Demand for equal opportunities

Muslims are India’s largest minority. They deserve to be treated as citizens with equal rights. However, this community is marginalised in economic and political life. In spite of Muslims becoming victims of communal violence again and again, the government and members of public in general associate Islam with the terrorism. By Ghazala Jamil
Hindu fanatics climbed Babri Mosque before tearing it down in Ayodhya in December 1992. picture-allicance/dpa Hindu fanatics climbed Babri Mosque before tearing it down in Ayodhya in December 1992.

The conventional narrative  of Muslims in Indian politics is that they are a socio-economically disadvantaged group and[GJ1]  that the Congress party, and to some extent other political forces, have been winning their collective votes by catering to their special interests. This narrative does not make sense. If Muslims have been a government-appeased vote bank since India’s independence in 1947, why are they still “backwards” in socio-economic terms? Obviously, things are more complex than the conventional wisdom allows.

To understand the present, it is useful to consider the past. In colonial times, British history books portrayed Indian Muslims as foreign aggressors, comparing the British empire favourably to Mughal rule. Independent India inherited this discourse, and the idea of Muslims as foreigners was reinforced because Pakistan became a separate country. Though many Indian Muslims preferred to stay in India,  they were viewed with suspicion.  

Today, India has the world’s third largest population of Muslims after Indonesia and Pakistan. 172 million Indians are Muslim. With about 14 % of the people, they are the second-largest religious group after Hindus. Most Muslims live in urban areas. Their homes tend to be in segregated enclaves that are derisively called “mini-Pakistans”. People of Islamic faith are exposed to prejudice, suspicion, discrimination and violence. They do not enjoy equal opportunities, as became evident in the report of the Sachar Committee in 2006 (see box).

Identity politics

The truth is that there have not been any major government programmes to improve the material condition of Muslims. On the other hand, governments have heeded calls from patriarchal, self-styled leaders of Muslims on “protecting Muslims’ faith”. Such action was largely symbolical and is supposed to allow Muslims to live according to the holy scriptures. Unfortunately, the approach also gives space to right-wing Hindus to target Muslims further for their “unequal treatment of women”. The truth, however, is that Indian society in general is deeply patriarchal and no religious community treats women fairly. The Hindus are no exception.

Misconceptions about Muslims abound. The community is generally described as a homogenous group with rigid religious beliefs. In his book of 2008, Mushirul Hasan of Jamia Millia Islamia, India’s national Muslim university in Delhi, however, refutes the idea of a monolithic block being guided primarily by faith doctrines. He points out that nuances and differences within the community tend to be ignored.

In spite of doing nothing to improve the socio-economic situation of Muslims, Congress-led governments were accused of “pampering” Muslims. This is a topic the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is now in power, keeps returning to. The BJP belongs to the Sangh Parivar, a group of organisations that emphasises Hinduism in a supremacist manner.

Anti-Muslim pogroms

The BJP and related organisations have a history of anti-Muslim violence.  After their mass agitation, hooligans destroyed Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. That event triggered violence across northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Thousands were killed. In 2002, an anti-Muslim pogrom rocked the state of Gujarat. In 2013, there were similar “riots” in Uttar Pradesh.

Violent events of this kind are typically called “Hindu-Muslim riots”. The term is misleading since there is evidence that of attacks on Muslims, their property and their religious freedom normally being planned and premeditated. The talk of  “Hindu-Muslim riots”, however, suggests that both sides are equally to blame. A brutal irony of the matter is that Muslims’ reputation for suffering communal violence makes it easy to portray them as potential terrorists and terror sympathisers.

Indeed, BJP leaders have admitted that pogroms serve the “consolidation of the Hindu-vote” and are meant to render the political participation of Muslims futile. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes to present himself as the champion of development, his subtext is always one of consolidating Hindu power.

Modi was chief minister of Gujarat during the pogrom of 2002, and he never disowned the perpetrators. Since Modi became prime minister, there has been a spate of organised and sporadic violent attacks on Muslims across India. It obviously encourages attackers to know that their man is in power.

The idea of the Congress party monopolising “the” Muslim vote is nonsense, by the way. Raphael Susewind and Raheel Dhattiwala have done research on voting patterns in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. It turns out that, unsurprisingly, Muslims tend to vote for the candidate of any party who has best chance to beat the candidate of the BJP or its allies in their constituency. In some cases, where Muslims feel particularly threatened, they even vote for anti-Muslim candidates in an attempt to conform with the perceived majority.

Indian Muslims are generally very conscious of being in the minority and depending on peace and harmony. They know aggression does not offer a way out of despicable conditions of existence. The silver lining to the dark cloud is that India’s Muslims are beginning to demand equal rights.

Increasingly, they are moving the courts and demanding that the written principles of India’s constitution must finally prevail over unwritten, but popular ideas of what is wrong or right. Movements for the rights of women or Dalits, India’s out-cast communities, have shown that this can work.

It is a good sign that courts have begun to acquit individual Muslims who were accused of terrorism and detained without proof for years. Victims of violence in the 2013 riots in Uttar Pradesh have gone to court, and some other cases are proceeding in a slow but promising manner. Indian Muslims are increasingly articulating their sense of hurt at being treated as non-citizens in their own country.  They are expressing their dissatisfaction at being placated with mere lip service to cultural rights as a minority. They are beginning to claim their rights as equal citizens of a democratic country.  

Indeed, identity plays an important role in Muslims’ yearning for participation and for representation. But it plays a role in the sense of the positioning of the community in Indian society, state and polity, rather than in the sense of some essentialised quality of Islam – the faith of the Muslim Indian subject.

Ghazala Jamil is an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

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