Editor's Note: As the Indian Republic turns 70, Tufail Ahmad begins a journey through the country to examine the working of democracy at the grassroots level. Inspired by the French author Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America and wrote Democracy in America, the author — a former BBC journalist and now senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute — will examine how sociological realities of India and the promise of democracy interact with each other in shaping the lives of the Indian citizen. This report is the eleventh in a series called "Democracy in India".
Ahmedabad: Democracies are governments of the majority: Of individuals, not communities. But in such a system, there runs the risk that the majority community can control the government and exclude the interests of minorities. Most democracies have, therefore, incorporated measures to protect the interests of marginalised groups.
This democratic principle is being discarded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), most notably in Gujarat where it has ruled for more than two decades. In Gujarat — and increasingly outside the state — BJP has been implementing a policy of systematic exclusion of Muslims from the nation's political life.
"To transform India into a Hindu Rashtra, Muslims are being excluded from politics by BJP. Over the years, BJP has given no tickets to Muslims to contest Gujarat Assembly elections, not even from areas where Muslims have significant numbers", Muslim leader Salim Y Shaikh told me in Surat. He added: "Muslims are being excluded because the BJP is not following the inclusive ideal of the Indian Constitution".
Perhaps the last Muslim who contested for Gujarat Assembly on a BJP ticket was Ghanibhai Qaureshi: When Gujarat BJP was led by Keshubhai Patel two decades ago.
Following this pattern, BJP denied tickets to Muslims in all states, including the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and recently in Karnataka. Aakar Patel, who is from Surat, wrote last year: "Since 1989, BJP has contested 1,300 Lok Sabha and Assembly seats in Gujarat, and nominated not one Muslim as a candidate."
Patel wrote further: "In states that the Bharatiya Janata Party is ruling, the number of its Muslim MLAs is: In Gujarat: zero, in Uttar Pradesh: Zero, in Maharashtra: Zero, in Madhya Pradesh: Zero, in Chhattisgarh: Zero, in Jharkhand: Zero". BJP might be the nation's largest party, but it has no Muslim MLAs in any state, or directly elected MPs in Lok Sabha despite Narendra Modi's slogan of sabka saath sabka vikas (together with all, development for all).
"BJP wants to eliminate the jan pratinidhitv (democratic leadership) of Muslims. It is a planned mission… Even within BJP's organizational structure, Muslims are not given key responsibilities", said Aslam Cyclewalla, a corporator in the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC). There are 116 seats in SMC and about 18-20 percent Muslims live in the municipal area, but the BJP did not field a single Muslim in 2015 corporation election elections, he said, and added that Muslims in the BJP's minority wing too have no say in the party's decision-making.
While BJP does exclude Muslims, it is also the case that it has changed the terms of politics. In March, Harsh Mander quoted a Dalit leader telling Muslims: "By all means, come in large numbers to our rallies. But don't come with your skullcaps and burqas". His point was that some Dalit and Congress leaders are excluding Muslims from politics due to hatred of Muslims. This can be seen in Gujarat too. Iqbal Belim, a corporator in Surat, noted that since 1990, the Congress has not given positions of responsibility even to elected Muslim corporators of the SMC.
"The Congress thinks that Hindu voters will be displeased with such decisions", Belim said, and added that Congress too is moving towards soft Hindutva. "While BJP is preventing Muslims from becoming politicians… The Congress now gives fewer seats to Muslims to contest as a corporator in SMC elections. Even when it nominates a Muslim, it fields them from a constituency where there are not enough Muslim votes", he said.
Zuber Gopalani is the vice president of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat for Gujarat. During an interview in Vadodara, he said that 23 Assembly seats in Gujarat have significant Muslim voters, but in these areas, BJP supported Muslim candidates to divide Muslims votes. While such division of community votes is engineered by all parties, what Gopalani said next stunned me. In Muslim areas, the BJP sponsors Muslims visits to religious places like Ajmer on the day of voting. In disbelief, I asked if this was coincidental. He responded: "This is not small. Hundreds of buses go to Ajmer and the tours are organised by Muslim middlemen".
In Ahmedabad, Imran Khedawala — a Congress MLA and three-time corporator of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation — said the BJP nominates no Muslim candidate on its own ticket, but supports Independent Muslim candidate to divide the Muslim vote. I reminded him that even if the BJP gives tickets to Muslims, they will not win. He and other Muslim leaders told me: Why should Muslims vote for the BJP if it doesn't represent them and raise their issues?
