By Kaleem Kawaja
To answer the above questions we should first not put all secular parties in the same bag. Look at each of them separately. Congress, the largest secular party was not callous against Muslims up until the time when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were leaders of Congress. In those days Congress leadership did pay attention to the problems of Muslims though not full attention. But starting in 1991 when Narsimha Rao became the leader of the Congress, 24 years ago, a large number of RSS-walas infiltrated the party and significantly changed the policies of Congress vis-à-vis Muslims. From then on Congress has frequently looked away from the serious problems of Muslims. Instead, Muslims have often received lip service. That is how Congress government did not pay adequate attention to the severe consequences of the demolition of the Babri mosque (1992), Bombay communal riots (1993) and other instances of injustice to the community.
In 2004 when Sonia Gandhi came into power defeating BJP by a fluke, plenty of RSS folks were well entrenched in Congress. Sonia was not strong enough to go back to the policies of Indira Gandhi and her major objective was to remain in power. Also Congress was in a coalition with other parties and thus compromised its policies. Thus in the ten years of UPA/Congress rule (2004-14) while Dalits and OBCs were getting help Muslims were receiving only inadequate help.
However, other regional secular parties like Trinamool Congress (TMC) (Mamta Bannerji), Janata Dal (JD) (Nitish Kumar), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) (Laloo Prasad), Samajwadi Party (SP) (Mulayam Singh), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) (Mayawati), AIADMK (Jayalalitha) are far less callous towards the problems of Muslims. They have taken some measures to relieve some serious human rights and socioeconomic backwardness problems of Muslims. Some of them are better than others. Most of them gained power in the states with substantial Muslim electoral support and they know that. At the same time BJP has tried its best to hurt their base by orchestrating communal riots by exerting the pressure of Hindu majorities in the populations in those states and polarizing them against Muslims. Clear examples are West Bengal (TMC), Bihar (JD), UP (SP). Although many problems of Muslims in these states are continuing unabated, evidence shows that the secular parties in those states have helped Muslims in many areas and the situation of Muslims has improved.
TMC (Mamta Bannerji) has been the most fair and forthright in helping relieve the pressing issues of Muslims who form 30 percent of the population there. She has provided financial help to many Muslim colleges, schools and madrasas; established a Board to improve education level in madrasas, established a government salary system for imams in mosques; upgraded the Alia madrasa to a university with 50% Muslim reservation, and has prevented the police from being brutal to Muslims in the event of communal violence orchestrated by BJP. Also she has openly and courageously challenged PM Modi on the issue of Bangladeshi infiltration and other minority related issues.
SP (Mulayam Singh) has established 2 universities with 50 percent Muslim reservation, started a scheme to hire Urdu teachers in all government schools, has provided financial help to some Muslim institutions and has increased facilities for Hajj pilgrims. Unfortunately his record got sullied with the BJP orchestrated Muzaffarnagar communal riot in 2013.
JD (Nitish Kumar) did make substantial development in Muslim majority towns and localities, did help Muslim community schools and did help control police brutality on Muslims.
In earlier years RJD (Laloo Prasad) did completely stop communal riots in Bihar for 15 years which helped Bihar’s Muslims focus on education and business enterprises, thereby coming out of the hole of deprivation and riots where they were for a long time. If development did not happen in Muslim towns it was because Laloo Prasad neglected development all over the state.
I often hear Muslims bring up their complaint at not receiving reservation in education and jobs from the governments of secular parties. The situation is a bit complicated. Firstly, as per the Indian constitution only Dalit and OBC Muslims qualify for reservation. A few OBC Muslims are receiving reservation but Dalit Muslims are not receiving it. It so happens that the Muslim leaders are demanding reservation for all Muslims on the basis of the total community’s economic backwardness. But for that to happen India’s constitution will have to be amended and also economically backward upper caste Hindus will also have to be given reservation. The Indian economic pie is simply not that big to allow this to happen. Furthermore this is a huge political and social task that is very difficult to implement in the politically turbulent and divided India. Moreover, the Muslim clergy has maintained for centuries and still does that there are no castes in the Muslim community. The Supreme Court is also not in favour of such a move on constitutional grounds.
