Travels of a political pilgrim: Govt must address 'minority' syndrome which causes social conflict

Editor's note: Uttar Pradesh is home to India's sixth largest Muslim population according to the 2011 Census, a figure whose magnitude is amplified when viewed in the context of the sheer expanse of the state and its Byzantine linkages of identities and communities. Such an examination is rendered all the more urgent considering Uttar Pradesh is now in the thick of a tumultuous election. To understand the mind of its Muslim community — its anxieties, aspirations and animating impulses - political commentator and journalist Tufail Ahmed set off on the road, sending us dispatches from its far corners. Firstpost will chronicle his travels in a multi-part series. The following is the tenth part of this series titled 'Travels of a political pilgrim'.

On my tour of Uttar Pradesh, I stopped for a few days to talk to Muslim opinion makers in Lucknow, one of the few cities along with Hyderabad and Karachi which have significant populations of Shia Muslims. I reached a conclusion that although the minority psyche among Indian Muslims is preventing their development, there exists a minority of Shias right among them who are doing well in life and do not engage in victimhood or minorityism. My contention, therefore, was also that the minority phenomenon in India is essentially a Sunni Muslim phenomenon continuing from a serious competition for power in early Islam.

Nevertheless, the current polls in Uttar Pradesh have once again ensured that political parties such as the Samajwadi Party, Congress, and the Bahujan Samaj Party used the minority card and the politics of secularism for electoral purposes. In fact, much before the elections got underway, a political rally of BSP on 19 October at Bahjoi in Sambhal district began with the recitation of Quranic verses. Speaking on the occasion, Atar Singh Rao of BSP also cited hadiths (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad) to seek Muslim votes.

In the run-up to the elections, this use of religious symbolisms to attract 'minority' votes is not exclusive to BSP. Earlier, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited two Islamic seminaries – the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama of Lucknow and the Darul Uloom Deoband. These efforts are part of minority politics in India. There are several minority communities in India, but the term 'minority' – and its associated politics – is used mainly for Muslims. Significantly, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Shias do not show victimhood associated with Sunni Muslims.

There are two ways to look at who constitutes a minority. One, the word 'minority' is derived from the Latin word 'minor' and the suffix 'ity' – meaning the smaller in number of two aggregates which constitute a whole. As per this quantitative definition, a community is a minority if its numbers are fewer than that of the other community in the total population. The term 'minority' came into vogue after the introduction of parliamentary democracy in which the numerical strength of communities became a power. But a numerical definition is inadequate to explain social reality. For example, during the Apartheid, the black people were in a numerical majority in South Africa but they were discriminated against and subjugated by the white rulers who constituted a quantitative minority.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The numeric definition also does not explain whether a community is influential in an electoral constituency. Consider this: In 1952 elections, 67 percent MPs won with less than 50 percent votes. In 2004, only 24 percent MPs won with more than 50 percent votes. In 2009, only 17 percent MPs got more than 50 percent votes. In 2014, 61 percent MPs won with less than 50 percent votes. Indian democracy is in a situation in which candidates can win elections with just 30 percent votes, which encourages them to encourage identity-based politics. Consequently, a community with just about 20-30 percent population in a constituency can determine the outcome of an election and assert politically. This is the reason the BSP, the SP, the Congress, and others have been wooing Muslim voters in the UP elections.

This unfortunate stage in Indian democracy has been reached despite the country's leadership being aware of the complexities of minority politics around the time of Partition, as recorded by Madhav Godbole in his new book Secularism – India at a Crossroads. Writing in The New York Times edition of 19 July, 1942, Jawaharlal Nehru noted: "The real problem so often referred to is that of the Muslims. They are hardly a minority, as they number about 90,000,000 and it is difficult to see how even a majority can oppress them." Speaking on 24 January, 1947, Govind Ballabh Pant observed: "The question of minorities cannot possibly be overrated. It has been used so far for creating strife, distrust and cleavage between the different sections of the Indian nation." Pant's observation is a sad reminder that the minority politics continues even now.

The second way of looking at 'minority' is through a qualitative definition. As per it, a community can be called a minority if it is discriminated, segregated and subjugated by the majority community or the government. For example, Dalits in India were socially segregated and lived at the outer edges of villages for centuries. They were also discriminated through the practice of untouchability by upper castes. By a qualitative definition, Dalits can therefore be called India's first sociological minority. As per this definition, even women qualify to be a minority. In this year's UP elections, it was noticed that some Muslim women were willing to understand Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stand against the arbitrary practice of triple talaq which affects them. Another example of why the qualitative definition must prevail over the numeric criterion is this: The Muslims under the Mughal rule were numerically small but a politically dominant community.

A minority status carries with it an exclusion from full participation in the collective life of a society. This status is derived from its subordinate relation to a dominant group, which need not be a numerical majority. The Tibetans, living under the Chinese occupation, fully qualify for a minority status. A minority can be racial, linguistic, religious or caste group, if it is differentiated and discriminated against because of any of these factors. A group may be a minority either by choice or by compulsion. Sociologist Louis Wirth defined a minority as "a group of people who… are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment." In the case of Indian Muslims, it appears they strive to single themselves out from the mainstream.

