Mr. Shahabuddin's latest ideological piece Will You Walk Into My Parlour? reeks of blatant hypocrisy. Indeed, he is not alone in such an exercise; such hypocrisy has been part and parcel of Muslim leadership for the past fifty years. It is appalling to note that the Muslim leadership has always blamed others for the pitiable state of Muslims in India. It is high time that they should be made equally accountable for failing the Indian Muslims.
Mr. Shahabuddin is right when he says that we should not forget the horrible carnage of Gujarat. But why does he forget Bhagalpur? Why doesn't he mention the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984? Both were heinous crimes which should not be forgotten and both were committed with Congress complicity. How can one forget the role of Congress in the Babri Masjid controversy and the consequent riots afterwards?
It seems that after opportunistically hitching the Congress bandwagon, Mr. Shahabuddin forgot everything about the soft Hindutva practiced by the Congress for years. Suddenly he has come to the realization that the 'secular' Congress can save the Muslims from the 'communal' BJP. Perhaps he should remember that it was the same Congress which did not have the spine to send its Muslim leaders to campaign in the Gujarat elections after the pogroms. It is repugnant that someone who considers himself as 'Muslim' leader is advocating for a party which has so much blood on its hand.
Mr. Shahabuddin has nailed thirteen demands on the doors of BJP. These demands themselves are vacuous but more on that later. First of all one is tempted to ask if the BJP accepts these demands, will Mr. Shahabuddin advice the Muslims to join the BJP? Such an understanding means that any party which accepts these so called 'Muslim demands' automatically becomes 'secular'.
Such a warped understanding had done much harm to the practice of secularism in India. The bane of Indian secularism is that it is completely devoid of any democratic agenda. The real debate in India should be about the practice of democracy and rule of law. It is hard to imagine how secularism can thrive in a country whose people do not appreciate differences of opinions and lifestyles.
In a situation where even dissent is hardly tolerated within communities, it is too much to expect any kind of religious tolerance. Far from talking vacuously about secularism, leaders like Mr. Shahabuddin need to look within their own communities. It need not be overemphasized that there are people in all Indian communities who are deeply patriarchal, anti-democratic and consequently anti-secular.
Unfortunately, within the Indian Muslims, these are the very people who are at the helm of affairs and who decide the politics of vast majority of Indian Muslims. Apart from empty sloganeering of 'Islam in danger', they have done little for the Muslims. It is time perhaps that Indian Muslim leadership introspects what they have done for the democratization of Indian Muslims. If anything, they have actively contributed in strengthening the regressive tendencies within the Indian Muslim society.
The Shah Bano case is a perfect example of how Muslim leaders in alliance with the myopic Congress government could not tolerate even nominal empowerment of Indian Muslims women. Talking of secularism without democratic empowerment is nothing but shadow boxing and a ploy to divert the attention of people from issues of real importance.
Now let us turn our attention to the demands which Syed Shahabuddin has placed before the BJP. Mr. Shahabuddin wants the BJP to grant 50 seats to Muslim candidates and that there should be 10% Muslims in the council of Ministers. Now one is intrigued whether his own party, the Congress has done so. And if he is trying to suggest that these 50 MPs (hoping that the 'secular' Congress gives 50 seats to Muslims and all of them win) will work for the rapid advancement of the Muslims, then he is completely mistaken.
Perhaps he needs to be reminded that Kishanganj, which made him an MP in 1991, still has a shameful female literacy rate of only 18%--the lowest in India. Incidentally (?), Kishanganj has one of the highest concentration of Muslims in the country. Clearly then there are other constituencies where Muslims have made advancements without having a Muslim representative. Mr. Shahabuddin's demand is essentially communal badly presented in a secular garb.
His other demands include more schools in the all areas of deprivation and reservation for Muslims in Legislatures, higher education, public employment, etc. in proportion to their population. Now one is tempted to ask whether demanding more schools in deprived areas is solely a Muslim issue. Is it not a collective issue which all Indians who have been left behind should agitate for?
Had leaders like Mr. Shahabuddin ever been interested in such an alliance of the disadvantaged sections of India, things would have been very different now. Instead Muslim politics has essentially revolved around religious issues like Muslim Personal Law, Babri Masjid, etc. It is highly unfortunate that Muslim leadership has seldom agitated on issues which affect all Indians irrespective of their religious affiliations.
