained content to allow the Congress to represent and in fact, appropriate, its political voice. Given the fact that there was a virtual single-party dominance on the political scene, there was hardly any scope or space for a splintering of the Muslim (or virtually any other) political identity. Organisations like the Muslim League remained largely marginal players in the political arena. The Congress too was adept in embracing the moderate Muslim persona into its character, even while taking care not to offend the more hardline clerics who held tight sway among the larger Muslim populace.

But, in the last decade or so, the world has changed. The rise of the BJP and the growing clout of the Sangh parivar and its loony fringe has raised the apprehensions of the Muslim community. The Islamophobia that besieged the global scene post-9/11 has had a definite effect in bringing the Muslim ummah, worldwide, into a tighter bind. Indian Muslims have traditionally never been part of the overt global pan-Islamic expression. But at a time when the war of ideologies is being fought on the basis of religious symbols to an extent, Indian Muslims can’t be expected to remain emotionally untouched by what is obviously perceived as the near-persecution of their co-religionists elsewhere in the world.

It is at this juncture that Indian Muslims feel the need for a voice that will articulate their concerns and needs. The issue is not only about the under-development of large sections of Muslims in India or their under-representation in jobs or anything as tangible or obvious as that. The issue is simply about an assertion of identity, about having a bearing and being significant. A group of clerics calling on the Prime Minister, seeking job reservation for backward Muslims, shows not only the attempt to adopt what is seen as the advantages of asserting a group identity. It also shows that they’ll use traditional bargaining tactics to claim advantage.

Now, for a variety of reasons, the Congress is no longer seen as a party that can effectively do this. Just as the regional parties were born — and prospered thereafter — as a result of   the Congress’ failure to adequately capture and represent the disparate needs of different groups, the yet-nascent Muslim political formations too are growing and are likely to flower in what is a political vacuum as far as the interests of the Muslim community is concerned.

It is certainly not at all a healthy sign to witness clerics entering politics. At the same time, we did see mahants and sadhus entering Parliament and assemblies to espouse the Hindutva cause? If caste is a reality, as we have been led to accept by successive political establishments, religion is a bigger and far more basic reality.

It remains to be seen what electoral impact the PDF will have in UP. But it will certainly be good news for the BJP. Hindu communalism and Muslim communalism are two sides of the same coin. The developments in UP will certainly give a boost to the BJP which is groping in the dark for issues. And the more assertive the clerics get, the more the BJP  stands to benefit. After all, there’s no denying the fact that the emergence of one Badruddin in Assam could help the party retain its tally in Assam!

Whether the national parties have at all woken up to the implications of the emergence of a distinct Muslim political voice is unclear. Clearly, the old strategy of assimilation is not going to work this time. Badruddin’s remarkable debut in Assam is but a wake-up call.