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Press mute for Indian Muslims — how Gujarat flogging shows up ‘secular’ silence of Indian politics

It's at junctures like these that a diverse, democratic republic needs political voices. But BJP’s rivals have become so scared of being seen as Muslim-friendly that they’d rather duck.

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Who speaks for India’s Muslims now? Who can, or is even trying to fill the Mulayam Singh Yadav-sized hole there? The answer is none. The BJP’s rivals want the votes of Muslims, but are frightened of being seen as their leaders.

For clarity, this week’s National Interest isn’t yet another obituary, tribute or critique of the late Mulayam Singh Yadav. It is just that since the 1990s on, he had risen as the prime spokesman of Indian Muslims, ‘Maulana Mulayam’ as the BJP mocked him. His demise is an important moment to examine the vacuum in Muslim leadership and why, after Partition, the leaders of India’s Muslims have been almost entirely Hindu.

This is particularly so in a week when the Supreme Court has kicked the can down on a road that’s more political than judicial on the hijab issue. And when a Taliban or Islamic State (IS) style flogging of young Muslim men by police in poll-bound Gujarat’s Kheda district passed with minimal comment from those with the ambition to defeat Narendra Modi.

This happened in front of a cheering Hindu crowd. It was filmed and videos were widely shared. Their alleged crime was that they disrupted and “threw stones” at the local garba celebration.

Even if they’re guilty, this isn’t how anybody is punished in constitutional India. Nor has public flogging been a part of any Hindu tradition, however conservative. At least not in living memory.

This atrocity is a seminal event in our political evolution. The pictures will endure, as much as those of the first flogging in Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law regime keep surfacing to remind us how awful religious extremism can be.

Young scholar Asim Ali, in this article for ThePrint, did raise a provocative question: Why are we calling this flogging Taliban-style? Why be shy of describing it for what it is, Hindutva-style? It’s understandable and this gets a lot of Hindus’ backs up: How dare somebody compare us Hindus with those pre-medieval, violent and lawless Islamist forces?

We haven’t, however, raised questions about this, introspected, been outraged as we might have pretended to be if a few Ahmadiyyas had been flogged like this by the police in Pakistan with a Tehreek-e-Labbaik-style mob cheering.

Does the blame, then, for not questioning this fall in our own social, constitutional and moral values lie with us, the majority? To say so will not only be self-flagellation but futile, and will neither bring any succour to the Muslim minority, nor make ‘people’ understand the gravity of what has happened, and then say, ‘never again’. It is at junctures like these that a diverse, democratic republic needs political voices. They’ve mostly been missing over this week. The most critical political contestation in 2022-24 is how each party’s secular commitment is defined.

Also read: Secular Islamophobia: How Modi’s BJP bulldozed rivals’ imagination, left them scared to speak for Muslims

Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP have shifted to Gujarat because they see an opportunity in the elections next month. After winning Punjab, if they build a large enough dugout in the prime minister’s home state, they will be a formidable pan-state force by 2024. Audacity of this kind we’ve come to expect from AAP. Did you, meanwhile, see any of its leaders or spokesmen visit the families of victims in Kheda? Hold a press conference? Tweet about this outrage?

Kejriwal’s AAP isn’t the only political force to blame. We mention them first because for now on the ground theirs is the loudest political voice against the BJP. The Congress, the BJP’s pre-eminent rival in Gujarat which came close to causing an upset in 2017, is silent too. It’s getting headlines and photo-ops for what it calls Bharat Jodo Yatra. But avoiding Gujarat yet.

The premise of the Yatra is that the BJP has divided Bharat. And if so, why is the Congress not trying to ‘Jodo’ Hindu and Muslim in Gujarat? An appearance even by a fact-finding committee would have made a point. Jignesh Mevani is the party’s most visible face from Gujarat and a relatively recent and prized acquisition. He’s built his career and reputation through activism and agitation. He’s not been seen in Kheda.

Kanhaiya Kumar, who thought he launched a revolution every weekend at JNU with his speeches, triumphantly posts his pictures and videos from the Yatra. But Gujarat, Kheda, where’s that?

A smiling Rahul Gandhi hugging young and old, including a schoolchild in a hijab, is building an image of compassion, courage, embrace of diversity and equality in contrast to Modi. If that’s the objective, wouldn’t it be better served with pictures of him hugging the families of Kheda victims?

Some leaders like Chidambaram, Mevani and KCR’s son KTR either tweeted or made a passing comment and moved on. Mamata’s TMC filed a complaint with NHRC. And this is how a key AAP leader in Gujarat explained their side-stepping the issue. In an interview to The Indian Express, he said, “Law and order in Gujarat is worse than UP or Bihar. Gujarat is not safe”.

Also read: India’s hijab supporters will lose even if they win SC battle. Because the real war is political

This larger inclination to stay away from getting involved here only indicates that the BJP’s rivals have become so psyched, so scared of being seen as Muslim-friendly (and thereby anti-Hindu) that they’d rather duck.

They believe that they no longer have to speak for Muslims as their vote will come to them out of the fear of the BJP. The most prominent example is the way the AAP government distanced itself from the entire mess in the course of the Shaheen Bagh agitation and the riots that followed in Delhi.

We know they do not control the police in Delhi, but a presence of reassurance in riot zones, a healing touch, a clearer position demanding equity before the law among those incarcerated for more than two years, has all been missing. This is realpolitik, and it has worked. You want to see how? Contrast the AAP leaders’ absence from Kheda or from any such situations where Muslims are victims, and in exactly the same week, promising free pilgrimages to the new Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

As this larger political game plays out, hiding behind it is a dangerous phenomenon where a 20-crore-plus minority is rudderless. This is the reality barring a few states. A vacuum has now grown, no ‘secular’ force is moving in, and localised Muslim leaderships are taking advantage. The Indian Union Muslim League, Owaisi’s AIMIM, the PFI and its affiliates. This is a reversal in India’s post-Partition Muslim politics.

It was for good reason that after Muhammad Ali Jinnah, India’s Muslims have never trusted a fellow Muslim as their leader. He divided not only India, but also his own community. Or today, Muslims would’ve been a block of about 60 crore and a predominant electoral force in a population of 180 crore in undivided India. Jinnah was no visionary who built Muslim power in the subcontinent. He destroyed it. That’s why Indian Muslims placed their faith in the Congress and the Gandhi dynasty.

After the Babri Masjid demolition, the two Yadavs, Mulayam and Lalu, took away the heartland Muslim. Their politics has weakened over time only because their political imagination became confined to sustaining their dynasties. Yet, Muslims outside parts of Telangana mostly do not vote for even Owaisi, the most articulate and forthright of the community’s spokesmen.

They can’t but take note of how frightened most of the ‘secular’ forces look in engaging with them, forget offering comfort, even on a Kheda-like outrage. An Indira Gandhi, a younger Lalu, Mulayam would’ve had no such fears. It’s in this empty space that new forces of the Muslim Right are wading in. All of these aren’t necessarily democratic. The PFI story is an early warning.

Also read: AAP’s filling a big vacuum in Indian politics. Question is how long it can sustain without ideology


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