India's Muslims are fed up of being used as pawns for elections by secular parties like Congress. They are now gravitating toward Muslim parties, even though it's helping the Hindu right.
Taking a deep breath Professor Afroz Alam, a political scientist, said “it was in the making and it has happened.”
“The fear about the Hindu nationalists is dissipating. Muslims are voting for parties founded and run by the Muslims,” said Professor Alam, the head of political science department of Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad.
A series of provincial elections in India indicate rise of few predominantly Muslim parties since 2014 when Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed to power.
The key ones are Hyderabad based All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Assam based All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a young cleric Abbas Siddiqui in West Bengal – who may join hands with AIMIM in 2021 Bengal provincial poll – and Indian Union of Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala.
However IUML was “always a mainstream political party [since 1950s] owing to Muslims’ access to resources in Kerala,” said Gauridasan Nair, a senior editor of Kerala.
Other than Muslim majority Kashmir, in five other provinces – Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar – Muslim population is between 17 and 35 percent with a countrywide average of about 15 percent, making the Muslims an election influencer in pockets.
The rise of Muslim parties
The 200 million strong Indian Muslims – highest outside the Muslim majority countries – have largely voted for Indian National Congress or other secularist and centrist-nationalist parties to block the Hindu nationalists, led by the BJP.
The BJP’s victory in the 2014 election changed that equation.
The number of Muslim members in Indian Parliament dropped to 23 (4 percent), lowest since 1962, and the ruling party had no Muslim member in the Parliament. In 2019 too the BJP had no Muslim representative.
“But yet the BJP continued to win, reducing relevance of Muslim votes as the society got deeply polarized. Secular parties also replaced Muslim candidates,” Prof Alam said.
It led to a rise of Muslim parties.
The AIUDF in Assam, a state with nearly 35 percent Muslim votes, made a significant difference in 2016 elections as it emerged as the key party for the Bengali Muslims. It cut Congress Party's vote share to ensure the BJP’s victory.
“Congress consistently undermined the AIUDF, pushing it to contest independently which resulted in BJP’s victory,” said an AIUDF insider. The blow was severe enough for Congress to negotiate with AIUDF in 2020.
AIMIM, a party founded in 1927, bagged five seats recently in Bihar and steadily grew in Maharashtra. Despite having a fractured alliance with another party, AIMIM cut the votes of secular-nationalists in the 2019 Maharashtra election, facilitating victory of Hindu right in about a dozen seats.
Buoyed by his success, the chief of AIMIM, a Lincoln’s Inn-bred barrister Asaduddin Owaishi recently said that he “will fight in West Bengal, UP and every election in the country.”
Such plans unnerved Congress or other regional parties as traditionally Muslim parties eat into the votes of the secular parties benefitting the Hindu right.
Thus, AIMIM is attacked as a “B or C team” of the BJP or as a party “receiving financial benefits from the Hindu nationalists”, an allegation the party has denied.
Rot in Indian secular polity
But – perhaps for the first time – Muslims do not care as Professor Alam pointed out; the reason is believed to be the failure of the secularists.
Abu Zafar, a Delhi-based journalist, cited an example to illustrate why Muslims are making a beeline for Muslim parties.
“In 2013, I went to Muzaffarnagar (in UP) where a massive riot took place, killing scores. I met women who were gang raped but their cases were not registered on time by the police. We need to note that the BJP was not in power in UP or nationally in 2013,” said Zafar.
The recent plight of the community started in the aftermath of 9/11 when thousands of Muslims boys were rounded up following a series of blasts in Indian cities. Nearly all the accused were freed for lack of evidence but only after spending a decade in jail.
The tradition to arrest Muslims is continuing.
“Now the secular parties are in the opposition, yet they refuse to defend those who protested against India’s controversial Citizenship Law (CAA) and went to jail.
“Other than tweeting occasionally, the secular leaders never tried to mount a movement,” said Masihuddin Sanjari, a political and human rights activist in Azamgarh, a district in Uttar Pradesh state.
Over the last decades, with a massive economic growth, Indian society was seeking “an opportunity to flex its cultural muscles,” said an US-based Hindu doctor, on condition of anonymity.
“Hindus were economically powerful but lacking a cultural or religio-political icon and identity.
“Narendra Modi filled the vacuum – he is the Prophet and the Pope of the Hindus rolled in one,” the doctor said.
With the rise of the BJP, Indian secular opposition turned overly religious, refusing to speak up even if Muslims are lynched for transporting cows, considered sacred in India, or if the status of Kashmir is changed unilaterally.
Rather, secularists tried to establish Hindu lineage. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who had a Parsi grandfather, displayed his sacred thread usually worn by Hindu upper caste.
Kamal Nath – the Hindu-face of Congress – has even claimed that Rajiv Gandhi, the late Prime Minister from Congress, “wanted” the Ram temple to be built over a disputed site in Uttar Pradesh, where a historic Babri mosque stood before it was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, an engineer, who got sizeable Muslim votes earlier, adopted Hindu rituals to “receive blessings from visible and invisible forces.”
Such narratives accentuated a sense of insecurity.
“These days when affluent (Muslim) families get together, they often discuss how to send their children abroad to study, such is the panic,” said Md Aqib Khan, a student of English Literature in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University.
“The bigger concern is that they (parents) too may have to uproot themselves and go somewhere else,” said Khan.
Young Muslims are often advised to “hide their identity”, said Zoya (name changed), a Delhi-based producer.
Hindu revivalism laid bare the deep “clash of two civilizations based on different and in many ways antagonistic systems of living,” noted eminent Indian historian Mohammad Mujeeb in his seminal ‘The Indian Muslims.’
AIUDF, AIMIM to Abbas Siddiqui are products of the clash “without a pan-Indian ambition but with robust regional aspiration,” said Professor Alam.
For now, the Muslim parties have claimed to ensure representation of all communities, including the Hindus.
All to the BJP’s advantage
Rise of the Muslim parties, however, usually help the Hindu right.
Professor Alam quipped: “After all there cannot be a Hindu Mahasabha without a Muslim League.” Hindu Mahasabha, the party to safeguard rights of Hindus, was formed in 1915, a decade after All India Muslim League was founded in Dhaka in 1906.
Mr Sanjari has another interpretation for rise of the Muslim parties.
“The threat of Islamic terror is not working anymore. Ram Temple to Article 370 – nearly all issues resolved. Now the ‘othering’ of Muslim is introduced through all-Muslim parties, a reason why such parties are receiving outstanding coverage in Indian media,” said Mr Sanjari.
In Bengal, the debate on whether Muslims should have their own party or align with secular outfits is escalating before the 2021 election.
Syed Zameerul Hasan, convener of AIMIM in Bengal, said “it is not just the responsibility of the Muslims to ensure secularism when the Hindu leaders of the so called secular origin continue to join the BJP.”
For Maidul Islam, a political scientist with Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata it is “risky” for the Muslims “to weaken the secular forces as it is finally a Hindu majority state which will not reverse.”
“The BJP may trouble Muslims more, if it emerges as an opposition party,” he said.
Sanjari believes secular parties “will re-invent secularism after a few more defeats and start talking to the minorities” reversing the growth of the Muslim parties.
But if India’s social fabric is permanently damaged then AIMIM, Abbas Siddiqui or AIUDF will emerge as the “third force”, considered critical in Indian politics.
The success or failure of the Muslim parties would indicate about the direction of the wind in Indian politics.