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Recognising the Uniqueness of Muslim Political Discourse in India

To examine the diverse engagements of Muslim groups with postcolonial political realities, one has to give up the Babri Masjid-centric grand narrative of Islam in India.

A man uninstalls a light from a temporary tent in front of a mosque in a Muslim-dominated area in Ahmedabad March 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood/Files

A man uninstalls a light from a temporary tent in front of a mosque in a Muslim-dominated area in Ahmedabad March 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood/Files

Twenty five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, The Wire, through a series of articles and videos, captures how the act of destruction changed India forever.

Postcolonial Muslim politics in India is often understood with regard to the destruction of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The demolition of the mosque is placed in an interesting narrative of the ‘rise and fall’ of Muslims in India by establishing a link between the Babri Masjid and a wide range of issues, events and episodes: the advent of Islam in the subcontinent, Muslim rule, Muslim separatism, Partition, Urdu, Aligarh, communal riots and so on. Although such historical sketches remain honest to actual political events, they fail to recognise the multiplicity of Muslim politics.

To examine the diverse engagements of Muslim groups with postcolonial political realities, one has to give up the Babri Masjid-centric grand narrative of Islam/Muslims in India. Instead, certain context-specific reference points should be acknowledged to map out the contours of what might be called the Muslim political discourse.

Broadly speaking, three significant aspects of this discourse can be identified: the coalitional nature of Muslim politics, adherence to a constitutional language and the evocation of Muslim identities for social justice. These aspects should not be taken as representative features of any kind. We must recognise the fact that Muslim politics is a highly multifaceted phenomenon; nevertheless, by focusing on these conceptually relevant points, we might be able to understand the complex making of contemporary Muslim engagements with different forms of politics.

Coalitional politics

The ‘unification’ of India in the post-Partition scenario is seen as a linear trajectory of political transition. Except three tragedies – Hyderabad, Junagadh and Kashmir – our story of Indian federalism is simple and straightforward. However, the merger of various princely states into the Indian Union and reorganisation of the states in 1956 actually was a multi-stage process, which also shaped the Muslim political responses at various levels.

Muslim League’s politics in southern India is a good example. Partition had an adverse effect on the organisational structure of the Muslim League in India. Many League supporters and local leaders either migrated to Pakistan or joined the Congress in the north. However, the Muslim League survived in the south, partly because of its organisational strength in the Madras province and partly because of the regional orientation of its main leaders. In addition, there was another important geo-political factor. The condition of Muslims in the south was significantly different from the north in the 1950s. While the nizam-ruled state of Hyderabad suffered the worst during Partition among areas in the south, the Muslim communities of this region (Madras Province, Mysore, Malabar region and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin) did not have to confront the same kind of hostile attitude of the state machinery which had already marginalised Muslims in north India. As a result, the political atmosphere was somehow conducive for Muslim groups, particularly the Muslim League, to work out a rather experimental politics in the 1950s.

The Madras Muslim League approached the Congress for an electoral alliance at the local level in 1951. Evoking the old argument that the League was the sole representative organisation of Indian Muslims, it was suggested that the Congress must support the League’s Muslim candidates and not run any Muslim candidate itself. This proposal needs to be seen in its context. The separate electorate, reservation of seats and even suggestion of having proportional representation had already been rejected. In this scenario, the only option for the League was to identity a few safe ‘Muslim’ seats. It was not at all difficult, at least in the Madras province. The constituencies were to be carved out on the basis of population estimates in the 1951 elections and, in the absence of any proper delimitation, the identification of Muslim-dominated districts was a much easier task. However, the League, it seems, was not fully confident of the Muslim votes. It had no experience in mass-based electoral politics, and precisely for this reason, it was obvious for the League leaders to remain apprehensive about Muslim support in an open competition. Therefore, it was inevitable for them to negotiate with the Congress for ‘Muslim’ seats.

Muslim League leaders after a dinner party given at the residence of Mian Bashir Ahmad, Lahore, 1940. Credit: British Library/Wikimedia Commons

Muslim League leaders after a dinner party given at the residence of Mian Bashir Ahmad, Lahore, 1940. Credit: British Library/Wikimedia Commons

From the Congress’s point of view, the possibility of an electoral deal with the League, especially in the context of 1951, was going to be tricky business. Of course, the spirit of this proposal stems from the practicalities of electoral arithmetic, but these kinds of assertions were unacceptable in the 1950s. Jawaharlal Nehru was keen to ensure that the electoral mechanism should also reflect the principles of secular participation of masses as citizens. The Congress high command, as expected, thus turned down this offer and went in for the elections in the province without any formal coalition. The Muslim League, on the other hand, contested as a regional party and managed to get one Lok Sabha seat.

