Over the past week, news channels have been abuzz with debates on politics over the Hindu-Muslim divide. It took the purported omission of one word from a report in an Urdu daily to trigger this narrative.
On Thursday, 12 July, Urdu newspaper The Inquilab published an article on Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with Muslim intellectuals and activists on 11 July, as part of the party’s outreach programme before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “If the BJP says that Congress is a party of Muslims, it is fine. Congress is a party of Muslims because Muslims are weak, and Congress always stands with the weak” — this is what the newspaper reported, according to AltNews.
As could be expected in today’s intensely-charged political environment, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used the report as fodder to target the Congress, accusing it of minority appeasement.
On Tuesday, the editor of The Inquilab, Shakeel Shamsi, clarified to Firstpost that it was a tweet by a Rajya Sabha MP, and not the newspaper’s report, that created the controversy.
Parliamentarian Shahid Siddiqui on 12 July shared a clip of the article on Rahul, saying: "Urdu daily Inqalab (sic) has quoted Rahul Gandhi saying, ‘Yes, Congress is a Muslim party’. Is the quote correct or will the party contradict it? Muslims don’t want a Muslim party; they want a national secular party, which doesn’t discriminate between citizens.”
Urdu daily Inqalab has quoted Rahul Gandhi saying “Yes Congress is a Muslim party”. Is the quote correct or party will contradict it?
Muslims don’t want a Muslim party, they want a National Secular party, which doesn’t discriminate between citizens. @RahulGandhi @INCIndia pic.twitter.com/ZBwJ8qGcou
— shahid siddiqui (@shahid_siddiqui) July 12, 2018
Shamsi said it was the apparent omission of the word "bhi" (also) that Siddiqui picked up on and triggered the controversy. "There is no argument on this," the editor said. "We wrote the right thing. It would have made a difference if we had said Congress sirf Musalmano ki party hain (Congress is a party only for Muslims). But we clearly said ‘kyunki’ (because), which explains that Rahul said it because Muslims are a weak section of society." “We stand by the story published on Thursday,” Shamsi asserted. The newspaper has also issued a clarification on the article, saying that it was wrongly interpreted in Siddiqui’s tweet. Siddiqui, however, refuted Shamsi’s accusation that his tweet from the day the article was published was misleading. He said: “How was my tweet misleading? His headline ‘haan, Congress Musalmano ki party hai’ (Yes, Congress is a party of Muslims) is misleading and out of context. On the TimesNow the debate I was on, he (Inquilab journalist Mumtaz Alam Rizvi) said he stands by his story and that Rahul said this."
How was my tweet misleading? His headline “haan Congress musalmano ki party hai” is misleading and out of context. On Times Now the debate I was on he said he stands by his story that Rahul said this. Mumtaz is not the Editor but correspondent of Inqalab https://t.co/13gUjRkZiO — shahid siddiqui (@shahid_siddiqui) July 16, 2018
In another tweet, he said the editor of The Inquilab “will now blame everyone except himself”.
Inquilab reporter defends his story
Mumtaz Alam Rizvi, the author of the report, has stood by the article since the controversy erupted. Rizvi said that the Rahul's statement at the meeting with Muslim intellectuals and party leaders was nuanced. “(In my report,) I never used the term ‘Muslim party’, Rizvi said. “Rahul (Gandhi) said Congress is a party of Muslims... because Muslims are weakened and have become another version of Dalits in the country.”
Shamsi backed his reporter and said he was right to stand by the article as the newspaper had not done anything wrong. “Everyone is talking about it because of the (Siddiqui’s) tweet, not because we reported anything wrong."
Fodder for the BJP
The controversy over Rahul's alleged remarks was kept ablaze by the BJP. Several party leaders took the opportunity to target the Congress president, even though the party had clarified that there was no truth to the angle being spun.
After multiple denials from the Congress senior leaders, Rahul in a tweet, which alludes to this incident, said, "I stand with the last person in the line. The exploited, marginalised and the persecuted. Their religion, caste or beliefs matter little to me. I seek out those in pain and embrace them. I erase hatred and fear. I love all living beings. I am the Congress."
I stand with the last person in the line. The exploited, marginalised and the persecuted. Their religion, caste or beliefs matter little to me.
I seek out those in pain and embrace them. I erase hatred and fear.
I love all living beings.
I am the Congress.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) July 17, 2018
However, Rahul's tweet comes days after the controversy has been already been keeping political circles engaged. Congress national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi called it "absolute lies and shameful". "The BJP is using it (the report) to further its own agenda, yet again, exposing its desperate tactics to mislead the nation," she said on Twitter, quoting Siddiqui's first tweet on the article. “However, this will not deter us from fighting for India’s founding principles and its democratic values."
This is absolute lies&shameful spin by the newspaper. The BJP using it to further its own agenda, yet again, exposes their desperate tactics to mislead the nation. However this will not deter us to fight for India's founding principles& its democratic values. https://t.co/EN15vL7oNa — Priyanka Chaturvedi (@priyankac19) July 12, 2018
In his own way of refuting the report, Randeep Surjewala, another Congress spokesperson, said that the BJP was the “new version” of the East India Company. “Divide and rule was the principle then; divide the state is the principle now,” he was quoted as saying by NDTV. He also emphasised that the Congress belonged to all Indians, and that the BJP government was “on the path of lying".
Nadeem Javed, the chief of the Congress minority cell, said Rahul had said nothing wrong, emphasising the context in which the Congress chief had made the statement — that Muslims made up the weaker section of Indian society. “Yes, Congress is Muslims’ party because they are weak. What is wrong in that?” he said.
Despite multiple denials by the Congress, the BJP has insisted that the Congress was trying to “appease Muslims”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a rally in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday, also reiterating his “Congress is an anti-Hindu party” mantra.
“BJP wants to ask Rahul Gandhi, why are you mum?” Union minister Prakash Javadekar taunted Rahul Gandhi. “Your appeasement policy has damaged the country to a great extent. The history of India’s partition is a testimony of this.”
A day after The Inquilab published the report, Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that the Congress wanted to fight the 2019 General Elections on religious lines. “You cannot be ‘janeu dhari’ (a thread-wearing Brahmin) at one point and Muslim-dhari at another...,” NDTV quoted her as saying. “This is playing with people’s trust.”
Muslim attendees surprised by the controversy
The Muslim intellectuals who attended the meeting with Rahul Gandhi on 11 July denied that he made any divisive comments.
“No, Rahul Gandhi did not say that. He said the Congress is a party for all Indians,"writer and activist Farah Naqvi was quoted as saying by NDTV.
Supreme Court advocate Fuzail Ahmed Ayyub, who was also at the meeting, told AltNews that Rahul Gandhi’s remarks may have been misinterpreted. “The fact of the matter is that an issue was raised before Congress President Rahul Gandhi on how important Muslims are with regard to the policies/scheme of things of the Congress party,” he said. “In his reply to this... Rahul Gandhi said that Muslims are as important to the Congress Party as other religions/sections of the society, and the Congress party belongs to the Muslims as it belongs to every other Indian, nothing more, nothing less.”
Historian Irfan Habib, also an attendee at the meeting, tweeted that he was “taken aback” when he heard the reports. “Taken aback to hear that Rahul Gandhi is being accused of calling the Congress a Muslim party in a meeting where I was present. It seems to have malicious intent, no such issue came up at all.”
Taken a back to hear that Rahul Gandhi is being accused of calling the Congress a Muslim party in a meeting where I was present. It seems to have malicious intent, no such issue came up at all.
— S lrfan Habib (@irfhabib) July 13, 2018
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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 15:22:19 IST