There will be no mercy. Thirty-two human beings who happened to be Muslims were butchered in Assam last week. The blood has flown but the rhetoric has not stopped. In Assam, there are critical details of ethnicity, tribalism, high levels of militarisation, a particular history of migration and a politics that is—at its simplest—articulated and perceived as violence by those who see themselves as the original inhabitants of the lands against Muslim settlers. Communal antipathy offers a static reading of the problem. When the story is amplified elsewhere, it is perceived as Hindus putting in place Muslims who were multiplying so fast....
A cold, calculated round of bloodletting that involved children being shot dead should have been a sobering moment for India, since presumably we are human beings before we split into Hindu and Muslim. Yet a day later, the nation’s PM-in-waiting travelled to another state that borders Bangladesh and has a large Muslim population. In West Bengal, Narendra Modi declared that worshippers of Durga are welcome to Hindustan and they will stay here. But the “infiltrators” would be deported. The same day, his most loyal deputy Amit Shah travelled to Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, which has a large Muslim population, and described it as a “base of terrorists”.
Muslim equals terrorist equals Pakistani equals infiltrator equals Bangladeshi is not a new construct for the Sangh parivar. But in this election, the BJP is using the Bangladeshi immigrant rhetoric with particular emphasis as it believes there are gains to be made by polarising sensibilities in Assam, Bengal and Bihar. So the demonology only needs to be updated and tweaked. And this time the Muslim bogeyman returns in the shape of the “Bangladeshi”. The immigrant, illegal migrant, settler, foreigner etc.
At one level, these are all battles erupting around the Partition faultline, the wounds that routinely get infected and begin oozing pus. At its base level, the rhetoric of Modi/Shah and even the more sophisticated right-wingers amounts to this: Muslims got two countries out of Partition and rejected secularism; why are they still in India trying to vote against us? If they want to stay, it should be on our terms, not those set by people who are infiltrators and terrorists anyway.
Muslim equals terrorist equals Pakistani equals infiltrator isn’t new. This election, Bangladeshi is the Muslim bogeyman.
Communal ideology and prejudice are easy to spot and analyse. It is harder to confront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow. One could even borrow the phrase Mohammed Ali Jinnah used for the Pakistan he got—“moth-eaten”—which is what the fabric of Indian secularism has become today. For those who still have idealistic stardust in their eyes, we must blink and accept that Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.
Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.
But the crisis of secularism is no laughing matter. The Muslim community has slipped on all human development indices. Yet in modern secular India, an entire mobilisation has thrived on the argument that they are “appeased”. There is indeed a section of the community that is appeased: the clerics. All political parties go to them. Last week, Priyanka Gandhi did so in Rae Bareli; simultaneously in Delhi Mehmood Madani, an influential cleric from the Deoband tradition, who has of late been making pro-Modi noises, said “Priyanka would have been better than Rahul” for the Congress. Since Independence, secular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
One could even argue that this election is choreographed to give us false images of not just the minority (who by no means constitute a monolith), but also to advance a fraudulent idea of the majority that overrides divisions of caste. And for all the claims of development and growth, it must also be stated that a certain “majority-minority syndrome” underpins much of what is happening in this election. According to the Collins dictionary, syndrome means “any combination of signs and symptoms that are indicative of a particular disease or disorder”.
At the base of the right-wing argument is, Muslims got a country out of Partition, why are they voting against us here?
This is not a new disease that the nation has caught. It has always been there since Independence, but it has infected the entire body politic in this election because of the polarising nature of the central figure. So as Modi descends on the nation, all the opposing parties expect Muslims to be their buffer zones and much of their firing is done from the shoulders of the community. The BJP’s counter-management is to divide, neutralise and make their vote as irrelevant as possible.
As the BJP thrives, so will the clerics who live off victimhood and the fears of the minority community. Among the most successful is Badruddin Ajmal, who leads the AIUDF in Assam. In the 2012 violence in the state, he too had stoked the flames. A graduate of the Deoband seminary, he describes “religious discourse and Islamic theological exchanges” as among his favourite pastimes on his website. He is a perfume moghul with expansive business and charity interests, who no doubt sees himself as a protector of the community and a servant of Allah.
All these men of religion draw solace from the fact that they protect Sharia law to the very end. Some must also be quite pleased at the fact that even Rajnath Singh had to come to them and wear a skull cap in a display that some would describe as both grotesque and burlesque. The internet trolls would simply call it “sickular” and in this instance they would be quite right.
How did we get here? For one, the clout of the maulanas has increased ever since the Congress famously capitulated before them when it overturned the Shah Bano judgement in 1986. It is hardly worth restating that this not only pushed Muslims deeper into the ghetto, it eventually created conditions for the rise of the BJP on the stage of national politics in the late ’80s.
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) was at the heart of that churning. Founded in 1973, it is a collection of clerics with a motley crew of professionals whose main purpose is to protect Sharia law. Of its 201 members, 101 are life members. They represent an orthodox male viewpoint that has not just been allowed to go unchallenged but has also been promoted actively by the secular state.
It’s taken for granted that most Muslims vote not for what they want but what may happen to them if x or y came to power.
Outright corruption in the name of secularism too is part of the disease. Particularly so in the matter of Waqf properties that can be described as religious endowments made in the name of Allah for the benefit of the poor and needy in the Muslim community. There are approximately 3,00,000 registered Waqf properties in India on about four lakh acres of land (the second largest land holding after Indian railways). It is a national resource that should have been developed for the welfare of the community, as it is meant to.
Instead, this resource has been mortgaged, sold and encroached upon with the connivance of the same clerical class in league with elected Muslim representatives. Waqf boards in all the states are repositories of corruption, yet they get away with it because any demand for scrutiny is described as an attack on Islam.
Meanwhile, issues that really concern the community such as employment, safety, prosperity are not addressed. The police and the entire judicial system is known for its profiling on communal lines and the only area where Muslims are over-represented is in Indian jails while even well-to-do members of the community are not rented homes in many localities in Indian metros.
Still, they do have the vote. But by now most people take it for granted that Muslims vote not for what they may want but against what may happen to them if x or y came to power in a particular seat, state or country. Yet anecdotal experience from covering several elections has led me to conclude that like other human beings, minorities too crave the luxury of multiplicity of choice and/or candidates. And many of them feel that if they are supposed to be in the frontline of the battle to save secularism, then it’s really not worth saving.
Yet there is so much talk of Muslim vote that a casual visitor could be forgiven for getting the impression that India was gearing up to elect a Muslim PM!
There will be no mercy.