Election 2019

Begusarai offering Much-Needed Alternative Politics

By Mohammad Sajjad

Recently in a WhatsApp group, I read the message of bright Muslim student of mass communication: Ensuring victory of the Muslim candidate from Begusarai (Bihar) is the question of very existence (wajud) of Muslims!  Instead of moving away from it, I asked myself, is India’s polity and society still stuck in divisive identity politics? Or, worse, increasingly getting entrenched into it?  

On the same WhatsApp group, I asked that if the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) candidate standing for the ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Begusarai is indeed preferred, why should he be preferred for his Muslim-ness? Bihar’s Begusarai constituency will see a three-cornered fight on April 29 between BJP Union minister Giriraj Singh, RJD’s Tanveer Hassan and CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar. 

Some of them even went on to threaten to withdraw Muslim support to Kanhaiya, also because, Gujarat’s Dalit leader, Jignesh Mewani, after campaigning for Kanhaiya, went on to campaign for CPI-ML candidate in Siwan, Amar Yadav, pitted against RJD’s Muslim nominee, Hina Shahab, wife of the gangster-legislator (convicted for murders). This was even more bizarre. Why should not a gangster be identified only as a gangster? Why should these Muslims go on to own up a gangster as their own and thereby vilify the Muslims as a whole?     

There are some Muslims who believe the Left is much less friendly towards the community, rightly referring to the Sachar Report that underlined the lack of political and economic empowerment given to Muslims in West Bengal by the erstwhile Left Front government. 

There is also an argument, why should a Bhumihar, Kanhaiya Kumar, be preferred by the Mahagathbandhan at the cost of a Muslim? They choose to forget two facts: since 1952, most of the time, a Bhumihar has been elected from there; a Muslim candidate (of NDA) was elected, only once, in 2009. 

Intriguingly, these Muslims also choose to forget that Madhubani, Bettiah, Sitamarhi, Darbhanga, Sheohar kind of seats have got relatively more of Muslim votes, and some of these have elected Muslims a number of times, yet, the Mahagathbandhan gave it away to non-Muslim nominees. These communal Muslims prefer not to see any threat to wajud of Muslims in these seats. 

They prefer to remain oblivious of the possibility of taking up their community-entrenched model of voting if all Hindus elected only Hindu candidates? 

While insisting on adequate Muslim representation, most of them have chosen to ignore even bigger under-representation of the Ajlaf and Arzal communities (low castes) of a purportedly casteless community.

Interestingly, once the RJD’s Muslim candidate was declared to be its nominee, and the CPI was not taken into the alliance, the very same budding Muslim journalist also wished in his facebook post that Kanhaiya must contest to cut into the Bhumihar votes of BJP’s notorious polariser motor-mouth, Griraj Singh, which would ensure victory of RJD’s Muslim nominee. However, the moment, he and his ilks found out that Kanhaiya might also be getting Muslim votes, their discomfiture and desperation became evident on the social sites. They unleashed their tirade against all those “lesser” Muslims who were out to support Kanhaiya. 

These debates on social-media bring forth all the fault-lines in our society and polity, viz., atrocities against Dalits, caste-based graded oppressive hierarchies, rising religious bigotry, majoritarian onslaught, minority persecution, competitive communalisms, Muslim under-representation, etc. 

The problem is that India responded to these pressing problems with identity-based chauvinistic politics. Thus, even a nominal representation of such an identity is taken as a substance of empowerment. Needless to say, this is merely vicarious and illusionary empowerment. This is one of the many reasons why India is faced with such a devastative majoritarianism. 

This is an era of cynicism. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, the youth has got no leadership as role models for emancipatory politics through aggressive popular street agitations on the concrete issues of livelihood and civil liberty. Even the Left had almost fallen by the wayside, except the revolutionary Left in parts of Bihar. Certain minimum of Left presence in Indian politics is absolutely necessary, just like salt in a food; its deficit and overdose, both takes away the taste of the food, often says Prof. Anand Kumar, the Sociologist. 

