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Political Mobilisation of Muslims in India – Changing Pattern (Parts I and II)

by Irfan Engineer, 19 November 2014

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by Irfan Engineer

Muslim votes in post partition India have traditionally been mobilised by the politicians on three tropes: security, religio-cultural identities and fair share of Muslims. The recent victory of two All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) MLAs in Maharashtra Assembly elections held in October 2014 shows that Muslim votes could be mobilized on a fourth trope in the times when Hindu Nationalists are aggressively asserting themselves: that of counter assertion aiming at communal unity to take on the Hindu Nationalists. These tropes have been pursued through three different strategies: 1) withdrawal from electoral politics, 2) joining political parties not dominated by Muslims and 3) forming Muslim dominated parties.

Political strategies

Maulana Maududi, just before migrating to Pakistan, said that efforts of the Muslims to pursue their rights would invite prejudices of the Hindus. Hence, his recommendation was, to try to persuade Muslim community to keep its distance from government and administration, and assure the Hindu nationalists that there was no competing Muslim nationalism. This, according to the Maulana was the only way to remove the extraordinary prejudices that the majority had against Islam. For communal nationalists, there is either hegemony or subjugation, no middle ground of living peacefully together as equals. Maulana Maududi soon migrated to Pakistan and the Jamat-e-Islami that he established did not participate in electoral politics. However Maulana’s advice was not much of use to Muslims facing various challenges in their daily existence.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, initially representatives of Muslim League strongly demanded separate electorates, but after partition their voices weakened. The dominant discourse during the discussion employed by the members coming from non-minority community and even by some from minority communities was that minorities can survive only on the goodwill of the majority (and therefore accept only those ‘rights’ which the majority is willing to ‘grant’ to the minority). The minority community which chose India as their country of domicile and nationality rather than Pakistan were implicitly reminded that if they were unhappy with the rights ‘granted’ to them by the ‘majority’, they could chose Pakistan.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organization of the Deobandi Ulemas had always opposed Pakistan. The Jamiat supported the Congress led freedom struggle whole heartedly hoping that Muslims would be free to practice their religion and would be at liberty to follow Muslim Personal Law. The Deobandi Ulema believed that despite different religions, Indian nationalism was shared and composite. The Jamiat perceived the threat to Muslim cultural identity from the Britishers rather than non-Muslim fellow Indians. Congress’s creed of secular nationalism and idea of India assured them in this respect. Jamiat was not interested in negotiating fair share of power of the Muslim community in the political arrangement and their concerns were limited to preserving Muslim Personal Law. For Jinnah and other Muslim nationalists on the other hand, a fair share of the Muslim community in political arrangement was their objective even while they were open to modernity. The Deobandi Ulemas were eager to carve out religio-cultural space and unite the community to defend that space even though they accepted that all Indians constituted a political community.

Jinnah and Muslim nationalists on the other hand wanted Muslims to be an exclusive political community and a separate nation state for the community.

With Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad at the helm in post Independence India, Muslims felt reassured and enthusiastically supported the Congress. Security, after the post partition riots subsided, was not yet a major concern worrying Muslim leaders. Discourse of ‘minorities could survive only on the goodwill of the majority’ dominated. Hence, seeking fair share for Muslim community in the social, economic and political affairs was unthinkable by the community overwhelmingly comprising of artisans, labourers, landless and backward classes left behind after the partition. The Jamiat and Muslim political leaders mobilized the community behind the Congress on the trope of religio-cultural identity on three issues. These three issues were: non interference in Muslim Personal Law (MPL) by the Indian state, promotion of Urdu language and warding off any threat to minority character of Aligarh Muslim University. In 1980s another issue became prominent symbol of religio-cultural identity: defence of Babri Masjid, which however was demolished in 1992.

The leadership was less inclined to work for educational achievements and economic advancement of the community. Reclaiming religio-cultural space needed to harp on a glorious past of the community: contribution of Muslim rulers towards India’s greatness and achievements like Taj Mahal and contribution of the community during freedom struggle. However, the leadership also needed to overcome the challenge of rich diversity within the community, not only sectarian based, but also in terms of that of caste based ‘biradaries’, language, cultural traditions, customary practices and even ethnic diversity. MPL is not codified law applicable to all Muslims uniformly. Priests of different Muslim sects and ‘maslaks’ (schools of jurisprudence) implement the law differently. The leadership nevertheless mobilized the community around the issue of ‘non-interference by the state’ in MPL.

