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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 32 New Delhi July 28, 2018

Indian Muslims and Congress: Electoral Dilemmas

Sunday 29 July 2018

by Ram Puniyani

While Sonia Gandhi at a party meeting lamented that the Congress is being presented as a Muslim party,1 an anti-Hindu party,2 her own party’s major Muslim leader, Salman Khursheed, confessed that the Congress has the blood of Muslims on its hands.3 This raises a lot of questions about the nature of the Congress as a political party and as to how the Muslims of India respond to the appeal for support from the Congress in particular. In the wake of the UP election results (2017) when the number of Muslim MLAs has fallen to 5.9 per cent, not a single Muslim candidate was put up by the BJP, while the population of Muslims in UP is about 19.26 per cent. The BJP won with a thumping majority. Mohammad Adeeb, one of the foremost Muslim leaders, stated that Muslims should withdraw from the electoral arena as due to their presence parties are able to polarise the elections on communal lines, with Muslims getting marginalised.4 As such also while on one side we see the worsening plight of the Muslim community at the social and economic levels, in matters of electoral representation there is a drastic decline.

At present the number of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha is down to 22 from the 1984 high of 49 MPs.5 There is a constant decline in the represen-tation of Muslims in electoral bodies. During this period the Congress has been in power most of the time, but the overall condition of Indian Muslims, their status is worsening to the extent that some may say that Muslims are being reduced to ‘second-class citizenship’. Is it the Congress which is responsible for the worsening plight of Muslims or are there some political factors which are shifting the political direction of the society in a narrow sectarian path to the detriment of Muslims?

Freedom Movement: Congress and Muslims

With the rise of the freedom movement, a large number of average Muslims, Muslim business-men started associating with the Congress (INC). Badruddin Tyabaji presided over the Congress convention in 1887. At the same time the Muslim elite, Nawabs and Muslim landlords kept aloof from the INC. Even the likes of Sir Syed, who made massive contribution to the education of Muslims, advised the Muslims to keep away from the Congress as it was a Hindu party. Gandhi’s efforts in uniting the people of all religions were a powerful message and thereby Muslims became part of the national movement in large numbers. At the same time the elite Muslims, particularly the landed gentry, sided with the Muslim League. Despite the ‘two-nation theory’ propounded by Savarkar, the presence of Muslims in the Congress was fairly large. Nehru at times refused to recognise the Muslim League as the party representing Muslims. His claim was that the Congress was a party with secular interests of all the religious communities in mind. Till the 1937 Assembly elections, when the electoral franchise was restricted to property owners and educated people only, the Muslim League could hardly muster over 10 per cent of votes. The Muslim League bit the dust in the 1937 Assembly elections.

During this time the ulema of major seminaries like Barelvi, Deoband stood with the national movement and supported the INC.

In tune with two-nation theory, Mohammad Ali Jinnah put forward the demand for a separate state for Muslims, Pakistan. The atmosphere started getting more communalised and support for the Muslim League grew. Still a large number of Muslims was with the Congress, it’s another matter that Muslim leaders of the stature of Maulana Azad were dubbed as showpieces by the Muslim League. The violence which was growing was the product of communalisation of the society, that picked up momentum due to the ‘British policy of divide and rule’, supple-mented by communal propaganda by the Muslim League against the Hindus and the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS against the Muslims. The British were neutral in the matter of communal violence; later the communalisation of the police and state apparatus started taking place with disastrous impact against the Muslims in India.

Post-Independence Plight

A section of the elite Muslims left for Pakistan while those who opted to live here, a majority of them were from the deprived sections. After independence the first blow to the nation and Muslims was the murder of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. At the same time the propaganda against Muslims started picking up. ‘Muslims are responsible for creation of Pakistan’, ‘they are more loyal to Pakistan’ etc. was spread through various mechanisms, leading to their marginalisation from government jobs and social opportunities. They started resorting more to self-employment. The hate spread against the Muslim community intensified the communal violence. The additive factor was that the upright and principled stand of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru was missing in the leadership that followed. Some communal elements started infiltrating into the Congress itself, Nehru warned against such elements but to no avail.6 Coupled with this was the communali-sation of sections of the police, bureaucracy, media etc. The spiral of communal violence started going up and the Congress in the beginning was unable to control it fully, while the ‘social common sense’ against Muslims deepened due to the propaganda of the RSS-BJP-VHP, and it got worsened due to the raising of issues like the Ram temple, Holy Cow, Love-Jihad etc.7

So the marginalisation of the community had two factors. One, its social demonisation by the communal apparatus, which kept working consistently, and two, the authorities in charge developed a strong bias against Muslims as a whole. While there were times when the Congress could not control violence, the major offence was not from the Congress, but the ‘system’ which developed due to the successful creation of the communal mindset and deflection of social issues into communal ones. It’s not that the Congress did not falter off and on. Its failure to rein in the communal offenders and its role in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom laid the foundation of a culture of impunity.8 The failure of the Congress to punish the guilty of violence has been the biggest flaw. The communal mindset of many of its leaders, lack of rigorous grounding in secular values proved to be a big help to the agenda of ‘Hindu nationalism’ of the RSS combine.

