Monday, May 4, 2009

WHO CAN PROTECT INDIA'S SECULARISM? CONGRESS OR BJP?

A very significant development that is deeply linked to India's past and that can have a profound bearing on its future has gone almost unnoticed in a modern, secular India that either seems to have forgotten lessons from its history or simply does not want to recall them.

Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, who had launched a Muslim party, the Assam United Democratic Front(AUDF) in 2005, is now planning to repeat his successful experiment at the national level. In Assam, AUDF is fighting the Lok Sabha elections as the dominant partner in an alliance with champions of secularism like the CPI, CPM and the NCP, and is taking on the Congress, the BJP and the AGP. In 2005 Assembly elections, the party had got 18% of the votes cast, and hopes to do much better this time.

What led to the launch of a Muslim party and the rejection of the Congress by the Muslims of Assam? Sheer numbers. That is it. The Muslim population has grown rapidly in the state. It was 30.91% of the state's population in 2001 and, given the trend of growth, will be much more today. There are six Muslim majority districts in Assam now; in 1951, there were none.

Now that the percentage of Muslims in Assam has reached a significant threshold, Muslims can openly say that they no longer need to "suffer" under the umbrella of a "secular" but Hindu political party to meet their aspirations. It is numbers alone that make Badruddin say that the policies of the Congress, yes Congress, have been anti-Muslim. Heard that before? Yes, that is almost exactly what Western educated and modern Indian Muslim leaders led by MA Jinnah used to say before Partition.

There are pockets of significant Muslim population in other parts of India too. Maulana Badruddin now wants to consolidate them under an All-India Muslim party. In December 2008, Muslims of Maharashtra, fed up with the "slavery of the Congress" since 1947, asked him in to repeat the Assam experiment in the state. In February this year, he announced the formation of a national party. In UP, in districts where the Muslim population is significant, the Ulema Council has put up seven candidates to fight the Lok Sabha elections. Five of its members have just been booked for passing insulting remarks against the national flag.

The idea behind this is very simple and has a historical basis. In future, if Muslims ally with Mulayam Yadav, for example, they will want to do that from a leadership position. Influential Muslim leaders, religious and political, do not want Muslims to depend on a Hindu leader to look after their interests; Muslims must believe that only Muslim leaders can be pro-Muslim and they alone should lead them.

This is exactly what MJ Akbar means, without saying as much, when he says that Muslims have realised that they too can do a Mayawati and forge a Muslim dominated alliance with other "secular" and caste based parties that are products of the fragmented Hindu vote. The comparison with Mayawati and dalits is specious, of course; Muslims have not been downtrodden or suppressed or untouchable for thousands of years, and dalits do not demand separate, communal laws. Despite that dissimilarity, the hard fact is that the Congress is not the party of choice for Muslims. It never was, despite its best but horribly failed efforts to projects itself as one. Had it been seen by Muslims in the light that it still wants to imagine itself in, before Independence, the country would never have been divided.

The only thing that is putting brakes on the vigorous launch of an pan India Muslim party is the big presence of the BJP. Not the Congress; that party is as irrelevant as it was in 1947. There is a worry among Muslim leaders that any aggressive launch of a Muslim communal party will awaken the ghost of Partition and lead to a consolidation of the presently terribly fragmented Hindu vote in favour of the BJP. And since the percentage of Muslims is not large enough to exploit the remaining and inevitable divisions among Hindus, the BJP will actually emerge stronger and come to power easily.

The argument both for and against a Muslim party or a Muslim led alliance has nothing whatsoever to do with secularism, if you have noticed. Maulana Badruddin's new Muslim party is anti-Congress as well as anti-BJP. It is only a question of time before it becomes anti-Left in West Bengal.

Had there been no strong "Hindu" party like the BJP around, by now - or in the near future - it would not have been the dalits led by Mayawati who would have been hoping to get to power in Delhi; Muslims led by the likes of Badruddin would have been calling the shots. Secularism would have taken on an even more absurd and dangerous and potentially explosive meaning than it already has. It would perhaps have died for Muslims altogether. The Sharia would probably have been implemented in full for Indian Muslims, just like it has been in Pakistan's Swat valley. The rotten rump of a failed secular Indian state would have been remained in existence only for non-Muslims, if at all.