The Muslim leadership within the Congress party was oblivious to the fact that carving out a cultural space for themselves by emphasizing cultural differences between Muslims and non-Muslims helped the Hindu nationalists, who were otherwise marginalized for their non-participation in the freedom movement and their role in assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The Hindu nationalists could play on apprehensions in the people that carving out religio-cultural space would promote separatist tendencies. In fact, assurance of religio-cultural freedom drew the Deobandi Ulemas towards the concept of composite Indian nationalism; and to oppose partition and communal nationalism of Muslim League. Muslim League had instrumentalist view towards culture. Their objective was not to preserve religio-cultural space but to use culture to redefine essentially a religious community as political community and to demand its ‘due’ share in any political arrangement. The Hindu nationalists played on the fears and exaggerated the threats portraying Muslims as inherently having separatist tendencies, that they would be loyal to Pakistan and practice polygamy to over populate the Hindus in India and convert it into an Islamic state. The Congress Party was unwilling and unable to counter such gross misrepresentations. The growing feeling of insecurity among the minority would benefit Congress as it would compel Muslims to rally them behind it. The Congress Party did not work for extending equal opportunities to the Muslims in education, bank loans, in public employment, government contracts etc and to include Muslims in welfare schemes as equal citizens. It is only after the Sachar Commission Report in 2006 that some very minor steps were taken to formulate some welfare schemes to include minorities. However, it was more of tom-toming and less benefits to the community with very poor record of implementation by the bureaucrats.

After the Jabalpur Riots in 1961, Muslim faith in Congress received first jolt. Despite Nehru’s intervention, the violence engulfed many. For the Muslim leadership reclaiming their religio-cultural space, Jabalpur riots were a warning which they chose to ignore. In the 1952 elections, Congress Muslim candidates polled 64%, 72%, 56% and 57% of the votes polled by all Muslim candidates in Bihar, UP, WB and India respectively. In the 1957 elections, Congress Muslim candidates polled 65%, 58%, 51% and 52% of the votes polled by all Muslim candidates in the same states and in India respectively. In the 1962 elections, Congress Muslim candidates polled 52%, 47%, 52% and 52% of the votes polled by all Muslim candidates in the said states and India respectively. In the 1967 elections, the Muslim votes in favour of Congress declined drastically in those states to 39%, 36%, 47% and 40% in India. With the anti-Congress mood growing in the country in the late 1960s and Congress on decline the Muslim votes too declined as is evident from the above percentages of Muslim votes polled by Congress in the three states with higher percentage of Muslims. Muslim voters were drifting away from the Congress, as the Party had utterly failed in ensuring security to Muslims on one hand and in including Muslims in governance and ensuring their fair share. Their emphasis was only on ensuring religio-cultural space as demanded by the patriarchal Deobandi Ulemas. ‘Satanic Verses’ – a novel by Salman Rushdie was banned, Judgement of the Supreme Court in the Shahbano case was overturned through an enactment by the Parliament are some of the instances of political mobilization on the trope of religio-cultural space.

The consequences of mobilizing the community assertively and almost exclusively on the trope religio-cultural space were telling. Hindu nationalists could proclaim such an assertion as a threat to ‘Hindu culture’ and therefore justified using violence to ‘curtail’ anti-national Muslims and their appeasers – the Congress. They could din in prejudices against Muslims through their networks and prejudices led to exclusion of Muslims and increased discrimination. The community experienced decline in their economic status. Hindu nationalists used communal violence to put in place what Paul Brass calls ‘institutionalised riot system’ which helped them mobilize non-Muslims across caste and region and politically consolidate Hindus progressively on the trope of nationalism – a Savarkarian project. The decade of 1980 saw communal violence in most towns with Muslim population of 10% or more, starting from Godhara in 1981 and culminating with Bhagalpur in 1989. After the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992, the Muslim voters by and large deserted Congress as the demolition signified that the Party could not even secure the religio-cultural space.

The Backward Muslims

While the Deobandi Ulemas defined religio-cultural space around the issue of MPL, status of Urdu and minority character of Aligarh Muslim University, the concept of cultural space of the backward classes among Muslims who constituted more than 85% of the community was different. Their notion of religio-cultural space was based on their experiences of social oppression on the lines of caste based hierarchy. While Islam promised them equality and justice, they were denied equality in status by the Ashraf Muslims – converts from upper castes or those who believed they had royal blood. Political-cultural space for the Ajlaf (low caste converts), also referred to as ‘Pasmanda’ (backwards) identified culturally with their Hindu counterparts. Islam and their biradari culture were both their inheritance. Ali Anwar from Bihar, Shabbir Ansari from Maharasthra and other leaders were sponsored by regional parties. The ‘pasmandas’ were mobilized on the issue of social inclusion and social justice. The issue of Urdu did not appeal to them much. Neither was minority character of a far away university when their children were struggling to get themselves admitted into a neighbourhood school, nor the Wahabi-Deobandi family code. Their focus was livelihood and education. In the South, particularly in Tamil Nadu and rural areas of Karnataka and Telangana, the Muslims identified with their Dravidian identity and with the social justice movements.

