A dominant assertion in the traditional old ‘secular’ circles is that good sense in Indian politics has been bulldozed and Islamophobia hangs heavy in the dusty air of democracy’s rubble.
You can choose to agree or disagree with it. The risk is, once you choose either, the debate ends here. Declare the end of the Republic, the idea of India, democracy, diversity, all of it? Or pronounce the death of pseudo-secularism, and such good riddance. Either way, the debate is over.
What if we said, however, that both parts of the argument are correct. It’s just that there are nuances that do not leave it so straightforward or linear.
If the definition of good sense was the way the secular versus communal binary determined political fortunes in India for six decades until 2009, it is correct to say it’s been bulldozed by the rise of the Modi-Shah BJP. In no state of India with a sizeable Muslim vote at this point, except probably in West Bengal, can you defeat the BJP on that old equation. To that extent, the first half of the traditional secular lament is accurate.
The second, Islamophobia, is true as well, and has its complexities too. It isn’t Islamophobia in the sense it would be meant in, say, the Westernised political discourse. It isn’t some widespread fear of the Muslim way of life, religious practices, food, pan-nationalism, the power of some humongous collective embodied in the Ummah. In India, it is more the fright the non-BJP parties have developed in being seen to be friendly to Muslims.
They won’t say anything rude about Muslims. But they would avoid attacking the BJP specifically for victimising and othering them. They’d rather talk in the more broad, platitudinous sense of the party being sectarian, communal, anti-diversity and so on. But rarely would they be seen at a Muslim event or occasion, in the company of prominent and identifiable Muslims, or fight for their grievances if not causes. They wouldn’t even rise to speak for Shahrukh Khan and his son.
There is a world of difference, for example, between the forthright way they backed the farmers’ movement and the whispering criticism, if any, of the Modi government’s crackdown on the anti-CAA movement. If anything, all traditional secular parties, who fattened on the Muslim vote all these decades, kept themselves out of this “mess”.
Leaders of the key national or important regional parties have rarely raised a question on the continued incarceration of so many anti-CAA activists in Delhi under super-draconian laws like UAPA. By the way, the even tougher NSA has been brought in now for Jahangirpuri.
Some of them did speak out in support of Disha Ravi. But Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Meeran Haider? Or those like Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal who, though not Muslim, were seen to be with a Muslim cause?
The party line across the secular universe is, you can’t afford to be seen close to Muslims or a Muslim cause. It is suicidal in today’s electoral politics. Hypocrisy and cowardice in the name of discretion is the better part of secular valour. Leave it to the courts. And if they won’t act, you can curse the judiciary for being spineless, and you curse the Election Commission and indeed the media. That’s easy, and safe.
What can we do, the argument is, when the BJP can sweep elections merely by maxing out on the Hindu vote? In large parts of the country, especially the political heartland, if the Muslim vote doesn’t count any longer, what’s the point of shouting, screaming and losing more Hindus too.
It’s an acceptance of defeat and a mass bankruptcy of political imagination.
Since bulldozers and Jahangirpuri is the hottest context for now, take a close look at the statements of the BJP’s political opponents. Barring the Left, everybody has been careful to keep their prominent, easily identifiable leaders away from the spot. Their statements are about the BJP instigating communal riots, dividing people, and so on.
The squeamishness about calling it out for what it is, a targeting of the poorest Muslims, is a pattern by now. A lumpenised Hindu procession with provocative slogans, weapons, and offensive music in Muslim-dominated areas, especially in front of mosques, riots, police action. And then the JCBs as a 21st-century form of colonial-style collective punishment. See particularly how the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), responded to this.
We acknowledge in fairness that neither the police nor the municipal corporation is under them. But language is important in political signalling. They said the bulldozers should first be taken to the homes of those BJP leaders who, over the past 15 years, have allowed Bangladeshis and Rohingya immigrants to illegally settle in Delhi.
One said the bulldozers should be taken to BJP headquarters. Not because they unleashed such an atrocity on some of the poorest members of the Muslim minority in Delhi, who mostly voted for AAP. But because they (the BJP) allowed (the same Muslims) to wantonly carry out encroachment and unauthorised construction.
Now illegal settlements and unauthorised constructions are quoted by both the BJP and AAP in their arguments, one for ordering the demolitions and the other for a taunting ‘look who’s talking’. It is just that the two rival parties are also engaged in competitive “regularisation” of nearly 2,000 entirely illegal colonies in the capital. But hypocrisy is neither new, nor a liability in politics.
The fact is that AAP, of all mainstream parties opposed to the BJP, has fine-tuned this approach to perfection. Attack the BJP, but never on behalf of the minority. When JNU was rocked with troubles and a bunch of student leaders were arrested for allegedly shouting “tukde tukde” slogans, how did Arvind Kejriwal respond?
He said, if his government had control of the police, innocent students would be out of jail. But those that actually shouted the slogans would be locked in. Rahul Gandhi, on the contrary, landed up at JNU, and if this benefited his party in Delhi, it did not reflect in subsequent elections.
Across states, you can see the same pattern. In Telangana too, while the alliance seems intact, we can see a subtle distancing between KCR’s TRS and Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM. In Assam, the Congress would no longer be seen near Badruddin Ajmal.
In West Bengal, since Prashant Kishor took charge of her campaign in the last assembly election, Mamata Banerjee has not been seen displaying a hijab at Muslim events, or spending too much time with her huge minority. In Gurgaon, leaders of the Congress stayed completely away from the controversy over Muslims praying in public places. They’ve been so silent as to look complicit.
Two states need watching now. How does the unlikely alliance of Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress handle this challenge in Maharashtra? The BJP knows that both the Shiv Sena and the Congress have their vulnerabilities. That’s why we have Raj Thackeray raising anti-Muslim issues, like loudspeakers in mosques, that the Sena would have done in the past. The other would be Karnataka.
We have reached a situation where no major political party would even hold a public iftaar during the month of Ramzan, nor would many leaders be seen at one. New Delhi is now in that odd phase of its history when foreign embassies and expatriates are the ones holding iftaars and hosting its Muslim and secular elites.
It was one thing when the BJP had shown its opponents it could win without any Muslim votes. Now it has so psyched them out that they are paranoid about being seen near Muslims or their causes, however justified.
The political bulldozer has crushed their political imagination. It’s made them Islamophobic in that they’d rather not identify with Muslims in any way. And yet they want the Muslims to vote for them to protect Indian secularism, and themselves from the BJP. This sums up the state of Indian politics today.