If you think hard and deep, you cannot escape the paradoxical conclusion that it is the BJP, the so-called communal right wing Hindu party, and not the secular Congress, that is and will, perhaps unwittingly, be the real protector and guarantor of genuine secularism in India.

Let us for a moment go back in history and try to imagine what might have happened before Independence had there been a strong party like the BJP in existence even then. In the initial years after it was born, the Congress was the party of all Indians. But after the advent of the all-powerful Mahatma Gandhi, Muslims led by Jinnah broke away from it. To them, Congress became a party of and for Hindus because the leadership of the party, despite its genuine secular credentials, was in the hands of Hindus.

That mainly is how and why the Muslim League became the party of and for Muslims. Muslim leaders were not willing to accept demographic realities that, in a democracy, would have delivered a larger share of the power pie in the hands of Hindus. The secular argument simply cut no ice with them; it was political power alone that mattered. That is essentially what led to the demand for a separate homeland for all Indian Muslims and saw the creation of Pakistan.

Would Pakistan have ever become a reality had there been a BJP-type of party to face the challenge of the Muslim League? Consider this: Pakistan has a population of around 170 million, almost all Muslims, nearly all Hindus having been thrown out from there. Many Muslims left India for the promised land but many more chose to stay back. Today those who chose India number around 120 million. Had all or most of them too migrated to Pakistan, what do you think would have happened? Pakistan would have had more than twice its present population in the same real estate. Worse, migrants would have far outnumbered the original inhabitants. Punjabis who now constitute nearly half of Pakistan's population, would have been reduced to a small minority. The weight of the population, the fight over limited land and the inevitable ethnic clashes would have led to the collapse of Pakistan almost immediately.

Had the leaders of Muslim League seen that happening, they would most probably have dropped the idea of Pakistan altogether. But, ironically, it was the Congress that came to their rescue and helped give shape to their dream. The pains that it took to project itself as a party of Muslims too made sure that only a few Muslims went over to Pakistan. And that is how that country survived.

Had there been a BJP type party then, instead of the Congress, Muslims leaders would have immediately realised that a Pakistan would simply not survive the influx of so many Muslims from India. Ordinary Muslims both in what is now Pakistan and in the rest of India too would have been frightened by the magnitude of the disaster that was waiting to engulf them due to the migration of such a huge number of people. Punjabi Muslims and Sindhis would never have voted to turn themselves into minorities and allow the plunder of their lands by swarms of refugees coming from India, even if they were Muslims. Ethnicity would have prevailed over religion for very practical reasons. Jinnah would then have perhaps had no choice but to remain in a secular India and forget about a separate Muslim Pakistan.

The BJP is today what the Congress was accused by Muslims of being before 1947: a Hindu party. The fact is that the Congress never was and never can be a Hindu party, the term 'Hindu' loosely used to include Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists too. It has been and will remain a party that wants to believe that it is the secular voice of India's minorities, particularly Muslims. That is why it could not prevent Partition and that is also why it cannot develop a proper response to the danger that the re-birth of the Muslim League in a new avatar poses to the very foundations of secular India. It remains paralysed by the mortal but misplaced fear of being dubbed "communal" and even remotely anti-Muslim.

That is why, the truth is that despite all its warts, some ugly no doubt, it is the BJP, and not the Congress, that can ensure that India remains the secular state it is supposed to be, for all its citizens irrespective of their religion. The Congress can keep paying the price of not learning the right lessons from history; the nation cannot afford to, again.
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Readers may also read:
1. Islamic India, secular Pakistan
2. Secular Indian Mujahideen
3. Why tough terror law when attacks don't stop?
4. Islamic terrorism: Muslims in India like Jews in Nazi Germany?
5. Bangladeshis are Pakistanis, not Indians; send them back
6. The Antulay betrayal