In the interest of being pragmatic and realistic Muslim leaders should stop protesting for reservation for the entire Muslim community and focus on fair reservation for Dalit and OBC Muslims only. Muslim leaders should realize that outside of Jammu & Kashmir they do not have the advantage of population that some other communities who campaign for reservation have. Thus it is very difficult for them to force concession on a major issue like reservation. Hence, they should modify their demand on this issue in order to help one segment of their community that is justifiable. Something is better than nothing.
Muslim parties contesting elections against secular parties from high Muslim population areas
In the background of so much frustration, unequal treatment and dissatisfaction with secular parties, many Muslims in cities where they have high population demographics and where they have formed their own political parties, the demand comes up that Muslim parties should contest elections in those districts against the secular parties and appeal to Muslim voters to vote for the Muslim parties. These are the constituencies from which secular parties also field Muslim candidates. Thus the possibility of Muslim parties dividing the votes of Muslim voters, resulting in the consolidation of Hindu votes in favour of the BJP Hindu candidate, and his win is very high. It has happened so many times in high Muslim population districts like Rampur, Moradabad, Sambhal, Bareilly, Aligarh, Azamgarh in UP; Kishanganj in Bihar; Murshidabad in West Bengal; Bhivandi, Malegon, Aurangabad in Maharashtra etal. Even if most Muslims vote for Muslim parties in such situations, a few candidates of the Muslim parties may win, but the total number of Muslim MLAs and MPs in those states will reduce greatly and Hinduttava oriented Hindu candidates rather than secular Hindu candidates will be elected. And that will bring in a Muslim- oppressive government as happened in Maharashtra in January 2015.
This is what happened in Maharashtra Assembly 2015 election. Two Muslim candidates of Majlis Ittihad Muslimeen (MIM) won but the total number of Muslim MLAs reduced considerably. BJP received simple majority and many more Shiv Sena candidates won. Unfortunately in the Maharashtra 2015 state election MIM pitted Muslim candidates against some reputed Muslim candidates of SP, eg in Bhivandi and Mumbai resulting in the loss of both Muslim candidates who had helped many needy Muslims in the past and the BJP candidates won. MIM’s targeting of Muslim candidates from secular parties created much tension within the Muslim community and a big loss of influence in the respective cities.
Similarly in the 2014 parliamentary election in Azamgarh (UP) Ulema Council fielded a Muslim candidate against Mulayam Singh and used religion based rhetoric in the campaign. That ended up creating much Muslim-Hindu tension in the district. Such tensions usually last a few years and hit the educational and economic prospects of Muslims.
Such religion based political strategies of Muslim parties result in gross polarization of Hindu voters resulting in the BJP candidates swamping most Hindu candidates of secular parties from other constituencies. Such polarization makes even OBC and Dalit Hindus vote for BJP upper caste Hindu candidates. We saw that Hinduttava wave in the 2014 parliamentary election in UP and Bihar. Today the Indian parliament is overloaded with a large number of fanatic Hindus many of whom are even illiterate. When Muslim parties use religion based politics, so does BJP. And with Hindus being 80% of the population BJP swamps the election resulting in the marginalization of Muslims in the country as a whole, as we are watching right now. Muslims simply can not overlook the reality that their population is only 18% in the country and it is thinly spread throughout the country.
Muslim parties should contest elections with seat adjustment and alliance with secular parties
An option for Muslim parties like MIM, Ulema Council, SDPI, Peace Party etc to ensure that they do not divide the Muslim and secular votes by invoking religion , which leads to across the board consolidation of Hindu votes for Hinduttava candidates, does exist. That option is seat adjustments with secular parties. This is similar to the seat adjustment and alliance that the low caste parties, JD (Nitish Kumar) and RJD (Laloo Prasad) have formed in the upcoming Bihar election. They have realized that contesting against each other leads to consolidation of upper caste votes for BJP and division of lower caste votes even in constituencies where the population of lower castes is high. To remedy the problem, they have set up seat adjustments and alliances among themselves. This will ensure that candidates of both low caste parties will be elected in sufficient numbers. In the same manner Muslim parties can make seat adjustments with secular parties giving seats to Muslim parties in some constituencies with high Muslim population and the support of secular Hindus there, in exchange for Muslim vote support to secular party candidates in other constituencies. JD and RJD learned this lesson in the 2014 election in Bihar where their head- to -head contest led to polarization and a record number of BJP candidates won in Bihar.
