Going by BJP's attack on Rahul Gandhi for Muslim remark, we're in for divisive, vicious 2019 poll campaign
Nirmala Sitharaman accused Rahul Gandhi of playing the religion card for the 2019 elections, while Prakash Javadekar blamed Congress for Partition. And it's like to get worse
The Muslims of India should hunker down to endure a lengthy spell of demonisation, isolation and revulsion to which they will be relentlessly subjected. They are likely to be dehumanised to become an object of hate, an instrument the Bharatiya Janata Party could use to communally polarise India in order to win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Muslims will be depicted as anti-Hindu, their othering as murderous and bogus as child-lifters who have been recently lynched.
These are the only conclusions that can be drawn from the recent press conference of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in which she accused Congress president Rahul Gandhi of playing the religion card for the 2019 elections. The basis of her accusation was a dubious news report that quoted Rahul telling a clutch of Muslim intellectuals that the Congress was a Muslim party. Sitharaman went on to predict that the Congress' use of the religion card will spread communal disharmony and division of the kind witnessed during the 1947 Partition.
Quite ominously, Union minister Prakash Javadekar too referred to Partition in yet another presser: "Rahul Gandhi's remarks show Congress is a communal party. Its appeasement politics has damaged the country. The history of Partition is testimony to this." Underlying these references to Partition lurks the BJP's possible secret desire to widen the chasm between Hindus and Muslims beyond what it has managed over the past four years. During this period, the BJP and other Sangh affiliates have attacked Muslims for ferrying cattle, for having inter-faith relationships, for offering prayers by the roadside, and for even wearing the markers of Muslim identity — the skullcap for instance.
But these are low-intensity communal skirmishes, confined to a village or town. It can win them a chunk of votes in the zone of conflict, not across India. For that, the BJP needs a grand narrative with a pan-India resonance that can distract people from scrutinising its governance record. It is also needed for neutralising the superior electoral arithmetic that a united Opposition will decidedly possess in a direct fight with the BJP.
It is consequently not a coincidence that two Cabinet ministers, within a couple days, evoked the memory of Partition. In fact, it was logical for them to do so.
This is because the dominant Indian narrative squarely blames Muslims for partitioning India. The Hindu Right, however, goes one step further — it asserts that Pakistan was a consequence of the Congress appeasing Muslims, beginning with Mahatma Gandhi putting his weight behind the Khilafat movement. From this perspective, the sudden surfacing of Partition in the rhetoric of BJP leaders projects the existing communal divide as a consequence of the Muslim community’s adamant refusal to accept the dominance of Hindus. They are adamant because the Congress appeases and pampers them. The BJP opposes their appeasement because such a policy had led to the vivisection of the country in 1947.
Thus, the imagery of Partition links the Congress, the Muslims, and the communal polarisation seamlessly. The strategy the BJP will pursue is to ensure that Hindus vote as Hindus, not Indian citizens, for a Hindu party, which the BJP self-avowedly considers as its defining identity. On this count, though, the Congress sprang a surprise on the BJP, first in Gujarat and then in Karnataka, where Rahul went on a temple visiting spree.
These visits were designed to emphasise the Congress president's Hindu-ness, that was further reinforced through remarks such as the one that described him as a jeneu-dhari Hindu. Even Rahul claimed his plane did not crash, after it developed a snag and nosedived on the way to Karnataka, because he was at the time thinking of trekking to Kailash Mansarovar, which is regarded as the abode of Lord Shiva.
His decision to flaunt his Hindu-ness did perturb the BJP, evident from the snide remarks its leaders made against him. For instance, in the weeks before the Gujarat elections in 2017, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath said, "As far as Rahul Gandhi's visits to temples are concerned, I am surprised. Rahul Gandhi's pakhand and dhong [hypocrisy and sham] is not going to work." It nearly did in Gujarat.
The BJP's tactic of portraying Rahul's Hindu-ness as shallow and fake, ironically, only reinforces his Hindu identity. No wonder then, the BJP thinks it is infinitely a safer, better option to portray him as pro-Muslim. The BJP believes that such a perception will ensure that its monopoly over Hindu votes remains unchallenged. This is why the BJP has evoked the memory of Partition. It is akin to telling the Hindus that the Congress and Muslims have combined as they did in Partition. This linkage will stoke the insecurity and fears of Hindus, the BJP may well believe. But such emotions need to be sustained until the 2019 elections.
