Deceived and betrayed: Will Muslims look for new leadership now?

Topics Citizenship Act | Muslims | AAP

The conventional leadership of secular, liberal political parties has failed the minority community. A new leadership that will speak the political language appropriate to its contemporary needs is, however, yet to emerge.

Subjected to communal violence and treated as ‘fifth columnists’ by the right-wing Hindu parties and organisations, the Muslims of India for long had faith in the secular parties. At the very least they did not question their loyalty or their rights as Indian citizens. That faith has been betrayed by the inaction of the traditional secular parties, especially the Congress and the Aam Adami Party (AAP), when Muslims in the national capital were being targeted by Hindutva mobs.

The mainstream secular parties had already abandoned leadership in the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This political retreat presaged their indifference and refusal to go to the violence-affected areas of Delhi when the homes and businesses of the minority community were being systematically destroyed.

Their sustained evasion on existential questions of the minority community suggests that their indifference is strategic. Under Prime Minister Modi, the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that secular liberal parties think they will lose support in the majority Hindu community if they speak up for Muslims. Not that the long innings of the Congress did much to remedy the political representation of Muslims or their socio-economic marginalisation. The report of the Rajinder Sachar Committee proved that their secularism was always vacuous.

The Congress lost power in the states when regional parties began to woo Muslims as a vote bank – the most notable being the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal. They used the ‘Muslim vote’ as a force multiplier to assume power, parading a few Muslim political faces to prove their credentials. The Muslim community too colluded with these parties. The ‘pasmanda’ (Dalit and backward) Muslims thought they could leapfrog their socio-economic condition by forming an alliance with the OBC (other backward classes) parties.

However, barring Mamata Banerjee, these parties have been absent in the agitation for citizenship rights. Their Muslim leaders have been totally marginalised. Thus, for example, Azam Khan, the tallest Muslim leader of the SP has been jailed with his wife and son — without Akhilesh Yadav speaking up for him.

Muslim women during a protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) at Shaheen Bagh. PTI

In Delhi, Muslim voters threw their weight behind Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP as the party most likely to stand up to the Hindutva onslaught of the BJP. They rationalised Kejriwal’s muted response to the CAA as an “electoral compulsion”. What did the Muslim community get in return for the sweeping mandate given to Kejriwal? A recitation of the Hanuman Chalisa on television and a prayer for peace at Rajghat when murderous Hindutva mobs were attacking to kill and burning their homes and businesses.

Can the Muslim community be blamed now for concluding that irrespective of which party or candidate they vote for, they will remain locked in the vicious cycle of discrimination?

The choices before the community are stark. The post-Partition compact of carving out a representational space for itself within existing secular liberal formations is now broken. It made sense then to abandon the identity based politics of the Muslim League which had led to the partition of the country. For nearly seven decades the Muslim voter of India has by and large chosen to throw in its lot with the secular liberal parties and has rejected identity-based parties with minor exceptions in Hyderabad (Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Musalmeen) and Kerala (Indian Union Muslim League, Welfare Party and Social Democratic Party).

But the community may be forced to rethink its political future now. The anti-CAA agitation seems to have led to a paradigmatic shift in the political consciousness of the Indian Muslims. They seem to be in the process of redefining their political identity not in purely religious terms but within a Constitutional and rights discourse. Their protests are not led by Imams and the clergy but by women and men holding up portraits of B R Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad and Savitridevi Phule, and the Indian tricolour. The public reading of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution rather than Quranic verses defines who they are politically. They are prioritising Constitutionalism and secular symbols in a manner never witnessed earlier.

This suggests that a religious agenda is unlikely to find support amongst those being politicised through the anti-CAA protests. Unless they adapt to the new idiom of secularism and adopt civic symbols, the appeal of the traditional Muslim parties is also likely to remain limited.

While Owaisi’s party speaks the language of secularism and has pioneered a political alliance with Dalits in Maharashtra, neither he nor his alliance partners represent the new energy being unleashed in the Muslim community. That political energy is unlikely to give boost to the traditional Muslim parties.

A more likely outcome than the transformation of traditional Muslim parties may be the emergence of a new political leadership -- distinguished by its language of rights based on the Constitution and a political phraseology of freedom, justice and equality for all citizens. The politics emerging out of recent nationwide protests is Constitutional and not that of Islamic radicalism as is being falsely propagated by the BJP. In fact, it is not Islamic radicalism that they fear. Their real apprehension is the opposite — a new Constitutional politics in the Muslim community to which they have no answer and which exposes them as narrow minded, undemocratic, and majoritarian.

The newly emergent Muslim leadership may find it abhorrent to work within the ideologically moth-eaten, secular, liberal mainstream parties. They may have to form political parties of their own. To win elections they would have to explore alliances with other marginalised sections of society — but not as cheerleaders of existing identity-based parties which have betrayed them. The support for Bhim Army Chief, Chandrashekhar Azad in the Muslim community may be a pointer in the direction of a more equal political partnership.
Twitter: @Bharatitis

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