A new, militant Muslim culture is beginning to emerge in the Indian polity. The urban, liberal, middle-class section of the community is the public face of the phenomenon. The growth and consolidation of the middle class had been sluggish and disjointed among the Muslims, primarily due to the control exercised by the clergy. Nevertheless, the emergence of liberal Muslims reinforced the value attached to amity between the two major religious communities in the country. However, that began to change when these new liberals started suffering from an aspirational crisis. They realised that the ruling elite had failed them — a perception underlined by the findings of the Rajinder Sachar Committee. The result was a deepening alienation.
The Gujarat riots of 2002 had, in fact, vitiated an already precarious situation. Liberal Muslims were shocked by the way the State apparatus allegedly helped in perpetrating violence against the community. Moreover, they also ended up seeing themselves as victims of the politicking of the Congress party, which, behind the mask of secularism, had only exploited them and still plays on the fear of Narendra Modi to project itself as their saviour.
Over the past decade, urbane, educated Muslim youth have more or less replaced the older breed of poor and downtrodden members of the community, who often took to violence to wrest social, economic and political space for themselves. The new breed of activists prefer to assert their identity and presence not through violence, but by articulating a radical political line and religious discourse. This emerging politico-religious discourse is a matter of concern as it challenges the prevailing assumption that the real fight is between the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal’ parties in the electoral sphere.
A transformation is visible in the attire and language of a large section of middle-class Muslim youth as they try to reinvent themselves in the face of communalisation in contemporary Indian life. Many of them have taken to sporting long beards and wearing pathani suits. They are increasingly speaking in the language of religion to assert their Muslim identity. They seem to believe that the old secularist politics does not serve the interests of their community.
There is a growing perception among these sections that the political class does not wish to treat them at par with the Hindus. Even if this impression is skewed, it has gained ground in the absence of any attempts to rectify it. In fact, the actions of the political class have only reinforced it.
The biggest casualty has been the idea of secularism. The perception that the ‘secular’ parties have only used the Muslims for electoral ends has led to a situation where the liberal sections of the community see themselves as victims of secularism. They feel that upper-caste Hindus have denied them the space they deserve — an opinion shared by large sections of Dalits and Adivasis as well. Yet, unfortunately, instead of being articulated as a critique of upper-caste hegemony, the politics of liberal Muslims has acquired communal tones and is directed against the Hindus in general.
This does not mean, however, that the liberal Muslims have begun to fully subscribe to the line of their religious leaders on Hindus. In fact, the clergy has been primarily responsible for the plight of the minority community by keeping it segregated from the mainstream. The political parties took advantage of this sense of insecurity to serve their electoral ends.
Moreover, some ‘secularists’ have also exacerbated Hindu-Muslim tensions by exaggerating the threat of Hindu communalism and contributing to the Muslims’ socio-economic backwardness. It is a tragedy that because of all this, secularism has become suspect in the eyes of the Muslims.
So, how long are Indian Muslims going to be slaves of this ‘electoral secularism’, which only creates fear in the minds of the minorities and plays on it for political ends? Prime Minister Modi recently said that “Indian Muslims will live for India and die for India”. But is that enough to instil confidence among the Muslims? Had that been the case, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) would not have made such an impressive debut in the Maharashtra Assembly election even as the RSS was trying to consolidate the Hindu votes.
Have the Muslims begun to see the Hyderabad-based party as their “national” alternative to the “pseudo-secular” parties? Other minority-based parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League and the Welfare Party of India were also in the fray in Maharashtra, but their candidates forfeited their deposits. What made the Muslims reject them?
The MIM has provided a political platform particularly to liberal Muslims so that they can make their voice heard. The party was able to cash in on the Muslims’ anger against the Congress in Maharashtra. Its impressive performance marks the beginning of an aggressive brand of Muslim identity politics. In fact, MIM leader and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi has become for the liberal middle-class Muslims what Modi is for urban, middle-class Hindus.
Unable to identify with other Muslim parties, the liberal Muslims found in the MIM the best forum to vent their anger and frustration. Perhaps, they were looking for a way to uphold the cause of their community without being labelled as extremists or terrorist sympathisers.
Now, the MIM is contemplating the creation of a platform for the unity of Muslims, Dalits and OBCs as an alternative to the ‘secular’ parties. The urban intellectuals have reduced secularism to a form of snobbery. They have been thrusting their skewed perceptions of Muslims and Dalits on the governments and policymakers. Anything that does not fit into their framework is often derided as ‘communalism’. No wonder, a large number of people across all communities have begun to look at secularism as a failed idea that only encourages sectarianism.
Muslim youth are asking why the ‘secular’ parties do not field enough candidates from the community. They argue that the voices from the community remain unheard because of the lack of representation in Parliament and the state Assemblies. And even as political parties fight over secularism, the condition of the community remains abysmal.
Take education. The Muslim clergy do not encourage parents to send their children to public schools, which they deride as carriers of Hindu ideology. As a result, many Muslim children are denied the benefits of modern education. Unable to get a decent job, many of them become hawkers on city streets, for instance. A feeling of deprivation haunts them. Anti-national elements use this sentiment to further their designs.
Unfortunately, the secular parties never raised this issue as they were afraid of antagonising the community. This is one example of how secularism, instead of promoting harmony, ended up as a divisive force. And today, the Muslims are attacking secularism in a language that almost echoes that of the Sangh Parivar. Believing that the ‘secular’ political parties have only used them to fight their own battles against Hindu fundamentalism, they are increasingly falling for militant politics with a pathological hatred for secular values. It is unfortunate that they confuse secular values with the actions of the ‘secular’ parties.
If a young Muslim grows up believing in a distorted form of religion, he could eventually fall prey to the ides of global ‘jihad’. The silver lining, however, is that a section of Muslim youth understands the need to oppose the fundamentalist views that are being propagated as part of Muslim identity politics.
Moreover, it is not just sections of liberal, middle-class Muslims that have bid adieu to the polemics around secularism. Poor Muslims in rural India have also begun showing greater concern for their economic interests and survival than for identity politics. For instance, in Birbhum district of West Bengal, many poor Muslims switched their loyalty to the BJP because functionaries of the Trinamool Congress stopped paying their MGNREGA wages. This shows that possibilities of the community rising above identity-based politics continue to exist, despite the trend represented by the MIM.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)
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