A turning point

Published : Dec 15, 2006 00:00 IST

ASADUDDIN OWAISI, PRESIDENT of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, with a sword presented at a function to felicitate him after the Andhra Pradesh government decided to provide 5 per cent reservation for Muslims in educationand employment. - RAMESH SHARMA

ASADUDDIN OWAISI, PRESIDENT of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, with a sword presented at a function to felicitate him after the Andhra Pradesh government decided to provide 5 per cent reservation for Muslims in educationand employment. - RAMESH SHARMA

The Sachar report has the potential to affect all facets of Indian politics as the Mandal and Masjid issues did.

INDIA is entering a phase in which Muslim communities once again face the prospect of widespread social churning and protracted political contestations. The Rajinder Sachar Committee report is going to, at the level of mass politics, give rise to something akin to the upsurges the country saw in the wake of the Mandal and Masjid controversies. It is quite clear from the report that the socio-economic condition of Muslim communities is abysmal. Their socio-economic status is just above that of the Dalits and may be worse than that of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Not that this is a startling revelation. Many of us who have been using the survey data of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) on class formation within different communities have written on lines quite similar to what the Sachar Committee has done now. What puts its findings on an altogether different footing is not just its thoroughness but also the official stamp it carries. And the government is in no position to reject its findings given the disastrous political consequences the Congress party may have to face.

This precisely is the many-sided significance of the document. All facets of our politics - democratic currents and communal-fascist backlash in particular - are going to be deeply affected by it. Muslims, since the vandalism of the upper castes in the wake of the Mandal report and the hooliganism and bloodletting indulged in by the Hindutva forces leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, have become politically assertive and are now part of the disadvantaged with democratic aspirations like never before. There are bound to be widespread demands for "affirmative action" from within the Muslim community, which are going to be supported and opposed by different political forces and articulate sections in society.

What will make this process complicated and charged is the history of affirmative action in India and the kind of association it gives rise to. Oppressed people across social divides have come to look on affirmative action as necessarily involving reservations and quotas. And quotas are viewed as empowerment. This has been the case since the days of the struggle against colonialism. The colonial administration started the practice of giving reservations in jobs and in the emerging representative bodies to those who fought for these on the grounds of having been left behind. This practice was given a constitutional standing in the Government of India Act of 1935. It is this association of affirmative action, quotas and empowerment that has put a discursive limit on how to surmount social backwardness. Muslims are not going to look at the matter any differently.

Given this background of political practice, we must first be very clear what makes Muslims so different from other oppressed and socially disadvantaged classes. Little doubt remains that an overwhelming majority of Muslims are socially and economically backward. They are worse off than the OBCs in whose case social and political backwardness does not necessarily overlap; in fact, some of the OBCs have sizeable landholdings, which also is the source of the political clout they enjoy in rural areas. This is why some of these communities have done so well in terms of their representation in elected bodies, however under-represented they may be in the services. In this, they are quite unlike Muslim communities. This is one side of the picture, which is one of the severities of their underprivileged status.

But there is the other side that is not any less important and which, unlike the first, is more visible in their social life. There is no other community in India, or perhaps elsewhere, that is backward on such a large scale and which also has such a large stratum of people with pronouncedly high levels of accomplishment as the Muslims of India. In the creative fields of art, literature, music and culture, they are second to none in the world; in the world of science and humanities, they stand in equal measure to any other community in India; in the professional world of doctors, lawyers and so on, they have done rather well. Same is the case in the field of sports and the list can be extended. Suffice it to note here that Muslims are a highly accomplished and successful people. In this they are equal to every other section of people in India and enjoy as much respect as others do.

How did this come about? The reason may be a complex intersection of many factors. Among these factors, two need to be noted. One, historically, the Muslim gentry and their representatives in the then ruling classes never treated Muslim masses any better or differently than the other subjects under them. All people were equally beasts of burden under them and unworthy of respect or dignity. It is important to remember the limits to the brotherhood of faith in conditions of feudal rule. The rabble-rousers among Muslims and Hindutva chauvinists need to be reminded of this again and again. Hindutva chauvinists are being utterly dishonest in harping on the theme that ordinary Muslims are a favoured community. Feudal self-aggrandisement deprives all sections of peoples, Muslims being no exception.

Secondly, in the period following Independence, Muslim masses were the victims of benign neglect and various degrees and modes of discrimination. Intermittently, they have also been the victims of violence and sometimes of gruesome communal killings; in a way, this sets them apart from any other community. But this in itself does not entirely explain their backwardness. We have got to keep their historical inheritance in mind as an important component of their backwardness. It is only then that we can blame successive governments in India of not doing anything to alleviate the abjectness of the socio-economic conditions of Muslims. Much could have been done by way of proactive policies and targeted affirmative action to make their living conditions much better than what they are now.

But to understand the dilemma of Muslims, it is equally important to perceive the fault lines that create insensitivities and cruelties in Indian society. Dalits have also been the victims of hostile neglect, violence and sporadic killings. It is because of reservations over an extended period that a stream of middle classes has emerged from among Dalits, and this in turn has provided a reserve of energy for protracted struggles. And yet Dalits remain at the bottom of the heap in Indian society. Caste-based society produces a consciousness that has deep contempt for those who are down in the hierarchy. It does not cause one pain if they remain the way they are. That is why much of what goes in the name of affirmative action has failed to take off the ground. Actually, administrative negligence or failure has its roots in this deep-rooted contempt for people.

