Travels of a political pilgrim: Secularism versus communalism at election time

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 second part of this series titled 'Travels of a political pilgrim'.

An article on the electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh, published in the Urdu Times of 7 February and written by one Muhammad Jaseemuddin Nizami, interprets the secularism-communalism debate by an interesting analogy. A thief entered a temple with full respect and adopting pious manners but to steal the statues of Hindu gods. Soon, he heard footsteps and turned back to see a man entering the temple without removing shoes. The thief was incensed at this sin and warned, "If I were not busy, I would be punishing you for committing this impiety in the temple!" This is the truth of Indian society: the so-called secularism is held aloft by thieves.

Secularism. Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Nizami takes some contrarian positions: "Mayawati's order is that if the BJP has to be defeated, Muslims will have to vote the BSP. The SP has succeeded in convincing Muslims that if the BJP captured power in UP, then situations like the Muzaffarnagar (riots) may occur. The Congress is by birth engaged in the hubris that the Muslim vote is its ancestral property." He asks: "Can someone help us understand why the contract for defeating BJP has been given to Muslims alone? If the defence of democratic tenets, preservation of secularism, protection of brotherhood and the country's development are dear to and necessary for everyone, why are only 'Muslim shoulders' needed take out the funeral procession of communalism?" But like most Muslim writers, Nizami's arguments soon start disintegrating and he ends up arguing a case for Muslim consolidation.

Two pieces in the Lucknow edition of Roznama Sahafat of 6 February merit attention. One reflects on the state of the Muslim intelligentsia, or you can say the sub-state of the Muslim mind. It quotes Justice (retired) Suhail Siddiqui, who has held a status as the Union minister of state in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, a constitutional body. Siddiqui's sole diagnosis for the advancement of Muslims is to forge unity with Dalits.

The report quotes him as saying: "The need of the hour is that Muslims search for a solution to their problems by joining hands with Dalits." He observes: "The Uniform Civil Code is a conspiracy to destroy the identity of Muslims." As per the report, Siddiqui "advised Muslims to do their work by maintaining a low profile" and said that he "silently delivered minority status to hundreds of minority institutions and never in this regard issued a statement to newspapers."

It looks like the image Siddiqui presents before Muslims in the Urdu press is contrary to the moderate image he has nursed in the English media. In April 2015, Siddiqui told a journalist in Agra: "Muslims need to learn to live in coexistence with the rest of the world and unless they learn to do so, there can be no peace and prosperity in the community." He added: "Hindus are a secular community. If it hadn't been so, India wouldn't have been the abode of so many religions and sects. Muslims need to establish a dialogue with the Hindus as after Allah, if there is any community that can ensure Muslim security, it is the Hindus." Siddiqui's argument that Muslims "need to learn" the principle of coexistence is interesting for the present times and means that Muslims don't believe in it, a rare acknowledgement.

The other piece in Roznama Sahafat is a very rare article questioning public sentiment and arguing for a liberal order. It is written by Syed Alamgeer Ashraf, an Islamic cleric from the Sufi school of Islam. Commenting on the Uttar Pradesh elections, Syed Ashraf makes acerbic observations: "The essence of Indian people and the country's democracy is that elections not be contested based on religion, colour and race. Despite this, a few days before the vote, Islam will be in danger. And Hindus too will be in difficulty. Only the election will defend the Islam of Muslims and also protect the Hindus against all dangers." He adds: "Neither Islam is in danger for four-and-a-half years nor the Hindus are threatened by some danger (except when it is time to vote)."

Syed Ashraf urges Muslims to "understand that violation of democratic tenets is dangerous" and states: "Participate in elections in order to help someone win, not to defeat someone. Elect your representative in the assembly not for religion but for the progress of the nation and the community. No politicians can become the defender of Islam only by a few of their utterances." The cleric notes that Muslims and Dalits are discriminated and therefore they are being offered unity on the eve of elections, but he adds: "It is necessary that such an alliance be for the victory of truth, justice, progress and humanity, not to defeat a specific person or a party."

Syed Ashraf's arguments constitute the defence of liberal principles over religion-based identity politics that is eating at the roots of the Indian republic. He criticises Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and others who have launched Muslim parties and notes: "All of them began the leadership of their own ideology rather than (the leadership of) Muslims...They kept promoting a certain thought/ideology by using Muslims." In the conclusion of the article, Syed Ashraf abandons his liberal arguments in favour of representative politics, which in India will essentially mean identity politics. The part of the reason why the Muslim writers slip back into communitarian politics is that they are not educated in liberal political philosophy.

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

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 Ten: Government must address 'minority' syndrome which causes social conflict

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

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 16:55:46 IST

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