"In Gujarat, there is no third front. So, Muslims end up with the Congress", Khedawala said and noted that BJP candidates do not approach Muslims for votes or to represent them on their day-to-day issues. Ritvik Trivedi, a journalist and political commentator based in Ahmedabad, said Gujarat has become a "laboratory" for the BJP. He noted that the delimitation of Assembly constituencies was carried in Gujarat on the eve of 2012 elections to ensure that the Muslim vote was divided. Several corporators, who were mostly from Congress, told me that redrawing of wards in various municipalities in Gujarat has been intentionally done to divide Muslim votes in recent years.
In Vadodara, I asked Dr JS Bandukwala, a liberal Muslim writer who campaigned for reform and has fought for Dalits and Muslims, to comment on the political situation in Gujarat. "We must have a basic respect for all citizens. Unfortunately, in India, the whole survival of BJP and RSS rests on hatred towards Muslims", he said. He added: "Muslims today need a top-level leadership to cope with this type of assault. Unfortunately, our community hasn't been able to produce mature leadership".
However, Bandukwala also noted that democracy has inculcated a sense of empowerment among Muslims. "We in the Muslim community feel we have a right to vote and we have at least some members representing us". Asked to comment about the impact of 2002 riots on the politics in Gujarat, Bandukwala said: "In a political sense, Muslims disappeared. Then chief minister Narendra Modi was able to put so much poison in the system that it became difficult for Muslims to get elected". He added: "Insofar as Hindus are concerned, Muslims of Gujarat became the new outcasts. Now, no Muslim is elected to Lok Sabha from Gujarat."
The BJP's strategy is clear: Reject Muslim votes, unite Hindus. In January, Rajasthan minister Jaswant Yadav said: "If Hindu, vote for me, if Muslim vote for Congress". Such comments by BJP leaders are not incidental. It appears these politicians come out of workshops having learnt this strategy, which is also reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's thinking. Senior journalist Tavleen Singh noted: "The prime minister never once used his Mann ki Baat to condemn the lynching of Muslims or the ludicrous love jihad movement. He has shown disapproval of vigilante violence only twice. In both cases, the victims were Dalits. Not once has he indicated that hacking Muslims to death or burning them alive and posting videos of this on the internet is something that revolts him".
I asked Gagan Sethi of the Centre for Social Justice in Ahmedabad to explain this situation. He commented: "We have confronted them (the BJP) several times on this issue. This is their clear position". In Gujarat, the number of voters is less than five crore. Sethi noted that when Modi became chief minister, he coined the phrase "panch crore Gujaratis" (or five crore Gujaratis) which was meant to convey the message that BJP needs "everybody but Muslims". He added: "I think it is very clear saying (to Muslims) that you are second-class citizens. You are at our mercy".
Symbolically, BJP does have a few Muslims as Rajya Sabha members and has, as exceptions, fielded a few Muslim candidates in civic elections in Gujarat and elsewhere. In Ahmedabad and some other corporations, BJP recently fielded some Muslim candidates, but the candidates had no standing in local communities to win elections, observed Shakil Pathan, a journalist based in Ahmedabad.
On my stop in Vadodara, I met Dr Lancy Lobo, director of the Centre for Culture and Development, a NGO, and asked for his thoughts on the political situation in Gujarat. "We should be citizens first and Hindus, Muslims or Christians later", he said. "What do they (BJP) want? They want to have a Hindu political community. The way they go about (eliminating Muslims from politics) shows a pattern. At this time, the concept of citizenship is more important to India than to any other democracy," Lobo said. Noting that there are "behavioural aspects" of Muslims and others which are not approved by other communities, he also stressed that each community should look into these issues and endear itself to the other community.
Professor Prafulla Kar of the Vadodara-based Centre for Contemporary Theory was of the view that "political process is only one part of democracy". He said: "Elections are also a way of eliminating groups of people from the democratic process… This idea did not exist during Jawaharlal Nehru's times because he understood democratic attitudes".
Kar also noted that democracy in India runs by the majoritarian consensus and the "majoritarian rule in India means both Hindu and upper caste rule because there are layers (of castes) under majoritarianism". His argument was that both Dalits and Muslims are excluded from the system.
Has the Gujarati Hindu become communal? My answer is decisive: No. The next part of this series will explain how Muslims have responded to the political situation in Gujarat over the past few decades. I leave you with comments of two journalists. Shakil Pathan said: "At election times, society gets divided between Hindus and Muslims. Soon after the election, this Hindu-Muslim divide disappears".
Ritvik Trivedi commented: "Politically, there is all kind of discrimination. Socially, there is no discrimination". Perhaps the BJP needs to learn something from our society and its motto: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family): A truly original concept given to the world by Indian civilization.
The author is touring India to write a series on the workings of democracy. He is a senior fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif
Updated Date: May 14, 2018 18:40 PM