In such a scenario, Kanhaiya, hailing from a poor peasant but an upper caste Hindu family of rural Begusarai, emerged on the scene as student-activist of JNU, who was being victimised by the jingoistic and repressive regime. He symbolised resistance to it quite bravely. He sort of helped re-discover the student and youth politics of resistance, in the era of corporate controlled regimes. It resonated with them and it appeared to cutting across caste, religion and gender. 

Prior to Kanhaiya, many other Left student activists of JNU in last few decades were, in my view, of much greater intellect, vision, articulation and oratory. Chandrashekhar was far ahead of Kanhaiya. But Chandu was snuffed out allegedly by the shooters of Shahabuddin in Siwan in March 1997. Compared to those greater worthies, Knahaiya’s significance lies in rising to the occasion when state was more repressive and resistance appeared to be feeble. Youth are served sedatives of consumerism. Corporate-owned TV news channels have had turned jarringly jingoistic and their roles in propagating falsehoods have had become fatally alarming. Campuses identified with vulnerable identities, such as Dalits, Muslims and Tribes were the targets of the prying state. Institutions of policing and investigations appeared to have become dangerously subservient to the vindictive politics of the desperate ruling party. 

In such a frightening scenario, Kanhaiya, despite his limitations, emerged as a symbol of resistance. Sections of Muslim youth also look upon him like that. In its comparison, the credentials of the Muslim candidate of RJD, is, to the best of our knowledge, evidently poor. He was silent on lynching and custodial deaths of Muslims. Despite having been a legislator in the provincial upper house, he has hardly got anything substantial as his contribution. If he really has, his supporters have not been able to articulate and propagate. But the sectarian Muslims get irked when sections of their co-religionists are seen defying identity-based electoral preferences. 

In fact, even RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav, gave out a much delayed, and extremely reluctant response to such victimizations of Muslims at the hands of the saffron brigade, understandably, getting institutional support also. Other tall Muslim leaders of RJD-Congress in Bihar were no better. So is the case with Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati and their Muslim leaders in Uttar Pradesh. Unlike Kanhaiya, none hit the streets.

Right wing politics of harping on identity and not letting people raise the concrete issues and not letting electorates ask questions about performances of their legislators, appears to becoming increasingly competitive among the mobilised castes of both Hindus and Muslims. 

Even the politics of social justice has now been reduced to hegemony of few dominant castes. Frightening majoritarianism has made these forces take their traditional support-base for granted. In fact, support-base is now seen as slavish electorates. Hoodlums cum elected representatives of local bodies, aspiring to rise to become legislators, resort to divisive mobilizations. This is an easy route compared to mobilising on non-identitarian, concrete socio-economic livelihood issues.

Thus, solidarity and support from cross-sections, to Kanhaiya, is an effort towards rediscovering and strengthening the emancipatory politics of aggressive street mobilizations against the identity-based hate-filled, socially divisive politics. Kanhaiya as a person or politician may or may not live up to that, for long in future, but today, he does symbolise something. 

True, not every seat is as fortunate to have got a dependable alternative. Begusarai’s Hindus and Muslims need to assert against identity politics and convey that very message of hope.  In late-colonial and early independence era, Begusarai was almost nerve-centre of Left-led aggressive peasant politics. Subsequently, it lost itself, as it did not rediscover imaginatively; it got fossilised, decayed, and did not re-imagine to address the issues of caste, land, and class.  

Begusarai could well serve as a template for the rest of the country in the future, for the identity-insecure Muslims that they need not vote on blind communal identity lines. They may get an outspoken and vocal, rather than a slavishly silent and unimaginative representative. Choice is theirs! Let ‘Muslim politics’ be re-defined, take it is beyond minority-ism. That is a way forward to resist majoritarianism. Let Muslim and Hindu leaders realise that aggressive street mobilizations on citizenship issues, and not the easy route of identitarian and divisive polarizations, contain the promises of making them leaders.

It may possibly augur well for India’s secular democracy, only if Hindus and Muslims of Begusarai trump communally divisive politics inspiring the rest of Bihar— and indeed India. 

Shall that happen? In its answer lies the future of India as a civilizational entity of composite culture and harmonious co-existence.                

Note: An abridged version of this piece was published in The Economic Times, April 4, 2019  

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