At another level the Congress did help the RSS-BJP by giving it the pretext of propaganda of ‘appeasement of Muslims’ on a platter. On one hand, the condition of Muslims kept worsening over a period of decades, and on the other it (the Congress) yielded to the conservative section of Muslims by conceding to the demand to scrap the Shah Bano judgment. This provided a big boost to the slogan of appeasement of Muslims. The misrepresentation of subsidy to Air India for Hajj travel was labelled as Hajj subsidy and this acted as yet another armament in the hands of the divisive forces. Very cleverly the weak attempt of the Congress to follow the secular policies was presented as pseudo- secularism by Hindu nationalists.9

Babri Demolition and After

To peak it all, the Congress led by Narasimha Rao appeared to be colluding with the RSS combine to bring down the centuries-old Babri mosque. The attitude of courts in these matters was well delineated by the Allahabad High Court judgment on the land dispute of Ayodhya. The Court opined on the basis of ‘faith of the people’ and the law took a massive retreat time and again. The consequent riots, orchestrated in Mumbai, were investigated by the Srikrishna Commission, that held the Shiv Sena and many police officers as being at the centre of the violence. In the consequent elections the Congress promised to implement Srikrishna Commission Report to punish the guilty, but no one was actually punished for the nearly thousand deaths which took place in the Mumbai violence. At the same time the blasts which followed the Mumbai violence saw the death of over 200 innocents and for that justice did come back with many death penalties and life imprisonments. The Congress has to take part of the blame of the two systems of justice which have developed in the country: one for the victims of the communal violence and another for the culprits of the Mumbai blasts!

Quite a dismal record for the INC, which has passively watched the rise of the communal ideology. Why did the INC cede the ground? While the Congress is not be excused for the sins of omission and partly commission in matters of communal violence, the major force which has been pushing the ground in the divisive direction is surely the RSS combine. While the major chunk of Muslim communalists shifted to Pakistan, the Hindu Mahasabha partly receded into the background in the aftermath of its worker, Nathuram Godse, murdering Gandhi. In this murder the tallest Hindu Mahasabha leader, Savarkar, was also one of the accused. After a brief setback due to Nathu-ram Godse having been a trained RSS pracharak, the RSS started coming back first with the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and later strengthening its activities through shakhas, in which the glorification of Hindu kings (Shivaji, Maharana Pratap and demonisation of Muslim kings (Aurangzeb, Khilji, Ghori etc.) was trans-lated in the contemporary context of aggressive Muslims attacking Hindus, Hindus being under threat and so the need for a Hindu nation with the RSS coordinating the efforts.

RSS in Social Space: Post-Emergency Period

The RSS did remain weak in the public space till Jayaprakash Narayan certified it [“If they (RSS) are fascist; I am a Fascist”] and gave them credibility by making them part of the anti-Emergency movement and later Janata Party. Rammanohar Lohia, otherwise a great socialist leader, also failed to see the danger of ‘Hindu nationalism’ and in the blind anti-Congressism which he pursued, the RSS progeny started finding its space. With a plethora of organi-sations the RSS started dominating the social scene in different sections of society, Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs. Through a complex process of social engineering and co-option different social groups started coming under the influence of the communal ideology and sow the seeds of ‘Hindu nationalism’ and Hatred for Muslims.10 It is this intensifying ‘Hindu nationalist’ ideology which is shifting the social discourse in a Rightward direction away from the principles outlined in the Constitution of India, away from the values for which the national movement stood.

Shrinking of Social Space: Congress

As communalism is expanding its reach, secular organisations are being forced to shrink; and the Congress is the example of that. While we began with Nehru, who never flaunted his sacred thread, we have come down to Rahul who has to flaunt his sacred thread and publicise his visits of temples, to hold the middle ground. There are global Rightward shifts also which have affected the social thinking in India; Trump best exemplifies it like many other leaders worldwide. The era of national liberation where the Rightwing was under criticism has been replaced by the present time where an assertive Right-wing worldwide is strengthening conservatism and orthodox values all around.

What are the options for the Muslim community? The likes of Zafar Sareshwala, M.J. Akbar, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi have bought themselves peace and reconciled to the notion of Hindu nation. Today the need for all is to strengthen the secular organisations, whatever be their limitations, whatever be their mistakes in the past. The way we have witnessed the erosion of secular values, the way minority rights have been trampled, the way Dalits have been flogged and the way weaker sections have suffered during the last few years are indication enough as to what is in store for these sections if the Hindu nationalists win the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, if the RSS dominates the social space and thinking. The crimes of the Congress and stains of blood of the Muslims cannot be erased and should not be forgotten, but what needs to be discussed now is how to combat the rising tide of divisive, sectarian, exclusive nationalism? The Congress needs to be repri-manded and pressure needs to be put on it to bring back the vision and policies of Gandhi-Nehru-Patel-Maulana Azad to name a few. Salman Khursheed’s characterisation should be taken in a corrective spirit, that these should never be repeated, that these were deviations from the basic policies for which the Congress stood during the freedom movement. The extraneous pressure of nationalism in the name of religion is the major threat not only to religious minorities but also to a majority of Hindus, particularly the non-upper caste, workers, farmers and Advasis. Muslims need to assess the dangers of the absence of a national party like the Congress (Congress-mukt Bharat) and visualise that it will be a catastrophe for both the religious minorities and weaker sections of society. We need campaigns to combat and struggle for the values of the Constitution, for secularism and equality for all irrespective of their religion, and distinguish between the programmatic communalism of the RSS combine and pragmatic communalism of the Congress.11













The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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