The combination of these two factors makes the Muslim situation unique in India. This specificity ought to be recognised by the democratic movement in India so that it can take the right political positions, with all their nuances, as the debates and struggles begin in response to the Sachar report. It is going to be one of the most delicate tussles for democratic forces since Independence. The communal chauvinists led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party are going to make a big issue of the minorytism of the secular forces, especially the "pampering" of Muslims by the Congress.

Their main contention will centre around, as it has whenever an issue of positive discrimination for Muslims comes up, the theme of threat to the unity and oneness of India as quotas for Muslims will lead to separatism. According to them, the Muslim elite has always had a separatist mentality (whatever separatism implies in today's context).

Here an issue of quite some significance is involved and needs to be carefully sorted out. It has to do with the difference between Muslim political demands today and those in the days before Independence, starting with the intervention of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. Much of Muslim political demands in the last few decades has to do with issues of citizenship and, therefore, with egalitarianism and rights.

Muslim politics, since the trauma and dislocation of Partition, is chiefly centred on fear and, therefore, on the question of security. And the only way Muslims could deal with it, however incompletely, was by assuring support to their elites (belonging to the accomplished strata) so that the latter could work out deals for them with the Congress government. The entire community, baring small groups here and there, learnt to lean on the Congress for security and small relief and in turn assured electoral support for the party in an enduring fashion. The Congress party was assured of what rather loosely has been referred to in Indian political idiom as the "vote bank".

This started breaking down somewhat after the Emergency, and the election results of 1977 were a portent of that. This trend took a decisive and, what looks until now, an irreversible turn after the V.P. Singh government announced in 1989 its decision to implement the Mandal report and the reaction to it best epitomised by L.K. Advani's Rath Yatra campaign for the construction of a Ram temple on the site where the Babri Masjid stood before its demolition in 1992.

Advani was a silent spectator to this act of destruction as well to the mayhem and bloodletting that followed it. By the time the situation somewhat settled down, Muslims had decisively broken off from the politics of leaning on the Congress.

With this break, another vital shift occurred in Muslim politics. There took place a breach between the Muslim masses and the elites who had hitherto led them. The masses turned their faces away from those among them who were accomplished. Instead, they turned to communities that were adjacent to them in terms of social standing and status and were similar to them in terms of work and leisure. These were the OBC communities. This was a critical change. Enduring alliances and articulated understandings emerged between ordinary Muslims and the OBCs and their leadership - a new mass base for strengthening secular politics. The popularity of Lalu Prasad or Mulayam Singh Yadav is symptomatic of this trend. Muslims had dumped their elites who could become Governors but were no longer capable of getting elected to legislative bodies.

Muslims, in other words, had opted for the politics of empowerment, egalitarianism and deepening of democracy - the politics of citizenship rights. Not that other trends - such as political Islam or terrorist activity - do not exist in Muslim politics, but the trend has a decisive edge, as can be seen in the valuable data generated by CSDS electoral surveys.

This, as should be obvious, is radically different from the pre-Independence trends of Muslim politics. Whatever the major differences in the politics of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the implications of these differences, one feature runs as a common theme. This had to do with the extent of the mental energies that went into showing that Muslims were different and their politics had nothing to do with that of the emerging freedom movement; in other words, the effort was to demarcate Muslim communities as allies of the British and to demand not only a share in power but a weighted reservation, something more than their proportion in the population. The British encouraged it by conveying to Muslims that their demands were essentially economic and could easily be conceded, whereas the Congress' demands were basically political and therefore difficult to negotiate. This was the crux of divide-and-rule politics; the British did not create the divide, but when it showed itself they used it to the hilt.

The change by now is quite evident and rather drastic. Except at the surface level, that is, asking for reservations and quotas, there is nothing in common between the politics then and now. Surface similarities are always misleading. Therefore, careful attention to the details of what will be demanded is required. The BJP and the Hindutva forces are going to make a hell out of any move to grant reservations for Muslims. It is here that careful thought is required.

There are two sides to the quota question. If it is conceded without a thorough debate, then BJP will mount a shrill campaign, which may give strength to the chauvinist currents in politics. Whatever strengthens chauvinism weakens democracy. And the weakening of democracy is not in the interests of ordinary people, including Muslims. So the leaders of Muslim communities need to be careful how they formulate their demands. But if the demand for reservations becomes insistent among Muslims because everyone else has it, taking a strong position against it will strengthen the reactionary rabble-rousers among Muslims.

I have attended four meetings of Muslim gatherings where the situation of Muslims in the context of the Sachar report was being discussed. The most strident noises for reservations as the only solution to Muslim backwardness was being raised by the most reactionary of Muslim leaders. And the sad fact is the inability of the Left and the democratic leadership to guide Muslims out of this difficult situation.

Given this, what is required is a trade-off between affirmative action and the demand for reservation as the only way out. A principled solution does not seem to be possible. What then is the nature of the trade-off? The Left has to be on its toes.

Javeed Alam is Professor (retd.), Centre for European Studies, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad

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