India is a country of incredible religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Muslims form an important part of that mosaic which would be incomplete without them. Muslim communities themselves are ‘diverse, with differences in language, ethnicity, and access to political and economic power’. But, lately, they have faced discrimination regardless of their internal differences in employment, education and housing. Many lack access to health care and basic services. Above all, they often struggle to secure justice despite constitutional protections and equal citizenship guarantees.
The ruling party, its politics
In general, Muslims are under-represented in public institutions and representative bodies in India. While there have been improvements in the representation of most groups, for example, the percentage of backward caste Members of Parliament in the Hindi belt had nearly doubled from 11% in 1984 to more than 20% in the 1990s, Muslims continued to be under-represented in relation to the general population. Upper castes remain the most over-represented in the Lok Sabha with nearly 29% and Other Backward Classes 22% in 2019. Most importantly, there will be no Muslim Member of Parliament in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the terms of three of its Muslim MPs in the Rajya Sabha ends in July. It did not nominate any Muslim member to the Rajya Sabha in the recently concluded elections to the Upper House to recompense for their absence in the party contingent in the Lok Sabha. This marks an unprecedented moment in the history of our democracy as for the first time the ruling party will have no Members of Parliament from the largest minority in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, signalling their distance from political power and curtailing their opportunities of getting heard where it matters.
The BJP has no Muslim Members of the Legislative Assembly in the States either. This is a direct result of a political strategy first implemented in Gujarat of winning a majority without minority support. This strategy has been extended to other States, most strikingly to Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections, where it won huge majorities with negligible minority support. Muslims have thus been pushed out of the system first by rendering them irrelevant electorally and then rendering them invisible in the public sphere owing to their electoral inconsequentiality.
The erosion of the secular
This raises questions about how inclusive India is to its large Muslim minority population. What is at stake however is not the question of representation of Muslims as much as a series of questions about the new notions of representation in political life and the future of pluralism — which is the bedrock of India’s democracy. Pluralism was a way of demonstrating that India’s democracy represented everyone and this gradually became the cornerstone of Indian political practice. However, the transformational changes in Indian politics in the last decade have eroded the secular and pluralist basis of the nation. The failure to keep creed out of politics, a major fault line of Indian democracy today, is changing the structure and basis of representation. It is worth remembering in this context that the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had framed the 2022 Assembly election as an 80 per cent versus 20 per cent election, where the 20% group (a dog whistle for Muslims) represented supporters of mafias and criminals thus effectively delegitimising and derecognising a whole community.
The dominant template
This form of brazen majoritarian politics changes the very meaning of liberal democracy, reshaping it to provide expression through state power to the majority will while disregarding and excluding minorities. In these circumstances, parties that depend on the support of minorities too end up making them invisible in order to compete on somewhat similar grounds to fit into the dominant template. This approach denies the ‘legitimacy of political majorities forged with the aid of minority support or votes’. For this reason Rahul Gandhi was mocked and ridiculed for contesting from Wayanad in Kerala claiming that he has done so because it is a Muslim majority constituency.
As noted above, Muslims have remained under-represented in the legislative arena since Independence. The number of Muslim Members of Parliament has gone up marginally from 23 to 27 (roughly 4%), which is still very low compared to other groups. That modest increase took place even though the share of Muslims candidates decreased. Among the main parties, the overall number of Muslim candidates decreased, from 10.3% to 8%, the biggest decrease reported in State-based parties. The explanation for this cannot be found in the structural limitations of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the lack of winnability of Muslim candidates. It is political factors, that is to say the growth of majoritarian politics, that is aggravating the problem of under-representation. Over the last few years, majoritarian politics has changed the political landscape markedly in relation to Muslims. Hereafter, decline in representation is apparent in the States where majoritarian politics is a dominant force. In the event, most parties disregard their claims to tickets as they fear their rivals would accuse them of sacrificing the interests of the majority community. Hence, parties are busy reducing the tickets given to Muslims for fear of being branded anti-Hindu if they give fair representation to them or promote and protect their interests.
This trend directly relates to the privileging of the majority community and the ethnicisation of the state. It marks a shift from representative democracy based on inclusive politics in which everyone has equal rights, regardless of caste or creed, to an ethnic-majoritarian politics which treats accommodation of diversity as concessions to minorities at the expense of the majority community.
An instrument of protection
It is certainly not necessary or desirable for Muslim concerns to be represented by Muslims; in fact it is infinitely better for them to be represented by non-sectarian secular parties. But when parties are unwilling to stand up for them when they are explicitly subjected to hate speech or their constant targeting by the state is not countered or when institutions refuse to speak up for them when their homes and shops are illegally demolished and their livelihoods destroyed, then their presence in institutions matters. Instead of being understood as concession, political representation should be conceived of as an instrument of minority rights protection. The dwindling representation of Muslims in legislatures and public institutions matters also because substantive representation (of the interests of a group) is linked to descriptive representation (their numerical presence). The Indian experience shows that ‘access to institutions is a key element to obtaining the state’s attention. Interests tend to be better represented once a group has actual representation in public institutions’.
A litmus test
To conclude, diversity in public institutions is essential to promote stability and integration of the state as an institution of governance since an underlying premise of democracy is power sharing along multiple axes — religious, linguistic, regional, caste, tribal, etc. The extent to which ethnic or racial minorities are present in legislatures can be viewed as a litmus test for the effectiveness of a country’s democratic system and for redressing ethnic inequalities or addressing discrimination. At the same time it underlines the complexities of democratic politics with regard to the relationship between formal and substantive equality and the question of whether it is enough to give people formal equality, or whether there is a need also to address the structural obstacles that prevent certain groups from making full use of their equal rights, as said in a paper on ‘The Political Representation of Ethnic and Racial Minorities’, New South Wales Parliamentary Library. One thing is clear from recent Indian experience. Rights without participation in public institutions have been largely ineffective.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi