The Muslim Question
The working of the Indian constitution, as the Sachar Report empirically substantiates, has shown that the existing framework has failed Muslims—both in terms of ensuring their economic uplift, and now ominously, also in terms of securing their fundamental rights to life and liberty. Yet, there is this persistent obstinacy amongst political parties to not engage and negotiate with Muslims as a community.
If we are to have any dispassionate assessment of the state of Indian politics today, it is necessary to objectively address what arguably has been the elephant in the room for a long time. I am hinting at “the Muslim question”; its shadow has forever been lurking in the background since the founding of the modern Indian republic. The choice of the phrase “the Muslim question” is deliberate. The last time it was used frequently, with substantive meaning, was during the colonial period, in the milieu of political demands raised by diverse communities jostling with the British to secure their destinies in an India that was to be heralded soon. Freedom came in 1947, but fastened on its tail was the unspeakable tragedy of partition. When India began the monumental task of framing her constitution, the gashes left by the wounds of partition were deep, and at that time, understandably so perhaps, no one wished to discuss the specific concerns of Muslims that yet remained in India—except in the context of the question of minorities generally: so the debates in the constituent assembly bear witness.
The unspoken consensus was that Muslims have extracted their pound of flesh and created Pakistan, and those that stayed back—by choice or compulsion—should now be grateful for the safeguards that the constitution provided for minorities. India was styled as a secular polity, unlike Pakistan which was conceived as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. It was hoped that the secular framework of the constitution, once and for all, should satisfy all minorities and put their doubts about majority dominance to rest. Also, there were concerns that any concessions granted to Muslims would stoke the fire of communalism.
There is no escaping the fact that a large section of the Muslim population supported the demand for Pakistan, lured as it was by the divisive politics of the Muslim League. The burden of guilt for having vivisected India hung heavy on the backs of Muslims who remained, and they found themselves unable or unwilling to negotiate for a satisfactory settlement of their legitimate political demands. The Muslim leaders in the Congress, led by Maulana Azad, were idealists who believed in the vision of a secular India. One may recall what Azad said to Muslims in his powerful speech delivered from the pulpit of Jama Masjid in Delhi, on 23rd October in 1947:
“I do not ask you to seek certificates from the new echelons of power. I do not want you to lead a life of sycophancy as you did during the foreign rule. I want to remind you that these bright etchings which you see all around you, are relics of processions of your forefathers. Do not forget them. Do not forsake them. Live like their worthy inheritors, and, rest assured, that if you do not wish to flee from this scene, nobody can make you flee. Come, today let us pledge that this country is ours, we belong to it and any fundamental decisions about its destiny will remain incomplete without our consent.”
What would Azad say if he could only see the plight of Muslims today? How would he respond if he could read the Sachar Committee Report? This report was presented in Parliament in 2006 and it busted the myth of “appeasement”. It revealed that Muslims constitute the lowest rung of the Indian population, even below the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Comprising more than 14% of India’s population, the representation of Muslims is merely 2.5% in the bureaucracy. The representation of Muslims in the state assemblies and Parliament is abysmal, hovering between 5 to 7 per cent—nowhere near the proportion of their population. The indicators for the Muslims concerning health and education and employment remain among the lowest. But this is not all. Even the most basic of rights, the right to life—which is the bedrock of any compact between individuals and the state—has been under threat in recent years. I don’t have to talk about communally inspired lynchings, detentions, and rioting. Now, even state-sponsored proposals like the NRC and the CAB, which have clear biases against the Muslim community, may soon become the law of the land.
Who can deny that Muslims have legitimate political demands as a community? The pangs of partition only stalled the valid espousal of these demands. Political mobilisation, which is a necessary tool in any democracy, was deemed illicit for Muslims. While every other community and caste organised itself into a political entity by conjuring up a political party, Muslims were condemned to live under the tutelage of the Congress for decades after independence, and later they were made to suffer under the yoke of regional satraps of caste-based parties. This incapacity of Muslims to produce genuine political leadership after independence has been a major reason of their decline into an abyss of “backwardness”.
