Who represents India’s Muslims?

Hilal Ahmed

The serious (and not so-serious) claims and counter-claims made by Azam Khan, a senior Samajwadi Party (SP) leader and the so-called Shahi Imam of Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid, Ahmad Bukhari, on ‘Muslim representation’ in post-election scenario in Uttar Pradesh (UP) can be interpreted in two possible ways. One may argue, in fact quite justifiably, that these polemical comments simply reflect the post-poll tussle between two rival Muslim elites to secure a wider acceptability in SP dominated UP politics. However, there could be another plausible approach to interpret this ‘media-centric’ debate. We may problematize these statements to raise a few very significant issues such as: do Muslims actually vote for a particular party because they are ‘instructed’ by religious elites such as the Imam to do so? Or, do Muslims vote for a party because they follow the ‘advices’ given to them by elected Muslim representatives? If we go beyond these first level questions, we might also ask two larger conceptual questions: Do Muslims need to be represented by Muslims? If yes, what could be the appropriate relationship between the acts of Muslim representatives and aspirations of Muslim communities?

Bukhari-Khan controversy, in my view, can help us in unpacking these complicated questions. In the first week of April 2012, Bukhari, who had already campaigned for SP in the assembly election in UP, quite unexpectedly decided to withdraw his son-in-law’s candidature for the UP Vidhan Parisahd. In a much publicized open letter, he alleged SP establishment for not providing ‘adequate Muslim political representation’ at various levels. He said: ‘the rights of Muslims cannot be satisfied by giving a seat to my son-in-law. If you do not give a fair share to Muslims in administration and power, I turn down the offer made for my son-in-law.’ According to Azam Khan, Bukhari actually wanted a Rajya Sabha seat for his younger brother and cabinet slot for his son-in-law. Questioning the political reputation of Bukhari, Khan said: ‘His son-in-law Umar Ali Khan, who contested on a SP ticket from the Behat seat of Saharanpur… lost his deposit. This clearly indicates the credibility of Bukhari. He should now realize the status he ‘enjoys’ amongst the Muslims…these peshwas have done little for the betterment of the community. Instead of seeking political favors, clerics should stick to their job.’

One can identify an interesting interplay between two sets of claims here: (a) Muslims of UP constitute a political community because they are fully aware of and adhere to a set of issues that could be called ‘Muslim issues’. (b) Religious/social leaders and representatives of this political community are entitled to take short-term and long term decisions in favor of Muslims. Azam Khan, it seems, share the first assumption with Bukhari. He does not make any comment on the Muslim political homogeneity that Bukhari evokes. In fact, his assertions also originate from the premise that Muslim community is a political entity of a specific kind. However, Khan’s criticism of Bukhari’s leadership claim is quite significant. Khan, in this sense, makes a clear distinction between the domain of actual politics and the domain of religiosity- a distinction that has been dominating the modern south Asian Muslim politics for a long time.

Let us look at some concrete evidences to evaluate the first set of arguments that revolves around the notion of Muslim political homogeneity. The recent UP election is quite relevant in this regard. As per the official figures, 29.15% votes went to SP. If we deconstruct this official data by comparing it with the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll data based on sample survey, a few very interesting findings come up.

We find that although SP enjoyed a sizeable Muslim support (39%), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also performed well among Muslims. It received around 20% votes. Even the Congress manages to get 18% Muslim votes. These figures demonstrate the fact that ‘Muslim vote’ was highly diversified. The Muslim caste configuration is also relevant here. Our data shows that around 41% upper-caste Muslim (Ashraf) votes went to SP. The Congress (26%) and BSP (12%) also received a significant Ashraf support. Although the SP also got 38% non-Ashraf votes, the performance of BSP is quite noticeable among non-Ashrafs. It secured 26% non-Ashraf Muslim votes. While the Congress managed to get only 11% non-Ashraf votes. This clearly shows that the inclination of upper-caste Muslims towards SP and Congress is higher compared to lower- caste Muslims. This Muslim political diversity, I suggest, exposes the emptiness of the Muslim homogeneity argument that Bukhari and Azam Khan propose.

The State of Nation survey (SONS) by CSDS-Lokniti on India’s Muslims (2006) can help us in assessing the second set of issues that the Bukhri-Khan controversy raises. For the sake of clarity, let us look at three kinds of questions: what are the Muslims issues? Who is responsible for the present crisis of Muslims? And, what could be the way out?

We find that poverty and unemployment are identified as the most important Muslim issues (69%). Instead of Hindu communalism or lack of religious freedom, majority of the respondents (60%) feel that the government is responsible for the present situation of Muslims in India. In fact, 16% Muslims say that the Muslims themselves are responsible for the present predicaments of the community. Affirmative action policies are considered as the possible way out to get rid of socio-economic backwardness. The majority of Muslims strongly support the view that Muslims must have some kind of reservation in education institution (72%) as well as in the Parliament and state assemblies (82%). Interestingly, these overtly socio-political demands are not addressed to Muslim elites. In fact, the question of Muslim leadership was not at all given any considerable importance. Only 4% respondents find that the ‘lack of right kind of Muslim leadership’ has been a problem for Muslims in this country. On the basis of these findings, it is suffice to suggest that the question of Muslim leadership is not a fundamental issue for Muslims at all. On the contrary, Muslims, like other deprived and marginalized sections of society, seem to recognize the state as a reference point for making political claims.

Can we, therefore, say that Muslims in India do not want to be represented by Muslim political and/or religious elites? I do not think that this complicated question can be answered merely on the basis of evidences/data we have discussed here. It requires a systematic exploration of a different kind by which we can make sense of the contextual placing of Muslims elites in the socio-cultural universe of Muslims communities. Yet, we can certainly argue that Muslim participation in different forms of politics should be taken seriously to understand the multiplicity of the political representation debates. If we continue to pose the question of Muslim political representation in the present form, it would be very difficult for us to move away from the kind of arguments people like Azam Khan and Bukhari make.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi.) 


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