Friday, May 15, 2009

Muslims in Indian Democracy

During these elections, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, the BJP’s new face, has been going around attacking the Congress and other ‘pseudo secular’ parties, accusing them of exploiting the Muslims as a ‘vote bank’ all these years without doing anything for them.

Travelling inside India over the past couple of weeks has been a sobering experience. With temperatures shooting above 40 degrees, perhaps this isn’t the best of the times to visit the sub-continent, especially for couch potatoes like me hopelessly habituated to an air-conditioned existence.

But the discomfort of an Indian summer is nothing given the promised joy of watching the world’s greatest democratic spectacle up close and personal. It is democracy at its finest, wildest and weirdest. A general election in India is like a huge, noisy carnival. The whole country is transformed into a Roman theatre of fun and games with the ever-inventive politicians coming up with a myriad ways of wooing the crowd and getting their message across. Trust me, no other democracy anywhere on the planet is as colourful and eclectic as ours. Not even the great land of the free can come close.

This is why visiting India at the height of the 15th General Election has been like going on a pilgrimage to a place where you have been a million times before yet want to return again and again. With 714 million voters and an election split into five phases, it is hard not to be awed and fascinated by this electoral exercise of unprecedented proportions. Election after election, India has ensured a smooth, almost effortless democratic transition for more than six decades.

This is not a small feat considering the country’s breathtaking political, religious and cultural diversity and the geopolitical chaos all around it. So even born cynics like me are moved by ordinary Indians’ faith in democracy and their own ability to shape their destiny.

From the young, first-time voters to the elderly and the infirm, Indians turn up to vote as if it was their religious duty. Their optimism about the future is most infectious.

My journey from the western India to the north and then to the south over the past week or two was supposed to give me a new perspective. And it did. It helped me look at my country and people with fresh eyes. The trip also reinforced an old conviction: That India’s strength lies in its unshakable faith in democracy and pluralism.

Of course, it is not without its share of flaws and frailties. But despite its numerous problems and issues, the country has not allowed itself to be derailed from the path chosen by its early leaders and architects. No wonder many around the world believe the future belongs to the Asian giant.

So returning home after nearly a decade of living and working in the Middle East has been a curiously uplifting experience. The phenomenal growth India has registered over the past few years on all fronts has to be seen to believed. It fills you with a strange pride, warming the cockles of your heart.

At the same time, I cannot help but note with a touch of sadness that India’s Muslims have largely remained on the sidelines of this political and economic revolution. While India has moved on, its Muslims remain where they had been years and decades ago.

If India is the world’s largest democracy, its Muslims happen to be the world’s largest religious minority. Even conservative estimates put their numbers at upwards of 200 million or 20 per cent of the population.

But thanks to their own economic and educational backwardness and decades of exploitation at the hands of politicians and their own self-serving leaders, they have largely been reduced to a fringe player.

Militant Hindu organisations and parties like RSS, BJP and VHP have long used the Muslim bogey to sell their own worldview and multiply their ranks.

On the other hand, secular political parties have played on Muslim fears and insecurities about the Hindutva forces and their agenda to turn India into a Hindu state. The Congress, the party that was once led by Mahatma Gandhi, played this game rather well after the Partition turning it into almost an art. When the party couldn’t fool all the Muslims all the time, other ‘secular’ parties took over.

During these elections, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, the BJP’s new face, has been going around attacking the Congress and other ‘pseudo secular’ parties, accusing them of exploiting the Muslims as a ‘vote bank’ all these years without doing anything for them. I know there is no love lost between Modi and Muslims. But there is truth in what the Gujarat leader says. If the Muslims have remained imprisoned in their ghettoes and ghetto mindsets all these years, the credit should be shared by Muslim leaders as well as political parties. Having ruled the country for nearly five decades, the Congress especially cannot shrug off its responsibility for the despicable condition in which Muslims find themselves today.

While all other communities have successfully used the blessings and opportunities of democracy to change their lot, Muslims are eternally grateful for being allowed to live in the country in peace. While others proudly demand their share of the pie, we are happy with crumbs thrown our way and occasional lip service and meaningless gestures. No wonder the community continues to languish on the sidelines of mainstream and in every sphere of national life.

In the highly complex Indian society, often dictated by caste, class and religious equations, Muslims do not fit in and are like a fifth wheel. Which is why they are routinely neglected or taken for a ride by politicians. According to their numbers, there should be at least a hundred Muslims in Indian parliament. But they seldom cross the mark of 30 or so. This has been the general state of affairs in most state assemblies and virtually every sphere of political life.

For all this talk of the Muslims playing a kingmaker, their ‘strategic’ voting and the fiction of their ‘appeasement’ by all sides, the community remains singularly dispossessed and marginalised; a minority in every sense of the term! Naturally, there is great frustration over this state of affairs in the community. And there have been many suggestions and proposals as well to address the issue.

Having tried virtually every political party, some Muslim leaders have been lately pushing for a separate party of the Muslims that represents and protects their interests. However, there are few takers for the idea that is seen as unrealistic and isolationist in nature. Besides, similar experiments in the past have proved disastrous.

Some believe quota for Muslims in parliament and state assemblies or reserving certain constituencies for the community is the answer.

Whatever the solution, India’s leaders and political parties cannot afford to ignore the sense of deprivation and disgruntlement in the community.

Forget social justice and equality; if a community as large as this remains marginalised, it is not good for the overall growth and future of a country that looks to be the next world leader. Muslims should be part of the great Indian democratic narrative. They mustn’t end up as a footnote of history.

Aijaz Zaka Syed (VIEW FROM DUBAI)

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