India’s Muslims have not protested against the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict. But it is not a sign of maturity or acceptance, as many commentators have called it. Powerlessness, fear and resignation are more likely explanations for the silence of Muslims.
That the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has left the community electorally irrelevant is now the general consensus. But the sense of disillusionment goes deeper than that. “I say with humility to my co-religionists that we have no power, no agency, no spaces left for protest,” wrote the social activist Syeda Hamid the following day of the verdict.
But there is one key takeaway from this state of helplessness. The Muslim Ulemas have not only proved themselves consistently useless in safeguarding the constitutional rights of the community, but they have also been complicit in the erosion of these rights.
The community must ask this belated question, even though it may risk resembling which many Hindutva ideologues have used to critique Muslim politics: what have the clerics achieved for ordinary Muslims all these decades?
Making Sharia the Muslim identity
After independence, the Ulema, like Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid, arrogated for themselves the position of the ‘Muslim voice’, aided by a Congress establishment looking for reliable arbiters of Muslim votes. While they themselves received generous patronage from political parties, it is hard to think of a single tangible benefit they secured for the community.
The needs of the Muslim community have always been jobs, education, and the security of their fundamental rights, but the Ulema has practised a politics of ‘religious difference’, preoccupied with tokens and empty symbolism. A simple matter of alimony for Shah Bano was projected as an existential threat to the religious and cultural rights of Muslims. They did this by preying on the fear of Muslims, in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the Assam Accord.
They made the further leap of deigning the Shah Bano episode a test case not only for the survival of the Sharia or personal laws, but for the Muslim identity itself. The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind portrayed adherence to the Sharia as vital to the preservation of the Muslim identity. Maulana Abdul Hasan Nadvi, president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), described the preservation of the Sharia as “the most important problem for the Muslims of India”. Their rhetoric invoked the personal, religious laws as something above the Constitution, and not as guarantees provided to minorities by the Constitution.
The religious establishment repeated the same mistakes in framing their opposition to the criminalisation of triple talaq law under Prime Minister Narendra Modi government.
No voice of Muslims’ rights & needs
Muslims are today the most backward community in India, in terms of education and employment, even more so than Dalits. The situation is only getting worse with time. Muslims’ legal rights have been routinely violated by security agencies. This is not just a blot on the secular Indian state, but it also represents the abject failure of the Ulema – the self-proclaimed spokespersons and leaders of the community – to make effective demands from the Indian government.
A more enlightened religious leadership would have led movements to secure for its community these material opportunities and legal rights. The central role of black churches in the US during the civil rights movement is a case in point. These churches still act as pillars of strength for the African American community, opening up and informing the churchgoers on progressive social issues like poverty, drug use, and institutional racism.
The religious-cum-political intermediaries that the Muslim community in India has been saddled with either indulge in apologia for the political class or in performative symbolic rhetoric to hold on to their credibility.
The present chief of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind Maulana Mahmood Madani’s support for a nationwide exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an issue that concerns the constitutional rights of Muslims, was as revealing as it was disgraceful. But it was not surprising coming from someone who proactively defended Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, insisting that the latter had nothing to apologise for 2002. Or the constant flip-flop by the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in endorsing different political parties every election, mostly based on which party appears more powerful and is thus a likely source of patronage.
Ulema needed for ‘Muslim other’ project
If you are still not convinced about the uselessness of the Muslim religious leadership on political issues, then imagine their disappearance from the political realm for a moment. It is hard to think of a single negative impact on Muslims. However, it might be disconcerting for politicians who find it convenient to deal with these religious intermediaries and keep them in good humour, rather than having to deal with ordinary Indian Muslims directly and address their genuine grievances. It will also be troubling for the media, which is also invested in maintaining these religious leaders as the ‘Muslim voice’, as a cherished source of readily available soundbites, which they substitute for ground reporting on the genuine issues of Muslims.
All this despite there being no evidence that these religious leaders have any impact on swinging votes even in Delhi, let alone in other places. Muslims have increasingly made it clear that they do not look at these leaders for political guidance.
The only Muslim leadership the community needs and demands is the one that will safeguard their constitutional and economic rights. It is high time the community proclaims that openly and loudly, and continues to do so until the political and media ecosystem invested in propping up these clerical intermediates gets the message.
A superficial reading might make this sound like a Hindu majoritarian argument. But it’s not.
Contrary to the Hindutva discourse, the Ulema positioned themselves as the ‘voice’ of the Muslim community not because of the ‘essential’ conservatism of the Muslim community, but because they were foisted there for the political purposes of the ruling class, both the British rulers and the Congress system. These self-proclaimed leaders don’t hold any elected office incumbent on the votes of Muslims.
The other fallacy of the Hindutva narrative is that the fundamentalism among the Muslim leadership necessarily created the ‘political Hindu’. In fact, the Shah Bano case came long after the BJP had formulated the Ram temple as one of the core demands in its founding charter, and after the RSS/VHP had already started the Ram temple movement.
Hindutva, since its founding, requires the creation of the ‘Muslim other’ to sustain the political unity of Hindus. The intransigence of the Muslim religious leadership might sometimes help Hindutva, but is certainly not its driving force. In fact, the Hindu Right is more stridently opposed to even non-practising Muslims opposed to Hindutva such as Umar Khalid and Javed Akhtar than it is to, say, a Maulana Madani, to whom it often reaches out and try to co-opt.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.