There is nothing like a community speaking for itself. ‘Jo dar gaya, woh mar gaya’.
I asked Muslim friends in Uttar Pradesh what has changed for them since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, and particularly since Yogi Adityanath became chief minister in 2017.
There is a general environment of fear, they said. There has been no big riot, but anything can happen anytime. They are at the mercy of the most majoritarian government ever. As the fake charges against Dr Kafeel Khan in Gorakhpur showed, even a good Muslim is a bad idea.
Such fear is more over-powering than an actual riot. It is a sword hanging over them, it can fall any time. The Hindutva-inclined Hindus describe this situation as ‘showing Muslims their place’.
This fear manifests itself the most in trains. Many Muslims say they avoid taking meat or even eggs during train travel. And if someone asks their name, they become nervous. They wonder why a stranger is asking their name.
The incidents of lynching of Muslims across north India have made this fear all too real. All you have to say is “Gau Mata!” and summon a mob to beat a Muslim man to death. The charges of cow smuggling or beef eating do not need to be proved. Once a Hindu says the cow is under threat, it must be.
It is curious that a community facing such persecution on the basis of religion is so silent. There have been few protests by Muslims against these acts of communal persecution. You see the protests by Marathas, Jats, Patels and Dalits – and you notice how Muslims make the least noise against the injustice meted out to them.
What is the reason for this silence? It is mostly fear, my friends said. Nobody wants to stand up and speak out for fear of further reprisal. This has been happening for a long time. Since the fall of the Babri Masjid, there have been fewer and fewer Muslims wanting to speak as Muslims in mainstream public discourse.
The Hindustani proverb about fear comes to mind – “jo dar gaya, who mar gaya”. If you cower with fear, you might as well be dead.
This silence is costly. In the absence of Muslims speaking as Muslims for Muslims in public discourse, their advocacy is done by liberals and secularists. The voice of these left-liberal activists suffers from credibility when Muslims themselves are silent. In any case, the “Hindu secularist” is more delegitimised by years of propaganda than the Indian Muslim.
There is nothing like a community speaking for itself. When a community does so, it is most difficult to delegitimise its voice. It becomes difficult to do whataboutery or pretend that no one lynched a man.
The silence is also strategic. Muslims realise that the BJP and its Hindutva ideology want them to assert themselves, and then use it to tell Hindus, ‘Look how Muslims are being so assertive!’ The sight of a Muslim is an opportunity for communal polarisation. Muslims have internalised the idea that they must keep quiet.
This strategy has had some success. The BJP had hoped Muslims would rise up and protest in a big way against its campaign on triple talaq. This would have helped the BJP show them as regressive and polarise against them. Muslims, like secular parties and activists, largely remained quiet over it.
Yet the BJP uses Muslims as a dartboard to polarise anyway. One result of this strategic silence is that opportunist mullahs seeking 15 minutes of fame have occupied TV studios. They dance to the tune Hindutva wants them to, playing the bad, intolerant Muslim. From TV and Twitter, from statements by BJP leaders to anonymous WhatsApp content, the Hindutva machinery polarises anyway.
The BJP needs ‘bad Muslims’ for polarisation – a Muslim who defends beef eating, a Muslim who defends misogynist family laws, a Muslim who gets provoked into violence, a Muslim who commits a petty crime, and so on. Hindutva politics requires Muslims to abide by the law more than a Hindu needs to. Hindutvawaadis have a right to break the law and get away with it, but if a Muslim does something wrong, the entire community is to be blamed.
However, if Muslims appear to be on the right side of the moral argument, the BJP will not be able to blame them. After all, Dr Kafeel Khan had to be given bail when enough noise was made about his case. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to give lip-service to the lynching issue when enough noise is made. You don’t have to be an Azam Khan to speak up.
Muslims increasingly feel their voice wouldn’t be heard, and that protesting would have no impact. The BJP has risen to power without seeking the votes of Muslims. The BJP workers who go around canvassing don’t even enter Muslim-dominated localities.
There is no question of the BJP giving a Muslim a ticket to contest. As a result, Muslims have no access to power, and the state behaves as if Muslims are not among the stakeholders. This is the reality, never mind the claims of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’.
Muslims may have the least access to power today, but there are many others who feel virtually disenfranchised, such as Jats in Haryana, Yadavs in UP and Bihar, tribals in Jharkhand and Dalits across India.
The government of the day is not the state. There is a constitutional claim that Muslims have over the state. Giving up this claim is suicidal.
Another reason for this silence is that the community has forgone the idea of having a political leadership of its own, at least in north India. In post-Partition India, it is a bad idea to have a ‘Muslim party’. As Asaduddin Owaisi knows, it immediately attracts comparison with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
But Muslims particularly gave up their voice and leadership since the fall of the Babri Masjid. They were persuaded by ‘secular’ parties that allying with caste politics will be in their best interest, thereby becoming the last coach of the secular train.
This will soon change. Millennial Muslim youth were not born when the Babri Masjid fell, so they don’t have that fear which secular parties exploited. This is a generation who have Owaisi’s videos on their smartphones because they like that Owaisi speaks up for them.
Owaisi’s greatest contribution is that he is telling Muslim youth to stand up and be themselves, and not live in fear like the Babri Masjid generation. The smartphone generation of north Indian Muslims is looking at start-ups and self-realisation, not resigning themselves to the fate of electoral politics. The days of the ‘sarkari Musalman’ making hay in the secular parties are short-lived.
Muslims will still need to vote for secular parties. Some Muslims have floated the suicidal idea that the community should boycott the 2019 elections. Doing so will only give the BJP 400 seats in Parliament.
It is true that ‘secular’ parties today are unable to give voice to the problems faced by Muslims because the moment they do so, it will help the BJP polarise.
That’s all the more reason why Muslims need to have their own voice. And, there needs to be a distinction between electoral politics and non-electoral politics.
Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, Chandrashekhar Azad are only some of the recent names who have made some impact in politics without flirting with political parties. The political parties came running thereafter.
The Dalit movement, for instance, does not depend on how many Dalits are ministers.
What Indian Muslims need the most is to assert their constitutional rights regardless of electoral politics, make interventions in the mainstream public spaces, speaking as Muslims and for Muslims, and not rely on secular parties or activists to have their voice heard.