Even opposition parties don’t challenge the plight and lack of representation of Muslims in India’s climate of religious intolerance and violence.
Haider Ali Khan is a little-known Indian politician. Hailing from an erstwhile royal family in Uttar Pradesh, not many – either in his home state or elsewhere in the country – had heard of him until about a week ago when he decided to participate in the upcoming polls in five states.
Khan’s presence in the electoral race from a seat in Uttar Pradesh as a candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – a coalition of parties headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – made headline news.
Though Khan doesn’t belong to the BJP but a smaller coalition partner, his candidature as the NDA’s first Muslim candidate in India’s largest state since 2014 was seen as tremendously significant.
Muslim representation – or the lack of it – in India’s electoral politics has been a subject of debate for decades.
Just four percent of members of newly independent India’s first Lok Sabha – the lower house of parliament – were Muslims, though they accounted for some 10 percent of the population in the early 1950s.
The debate has grown more intense since the Hindu nationalist BJP led by Modi stormed into power some seven years ago.
Opponents of the BJP accuse it of being anti-Muslim, who now make up around 14 percent of the country’s population.
The party is accused of being extremely loathe to field Muslim candidates. It did not field any in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous and politically important state – in successive elections in 2014, 2017 and 2019.
For that matter, the party has not fielded Muslims in elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat since 2007.
Keeping Muslims away understandably burnishes BJP’s pro-Hindu credentials, cements its hold over majority Hindu voters and helps it to win elections.
Though Modi’s most publicised promise to Indian citizens has been ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (All Together, Development for All), the BJP has had no Muslim MPs among its ranks in the lower house of parliament elected in 2014 and 2019.
In 2014 elections which first propelled Modi to power, the party fielded just seven Muslim candidates out of its total 428 candidates (less than two percent). None were elected.
The current lower house of parliament follows a similar pattern. In a house of 543, there are 27 Muslim MPs. But none of them are from BJP, which does have a handful of MPs in the upper house
Many view the poor representation of Muslims as a blot on the part of the BJP in representing all communities of India.
Particularly appalling has been its track record in Uttar Pradesh, where it won 71 of the state’s 80 parliamentary seats the last time. Yet the winners from the party did not feature any Muslims, who comprise 18 percent of the province’s population.
Given the context, Khan’s candidature is a rare exception. It has set tongues wagging and has once again shone the light on what many say is the increasing marginalisation of Muslims in present-day India.
Also in focus is the communally charged circumstances under which the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa are to be held in February and March.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric is at an all-time high in India and growing religious intolerance is periodically resulting in violence against members of minority communities.
In fact, speakers at a recent congregation of Hindu monks in the holy town of Haridwar called for an armed campaign against minorities, exhorting members of the majority community to wield arms.
For all practical purposes, Muslims cannot be faulted if they feel under siege.
Emboldened by their success in Ayodhya, where a Hindu temple is now being built where the Babri Mosque once stood – demolished by a violent Hindu nationalist mob in 1992 – BJP leaders have begun to call for a similar exercise in Mathura.
They want a mosque built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to be cleared from the site that devout Hindus believe to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
Strangely though, none of the issues pertaining to Muslims – including their constant demonisation by BJP leaders during the current electioneering – are being challenged or countered by other political parties.
The BJP is unabashedly attempting to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims by ‘othering’ the latter, accusing them of either being supporters of Pakistan - India’s arch rival - or cornering government largesse disproportionate to their numbers.
Prime Minister Modi, despite being the highest elected official of a country sworn to secularism, has shed all inhibitions and started wearing his Hindu identity on his sleeve.
In December, he wore ochre dresses, took a dip in the Ganges – considered holy by Hindus – and publicly performed religious rituals under the glare of dozens of television cameras.
Remarkably, however, opposition political parties – including the Congress – are silent on the BJP’s religious overdrive.
Issues impacting the Muslims – from hate speeches to physical attacks – should have under normal circumstances featured prominently in the course of any election campaign.
But apprehensive that any show of support for Muslims – however genuine – would be exploited by the BJP to portray them as pro-minority and against Hindu interests, most have stayed quiet.
Unlike the BJP, they continue to field Muslim candidates, but have long since stopped ensuring the community receives proportional representation. The parties are mostly busy attempting to prevent a further polarisation of the electorate on religious lines that is certain to benefit the BJP.
Meanwhile, Muslims continue to be squeezed out of the Indian electoral space.
In his book “Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India,” political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has mapped the gradual but unmistakable Muslim marginalisation.
According to him, the number of Muslim MPs in India’s lower house of parliament diminished from nine to 3.7 percent between 1980 and 2014. The decline was in contrast to the growth in the Muslim population from 11.1 to 14.2 percent in the same corresponding period.
Based on the historical evidence, there is perhaps nothing novel about the marginalisation of Muslims in India.
However, what is new now is that under the BJP, they run the risk of losing the remnants of influence they once enjoyed.
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