Muslim parties and their leaders should ensure that their election campaign speeches are not laced with religious rhetoric and emotions and do not mirror speeches of Hinduttava hotheads. Yet in their campaigns they should emphasize lack of human rights, lack of justice, lack of fair opportunities, police brutalities and exhortation to secular Hindus and their parties to help the beleaguered minority Muslims. In their parleys for seat adjustment and alliances with secular parties they should emphasize that more Muslim MPs and MLAs from moderate Muslim parties, who can be elected from high Muslim population areas are needed. And that in the parliament or Assemblies they will lend support to the secular parties on their issues too. They should emphasize that secular parties should use their influence to help Muslim youth jailed on flimsy charges of terrorism and anti-national crimes and to stop police brutality against Muslims. When Muslim parties have alliances and seat adjustments with secular parties they will gain leverage on them that they simply can not have when they oppose them.
Muslim parties should learn from fellow secular-Muslim parties
Another harmful element that has been observed in the recent campaigns of MIM and Ulema Council is their frequent use of religious rhetoric and icons. Their leaders who are not clerics dress up like moulvis with beard and skull cap and use religious jargon in their speeches. That turns off the secular Hindu voters who are sympathetic to the just causes of Muslims. They should realize that we are living in the 21st century India and should use mainstream methods of campaigning. Muslim parties who often use religion based politics should study how two small Muslim parties, namely Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in Assam, have successfully helped Muslims by making alliances and seat adjustments with secular parties, and by eschewing emotional and religious rhetoric, confrontational politics and head butting contests against secular parties. Indeed in both states these two parties though Muslim have not generated any reaction from Hindus, contrary to what has happened in response to the MIM and Ulema Council’s targeting of secular parties and secular Muslims. MIM’s targeting of Azam Khan, senior Muslim leader of Samajwadi party in UP and Abu Asim Azmi, another senior leader of the same party in Maharashtra, has also caused much turmoil within the Muslim community, in addition to providing ammunition to BJP to attack Muslims in general. Muslim parties must realize that when they start brining religion into politics they give an open path to anti-Muslim Hinduttava parties to do the same and to bring religion based dislike of Muslims in the general Hindu mind. That will greatly harm the future of Muslims in India where they are a small minority.
Muslim parties must understand that the creation of Pakistan and their being a small minority has taken away from them the ability to act in an aggressive manner, something that Hinduttava parties like BJP and Shiv Sena can. Even though by behaving in that manner they severely hurt their own future and the future of their nation. They should understand that the frequent aggressive behaviour of Pakistan towards India roils up and recharges the anti-Muslim forces in the country. Therefore the critical need for them to understand the reality rather than harp endlessly on ideal solutions to problems that are not probable.
Secular Hindus are the biggest strength of Muslims and Muslim parties
Muslim parties and leaders should note the extraordinary courageous support of their Hindu defenders like Teesta Setalvad, Sanjeev Bhatt and countless others like them who are fearlessly standing up to challenge the mighty machinery of the BJP government in all and any instances where Muslims are victimized. They should note that in the case of the recent hanging of Yakub Memon as many as 1000 well placed secular Hindus including 50 Hindu luminaries and VIPs from all walks of life, mainstream media outlets, websites and national organizations pleaded for clemency for Yakub Memon. That shows that even today when BJP has polarized the Hindu community against Muslims, a very large number of secular Hindus and their organizations continue to support those Muslims who are being victimized. If Muslim parties adopt religion based excluvist politics and rhetoric in reaction to BJP and their firebrand hotheads they will loose the support of all these secular Hindus; which is critical for their national struggle to live in dignity as Muslims.