This electoral debacle forced the League to rework its future strategies. It is true that senior League leader B. Pocker won from the Malappuram constituency of the Madras province; but this success could not be seen as a ‘satisfactory’ performance, particularly when the party was still relying on Muslim exclusiveness as its main ideological position. To understand the League’s dilemma, let us look at the detailed result of the Malappuram constituency. It was a triangular contest. Although Pocker won the seat, he secured only 38.98% votes, while the other two candidates (T.V. Chathukutty Nair of the Congress and Kumhali Karikedan of the CPI) received 30.65% and 30.38% of the votes respectively. The apprehension that the League could not depend on Muslim votes in an open competition turned out to be factually correct. After all, the Malappuram district was a Muslim-dominated area and the League could have expected a much better performance here.

The creation of Kerala, which had a close to 18% Muslim population, gave a level playing ground to the League. The party ‘discovered’ the communists as a political enemy in Kerala, which gave it an opportunity to form a tactical coalition with the Congress and the Praja Socialist Party (PSP). In order to overthrow the communists, a mass movement against the CPI-led state government was launched by the coalition comprising the Congress, League and PSP. The outcome of the agitation was quite predictable: the Centre intervened and the elected government was toppled. This ‘success’ of the coalition cleared the way for an electoral pact between the League and the Congress. This practical adjustment turned out to be highly favourable for both partners. The Congress contested elections in 80 seats and won 63; it also managed to secure 45.37% of the votes. On the other hand, the Muslim League was also in an adventitious position. Although it fought election only on 12 assembly seats, it won 11 and got 47.79% of votes on these seats.

The post-election story was equally interesting. Since the Congress had a clear majority, it did not need the League’s support to form a government. There was also internal ideological pressure. Creating an open alliance with the League to oppose communists as a common enemy could not entirely be described as a deviation from the stated ideology of a ‘socialistic pattern of society’. After all, the Muslim League had incorporated the ‘socialistic pattern of society’ in its ideology and Nehru himself had clearly worked out the difference between majority communalism and minority communalism. However, accommodating the Muslim League in the cabinet as a legitimate partner was not an easy task. The Muslim League had not given up its claim that it was the representative organisation of the Muslims of the state. It had also projected itself as a champion of the Muslim cause in the elections. An appropriate formula was finally worked out: the Muslim League was given the speakership of the house and one Rajya Sabha seat, and the Congress formed its own government.

This brief story of the Muslim League’s initial survival in Kerala should not either be seen as a narrative of corrupt communal politics of Muslim elites or a virtual defeat of secularism. Rather, we have to recognise a highly complex political configuration. The ‘Muslim representation’ in the 1960 Kerala assembly was a multi-layered phenomenon – apart from the Muslim League, there were Muslim elected members of the CPI and the Congress as well. This aspect contradicted the League’s claim to be the sole representative body of Muslims. On the other hand, the League was not a loser either. It had not only consolidated itself as a recognised political party, but also managed to enter national parliament through the Rajya Sabha. In other words, while it can undoubtedly be inferred that the Muslim voters of Kerala did not merely vote for Muslim candidates – or alternately, that all Muslims who contested elections were not exclusively committed to any stated or defined ‘Muslim cause’ – it is certainly not possible to deny the existence of the Muslim League as a legitimate political player.

Constitutional language of politics

Let us look at the second aspect of Muslim political discourse: adherence to constitutionalism. The known ‘Muslim’ political demands have always been defined in purely legal-constitutional terms. The Babri Masjid episode is a revealing example to elaborate this point.

The Declaration of Delhi, which was adopted by the All India Babri Masjid Conference (BMMCC) on December 22, 1986, very clearly shows that the dominant Muslim position defined Babri Masjid as a part of India’s national heritage and linked it to the constitutional rights given to the minorities. This declaration says:

The Conference regards the Babri Masjid as a national heritage and as a historical monument but, above all, as a place of Islamic worship whose sanctity must be universally respected by all right minded persons, whatever their religion and whose violation should be regarded as an offence to the religious sentiments of the Muslims but also to the secular order because it contravenes Article 25 of the Constitution.

This political version of Babri Masjid acknowledges the national significance of the episode. In fact, when the government tried to involve local Muslims of Ayodhya in solving the dispute in 1987, the BMMCC issued a statement saying that the Babri Masjid could not be treated as a local issue. It was asserted that the Babri Masjid was Muslim wakf (property) and it was symbolically attached to the entire Muslim community.

The most noticeable aspect of the Muslim position is that it gives least importance to the religious or shariat angle of the Babri Masjid case. For example, defining the status of the Babri Masjid during the time of Shilanyas in 1990, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) issued a statement which says:

…the title [to] and the ownership of a mosque and its site vest in God (Sic)… neither can a mosque be changed nor sold nor purchased nor transferred by way of compromise to any individual or group or govt. nor acquired by a govt…That the undeniable historical and legal evidences make it obvious that the Babri Masjid is a mosque. The UP govt. has admitted this fact in its affidavit …hence its status in Shariat is that of a mosque. Therefore the (status of a mosque) should be restored … as it was till December 22, 1949.

