In defence of a pro-Muslim strategy

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

The new president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bangaru Laxman, has kicked off a debate with the exposition of a thesis on reworking the BJP's relationship with Indian Muslims, in his presidential address at the National Council session in Nagpur . In this interview to V. Venkatesan, Laxman outlines the reasons behind his appeal to Muslims to support the party, and seeks to clarify the contradictions involved. Excerpts:

In your presidential address in Nagpur you said that Muslims are the last major section of Indian society that you need to reach out to. What is the significance of your invitation to your workers to take this appeal and your activities to Muslim hom es and mohallas?

How can the leading coalition partner of a ruling alliance, and a large minority keep themselves apart? They have to come together. In the past five to 10 years, we have been able to get a sizable number of Muslims enrolled as BJP members. Our minority m orcha has been quite active in that mission. For the first time, the BJP mahila morcha organised a Muslim mahila conference, which was attended by about 4,000 delegates.

But I was not happy about the rate at which we are able to enrol them. Therefore I called upon my workers to take special care, and organise a special drive as such. Now, don't expect Muslims to come to our office and join. So, I said, 'go to their mohal las, go to their homes, and enrol them; enrol, but not on the basis of promises.' Whatever fears about the BJP they had, those fears have been proved wrong in the last couple of years. Whatever has been said against the BJP has not been proved, they have come to realise that. And whatever has been the record of the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre during the last two and a half years on the one side, and various State governments' performance, keep these two things, and go to the pe ople; ask them to judge for themselves, and appeal to them to support the BJP, this is what I told my workers.

What are the positive measures the NDA government has taken towards the welfare of Muslims, that should inspire their confidence in the BJP?

For the first time, Urdu computer training has been introduced by the Government of India at 54 centres in 47 districts spread over 18 States. The number of such centres will be 75 in this financial year, and will be 100 by the next year. Diplomas in Inf ormation Technology are being awarded to students undergoing training at these centres. Of the 3,065 students who received instruction in these centres last year, 955 were women. The one-year training for the Diploma in Computer Applications and Multilin gual DTP will help the students pursue careers in graphic design, and data entry operations. The National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language, under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, has launched a new calligraphy-cum-commercial ar t-cum-graphics centre to impart training to the students.

Then, the government has published 87 new books on Urdu-related subjects. Besides, new editions of 143 books have been published. An encyclopaedia in Urdu has been published for the first time on 32 different subjects in three volumes. Six volumes of Eng lish-Urdu dictionary have also been published.

For the sake of Haj pilgrims, subsidy has been increased, besides increasing the number of pilgrims. For the first time, special flights have been planned. In terms of development activities, programmes have been identified with an emphasis on reaching t he most backward sections among the Muslims, and to give them the benefit of the government's positive measures.

But will all this result in a change in the attitudes of the BJP and Sangh Parivar activists towards Muslims? The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) recently indicted the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists for their role in the Sur at riots, during the BJP-organised bandh in Gujarat following the Amarnath tragedy.

What the Sangh Parivar says is not the issue. The RSS spokesperson has said that there is nothing wrong in what I said in Nagpur regarding Muslims. We have the highest respect for the National Commission for Minorities. It is an autonomous body. But you must understand that under the NDA government there was only one Surat, whereas under the previous Congress governments there were many Surats. You cannot cite any instance under NDA rule of communal clashes resulting in loss of lives. By and large, thin gs are under control on the communal front.

But will your appeal to woo Muslims have any impact on the extreme elements within the BJP and the other organisations of the Sangh Parivar?

It should have an impact. They will have to change with the times. But it will take time. But I am confident that there will be a change in the days to come, with Muslims beginning to shed their suspicions about the BJP's intentions.

There have been many incidents of attacks against the minorities, causing physical and psychological insecurity among them. The sporadic incidents of attacks against the Christian minority, for instance, by the activists of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have been well documented. Why is your appeal directed only towards Muslims, and not to other minority groups?

I don't think there is any pattern in these incidents. In a few incidents, the role of these organisations has not been established. I chose Muslims because they constitute the largest minority population in the country, and the BJP has always been wrong ly described by its adversaries as being anti-Muslim. This image of the BJP has to change.

You have said that the BJP will stick to the National Agenda of Governance (NAG), and that there is no question of reviving the controversial issues of Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 and a uniform civil code until the next Lok Sabha elections. Doe s this mean the party will be free to revive on the eve of the next elections its stand on these core issues that shaped the party's identity?

What I said was, as of now I am bound by the NDA's NAG. Our stand on these issues had been elaborated earlier, and it is part of the party's records. There is no need to repeat them now. What will happen at the time of next Lok Sabha elections is too ear ly to say. We will be free to review our stand then. And looking at the circumstances then, we will devise our strategy. If the present arrangement with our NDA allies continues even after the next Lok Sabha elections, perhaps we may continue our allegia nce to NAG.

As Muslims suspect the BJP's intentions, and as you seek their support, would it not be a better idea for the BJP to abandon its stand on these issues?

I don't think these are the core issues on which Muslims would support the BJP. Take Article 370, for instance. It is specific to Jammu and Kashmir. Muslims outside the State are hardly concerned about the issue. Regarding Ayodhya, we have said repeatedl y that we will wait for the court ruling on the issue. We will be bound by the ruling, and we expect the other side too to agree to be bound by the ruling, whatever it may be. We would also welcome any out-of-court settlement between the two communities on this issue. On uniform civil code, we had only stated the constitutional requirement, and there is an incorrect assumption that the code would be inherently anti-Muslim. I think Muslims are gradually realising that these fears about the BJP are mispla ced. What they are concerned about today are issues of employment, and development, and the BJP is sincere in addressing these issues.

You seem to be facing problems in constituting your new team of party office-bearers. Sushma Swaraj has apparently declined your invitation to accept the post of party spokesperson.

Venkaiah Naidu continues to be our spokesperson. Constituting my new team would involve discussions at various levels, and it will take some time. After all, Kushabhau Thakre, after he became the party president in 1998, took nearly a month to constitute his team of office-bearers. Sushma Swaraj has agreed to accept whatever responsibility, the party entrusts her with.

The Prime Minister declared during his visit to the U.S. that he would always remain a "swayamsevak". In response to a question from an audience comprising largely of VHP sadhus, he said that the temple could not be built in Ayodhya because the BJP la cked a majority in the Lok Sabha, and that his party would build the "India of our dreams" if it ever came to power on its own. How would these remarks inspire confidence among Muslims?

The Prime Minister is correct. After all, the post of the Prime Minister is temporary. The Prime Minister did not address an RSS meeting there. So it is not fair to infer that he would like to be the swayamsevak of the Sangh. Secondly, all the sadhus who attended the meeting did not belong to the VHP. One of them talked about constructing a temple in Ayodhya. The Prime Minister's remarks were not in response to the question on building the temple in Ayodhya. He spoke about other issues also at the meeti ng. He only said the BJP would "build the India of our dreams", if it came to power on its own. He did not make a promise that the BJP would build the temple if it had a majority in the Lok Sabha.

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