We are witnessing manoeuvres by different political parties in the run-up to the 2019 general election. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent meeting with eminent Muslims is one such measure. The Congress needs to rethink its politics not for the sake of Muslims but to salvage its own image as a party committed to constitutional principles of pluralism, secularism and social justice. By doing this, it would be reminding all Indians about the original Indian National Congress’s commitment to ideals of justice, equality and democracy. It will have to do a lot more if it is serious about enabling genuine participation of Muslims.
The Congress responded to the BJP’s criticism by clarifying that it is not a pro-Muslim party. Political point-scoring apart, Muslims themselves are under no such illusion. This is made evident by Muslim voters’ increasing preference for regional parties such as the SP, BSP, TMC, RJD and others in different states. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Indian Muslims have consistently become poor and marginalised socially and politically under Congress rule. They were already in a miserable condition when the BJP came to power in 2014. The Hindutva onslaught has aggravated their plight.
The Census figures suggest that Muslims have consistently slided into backwardness and poverty since independence. In recent times, the Sachar Committee (constituted by the UPA government in 2005) found that Muslims live in poverty, with low education levels, without formal jobs, without access to government facilities on credit and without healthcare provisions in ghettos. It found that only four in 100 Muslims are graduates and merely 13 per cent of Muslims hold salaried jobs. The report highlighted that Muslims live with a sense of alienation under a perception of fear and insecurity from communal riots. The Congress was prompt in constituting the Sachar Committee to assess the condition of Muslims soon after forming the government at the Centre in 2004. But it totally reneged on implementing the recommendations for alleviating the condition of Muslims. A number of reports suggest that there were no efforts during the UPA’s 10-year rule towards the inclusion of Muslims in educational, economic, health and housing programmes. It is an irony that the Gopal Singh Committee, constituted in 1983 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had found much the same problems that Sachar panel identified as pulling down the community. There seems to be a pattern here — the focus is on the optics and not genuine inclusion.
It is ironical that some of the Congress actions have given rise to the bogey of Muslim appeasement, whereas in reality Muslims have come to be amongst the poorest and most marginalised socio-religious communities. Besides, India has witnessed communal riots with an alarming consistency. Large sections of Muslims have borne the brunt of communal riots through the 1980s and 1990s — Aligarh, Moradabad, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Nellie, Ahmedabad, Bhiwandi, Surat, Bombay, the list is long. Reports by various inquiry commissions indicate how Muslims suffered huge loss of lives and property during these riots. Besides, there was no legal justice in most cases.
Demonisation of Muslims as terrorists began globally in the wake of the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks. It arrived in India when several Muslims were falsely picked up and incarcerated as terrorists following bomb blasts in Ajmer, Malegaon, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad. Most of them have been acquitted by various high courts and the Supreme Court as they were found innocent. These wrongful arrests happened under the watch of the Congress. This can hardly be called appeasement.
On the one hand, the Congress gave no special attention to the participation of Muslims in various government schemes for the poor. On the other hand, it provided leverage to the BJP by allying with the conservative patriarchal elements during the Shah Bano controversy in 1986. This classical Congress behaviour continues till date over the issue of triple talaq. Nobody knows what its stand on triple talaq is. Like Muslim conservatives, it has failed to see the writing on the wall about the changing aspirations of the community. The Congress has totally overlooked the Muslim women’s movement for gender justice. It is of no consequence to the party that its politics undermines the efforts of those engaged in reform within the community. The Congress doesn’t care that its politics reinforces the regressive patriarchal stranglehold over ordinary Muslims. Several Muslims feel that it suits the Congress to keep Muslims in wretched conditions. But its so-called Muslim faces continue to be persons with no ground-level perspective. Even under its new president, the party has failed to see the tremendous support received by Muslim women from the Indian public. Or perhaps, the party president will begin supporting the Muslim women’s movement after a decade or so, just as it has taken so many years now for him to visit temples. One wonders why the Congress has failed to understand that like all Indians, Muslims too are changing. Why does it fail to understand that like all Indians, Muslims too have aspirations for a better life?
The Congress does not have to be pro-Muslim to regain its lost ground. Nor does it have to be a B-team of the BJP. Its policies towards Muslims or Dalits or the poor should be guided by the democratic principles of inclusion laid down in the Constitution. It needs to adhere to its founding principles with honesty, courage of conviction and consistency.
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