These two examples reveal that the constitution is actually seen as a political reserve by Muslim political elites to articulate Muslim demands in a language of rights. Reiterating the liberal values of the Indian constitution, Muslim political elites also attempted to interpret the existence of democratic institutions in a radical manner.

File photo of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, November 1990. Credit: PTI

File photo of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, November 1990. Credit: PTI

Identity and social justice

Muslim reservation as a political phenomenon is the third aspect of Muslim political discourse. The recent debate on Muslim reservation goes beyond the overarching notion of ‘Muslim backwardness’ in a very significant way. The declaration passed by a few Pasmanda Muslim organisations, Political Agenda of Pasmanda Muslims in Lok Sabha Elections, 2014, offers us a very relevant critique in this regard. This declaration not only addresses the multifaceted question of reservation in a nuanced legal-constitutional manner, but also establishes a link between the caste question and other political issues such as globalisation, communalism, internal diversity of social-religious groups, adequate representation of women and corruption.

There are three significant points of the declaration, which need to be highlighted.

The declaration demands:

Scrapping of Para (3) of Constitution (SCs) Order, 1950 so that dalit Muslims and dalit Christians are duly included in the SC list and they are not discriminated against on the basis of religion under Article 341 of the Indian Constitution.

Constitution (SCs) Order, 1950 says, “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”.

According to the original order passed in 1950, only Hindu caste groups were eligible for inclusion in the SC list. This order, however, was amended in 1956 and 1990 respectively for accommodating the Sikh and Buddhist caste groups. The order communalises the category of Scheduled Caste. It is based on a strong assumption that caste-based social inequalities are merely a reflection of a polluted form of Hinduism. Therefore, the argument goes, there is a need to eradicate ‘bad’ social practices through reservation for wider Hindu social reform. The order, in this sense, disregards the long struggles of Dalit communities for independent identity and dignity by confining them into the established Hindu fold. In addition, the order appears to offer a legitimacy (though rather indirectly) to the Hindu rightists’ appeal for an ‘indivisible unity of the entire Hindu Society including Harijans and tribals’.

The Pasmanda politics, on the other hand, offers a creative reinterpretation of the complex relationship between communalism and caste-based reservation. The demand that Muslims and Christian ‘Dalit’ castes should also be given the SC status points toward the fact that caste-based exploitation is not exclusively related to any particular religious group.

The proposal to redesign the OBC category also reflects a very different elucidation of an India-specific secularism in relation to caste-based reservation. The declaration asks the state to chalk out:

…a quota for Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) within OBC quota at the Central and State levels (the Bihar formula) where the backward caste Muslims could be clubbed together with similarly placed Hindu caste groups. This is a more judicious and non-communal demand than the 4.5% sub-quota for OBC-Minorities moved by the Congress Party before last Lok Sabha elections.

The demand to create an EBC within OBC category establishes a crucial link between backwardness and wider socio-economic stratification of society. This proposed restructuring, in principles, recognises the significance of the caste-based reservation for OBCs; yet underlines the fact that OBC is not a monolithic category. Precisely for this reason, a differentiated approach to deal with the multilayered phenomenon of backwardness is demanded.

Finally, the declaration recognises the limits of reservation and calls upon the political establishment to evolve a wider plan of affirmative action. It is claimed that:

State support to the artisans, crafts-persons, agricultural laborers and other cottage and small-scale industries through effective subsidies, credit and loan facilities, marketing support, skill upgradation, etc.;

In this case, the state is asked to play a much greater role to deal with the problems of those occupational groups which have been facing the direct onslaught of globalisation in the country. This demand is not caste-based; rather, the occupational identity of a group is highlighted simply to underline the ways in which caste-occupation are amalgamated at various levels.

This brief discussion on some of the crucial aspects of Muslim politics offers us an interesting inference. Muslim political groups participated actively in the competitive politics and established favourable political coalitions. In order to make the Muslim demand politically acceptable, they drew inspiration from the constitution and imbibed the legal language of rights. This crucial adherence to the legal framework helps Muslim groups respond directly to the recent policy discourse, particularly the debates on backwardness and reservation. This was the reason why the Pasmanda groups have been able to articulate an overtly secular position without giving up the identity of Pasmanda Muslim and/or occupational backwardness. This uniqueness of the Muslim political discourse needs to be recognised — not only for initiating informed debates on Muslim political identities but also to talk about the trajectories of social transformation in postcolonial India.

Hilal Ahmed is associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.