Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh election, at the beginning of March, Muslims across north India have been discussing what went wrong in hushed tones. What has left them feeling besieged is not just the BJP’s choice of the state’s chief minister—Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu priest who has regularly flaunted his anti-Muslim bigotry. The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in a state where Muslims form a fifth of the population; the party’s campaign was deeply communally divisive, making issues of such things as the presence of qabristans, or Muslim graveyards, and a supposed shortage of cremation grounds; and the new state government cracked down on cattle slaughter, which disproportionately affects the economic interests of Muslims, as well as Dalits. All of this comes against the backdrop of Muslims’ growing marginalisation in Indian social, economic and political life, as documented in the 2006 Sachar Committee report—which belies the BJP’s claims that governments have appeased Muslims since 1947.
Most Muslims are having these conversations at a safe distance from social media and sensationalist television shows, both presently hostile to non-majoritarian views. However, a recent statement by the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a body of 16 Muslim organisations that seeks to transcend the various sectarian divides within the community, stated clearly that Indian Muslims “are in the grip of fear.” And in Urdu newspapers and other largely Muslim forums, a number of prominent figures from the community have been holding forth on the political future of Muslims in India.
One relatively small set of commentators has argued for a withdrawal of Muslim candidates from electoral politics, advocating instead a focus on educating the community and building up Muslim businesses. Their position aligns with that of the former Rajya Sabha MP Mohammad Adeeb. Speaking to alumni of Aligarh Muslim University four months before the results of the Uttar Pradesh election were announced, Adeeb said that the only role Muslim politicians can play in today’s polarised politics is one of counter-polarisation, where they serve as a “red rag” to get even those Hindus who might not have supported the BJP to do so. His advice: let Hindus fight among themselves about whether they want a Hindu rashtra or an India based on a secular constitution.
A more prevalent view is that Muslims have brought hardship upon themselves by straying from the path of Islam. This position has been articulated by commentators from across sectarian lines and with diverging opinions on just what that path is—in the newspaper Inquilab, they have included columnists such as Khalid Sheikh and Ghulam Zarqani. But, by and large, they agree that it has to do with promoting such things as education, civic sense, hygiene and economic prosperity.
The first school of thought, represented by Adeeb, risks absolute dependence on the goodwill of others for political safeguards. A difficulty that arises from the second is that social and communitarian concerns become conflated with political ones. This has allowed religious leaders to claim the mantle of political leadership, and also means that, among large sections of the Muslim population today, politics revolves mostly around negotiating, with the government and often with other Muslim sects, about such things as the routes of religious processions, the intricacies of personal law, the demarcation of cemeteries, the administrations of religious trusts and the official promotion of Urdu. This is advantageous to the BJP, as an obsessive discussion of such issues distracts attention from Muslims’ weak social and political position. For instance, in the recent debates over triple talaq, a controversial form of divorce under Islamic law, much of the community’s leadership has been forced onto the defensive, reduced to picking apart a matter of religious practice rather than speaking up for Muslims’ rights as citizens. The tropes of communalism and a politics of fear also benefit many current Muslim leaders, ensuring that political discourse in the community remains wedded to the insecurities and anxieties they can exploit rather than more substantive socio-economic issues.
There is a third school of thought too, which sees the marginalisation of Muslims as a systemic result of the institutional policies of governments ever since Independence, reinforced by the promotion of a politics that revolves around cultural and religious anxieties. Asaduddin Owaisi, a Lok Sabha representative for his All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, is an outspoken proponent of this position. There is much to be said for this view, which acknowledges historical injustices as well as the negative role that community leaders have played in reducing Muslim politics to a set of perennial insecurities about religious identity. As Owaisi said in an interview in 2015, “It is high time someone says the bitter truth: there’s a problem with the ulema all over India.”
On 18 March 1912, Shibli Nomani, a hugely influential religious scholar and one of the foremost Muslim intellectuals of his time, wrote an article in the Muslim Gazette titled ‘Is it the fault of leaders, or of those who elect them?’. Shibli’s topic was the lack of a political leadership among Muslims in colonial India. He differentiated between qaumi, or community, and siyasi, or political, leadership, and argued that if qaumi leaders sought to provide political leadership then Muslims would make no headway. (Muslim leaders often use“qaum” ambiguously, to refer to both community and nation, but Shibli explicitly used it to talk of the community.) In his view, Muslims needed a leader who had a deep knowledge of uloom-e-siyasi, or political science, and was concerned with substantive political issues rather than ones that played into the hands of religious leaders. Shibli did not see a single Muslim contemporary who could fill this role. Instead, he offered as an example Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a liberal political leader whom both Gandhi and Jinnah saw as a mentor. Shibli argued that only a Muslim equivalent of Gokhale could free Muslims from the fetters of parochial politics.