Till then, it would not be a stretch to expect BJP leaders to make abrasive anti-Muslim statements, endorse criminal acts — as Union minister Jayant Sinha appeared to do recently, and focus on issues designed to provoke Muslims. So whatever comments the Muslims or Congress leaders make, these will invariably be given a communal twist. For instance, Union minister Giriraj Singh wondered at the coincidence of former vice-president not finding objectionable that Aligarh Muslim University displays Muhammad Ali Jinnah's portrait, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board talking of Sharia courts, and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor expressing fears of India becoming a 'Hindu Pakistan'. Like Sitharaman and Javadekar, Singh accused Rahul of "Muslim appeasement" and of "trying to divide the country".
The Partition imagery presages a communal divide that the BJP knows is a natural corollary of the three issues it will focus on.
To begin with, in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, the BJP will push for voting on the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017. It is a deeply flawed Bill as it seeks to imprison a Muslim husband for resorting to triple talaq, a form of divorce that the Supreme Court has already struck down. This is why Pakistani legal expert Muhammad Munir, who is recognised as worldwide authority on Islamic law, said to this writer, "To punish a man for talaq that has no legal effect is like multiplying a number by zero." The Bill suffers from other flaws that require a separate piece to explain.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often cited the Bill to portray that he and his party is deeply invested in liberating their Muslim sisters, whom patriarchy has shackled. Such a claim sounds hollow given the role of BJP activists in raping Muslim women in the communal violence of Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar. The talk of emancipating Muslim women is designed to rally Hindus, who perceive the existence of Muslim Personal Law as clinching evidence of Muslim appeasement. It is consequently advantageous for the BJP not to rectify the flaws in the Bill and evolve consensus over it. A flawed Bill will likely dissuade political parties from voting for it. They will then be portrayed as opponents of Modi's policy of reversing Muslim appeasement.
The second issue that the BJP may well exploit is the influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants into Assam. On 30 July, the National Register of Citizens for Assam (NRC) will be submitted to the Supreme Court. The cut-off date for determining who is an Indian citizen is 25 March, 1971, that is to say anyone who entered Assam thereafter is a foreigner and liable for deportation. These include both Hindus and Muslims.
In a surprising move, though, the BJP has introduced in Parliament the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 — currently being examined by the Joint Parliamentary Committee — which declares that the religious minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who crossed into India before 31 December, 2014 without valid documents cannot be imprisoned or deported. They will also have the right to acquire Indian citizenship. If this Bill is passed into a law, only illegal Muslim Bangladeshis, not Hindus, will be deported.
The religious faultline that the BJP has created over the illegal immigrant issue will aggravate communal polarisation. There is much talk in Assam, without evidence though, of the BJP using its control over the administrative machinery to ensure that the NRC does not reflect the supposedly high number of illegal Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam. Subliminally, the Bill conveys to Muslims that India is not quite their homeland.
The third issue in the BJP’s bouquet is the building of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. In deep freeze for years, the issue acquired significance because the Supreme Court decided to hear the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute last year. As of now, it seems unlikely the judgement will be delivered before Chief Justice Dipak Misra, who heads the bench hearing the case, retires before 2 October.
There is speculation that the government could introduce a Bill in Parliament for initiating the building of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Such a Bill will likely get challenged in the court. But the voting on the Bill, or protests against its introduction, will enable the BJP to portray the protesters as opposed to the Ram Temple, opposed to Hindus, and supporters of Muslims. Whether or not these three issues gather momentum, the BJP will seek to ensure that the Hindus are conscious of their Hindu-ness in the polling booth.
For this purpose then, the BJP will constantly hark back to the role of the Congress in Partition. In the battle for Hindu votes between the BJP and the Congress, Muslims should prepare to suffer as collateral damage. Their silence or protest will not matter. They will become the issue, the victims of India's growing illiberal democracy.
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