Recently, Firstpost interviewed Amana Begum, a Law student based in Jaipur, who offered a telling comment on the behaviour of Indian Muslims: "As a community, we want either victimhood or supremacy." The Muslim elites too love to be called a minority because it helps them to receive some handouts from the government. Over the past few decades, the Muslim elites demanded setting up a minority financial corporation or an Urdu university, not the establishment of a chain of industrial training institutes for the education and training of the children of poor Muslim artisans and mechanics who work by the roadsides from Delhi to Kolkata. Therefore, it can be said that the minority politics used by Muslim elites to their benefit is harmful to common Muslims. There were also indications that in the UP elections, the minority politics was causing a reverse polarisation in favour of the BJP.

So, associated with the qualitative definition of minority are its behavioural characteristics. In the Indian society, the minority phenomenon can be described as a syndrome which moulds the behaviour of politicians, journalists, communities, or organisations such as political parties, NGOs and government departments. Everyone is a participant in this syndrome, which treats Muslims as a homogeneous group throughout India. This treatment of Muslims by non-Muslims and Muslims themselves is invalid because Indian Muslims are not homogeneous. Notably, Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir – or for that matter Sikhs in Punjab – cannot qualify to be a minority. Also, in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims have sizeable population, they tend to behave as a dominant community, unlike a real minority which is subjugated.

Also, the lower castes among Muslims are not even considered a minority – both by non-Muslims and Muslims. So, the minority politics – whether practised by political parties or by journalists and authors when discussing Muslims in their writings – doesn't even consider the welfare of Dalit Muslims and the Other Backward Classes among Muslims. This is despite a pioneering academic work carried out by sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed on caste-like divisions among Indian Muslims. It suits the media and the academic world to treat Muslims as a homogeneous community, as it suits the Sunni Indian Muslims who too like to see themselves as part of the Ummah, or the global Muslim nation. So, India has reached a stage where Indian Muslims behave like a dominant group, unlike a truly subjugated and discriminated group such as Dalits and women.

The 'minority consciousness' among Muslims is, therefore, more of a politics that prevents them from disengaging from emotional issues. To some extent, this is a north Indian phenomenon. The Muslims of southern India who have been largely free from minority consciousness have been able to register economic and educational growth while their northern counterparts remain emotionally engaged in issues which are more political than substantive. Also, compared to Muslims, India's Christians, Sikhs and Parsis, though in a numerical minority, do not exhibit any 'minority consciousness' – except for the fact that Parsis are worried about their diminishing numbers.

Given the highest degree of historical discrimination, social prejudices and forced exclusion from mainstream life, Dalits can be called a minority by compulsion. The Muslims in India are, unfortunately, a minority more by choice and less by compulsion, since they have been the ruling community in India, a primary reason why they conduct themselves boldly and assertively. In Lucknow, social anthropologist Nadeem Hasnain told me: "When will Muslims learn to live like a minority?" He added: "I think our biggest complex is that we have ruled India for 800 years." The Muslims also enjoy a strong sense of history and culture which is an essential prerequisite for a community to take voluntary initiatives. And unlike the Dalits, Muslims carry no social stigma which could potentially inhibit their economic enterprise.

In conclusion, a key challenge is how to disengage Muslims from the minority consciousness. While any set of measures will require decades to bring about such change, some small steps can be initiated. One, political parties should close down their minority wings and start treating their Muslim members like all other members. Intellectually, the BJP is well placed to do this and therefore, it must set a precedent. Two, a case is pending before the Supreme Court which has been asked to rule that the Aligarh Muslim University is not a minority institution. Unfortunately, this university encourages the minority consciousness among Muslims and sends a message to them that it is the only university in India where they can study.

If the apex court rules that the AMU is not a minority institution, it will unshackle Muslim minds and they will begin to think that there are thousands of other colleges open for them across India. In Aligarh, Tariq Islam, a professor at the department of philosophy, told me that if the Supreme Court rules against AMU, the university will start behaving like any mainstream university in India.

Third, the India government needs to make a decision to rename the ministry of minority affairs and change its mandate to include welfare of all disadvantaged Indians. Just as a suggestion, it can be renamed as the ministry for the welfare of the disadvantaged Indian citizens. It is a condition of democracies to help their underprivileged citizens, not communities. The government can think of including every Indian below the poverty line under this ministry's mandate. It will also eliminate the electoral politics centred on demands for quota for Muslims.

There is a precedent for such a measure. The Planning Commission was renamed as the Niti Aayog and its mandate was changed. Similarly, the scope and mandate of the ministry of minority affairs can be changed, which should also pave the way for elimination of quota system in years ahead. Importantly, it will help eliminate minority politics which harms Indian Muslims. Since minority politics has badly divided Indian society in recent decades, the Indian state must address this issue before it creates further long-term hostilities between Muslims and Hindus.

Part One:Separatism and integration among Muslims in the time of Uttar Pradesh elections

Part Two:Secularism versus communalism at election time

Part Three: Is rise of religiosity on AMU campus a precursor to another 'Partition'?

Part Four: Should taxpayers be funding AMU’s imams, muezzins, theology department?

Part Five:How bridging religious, worldly knowledge gap can reform Muslim education

Part Six:Be it Kairana, Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh, India is headed towards multiple 'Partitions'

Part Seven: Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Part Eight:Farangi Mahal, once a bastion of Islamic education, looks to regain lost glory

Part Nine:Understanding the Shia-Sunni Muslim divide in the country

Part Eleven: Mubarakpur sits at the junction of Islamic doctrinal sects divided by Taqleed

Part Twelve: Madrassas play key role in inducing orthodoxy among Azamgarh's Muslims

The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif


Published Date: Mar 04, 2017 09:32 am | Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 05:05 pm


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