Understanding postcolonial Muslim politics

The term “Muslim politics” is used, discussed, analysed and even criticised in a number of ways. Popular demands such as the protection of Urdu or Muslim Personal Law, the programmes, policies and activities of Muslim organisations or pressure groups, sermons, speeches and statements of influential Muslim personalities and the Muslim voting pattern in elections are often studied as legitimate constituents of “Muslim politics” in postcolonial India.

Despite this extraordinary proliferation of the term Muslim politics, especially in relation to the debates on secularism/communalism, our knowledge of different forms and trajectories of post-1947 Indian Muslim politics is rather limited. A strong conviction, that there is only one form of “Muslim politics” in India, which eventually characterises an indispensable dichotomy between western modernity and Islam, seems to dominate public as well as academic discourses. It is believed that “Muslim politics” as a manifestation of “minority communalism” could either be juxtaposed with “secular politics” or completely ignored as a kind of “reaction” to assertive Hindutva. This assumption is often accepted uncritically. As a result, the internal complexities of Muslim politics and the ways in which Muslim political actors function become less important and intellectual energies are devoted to reproducing the existing intellectual and political divide between “secularism” and “communalism.”

Fatwa politics

I take two examples — the evolution of the “fatwa politics” of the so-called Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and the multiplicity of Muslim positions on the Babri Masjid — to elaborate the weakness of this dominant portrayal of postcolonial Muslim politics.

“The contextualisation of Muslim politics is very important before making any generalisation about the political behaviour of Muslims in India”

The story of the Shahi Imam’s fatwa politics is inextricably linked to the historical-political significance of the Jama Masjid. The Masjid-e-Jane-Jahanuma or Jama Masjid was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century as the central mosque for the capital city of Shahjahanabad. Shah Jahan invited Hazrat Abdul Ghafur Shah — an established Islamic scholar from Bukhara — to lead the regular prayers at the Jama Masjid. The Imam Ghafur Shah was designated as the Imam-ul-Sultan (the Imam of the Emperor) or the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid. Over a period of time, the Imam of Jama Masjid, emerged as some kind of religious-cultural authority. The Imamat of this mosque is still inherited in the very family from generation to generation. The elder son of the Imam succeeds his father as the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid. The Imam delegates his responsibilities to his son in a public ceremony called DastarBandi.

The political life of Abdullah Bukhari began in the early 1970s. He was the naib (deputy) Imam of the Jama Masjid at the time. In order to establish full control over the mosque, Bukhari forced his father and the then Imam of the Jama Masjid to declare him the Imam. The Delhi Wakf Board (DWB), which used to manage the Jama Masjid, refused to recognise him as the legitimate Shahi Imam. To elevate his political status, Bukhari tried to manipulate Indira Gandhi’s famous family planning programme. He issued a statement supporting the programme. This statement was publicised as a fatwa by the media. Interestingly, this pro-Congress gesture did not help Bukhari at all. He was criticised by the Muslim political and religious elites as he did not have any religious authority to issue a fatwa (he was not a mufti or Alim).

The institutional conflict over the control of the mosque between Abdullah Bukhari and the DWB eventually led to a series of communal conflicts. The most violent event took place on February 2, 1975, when Bukhari, along with his supporters, entered the premises of the DWB and publicly slapped the then Chairperson of the Board and the Union Minister, Shah Nawaz Khan. As expected, he was arrested by the police and booked under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). The Imam’s supporters led by Bukhari’s son Ahmad Bukhari, however, had a different plan. They came back to the Jama Masjid and announced that the Imam had been assassinated by the police. This news created a stir and a violent conflict erupted between local Muslims and the police in which seven people died. After a series of negotiations, Bukhari was released from jail. By that time, he became the national Muslim leader. He established full control over the mosque and started issuing election fatwas in the name of representing Muslims. In 1977, he supported the Janata Party; in 1980, he campaigned for the Congress and particularly for his political mentor, Indira Gandhi; in 1984, he was again with the Congress. The story of the Imam’s fatwa politics, interestingly, absorbed in the narratives of communalism/secularism in the later years, and even his claim to represent the political aspirations of India’s Muslims was somehow accepted uncritically in the popular political discourse.

