Ghazanfar Abbas | Caravan Daily
NEW DELHI – Hilal Ahmed, an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is known for his research on political Islam, Muslim modernities/representation, and politics of symbols in South Asia. His book ‘Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation’ (Routledge 2014), takes a look at the thematic concerns that are important for the present political discourse of the Muslims. His latest book,’Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India,’ (Penguin India) deals with the politics of Muslim political representation in postcolonial India. Ahmed is also the Associate Editor of the South Asian Studies.
With the election fever gripping the nation, Ahmed engages in an interactive chat with ‘Caravan Daily’ to talk about the issue of Muslim votes, the need for just Muslim representation and the need for a secular national Muslim leader and how the Muslims have been reduced to a simple identity category in recent times. Following are excerpts:
Q- Sikandar Bakht was elected as the Lok Sabha MP on a Janata Party ticket from Chandni Chowk constituency in 1977. After that, no Muslim MP has been elected for the Lok Sabha election from Delhi. What is your take on the lack of Muslim representation in Lok Sabha from Delhi?
A- There are two responses to this. One response can be termed as abstract – as to why do we want Muslims to vote for Muslims, is it primarily because of the assumption that if the number of Muslims living in one constituency is ideally high then that constituency must be represented by a Muslim. So, this assumption needs to be checked before arriving at a conclusive statement that Muslim representation from Delhi is lacking. So, this is something which we must take into consideration.
The second response, with regards to Sikandar Bakht winning on a Janata Party ticket was not because he was Muslim. There was an anti-Incumbency wave against the Congress in Delhi, post Emergency. Remember that the Turkman Gate incident had happened in 1976. Turkman Gate was part of Chandni Chowk constituency. So, it was natural. When the emergency was lifted, a massive rally took place under Jai Prakash Narayan at Ramlila Maidan where it was declared that the Congress needed to be defeated. In that backdrop, Sikandar Bakht came into the picture. He won because of the anti-Congress votes. He did not win the election because of his Muslim identity. Actually, winnability is an important aspect. Every party relies on winnability.
The third aspect when it comes to the representation of Muslims in the parliament, we reduce everything to the Lok Sabha. What about Rajya Sabha where Muslim representation is much better; in fact, it is double. The point is when we start thinking that Muslims will eventually vote for Muslim, it is not appropriate to evaluate this question. This is my opinion.
Do you think winnability has been connected to the religion of the candidate which in turn decides his/her trustworthy quotient among the voters particularly in the current scenario?
I don’t think so. People don’t vote entirely on the basis of their religion and caste background. These religious/caste identities are intrinsically linked to their socio-economic problems. So, when it comes to Muslims, they are not going to vote for the BJP, at least in Delhi.
If we take the example of Sikandar Bakht, he joined the BJP after winning on Janata Party seat. Despite he being influential only a sizable number of Muslims considered him worthy enough of their votes in the name of BJP even during the time of Babri Masjid demolition. But the present scenario is different. In the present scenario, BJP is not at all interested in winning Muslim votes. They have very clearly identified their core Hindutva constituencies and they are appealing to them. So, this is some kind of exclusion. But at the same time, they have reduced Muslims entirely as one religious identity in general.
But it is a fact that other political parties (secular), have actually not worked out any responsibility for the Muslims. They still see them as Muslims, an identity category and not as a developmental category. So, they have reduced everything to an identity. As a result, whatever happens, eventually everyone approaches Muslims as some kind of religious community and voters, which is absolutely wrong.
Now coming that to the point since BJP is not interested in Muslim votes does not mean that BJP is not approaching Muslims. If you observe the election campaign at least in Delhi, BJP leaders are going to Muslim areas as well. And they are approaching them through an informal channel. Their strategy is simple – on one hand, we would like to create an anti-Muslim discourse but at the same time, that fear can also be transformed into an argument that we are not your enemy. So, if you vote for us, we will be able to protect you.
This is the argument which is not being made in big rallies or in TV studios; this is the argument they make while doing door to door campaign. During my fieldwork, I have also observed that. But other parties are no longer interested in approaching or trying to produce a different kind of political imagination of the Muslim voters. There is one exception – that is the Congress’ manifesto. If you look at Congress’ manifesto, it is well designed. Actually, it responds to all the concern of the Muslims without naming them. But unfortunately, Congress leaders have virtually failed to translate the manifesto into some kind of a political narrative.
So, do you think that it is due to the current political scenario neither AAP nor Congress has fielded any Muslim candidate from Delhi?
No, it is not so. If you see it historically, there is no Muslim leader, who has been able to establish his/her credentials as a national leader. I mean a national secular Muslim leader. So, partly the political parties are responsible. Because they have always inducted Muslims primarily for the Muslim identity issue. If you look at the merging politics of the last 40 years in North India, then it is primarily the people who were trying to get them adjusted in the secularism communalism binary.
So, you have on the one hand, Salman Khurshed etc. who are the poster boys created by the non-BJP parties. In this scenario, I don’t think that any Muslim leader who would aggressively argue that I also represent the interest of non-Muslims, actually no one does. So, the outcome is simply this that political parties won’t field them. No Muslim leader says that I represent the interests of non-Muslims. So, why should we blame only the political parties for not being interested in fielding the Muslim candidate?
Muslim leaders of these parties themselves don’t get out of the mindset of Muslimness. For instance, in AAP there are many Muslims. But eventually, all of them have reduced themselves to Muslim issues. Now you tell me who are the Muslim leaders who are raising the issue of environmental degradation or rising unemployment in Delhi? So, how could you win the election if you have been reduced to addressing the needs of the community only?
Is the scenario of Delhi in the contextual discourse same similar to the entire country?
See, every state is different. And if we look at Delhi, it must be seen in relation with two other state— Punjab and Haryana. So, Congress and AAP have their own regional interests, as a result, they could not come together. Delhi election is not entirely about caste-based politics. Since 1990 Delhi election is all about class and migration. Shiela Dixit won three elections in Delhi primarily because she got a huge number of migrants from different parts of north India to vote for her. And that is also true about Muslim migrant too.