In UP's Deoband, Muslims Remain Unintimidated By Communal Politics

Whatever be the electoral outcome, one thing appears certain: minorities are not going to turn their back on the idea of a secular India.

Deoband is home to a great seminary, Darul Uloom, a global centre of Islamic learning. It is also what in the reporter’s short-hand is called a Muslim-dominated town in Saharanpur district of western Uttar Pradesh. This part of Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls tomorrow, in what is seen as a defining electoral battle, whose outcome would per force recast the Narendra Modi regime’s political priorities and preferences. This is also part of the state which was host to a violent standoff between the dominant, aggressive Jats and the Muslims, who have a sizeable presence, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. That conflict infected the mood in the entire state; a grand polarisation got effortlessly instigated and it garnered unprecedented electoral dividends for the BJP. The rest is history; but the narrative over the Muzaffarnagar violence – who did what to whom and why – continues to provide the backdrop to the 2017 assembly polls. It is highly pertinent to note that the BJP has not been able to find a single Muslim face to field out of a total of 400-odd candidates. And this contest forces, willy-nilly, a revisit to one of the fundamental but unsettled issues – the terms of coexistence between the majority and the minorities. The relationship between the majority and the minorities is an indicator of the health of a polity as well as the robustness of its state order. No nation can possibly hope to achieve its national greatness without a healthy majority-minority equation.

It is no longer possible – both for the Muslims and others – to talk openly and without rancour about this relationship. Conversations in Deoband with a cross-section from the Muslim community offer a few propositions, a few disquieting insights and a few sobering thoughts.

Most of us do not wish to be reminded of December 6, 1992. Yet we owe it to ourselves to keep in mind that the Babri Masjid demolition had put the Hindu-Muslim equation on a new basis. Whatever historic assurances the Muslims in India might have felt had been given to them and whatever the protection the constitution had provided, the largest minority in the land lost its sense of equanimity on that day. That equanimity has not yet been recovered nor has the polity made any effort to restore that feeling; and, perhaps more to the point, no one feels the need to restore that old sense of equanimity and elan.

Yet it is a measure of the Indian democratic resilience that most Muslim voices in Deoband assert that they do not feel “scared” of the BJP or Modi. This point was made repeatedly, not in a tone of defiance but perhaps out of a basic belief in the Indian constitutional order’s structured fairness. There is no sense of siege nor of hopelessness.

A rather subtle theme emerges from this unafraid-ness. The Muslims do not think they have the extra burden of defeating the BJP in each and every election. Rather there is an acute realisation that there will be an electoral contest every now and then and this democratic rite should not be allowed to accentuate the differences and polarisation. Nor is there any feeling that defence of the secular values and arrangements is their particular burden. Secularism is a collective undertaking and commitment. This is – or rather should be – a chastening thought for all those politicians and political outfits who strut around as high priests of Indian secularism.

Still, another unsentimental strand of clarity emerges. Contrary to whatever the BJP and the RSS may assert, the Muslims certainly do not think of themselves as a “vote bank”. The Muslim voters, activists and leaders have happily divided themselves among the three principal non-BJP political outfits – the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress, besides many other smaller entities. If anything, the lament among the Muslim voices is that it is the BJP which has shut its doors on them. The BJP, in this view, chooses to remain indifferent to their grievances and un-accommodative of their ambitions and aspirations. It perhaps helps the BJP to keep hammering on the Muslim “vote bank” in order to induce and deepen doubts and insecurities in the majority community.

The 2013-2014 tension between the Jats and the Muslims has definitely lost its prickly edge but the polarisation between the Hindus and the Muslims remains, dormant, barely just below the surface. And the political timidity that this polarisation has produced continues to rankle. It is pointed out that no Hindu leader – irrespective of the party – has the courage or the conviction to talk from a public platform about the Muslims’ backwardness and society’s obligation to obviate their grievances. This is not a recent phenomenon. The Rajinder Sachar Committee report comes up repeatedly in conversations. That committee, set up during the UPA days, had brought out the startling fact that the Muslims’s lot remained far worse than that of the Dalits. Additionally, it is underlined that no government has had the courage to table the report in parliament.

The BJP’s preferred mode is to invoke rashtriyavaad in a monopolistic manner. Yet the Muslims remain unfazed. There is a confident assertion that they have no reason to feel apologetic about their loyalties and allegiances because they do not feel a fig about Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Pakistan. It is the BJP, in this view, that remains unsentimentally committed to a grammar of polarisation. Having said that, the Muslims say they are not prepared to divest themselves of their identity or ideology in order to make themselves amenable to the BJP. Like any other section of the Indian society, they are entitled to a sense of sunvai, a sense of assurance that the sarkar will not be indifferent to their grievances and that hukumat will ensure that no injustice is done to any one section of society.

This is the simple but vital context to the electoral battle being fought in this western part of Uttar Pradesh, notwithstanding all the highfalutin invocation of vikas. Yogi Adiyanath and his merry-band of divisiveness-mongers are unleashed all over the state. The Samajwadi-Congress alliance, on the other hand, is promising a modernistic agenda. In her own way, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party is challenging the BJP’s polarising agenda. Whatever be the outcome on March 11, one thing appears certain: the minorities are not going to turn their back on the idea of a secular India. Amen.

Harish Khare is the Editor in chief of The Tribune, where this piece first appeared.