Elsewhere, Shibli argued that only a system driven by and built upon individual rights would be able to take the country, and the Muslim community, forwards—and emphasised that this understanding was in no way antithetical to Islam. Shibli is certainly not the only one to have arrived at this diagnosis of Muslim politics. BR Ambedkar, for instance, writing around the time of Independence, also concluded that the form of Muslim politics largely preoccupied with religious issues would prevent Muslims from engaging with constitutional issues. He argued that the only solution was the formation of “non-communal” political parties.
The fact that such anxieties endure to this day indicates that the situation has not changed much since Shibli’s or Ambedkar’s times. The Congress relied on support from Muslim religious leaders to defeat the Muslim League in the famous provincial elections of 1937. This nexus persisted after 1947, as the Congress, despite billing itself as secular, cultivated a Muslim vote bank by encouraging a politics based on religious identity. Other parties did much the same, and no viable alternative for mobilising the Muslim vote ever emerged. The community’s political concerns were dominated by questions of religious and cultural safeguards. Muslims’ dismal socio-economic status was occasionally spoken about at political rallies and in community meetings, but, as the journalist Saeed Naqvi writes in his memoir Being the Other, hardly anything was done to improve it. Furthermore, political parties in cahoots with sectarian religious leaders often encouraged enmities within the Muslim community—for instance, pitting Shia against Sunni, or Salafi against Sufi.
The BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, seem content to follow the Congress’s modus operandi. In May, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a leading national organisation of Islamic scholars that has historically aligned itself with the Congress, broke ranks with other Muslim organisations when it sent a delegation to call upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Muslim Rashtriya Manch, tasked with reaching out to Muslims on behalf of the RSS, often engages with Muslim religious leaders as a way of engaging with Muslims themselves. An MRM meeting in early May to discuss cow protection and encourage Muslims to give up beef was reportedly attended by 300 clerics. Once again, Muslim politics has been relegated to dealing with such things as meat consumption—as well as “ghar wapsi,” “love jihad,” and other such deliberately overblown and communally provocative issues—in place of Muslims’ socio-economic realities. Those Muslims being promoted by the BJP—for instance, the businessman Zafar Sareshwala, who enjoys Modi’s confidence but has no grass-roots support—have made their peace with this model.
Shibli ended his 1912 article by arguing that if a political leader with the necessary qualifications does not emerge, the “chair” of Muslim leadership should remain empty. He stressed that religious leaders should not try and recast themselves as political representatives to fill the vacuum, and that Muslims should not defer to those “short-sighted community leaders who seek to build their small estates and constituencies that will ultimately only enrich and help them and their families.” This is as salient today as it was over a century ago. But it does not address the crucial question of how a suitable Muslim leadership might be forged.
As things stand, if, on one hand, there are certain religious leaders who have treated the political representation of the Muslim community as their natural right, then, on the other hand, there are prominent Muslims who try to hide or downplay their religious identity as far as possible. This set of people, some of them politicians, insist on qualifying this Muslim identity with such labels as “secular,” “liberal” or “modern,” and often take pains to distance themselves from what they often see as the “backward” Muslim majority. This condescension leaves them so far removed from the everyday lives of most Muslims that they have no popular support. This is compounded by their inability to communicate their ideas to the community at large, as they reject the vocabulary and idioms of religious thought. Speaking the language of constitutional morality or socialism or liberalism alone denies the inescapable role of religion in the formation of many people’s political worldviews in India.
What is needed now is the emergence of an intellectual and political leadership that ascribes to and deploys the language of religious thought where needed, and also promotes an understanding of citizenship rooted in the constitution and its values. The way forwards for India’s Muslims is not a retreat from the political arena, nor a continued surrender into the hands of certain clerics obsessed with safeguarding their power, but mobilisation behind a new political leadership that will assert their citizenship, with all its attendant rights and duties under the constitution, securing the protections and privileges that can allow them to be agents of their own uplift. It is often moments of great difficulty that give rise to new possibilities. Perhaps this will be such a moment.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is an assistant professor of political science and history at Ashoka University. He writes regularly for various English-language newspapers and magazines, and has a fortnightly column in the Urdu daily Inquilab.