The marginalisation of the Indian Muslim

The vitiation of the political process has increased the gap between Muslims’ legal citizenship and substantive citizenship

Updated - August 15, 2022 12:26 pm IST

Published - August 15, 2022 05:27 am IST

A masjid in Bhopal.

A masjid in Bhopal. | Photo Credit: Faruqui A.M.

Shortly after India gained independence, we gave ourselves a Constitution that guaranteed equal citizenship to everyone. Yet, 75 years later, there are growing concerns among Muslims that their citizenship rights might be under threat. Those concerns were reflected not long ago in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the biggest nationwide mobilisation of Muslims since Independence.

Even though the ruling dispensation has put that contentious legislation on hold, it has not done much to address the anxiety. In fact, the CAA protests were followed by riots in the national capital, followed by an expansive crackdown on Muslim civil society activists. Lately, we have seen the dawn of bulldozer justice. In three Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled States, the bulldozer has been employed as a barely disguised tool of collective punishment in Muslim neighbourhoods. The judiciary has refused to put a stop to this brazen illegality.

Political accommodation

These unfortunate developments remind us of the gap between legal citizenship and substantive citizenship. In a democracy, that gap is mediated by the political process, which structures the engagement between citizens and state institutions. Thus, insofar as minorities are concerned, their access to the promised package of civil, socio-economic and political rights is governed by the model of political accommodation of minorities.

The Indian experience of politically accommodating Muslims has been an evolving patchwork of varied models. In Kerala, Muslims have been part of a broader consociationalism framework, having a political party (Indian Union Muslim League) that bargains on behalf on them with the governing coalition. In West Bengal, under the long reign of the Left Front, the large Muslim peasantry was mobilised on class lines through land reforms, and included in the political process through local structures. Similarly, Muslims in Tamil Nadu have been accommodated using broad-based policy platforms, without an emphasis on their religious identity.

In the north Indian model, especially dominant in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims were conceptually constructed as a homogenous community, politically driven by cultural concerns of protecting their distinct identity. This was the dominant paradigm of secular accommodation followed not just by the Congress, but also by the socialist and caste-based parties of the region. From the 1960s, a category of ‘Muslim issues’ was established in the political discourse — official patronage of Urdu, minority status of Aligarh Muslim University, Uniform Civil Code, Babri Masjid — and secular parties fashioned themselves as the guardians of these special protections. Alongside, the Muslim religious elite were propped up as the favoured intercessors in the political process, and came to be recognised as the representatives of the community.

At some level, this model was pre-determined by the legacy of Partition, which had de-legitimised certain political demands seen as reminiscent of the politics of the Muslim League. For instance, the Constitution-makers disregarded the demand for proportional representation in electoral competition, as well as the inclusion of Muslim Dalits (and Christian Dalits) in the Constitution scheme of reservation.

Instead of political or material protections, the Constitution favoured cultural protections to minorities in the form of Article 30. This template of dealing with Muslims primarily through a cultural prism has proved to be remarkably resilient.

All models of Muslim accommodation are moulded more by the choices of political elites than by community pressures from below. The Congress can argue that it privileged cultural issues in response to demands of Muslim pressure groups like the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat. Yet, those very pressure groups had also raised the issues of discrimination in government jobs, unequal access to education and the regular spate of communal violence. These were not emphasised by the political elite because they entailed harder questions of institutional reform and state capacity. Symbolic issues, on the other hand, appeared to have little political costs.

This calculus of political costs received a jolt with the Shah Bano episode. In bowing down to the conservative Muslim clergy, the Congress not only damaged itself, but also allowed the BJP an explosive device to ground its campaign against Muslim ‘appeasement’. A survey of anti-Muslim riots in Congress-ruled U.P. in the 1980s (the decade of Shah Bano) should be enough to reveal the hollowness of this charge of appeasement. Several of these riots were in reality massacres committed by the notorious U.P. Provincial Armed Constabulary, such as in Moradabad (1980) and Meerut (1987).

Riots provide, in fact, a useful lens to gauge different models of Muslim accommodation. The political scientist Steve Wilkinson studied more than five decades of Hindu-Muslim riots, and concluded that the prevalence of riots in a State is inversely proportional to the political bargaining power of the Muslim minority. The inaction of the state which allows riots, according to Wilkinson, stems not from a lack of state capacity but from a lack of political will. The state is more likely to prevent riots when Muslims are an important part of the governing coalition, Wilkinson argued. Further, he demonstrated that riots are less frequent in multipolar States, such as post-Mandal U.P. and Bihar, because Muslims possess more political leverage in such a polity as crucial swing voters.

Access to socio-economic goods

However, communal violence is just one parameter on which we can measure the success or failures of different models of Muslim accommodation.The access of Muslims to socio-economic goods is an equally important indicator. On this front, as the Sachar Committee showed, Muslims hover around the bottom of the pile in most States. According to Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A., the proportion of Muslim youth (in 2017-18) who had completed graduation was just 14%, the lowest among all social groups. The educational attainment was most abysmal in the Hindi-belt States such as Haryana (3%), Rajasthan (7%) and Uttar Pradesh (11%), while the highest rates were found in Tamil Nadu (36%) and Kerala (28%). Of course, part of this variation can be explained by the generally higher state capacity of southern States and historical factors such as the exodus of the Muslim elite from northern Indian States post-Partition. But partly it is also an outcome of the failures of the models of minority accommodation which emphasise protection of cultural identity (the Hindi heartland States) relative to those which emphasise access to material goods (Tamil Nadu and Kerala). As Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan note of southern States: “The (Muslim) community’s achievements also have to be seen in the context of positive discrimination Muslims enjoy in these States – Dalit and OBC [Other Backward Classes] Muslims are given reservations under the OBC quota.”

We have not yet mentioned the BJP model of Muslim accommodation, because the party (and the larger Sangh Parivar) is opposed to the very concept. The BJP conflates any form of Muslim inclusion with ‘appeasement’, which it holds to be the motor fuel of separatism and communalism. This notion of appeasement is flexible enough to cover even the participation of Muslims in the political process which governs them. Hence, the BJP refused to field a single Muslim candidate in the 403 constituencies of U.P. For the first time in India, a ruling party has no Muslim MLA or MP. As if to underscore the point that the denial of political representation to Muslims is a matter of principle rather than political constraints, the party has even discontinued the practice of nominating token Muslim candidates to the Rajya Sabha.

As the BJP has become the hegemonic force in Indian politics, the clock has been turned back even on the secular politics of Muslim inclusion. In U.P., competitive politics had slowly broken through the model of cultural accommodation, and issues of ‘Muslim empowerment’ had started to emerge in the political discourse. In the 2012 U.P. elections, the Samajwadi Party and Congress both promised to carve out a separate sub-quota for Muslims within the OBC quota. All that is in the rear-view mirror now, as the issue of security has bubbled up to the forefront of electoral discourse.

It is this vitiation of the political process that is behind the yawning gap between the legal citizenship and the substantive citizenship of Indian Muslims. The most troubling aspect is that 75 years into Independence, this gap only appears to be increasing.

All models of Muslim accommodation are moulded more by the choices of political elites than community pressures from below

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