Political plurality

Let us move on to the second example, the Babri Masjid-Ram temple site in Ayodhya. Unlike the dominant perception that the Babri Masjid is a political-ideological tussle between secularism and Hindu communalism, one finds that this disputed site is a perfect example to elaborate the plurality of postcolonial Muslim politics.

The first organised Muslim response to the Babri Masjid dispute came in 1984 when a section of local Muslims of Faizabad decided to form the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC). The committee was established to reassert Muslim claims over the Babri Masjid.

In fact, there were two objectives of this committee: (a) to solve the dispute through legal action and (b) to protect the long-term interests, life and property of the Muslim community of Faizabad and Ayodhya. Interestingly, the dominant Muslim political groups and Muslim political elites did not pay any serious attention to this local response until 1986 when the mosque was opened for Hindus.

The period of two years (1986-88) is very relevant in the history of postcolonial Muslim politics. In 1987, the Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (BMMCC) was formed to organise the fragmented Muslim responses on the Babri Masjid. There were three main ideological factions of this fragile coalition: (a) the legal activists, who were mainly associated with organisations like the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawart and keen to pursue the legal case with some kind of an additional political movement; (b) a few politically inclined ulema, who were eager to establish a religious link between the Shah Bano case and the Babri Masjid case; (c) radicals like the Imam of Jama Masjid, who were enthusiastic to indulge in agitational politics by evoking the memories of a royal Muslim past.

Making of the secular camp

These three dominant ideological forces, we must note, were operating in an emerging discourse of secularism. In fact, an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party/Hindutva secular camp was being gradually constituted by the Janata Dal and the Congress. The success of this secular camp was contingent upon the strategic placing of Muslim political elites in the emerging configuration of electoral politics. The Muslim coalition on the Babri Masjid eventually merged in secular politics. The faction led by the Imam of Jama Masjid, Abdullah Bukhari, transformed itself into the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC) in 1988. This faction was successfully mobilised by V.P. Singh, while the BMMCC moved towards the Chandrashekhar group. Over the next two years, the BMMCC and BMAC continued to fight over the leadership of the Babri Masjid movement. In fact, the negotiations with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) on the status of the mosque in 1990-91 turned out to be a battle for Muslim representation. The culmination of this story was equally interesting. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s (AIMPLB) High Power Committee — which was unanimously formed by all Muslim parties and groups after the demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992 — passed a resolution on December 1, 1993 which said: “… the Committee had decided … to suspend agitational program for some time … in order to maintain the unity of Millat [the community], we do not consider it proper to announce a protest programme for the present.”

Muslim political diversity on the Babri Masjid has not been taken seriously. As a result, we do not find any discussion on the ways in which Muslim political groups transform the Babri Masjid into a question of secularism and a right to heritage. In fact, there is virtually nothing on two very contradictory Muslim political demands: (a) that the Babri Masjid should be given back to Muslim endowments (Wakf), in 1987; and (b) that it should be declared a protected historical monument and given back to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in 1989.

In my view, there is a need to recognise a multifaceted postcolonial Muslim political discourse: the discourse in which Muslim political groups, organisations and political elites participate in various forms, exploit available resources, and produce a number of distinct claims and demands. The structure of this political discourse, I suggest, is inextricably linked to the wider postcolonial socio-political processes, which provide external stimulus to it. At the same time, the ever-changing internal social and cultural dynamics, which decide the Islamic elements in the discursive formation of identities of those social groups and communities who call themselves “Muslims,” equally affect the terms of this discourse. Therefore, I argue that the contextualisation of Muslim politics is very important before making any generalisation about the political behaviour of Muslims in India.

(Hilal Ahmed is an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi and the author of Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation, Routledge, 2014.)

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