The security trope

The Muslim voters after the demolition of Babri Masjid drifted away from Congress as it utterly failed in securing the religio-cultural space. In 1990s, the trope of security had precedence over the trope of religio-cultural space. The Samajwadi Party in UP, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and other regional parties mobilized the community on the trope of security. Witness that the Muslim political leadership did not respond to many Supreme Court Judgments as their religio-cultural space was slowly being encroached upon. E.g. the judgment of Supreme Court that AMU is a university established by state legislation and therefore cannot be an educational institution established by minority went unprotested vociferously. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen were given visa, this generated some debate in TV studios but not on streets. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 which was passed by the Parliament to overturn the Shahbano judgment was interpreted by the Supreme Court to ensure even better regime of maintenance for a divorced Muslim Woman by her former husband and the judgment went unprotested. We could list several issues wherein the religio-cultural space that was being defended by the Deobandi Ulemas was encroached upon and went unprotested in 1990s. The 15 year rule of RJD in Bihar was practically free from communal riots. During Mulayam Singh’s Chief Ministership too the intensity and frequency of communal violence went down drastically. However, the Samajwadi Party as well as the RJD found it convenient to negotiate with the Ashraf leadership as spokespersons for the entire community. Muslims in their imagination meant a homogenous religio-cultural community. Such a conception was inbuilt in the M-Y alliance propounded by them. Mulayam Singh even went to the extent of announcing Friday as weekly holiday for Muslim students in school but the circular was quickly withdrawn after the members of the community too protested. The issue of security too did not mean reparations for the past violence but prevention and control of future violence. Reparation would not only guarantee security but deterrence on one hand and justice to the victims on the other hand. However, reparations would mean punishing the guilty and there were substantial number of them from the caste that supported them. What was necessary to guarantee security was a more accountable and inclusive system and regime that was blind and neutral to cultural preferences of not only the Muslims, but all citizens within the Constitutional framework….

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by Irfan Engineer

In the previous part, we discussed that after independence, the Muslim leaders within the Congress Party mobilized the Muslims initially on the trope of religio-cultural space. However, as the country had been partitioned along communal lines, Hindu nationalists would raise the spectre of India turning into an Islamic state even with minor attempts to secure cultural space for Muslims. Securing religio-cultural space for Muslims was proclaimed as encroachment on “Hindu” cultural space and threat to existence of Hindu culture itself. This led to unprecedented escalation in communal violence in the 1980s. Congress’s failure to protect Babri Masjid signified that even the religio-cultural space was not secure and Muslims drifted away from the Congress. The regional parties mobilized the community on the trope of security; however they too did not see the community as diverse interests and diverse culture. Security meant preventing future outbreaks of communal violence, but not reparations to ensure justice to the victims of communal violence and guarantee of non-repetition of the violence. This was largely the scenario in the western and northern regions, also referred to as the cow belt of India. In the cow belt, Muslim population is rather spread out thinly.

Political assertion

After the demolition of Babri Masjid, Muslim religio-cultural entrepreneurs moved away from Congress as it failed to secure that space. The community started focussing on education and livelihood issues more than ever before. That seemed to be the way ahead. However, after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, concern for security once again came to the fore, particularly in the cow belt. Muslim voters were slowly returning to the Congress. If periodical spectacular riots targeting Muslims was common strategy used by the Hindu nationalists till the year 2002, in the first decade of the 21st century, intelligence agencies proved to be useful tool to target Muslims and project them as anti-nationals, terrorists and enemies of the nation. Gujarat police enjoying the political patronage would frequently bump off some Muslim youth and call them as terrorists who came to kill Hindu hero Narendra Modi. Operations by intelligence agencies led to murder of Ishrat Jehan and Javed Sheikh in 2004, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Kauser Bano in 2005 and his friend Tulsiram Prajapati in 2006 besides Jamal Sadiq and many others. These murders which were sought to be passed off as “encounter killings” and were followed by stigmatization of Muslim community through media. There were staged encounters in the Congress regimes too – the Batla House encounter stands out among many others. Large number of innocent Muslim youth were arrested after terrorist acts, including those which targeted the Muslim community. In the cow belt, Muslim voters were slowly returning to the Congress, particularly in the states where Congress and the BJP were dominant political force with bipolar polity prevailing. The Congress won 9 parliamentary constituencies from UP in the 14th Lok Sabha election held in 2004 and 21 parliamentary constituencies in the 15th Lok Sabha election held in 2009.

Though the Congress could rally a section of the Muslims, this time, it was not largely on religio-cultural space, but on security and promises of welfare measures. The Congress Govt. appointed High Power Committee popularly called as Sachar Committee to report on the social and educational backwardness among the Muslim community. Sachar Committee found that the socio-economic condition of the Muslim community was lagging far behind the other communities. Though poorly implemented, the Congress Govt. did come out with PM’s 15 point programme for religious minorities which included giving scholarships for school students and for higher studies, small financial loans, for development of minority concentrated districts etc. The programme was so poorly implemented and the beneficiaries disproportionately from non-Muslim minorities that the community bore stigma of appeasement and gained little material benefits. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s proclaimed that Minorities had first charge on the budget.

A section of leadership within the Muslim community demanded reservations for the entire community rather than the backward classes within the community on the plea that entire community was backward and discriminated. This was however not true as the Ashraf Muslims – the upper caste converts though small in number, like the sayyeds, pathans, bohras, memons, etc., being mercantile communities were better educated and economically better off. Besides, reservation for the entire community would amount to affirmative action based on religion and as such amount to discrimination on the ground of religion which is prohibited according to Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. The Congress governments in AP and Maharashtra announced reservations though technically on the criteria of backwardness but practically to the entire community. Salman Rashid, the then minister of Minority Affairs announced reservations for the Muslim community during his election campaign for UP legislative assembly, which however, was declared to be in violation of code of conduct and therefore had to be withdrawn. First the AP and now the Maharashtra Govt.’s decision of reservations for Muslims was stayed by Constitutional Courts and tangible benefits denied to the community.

The Congress failed to protect the community youth from being targeted by the intelligence agencies. Not one intelligence official was brought to justice for wrongful arrests of the educated youth – whose careers were destroyed and were forced to live life with stigma of being a terrorist. Congress failed to bring to justice those police officials involved in cold blooded murders of Muslim youth by intelligence agencies in staged encounters. The fake encounters abated only after courageous individuals and human rights activists fought long battles to bring some police officials to justice for staged encounters. Anger of the youth within the community was simmering and waiting to be tapped. The Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) tapped this simmering anger, particularly among the youth. Coupled with targeting of the community was the rise of Narendra Modi on the national scenario and getting himself elected on the plank of development. Modi’s propaganda blitzkrieg may convince anyone but the community knows the real implication of election of Modi as the PM would be to push the Muslims to be second class citizens of Hindu rashtra. The Muslim presence in the Lok Sabha is getting marginalized every successive election from 13.1% in the Constituent Assembly in 1947 (a slightly higher percentage than warranted by their population, elected through separate electorates) to barely 4% (22 MPs) in the 16th Lok Sabha when they constitute about 15% of the population. As one angry youth in Delhi asked this author before the 16th Lok Sabha elections and after the Muzaffarnagar riots, “blood of how many Muslims would be shed every time there are elections?”

Disillusionment with “Secular parties”

Given this scenario, where innocent Muslim youth were being targeted and crumbs of welfare shown and not implemented, coupled with rise of aggressive Hindu Nationalism, there was disillusionment among Muslims with all the ‘secular’ parties. Maulana Madani and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind – an organisation favourable to Congress started propagating that the only plank on which the Congress mobilized votes of Muslim community was fear of Hindu Nationalism. They held several meetings throughout India and gave one message – it was not enough to scare the Muslims in order to get their votes. Their votes could be mobilized only on affirmative action. What these actions would be was left open and negotiable. The minimum demand propagated in these meetings was – discharge of Muslim men falsely implicated in the 2006 bomb blast in Malegaon as the NIA investigations did not find any evidence against them and confessional statement of Swami Aseemanand nails the Hindu nationalists. The other demands included bringing the intelligence officials targeting innocent Muslim youth to justice and reservations in jobs and education for Muslims. Imam Bukhari backed the Congress but his influence on Muslims is more of a myth that has been demolished every successive elections.

