Sunday Anchor

The politics of economic embargo

If, in the early 1990s, economic liberalisation provided opportunities to self-employed Muslims, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid agitation brought them to the streets. As the consequences of the two unravelled over the next two decades and more, Muslims bore, first, the brunt of the communal violence and, then, the burden of radicalisation.

It was then that Muslim leaders, especially in Uttar Pradesh, began to realise that a new path was needed, one that would see members of the community acting not as victims or perpetrators of crimes but becoming part of a responsible decision-making process. They needed to do this by becoming elected representatives in the legislatures. 

Simultaneously, young Muslims, as dazzled as other young Indians by the possibilities thrown open by globalisation, developed aspirations that would help them break stereotypes. They wanted to become part of the economic mainstream, to be part of the narrative of growth rather than of terrorism and Islamic radicalism. 

As I travelled through the State in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2007, held against a backdrop of communal tensions, it was evident that the Sangh Parivar had permitted its saffron stormtroopers in eastern UP to foment communal violence. They had erected billboards with communally-charged messages and distributed CDs with anti-Muslim propaganda. Its leaders described members of the minority community in language that should have invited immediate arrest.

The Muslim leadership, however, acutely aware that polarisation would benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), advocated restraint. The Muslims held their peace and were rewarded: the BJP’s tally dipped from 89 seats to 49, while the number of Muslims elected to the UP Assembly was 56, the highest since Independence, almost 14 per cent in the 403-strong Assembly, close to its real strength of 18 per cent in the State. In 2012, the figure climbed to 64.

In 2008, I attended the funeral of suspected terrorists Atif Amin and Mohamed Sajid, killed in what came to be known as the ‘Batla House encounter’ in Delhi. Among those gathered to mourn the deaths were Muslim youth, largely from eastern UP and Bihar, their neighbours in the congested Jamia Nagar locality. The young men said they had travelled to the capital to study in universities in the hope that it would lead to a better life. Following the encounter, they were getting frantic calls from home; their anxious parents wanted them to return; better an unemployed son than a dead one. 

What did these young people want from life? They wanted what other young Indians did — a secure, respectable job and money to buy the good things of life.  A liberalised economy helped many in the community to transform their lives. Since poor education, poverty and social bias kept them out of mainstream jobs, more than half the community was self-employed, with businesses ranging from cycle repair shops to meat export.

This creeping material improvement is reflected in the recent religious census data: the sharpest fall in population growth has been among Muslims, dropping from an all-time high of 45.2 per cent in the decade ending 2001 to 24.6 per cent in 2011.

A UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) paper on how inclusive growth has been in India in the 90s and early 2000s by Sukhadeo Thorat and Amaresh Dubey says rural poverty declined at a slightly higher rate for Muslims and other religious minorities (ORM) compared to Hindus. 

Clearly, not all Muslims prospered but those who did became more visible, as in western UP, and expanded their influence from business to politics. They first became objects of envy, then, fuelled by Hindu right-wing groups, targets of hatred. The 2002 communal violence in Gujarat saw Muslim establishments targeted with a large number of ensuing deaths. In 2013, communal violence in western UP’s Muzaffarnagar district saw a handful of deaths but around 50,000 Muslims fleeing villages, losing homes and livelihoods. In 2014’s general elections, the religious polarisation ensured that not even one Muslim MP  was elected from UP, a first since Independence.

This is the new model of communal violence, one that targets the sources of livelihood of Muslims rather than targeting their lives. We saw it in Delhi’s Trilokpuri before the Delhi elections; in Haryana in places such as Atali; and are now observing it across Bihar as Assembly elections approach.

The message to Muslims, as a local BJP leader in Muzaffarnagar told The Hindu, “It is enough that we let you live here. Don’t raise your heads.”

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 8:59:16 AM |

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