Politically excluded Indian Muslims on verge of crisis

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By Seema Sengupta

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to minority Muslims, immediately after securing a landslide mandate in the just-concluded polls, is expected to reassure a community that fears for its future under a more powerful Hindu nationalist regime. However, a gradual political isolation of Indian Muslims poses a greater challenge to the world’s largest democracy.
The fact is, starting with the 2014 general election, political outfits, including Muslim-friendly ones, are showing a strange disinclination in engaging a community that may not be big percentage-wise, but is 172 million-strong. The unusual triumph of majoritarian politics in India’s multicultural backdrop has even led to a sharp under-representation of Muslims in Parliament and legislative assemblies. For instance, despite constituting 14 percent of the total population, Muslim representation in the newly elected House will be a paltry 4.7 percent, or 26 members voicing the concerns of an increasingly marginalized people. And, in provincial legislative assemblies across India, Muslim representation dropped sharply from 35 percent to 20 percent between 2013 and 2015, and down further in 2018. 
Diversity of representation is the key to upholding the varied interests of different communities in India’s multi-ethnic society. Instead, a phenomenon of exclusion, through denial of candidacy, is depoliticizing the largest minority community, which will not only deepen the existing disillusionment among India’s Muslim populace but eventually discourage Muslim participation in nation-building.


Syed Zafar Mahmood — former PM Manmohan Singh’s appointed officer on special duty to the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee, tasked with ascertaining the socioeconomic status of Muslims in contemporary India — agreed that the fast-developing majoritarianism in India has been pointedly anti-Muslim. However, he also feels that the Muslim community will not shy away from wholehearted participation in nation-building. He cited how Muslims had established universities, modern educational institutions, in addition to madrasas, and medical and social welfare facilities over the last two centuries to buttress his argument. “The silver lining is that, braving the adverse ethos, this philanthropic realization on the part of the Muslim community has intensified during the 21st century,” Mahmood said.
While the incremental vanishing of Muslims from India’s political landscape might immensely satisfy Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party strategists — who were diligently working on countering the illusory Muslim vote bank, even though the community’s voting pattern is neither monolithic nor communal — the plinth of the country’s very existence gets eroded with each passing day. This careful cultivation of majoritarian supremacism in electoral politics will likely eliminate a unique trait of Indian democracy: That of non-Muslims sincerely representing Muslim interests and vice versa. Sadly, even political outfits whose success depends on minority votes are guilty of denying tickets to eligible Muslim candidates for fear of being tagged anti-Hindu; thus robbing the largest minority community of its due right to take part in national policy-making as equal citizens.

Alarmingly, India is hurtling back in time, to a post-independence 1947, when such exclusionary possibilities of a majoritarian polity, of a just-dismembered nation, led to demands for communal electorates and reserved seats for minorities, carrying the seeds of division in its womb. Mahmood, however, sees nothing wrong in Muslims representing themselves, with the sustained infusion of anti-Muslim ethos in India’s polity — ever since the 1992 Babri mosque demolition by a frenzied mob of Hindu right-wing political activists — vitiating the atmosphere irreparably. The resultant societal polarization took the shape of a political apartheid directed against Muslim communities that have resided in India for centuries. 
In so far as political representation is concerned, in independent India the Muslim community has favoured a cosmopolitan approach of allowing themselves to be represented by non-Muslims in law-making bodies. “But for how long,” asks Mahmood, alluding to a rethink within the community, as Muslims slowly but steadily become electorally irrelevant. There are quite a few constituencies where Muslims have a substantial say and a realization is creeping in that, by aligning with fragmented secular forces, the community has, in effect, rendered their valuable votes inconsequential, thus politically benefiting the Muslim-baiters.
Way back in 2006, the Sachar Committee documented how the under-representation of Muslims in India’s governance structure had harmed the entire community on the social, economic and educational fronts. The committee also found that Muslims were virtually debarred from representing themselves, since a significant number of Muslim-majority wards, as well as legislative and parliamentary constituencies, were reserved for scheduled castes and tribes (sociopolitical untouchables) in violation of the constitutional spirit of assured representation for the disadvantaged.
The advent of a radical form of majoritarian politics, which seeks to exclude the minority populace through deft electoral engineering and institutionalized othering, will only get in the way of rectifying this anomaly. With minority-friendly parties reorienting themselves to the new reality of communal polarization by sidelining potential Muslim candidates in the pursuit of victory, preventing the further aggravation of Muslim backwardness in today’s fractured India will need a herculean effort. As Modi promised to bridge the trust deficit, Mahmood believes there is still room for rapprochement. “Muslims are a ‘zinda qaum’ — a community full of life — and they cannot remain aloof as silently suffering spectators,” asserted the eternally optimistic intellectual.
(The author Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist. Views expressed by writer in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the newspaper. Editor)