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Muslim, in other words

Why is the CPM suddenly championing the Muslim cause? Has the ‘Muslim question’ become a question of ‘social justice’? What does this have to do with the Sachar Committee Report?

Written by Surinder S Jodhka |
March 8, 2007 11:10:45 pm

Mainstream left-wing parties in India have generally worked with the classical notion of secularism and have rarely resorted to the language of minorityism or communalism in electoral politics. As elsewhere in the world, they are broadly guided by Marxist social philosophy that emphasises ‘class’ and other economic divisions in society. In other words, their politics has been ‘community and religion blind’. They see any invocation of ascriptive identities as divisive and sectarian, not only because such politics violates the secular character of the Indian Constitution, but also because invocations of caste and communal identities divide the working classes who, for them, are the potential agents of revolutionary struggles.

Why, then, has the Communist Party of India (Marxist) suddenly become a champion of the Muslim cause? No one, not even the ruling Congress party, seems to be taking the Sachar Committee Report on the ‘development deficit’ in the Indian Muslim community as seriously as the CPM is doing. Interestingly, it was not on the insistence of the Left allies of the ruling front that the prime minister appointed the Sachar Committee. Even more importantly, the report produced by the committee portrays the Left-ruled state of West Bengal in a rather poor light. As the data given in the report shows very clearly, Muslims of West Bengal are among the worst off in the country. In contrast, Gujarat fares much better.

How should one, then, understand the turnaround in the Left’s attitude on the Muslim question? Does it indicate a shift towards a politics of vote-bank in the CPM, or have they found a new proletariat in the Indian Muslim? Is it a simple case of scoring another point over the Congress in the competitive field of electoral politics?

While it is possible that there is a grain of truth in all these explanations, something more important seems to be happening here. In order to understand it, we need to go back to the Sachar Committee Report. Those who have commented on the report have either tended to condemn it for being yet more proof of the old Congress politics of minority-appeasement, or have celebrated it for all the data the report has brought together so convincingly to show the actual state of affairs with regard to Indian Muslims. Far from being a pampered minority, as projected by the right-wing political opinion, the Sachar Committee Report highlights the deprivation and disadvantage faced by a large majority of Indian Muslims. It breaks the stereotype. For example, against the popularly held view, the report tells us that less than five per cent of all Muslim children in

India attend madarsas for school education.

Apart from placing these facts in the public domain, the report tries to do something radically different. In independent India, over the last nearly six decades, the Muslim question has remained trapped in the past, locked in memories of Partition and communal violence. Everything has revolved around issues of identity. Against this, the Sachar Committee analyses and articulates the Muslim question in a very different language, a language that shifts the discourse on Muslims from ‘identity’ to ‘development’.

How does it do so? It does so by using categories that classify and divide the Muslims on the basis of their social and economic status. It identifies the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) among the Muslims and distinguishes their position in Indian society from the so-called general category Muslims. It highlights the caste-like divisions among them, the Ashrafs, the Ajlafs, and the Arzals. It also argues for the listing of Arzals, the “ex-untouchables” among them, as Scheduled Castes along with similar categories from the Hindus, Sikhs and the Neo-Buddhists.

Such a classificatory system has the potential of transforming the state’s approach towards Muslims in a fundamental way. From communities with specific cultural histories and self-identities with clearly demarcated boundaries, the Muslims of India are transformed into a population, identified and described through a language that primarily belongs to the state. This language of classification then also makes them available to the development agencies for an engagement that is different from the old terms of identity and recognition. Not only that, the Sachar Committee Report will also generate a new mode of mobilisation among the different Muslim communities of India and provide them with a new language with which they can engage with the state. The question of citizenship thus begins to take priority over questions of identity.

Understandably, not everyone even within the Muslim community will be happy with such a shift. But for the Left and the CPM, the Muslim question has become a question of social justice. They can now engage with them on terms that they feel comfortable with.

The writer is professor of sociology, JNU, New Delhi

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