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‘Othered’ Muslim in Modi-BJP era: 3 essentials before mounting a political challenge to correct it

If The BJP Has Unchallenged Power, As It Seems Now, Do They Want One In Seven Indians Alienated Because Of Their Faith? At The Very Least, This Would Make For A Very Imperfect Indian Democracy.

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Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint

With the end of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, M.J. Akbar and Syed Zafar Islam’s Rajya Sabha tenures, Narendra Modi’s BJP will be left with no Muslim in either House. Read this with the following:

  • In both the 2014 and 2019 elections, the Modi-Shah BJP won full Lok Sabha majorities without any of their seven and six candidates, respectively, winning. This, while 20 crore Muslims live in India. Or one in seven.
  • In Uttar Pradesh, in 2017 and 2022, the Modi-Shah-Yogi BJP won humongous majorities without fielding any Muslim candidate. Muslims are about 20 per cent of the state’s population. Or one in five.
  • In Assam, the Modi-Shah-Himanta BJP won two majorities in 2016 and 2021. It fielded 17 Muslims in the two elections combined, but only one won, in 2016. One in three of Assam’s people is Muslim.
  • It is that rare juncture in our history when a Muslim sits on no constitutional chair in New Delhi (there’s one governor, Arif Mohammad Khan, Kerala), nor holds a position in the 76-member council of ministers, isn’t a chief minister anywhere. Of the 87 secretaries in the central government, two are Muslim. As this is being written, the BJP is yet to name its candidate for Vice President.

Let’s list the three stake-holders here. The BJP is the first because it’s the least affected. Ranking at number two are India’s Muslims, and at three, most hurt, is Indian democracy.

The BJP could easily take the couldn’t-care-less view and tell the Muslims, you do not vote for us, it’s ok, it’s a free country. Enough of the others do. You no longer decide who rules India.

That’s what BJP leaders often said in the pre-Modi era. I heard it first from former BJP MP Balbir Punj the day after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government was defeated by one vote in April 1999. The Muslims, he said ruefully, have a veto on who rules India.

Between Modi’s mass appeal and Shah’s electoral smarts, they’ve ended that. How, we’ve discussed often, simply by targeting 50 per cent of all Hindu votes. Reunite with religion what caste divided.

Just because the BJP no longer needs Muslim votes doesn’t mean they do not want them living safely and prospering here. They just want them to do so on their terms. Ideologically, the BJP and the RSS admire Israel’s approach to nation-building.

If Israel can be a Zionist republic, a democracy, and yet accommodate its nearly 20 per cent population of mostly Muslim Arabs as near-equal citizens, India can similarly be a predominantly Hindu nation with the 14 per cent Muslims similarly “accommodated”.

See, the only country where Arab Muslims can live as a minority and freely vote is the Zionist republic. Name another Arab country whose people can elect a real government?

So, they should say thank you to Israel. Because you are safe, free to live with dignity, educate your children, do business and get rich, pray as you wish, just don’t ask for a share in power.

Ideologically, the Hindu political Right will see this as a perfect solution.

Israel’s idiosyncratic proportionate system of elections does sometimes give the Arab parties a foot in the door, as at present. In India, first-past-the-post can continue giving BJP easy majorities in spite of the Muslims. Beyond that, all welfare will reach them fairly, which is sab ka saath/sab ka vikas.

It’s this hyphenated equality that would be on offer to the Muslims in the perfect world of the BJP/RSS. It would imply that India is predominantly a Hindu nation, and follows secular governance because of that.

It leaves India’s Muslims alienated, othered, angry, nearly disenfranchised. Their vote no longer counts. Segregation, loss of power and a feeling that they might still live safely in India, if only at the sufferance of its Hindu majority.

This anger has erupted in protests, as against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

In the south-western coastal region, it is morphing into something angrier, led by the Popular Front of India (PFI), its political unit the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), and its student wing, the Campus Front of India (CFI). It manifested in the hijab protests, but we might as well brace for something more dire going ahead. As Manmohan Singh said at his press conference in the run-up to the 2009 campaign at New Delhi’s Constitution Club, if even one per cent of India’s Muslims decide they have no future in India, the country might become ungovernable.

If the BJP has unchallenged power, as it seems now, do they want one in seven Indians alienated because of their faith? At the very least, this would make for a very imperfect Indian democracy. A sizeable correction is called for. The question is, who will do it and how?

First, the ‘hope’ from international pressure. There was some excitement when the Gulf Arab states pushed back over Nupur Sharma. How sensitive Narendra Modi is to friendly Muslim countries showed in his immediate damage control. But no outside powers, no Washington, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Tehran, Brussels or London, have leverage over the Modi government except on a rare, episodic basis.

Modi and the BJP could easily take a cynical view that the Gulf states don’t particularly care what anybody does to their own Muslims (China, Uyghurs/Russia, Chechens) as long as you understand the no-go areas: the Prophet, the Quran.

See how barely a fortnight after the protests the ruler of the UAE received Modi at the airport with a hug, and then the I2U2 summit where the UAE joined the US, India and Israel in unveiling a new strategic grouping. Therefore, the Modi-Shah BJP may not see the need for a big course correction. Of course, we might be reminded of a childhood friend Abbas as much as L.K. Advani would point to the Muslim driver of his “rath” when asked if he was anti-Muslim.

If the BJP has no incentive to make corrections, who would? It can’t be done by outraging on social, domestic or foreign media. The courts won’t do it today, be realistic. You can’t, and must not try doing it by dragging young Muslims into protests that ruin lives and careers. It also can’t be done by articulate new Muslim leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, who’d get applause but few Hindu votes. It won’t happen even if some divine power banished our polarising TV news channels.

It’s a political challenge that only a pan-national political force can take on. Before we discuss how this could be done, we must list three pre-requisites.

First, an acceptance that no shift is possible unless you convince the Hindus that they need it.

Second, you can’t begin the new secular age by blaming or mocking the Hindus or ‘normalising’ Aurangzeb or Ghazni.

Third, dump the fallacy that we lived in the perfect secular world until May 2014.

Remember that when in 2005, the Congress-led UPA set up the Sachar Committee to examine the plight of the Muslims, India had been under the rule of the Congress or coalitions backed by it for 49 years out of 58 since Independence. The committee gave a report so damning, the UPA itself buried it.

To ‘comfort’ Muslims, the Congress repealed POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). But it made UAPA stringent, so stringent that Muslim victims might be nostalgic for POTA.

Once we accept that India didn’t leave a perfect world behind in 2014, that just the inclusion of the word ‘secular’ in the preamble by an illegitimate Emergency Parliament in its sixth year, with opposition in jails, didn’t cast Hindu-Muslim unity on a rock-face, we can think of the future. The BJP’s ideological rivals must first accept that their missteps, hypocrisy and cynicism allowed the BJP to ride polarisation to successive majorities. Only then can a new political challenge be designed.