One fails to understand why issues like economic liberalization are not worthy of debate within the Muslim leadership. Don't these issues affect the Muslims too? As a result of which the Muslim masses have become apathetic to issues other than those which are religious. Such apathy can only lead to resignation which is precisely what any fascist party wants. One is tempted to think that Muslim leadership has a great role to play in the rise of fascist ideology in India. One can only hope that they do something rethinking before it is too late.
Reservation for Muslims is one of the pet demands being floated these days by the Muslim leadership including Mr. Shahabuddin. It is at once preposterous, impractical, unprincipled and unethical idea. It is impractical because it requires a constitutional amendment which is very difficult in the present scenario. But more importantly it is unethical and in contravention of the principle of reservations itself.
It is well known that sections of Muslims are quite well off and that they possess the required economic and cultural capital to be successful. On the other hand the majority of Muslims lack access to even basic education and proper nourishment. Stratification within the Muslims is not only based on class but also on caste which places the lower castes and classes in various degrees of exclusion. Introducing reservation in such a stratified society will be detrimental to its very purpose.
Only the better placed sections within the Muslims will reap the benefit of such a system. And perhaps Mr. Shahabuddin knows this very well that's why he is putting this demand with such force. He knows that the benefits of reservation will not percolate to those poor Muslim women in Kishanganj whom he left unlettered but will be siphoned off by the likes of Syed Shahabuddin who are already well placed within the system.
Comparing the situation of Muslim with Dalits is completely erroneous as sections of Muslim have not faced the systemic exclusion and abuse which the Dalits have faced for centuries. Moreover, it is extremely dangerous because a backlash of such a policy will most definitely translate into massive electoral gains for the BJP.
Finally, the religious demands of Mr. Shahabuddin ask the BJP to stop the performance of Hindu rituals at state functions, non-interference of state in matters of religion and abide by the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya question. It is a well known fact that religious rituals at state functions have a long history and Congress has done nothing to maintain that most important secular principle of the distance between state and religion. One wonders if Mr. Shahabuddin will put the same demand to the Congress now that he has joined that party.
It is rather annoying to hear Mr. Shahabuddin asking BJP to respect the decision of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya dispute. Well one can legitimately ask him what his position was on the Shah Bano case. After all, the Muslim leadership did not accept the Supreme Court judgment at that time. Isn't it hypocritical of Mr. Shahabuddin that he is now advocating the finality of the same Supreme Court?
He should be made to understand that leaders like him, by pandering to the conservative sections of Muslim society have actually taken the Muslims backwards. In the name of religion, leaders like him have ossified the Muslim society and have inhibited the inculcation of progressive ideas.
But more importantly what are these religious matters which Mr. Shahabuddin is trying to shield from state intrusions? Well mostly they are matters relating to Muslim family laws. These laws are based on the Sharia which has been modified from time to time throughout Islamic history. After all the family laws in Pakistan, Indonesia and other Muslim countries have been modified many times. It is not immutable as Mr. Shahabuddin seems to suggest. There is a section within the Muslims, including Indian Muslim women who are demanding changes in it. So far the conservative section has been resisting changes in the family laws which clearly are detrimental to Muslim women's interests.
I feel like asking leaders like Shahabuddin that if they are so much guided by Islamic principals, why they don't demand the extension of religious laws to criminal cases also? This would mean that a Muslim rapist should be stoned to death and a thief's hands should be cut off. I wonder if the Muslim leadership in India who always compete with each other in terms of 'Islamic lifestyle' will agree to put such a demand. But as we all know perhaps patriarchy is more powerful than religion.
In conclusion, Mr. Shahabuddin assures himself that Muslims will not vote for the BJP because as he says 'it cannot meet these demands'. But the truth is somewhat different and he knows it quite well. There are Muslim who are joining the BJP and the Muslim leadership is particularly responsible for it.
Mr. Shahabuddin says that Muslims can see the difference between 'flawed democracy and fascism'. But he forgets that Muslims can also see where the Muslim leadership has taken them. In the name of Muslim politics they have seen how Muslim leaders have exploited them time and again. Their patience is running out and they cannot find any other alternative.
And, of course, they do not trust the Congress for what it has done to them in the name of protecting secularism. This election should be an eye opener for the Muslim leadership. Those Muslims who are joining the BJP are sending a clear message to Muslim leaders like Syed Shahabuddin. And this message is that Muslim leaders cannot use Islam and Muslims for their own partisan gains anymore.
Arshad Alam is International Ford Fellow, Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural History, University of Erfurt, Germany.