Updated: July 28, 2021 7:53:43 am
Everyone can see that the Congress party is in the throes of an existential crisis, particularly after its drubbing in the last Lok Sabha elections. Since then, it has been humiliated in every assembly election. It has ceded power pre-term in Madhya Pradesh as a consequence of defections, and Rajasthan is poised on a knife-edge. In Punjab, the chief minister and state president of the party are at daggers drawn, and there are ominous rumblings in Chhattisgarh.
Amid the turmoil, a war of ideas has broken out within the Congress party on what needs to be done to reverse its fortunes. The debate centres around the most desirable stance on the Muslim question. Following the Lok Sabha debacle of 2014, Sonia Gandhi had ascribed the Congress defeat to the BJP’s success in portraying the Congress as a Muslim party, cynically ignoring the notoriety that brought down her government. Since then, the Congress has been agitating about the “Muslim party” tag.
Following the latest electoral setbacks, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid have publicly crossed swords on this issue. In a recent interview, Sibal was critical of the Congress tie-ups with AIUDF in Assam and ISF in West Bengal, pointing out that “minority and majority communalism are equally dangerous for the country”, an unexceptionable argument.
Khurshid’s response conceivably reflects the views of the party leadership. Dismissing Sibal’s observations, he cites Nehru’s warning that the “communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority.” He then justifies partnership with Muslim communal outfits on the grounds that they have been “integral to the Congress since the national movement”. He piously states that successive defeats in elections should not drive the party to jettison “the ideological ballast of Nehruvian vision”.
To piggyback on the great man to justify consorting with communal outfits is an insult to his memory. While condemning majoritarian communalism, Nehru never implied that minority communalism was kosher. Before Partition, Nehru was scathing in his denunciation of Muslim communalism and, to quote M J Akbar in his wonderful Nehru biography, he “refused to be polite about Jinnah”, over the Quaid-i-Azam’s overt sectarian leanings.
Instead of providing ballast to the Nehruvian vision, the Congress party today is guilty of distorting his great secular legacy. He, in fact, wanted religion and religiosity to be banished from the public square. Speaking in Aligarh Muslim University in 1948, Nehru told his audience that he did not approve of the university being called Muslim University just as he objected to the Banaras University having the nomenclature of Hindu.
Perpetually caught in the crossfire between pseudo-secularists and fundamentalists of both communities, what is the Muslim expected to do? The ordinary Muslim lives on the margins and is left to fight his demons on his own. But with the first whiff of elections, he is brought centre stage to become the plaything for the power games and vote calculations of the competing camps. Every party seeks to benefit electorally from the polarisation of communities instead of trying to mend the social fabric.
Communalism is indubitably our biggest enemy but the political class alone cannot fight this deeply embedded cancer. Muslims have to join others in launching a frontal political offensive against communalists of all hues. To begin with, they must disown their obscurantist leaders who are primarily responsible for fanning Hindu fundamentalism. Communal outfits such as Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM and the Muslim League in Kerala are an affront to the foundational principles of a secular polity and have deeply hurt the interests of the Muslim masses. It was indeed heartening that Muslims of Bengal summarily rejected AIMIM and the inappropriately named Indian Secular Front (ISF).
In recent years, Muslim women have been leading the charge to effect social reforms in the community. They spearheaded the fight for a ban on unilateral, instantaneous triple talaq. But the AIMPLB petitioned the Supreme Court that the pleas challenging triple talaq were not maintainable as the issue fell outside the realm of the judiciary. This allowed the political formation most inimical to the Muslim community’s interests to garner the credit for banning instant triple talaq. The AIMPLB fought for retaining instant talaq whereas Muslim-baiters like the Hindu Mahasabha and Yogi Adityanath called for its ban. That does hurt!
The Muslim community should not fall into the trap of opposing the population control measures announced by the BJP-ruled Assam and UP governments despite the fact that the policy has been announced with the clear collateral intent of accentuating communal polarisation. Muslims must send an emphatic message that they endorse the two-child norm as critical for betterment of the community and society. In fact, in the last three decades, Muslims have been more committed to adopting family planning methods than Hindus, reflected in the sharp narrowing of the fertility differential between the two communities.
But will these ameliorative measures for boosting social solidarity help remedy the problems arising out of institutionalised discrimination and the burgeoning power of majoritarianism? Social scientists believe that hope for the future lies in civil society. Social justice and empowerment movements like Black Lives Matter and the MeToo protests that co-opted people of all ethnicities, forced the power elite to square up to the evils of systemic racism and sexual abuse. At home, we have the brave example of the anti-CAA protests led by women and students that kept politicians and religious leaders at bay. Have they provided the template for fighting systemic exploitation and injustice in the future?
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 28, 2021 under the title ‘Congress’ Muslim question’. The writer is Secretary General of the Lok Janshakti Party and a former civil servant. Views are personal
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