The supreme irony is that the Congress party which in the present moment stands successfully accused of being a Muslim party by the BJP has done very little to deserve such a condemnation. The last serious attempt it made to accommodate the concerns of Muslim representation was in 1928, when it adopted the Nehru Report. It is worthwhile to ponder over what the Congress—the principal party that led the national movement—was willing to concede at a time when even a whisper about partition had not surfaced. While resolutely denying the demand for a “separate electorate” that it had committed itself to in the Lucknow Pact of 1916, the Congress in the Nehru Report accepted in principle the idea of reservation for Muslims in legislatures. Clause 87 of the Nehru report reads as follows:
“There shall be no reservation of seats for the House of Representatives except for Muslims in provinces where they are in a minority and non-Muslims in the N.W.F. Province. Such reservation will be in strict proportion to the Muslim population in every province where they are in a minority and in proportion to the non-Muslim population in N. W. F. Province.”
The other major point in the Nehru Report was contained in Clause 5 of the said document which reads as follows, “The language of the Commonwealth shall be Hindustani which may be written either in Nagri or in Urdu character. The use of the English language shall be permitted.” Provisioning for reservations of Muslims in legislatures and declaring Hindustani, written in Nagri or Urdu characters, as the language of India were bold steps—and yet this did not meet the expectations of the League which wanted more. Things got complicated in later years and the partition of India somehow smothered all possibilities for negotiation and resolution of demands that the Muslim community had. In any case, it would be inconceivable for any political party to even entertain such demands today because our political climate has become so vitiated that anything Muslim is easily projected as “anti-national” and anything Hindu naturally becomes “national”.
The working of the Indian constitution, as the Sachar Report empirically substantiates, has shown that the existing framework has failed Muslims—both in terms of ensuring their economic uplift, and now ominously, also in terms of securing their fundamental rights to life and liberty. Yet, there is this persistent obstinacy amongst political parties to not engage and negotiate with Muslims as a community. Political engagement means entertaining demands and sharing power. Surely, like any other community, Muslims too cherish their identity; they wish to preserve their culture, they want their legitimate share in the resources of the nation. Why is it that most political parties avoid talking about Muslims? Why is it that they shun Muslim demands like the plague? Perhaps, “Hindutva” has already won. We are already a “Hindu Rashtra”, only just not in name. The Opposition senses this tectonic shift on the terrain of Indian politics and is therefore incapable of challenging or countering the RSS narrative about Muslims, lest it faces “Hindu” backlash.
As the BJP does more and more to “invisibilize” Muslims, the mainstream Opposition does all it can to ignore Muslims and silently acquiesce in their “othering”. This is an ugly truth that no one wishes to embrace. It has become a festering wound in the heart of Indian politics. While the battle for constituting India’s soul goes on, Muslims have been deliberately, by design, left out from this contestation. It is, as though the political firmament is now left with just a sham veneer of tolerance for the “existence” of Muslims but will not accept their “essence”.
The moot question is how should Muslims respond to their predicament? Their destiny is bound up with the destiny of India—of that, there is no doubt, and this realisation should be the beginning of all they can do to pull themselves out from the grip of this intractable bind. Since I have no answers let me quote Maulana Azad again from his speech, from the glowing exhortation he made to the Muslims of India, in October 1947, who were drowning in despair after the events that led to the partition:
“Where are you going and why? Raise your eyes. The minarets of Jama Masjid want to ask you a question. Where have you lost the glorious pages from your chronicles? Was it only yesterday that on the banks of the Jamuna, your caravans performed wazu? Today, you are afraid of living here. Remember, Delhi has been nurtured with your blood. Brothers, create a basic change in yourselves. Today, your fear is misplaced as your jubilation was yesterday.”