As the ‘secular’ parties failed and Muslims were getting disillusioned, there was increasing urge for a Muslim dominated party. The Peace Party in UP was founded in 2008 by a Muslim surgeon Mohamed Ayub and won four seats in UP Assembly in 2012. In short span, it quickly spread to Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttrakhand, Delhi, Madhya Pardesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh. Peace Party attracted chunk of Muslim votes. In Kerala, the Indian Union Muslim League enjoyed popularity among the Muslims in Kozhikode. The stable political equation between Hindus, Christians and Muslims in the state with 24% Muslim population concentrated in Ponani, Manjeri and Kozhikode forming 60%, 61% and 52% of the population respectively. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal fell out with the Assam State Congress leader Tarun Gogoi over choice of candidates and founded his own party – All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in 2005. Assam has 30% Muslims. With 18 MLAs, AIUDF is the main opposition party in Assam. In the 16th Lok Sabha, AIUDF candidates succeeded in 3 constituencies though their vote share dipped from 17% to 15%, they gained one extra seat.

In Malegaon Mufti Ismail gained popularity after the blast. There was widespread outrage among the community as Muslim youngsters from Malegaon were allegedly falsely implicated in the case. The Teesri Mahaj or Third Front, formed ahead of the local civic body election in 2007, came to power in the corporation riding on the anti-Congress and anti-NCP wave. Mufti fought the 2009 Assembly election on the ticket of Jansurajya Shakti Party by defeating sitting Congress candidate Shaikh Rashid. However, he later joined NCP but maintained that the youth were still angry with the ruling dispensation as they had not got justice. In the last Assembly elections, Mufti Ismail was defeated by Congress candidate Shaikh Rashid by over 16,000 votes as Mufti failed to deliver on his promise and his attendance in the previous Assembly was poor. The MIM candidate was far behind polling little over 21,000 votes. Malegaon had its dose of Muslim dominated politics with election of Nihal Ahmed whose communal appeal led to polarization and invited targeting of Muslim youth by state and development deficit.

Emergence of MIM in Maharashtra and Muslim dominated Parties

It is in this context that rise of MIM in Maharashtra should be seen. Majlis-i Ittihad al-Muslimeen (or council of Muslim unity) was founded in 1927 as a federation of Muslim sects and communities to support and advice the then ruler of Hyderabad. After the defeat of razakars and merger of Hyderabad into Indian Union, the MIM remained dormant till about 1957 when it was revived by Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi “to back up your (Muslim) argument with political muscle.” In 1960, the MIM got 19 out of 30 seats it contested in the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad (MCH) and in 1967 three MIM candidates were elected to the state Assembly and in 1986 MIM was elected as the single largest party in MCH. With the rise of Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, MIM predicted division of Non-Muslim votes in Hyderabad between TDP and Congress. Through its rabble rousing, it aimed at polling chunk of 35% Muslim votes in the 1984 general elections and has repeated its victory since 1984 till date. Muslims could be rallied behind MIM due to perception of insecurity among the community due to series of communal riots in the 1980s in the cow belt along with the campaign against Babri Masjid. Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi participated in the Babri Masjid Movement. Slowly, the MIM has also been able to mobilize dalit votes by giving the slogan of MIM-Bheem unity.

MIM gained its first significant victory outside Telangana during Nanded Municipal Corporation elections. Nanded has 30% Muslim population and MIM won 11 out of 81 seats in the Corporation in the elections held in the year 2012. That was a reaction to arrest of innocent Muslim youth from Aurangabad, Malegaon and other places and implicating them in terror cases. Election of Imtiyaz Jaleel from Aurangabad Central and Warris Pathan from Byculla Constituency in Mumbai for Maharashtra Legislative Assembly is the continuation of the same trend.


A Muslim youth told this author after MIM’s elections in two constituencies in Maharashtra, “We are not scared of rise of Hindu nationalists and ready to face all the consequences. Nothing worse can happen. We must now have our (Muslim) community’s demand. MIM’s expansion on aggressive assertion and rable rousing should be seen as a failure of all ‘secular’ parties in safe guarding rule of law and checking Hindu naltionalization of the state. MIM is the mirror image of Modized BJP. As Modi is catering to aspirations of youth from the majority community, MIM is catering to aspirations of Muslim youth. The disillusionment with MIM too will set in sooner rather later, as there was disillusionment with Nihal Ahmed’s politics in Malegaon. MIM fills the youth with false pride of “glorious history of Muslim rulers”. Media try to tell Indian people that Modi no more talks of communal agenda. He need not! His brand is understood and his minions do – Yogi Adityanath and other gurus who are nominated as campaign managers of UP elections as a badge of honour. However, the consequences of competitive communalism would ultimately devour Indian Constitutional democracy. Those committed to the Indian Constitution, rule of law, liberal values and secularism have an ardent task of convincing the people of India and building a healthy civil society movement that would secure the minorities and value diversity and pluralism.