Marginalisation of Indian Muslims in the Age of Majoritarian Nationalism

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A group of Muslim madrassa students wave Indian flags in eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Image credit: Sheikh Azizur Rahman/VOA

The average Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha, at 5 percent, has been significantly less than their population share; the anti-Muslim sentiments stoked by the BJP have deprived Muslim candidates party tickets even outside the BJP

Chanda Rani and Aamir Raza | Clarion India

India’s electoral politics seems to be confronted with new sets of challenges posed by the rise of majoritarian nationalism. With its exponential rise in 2014, it has changed the trajectory for Muslims and made them electorally vulnerable.

J S Mill defines democracy as “Tyranny of Majority” which clearly symbolises the fact that majorities always flourish over the fortunes of minorities. Majority nationalism and culture constitute as a sole nationalism and national culture. In Indian context, the political dominance of the BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism has called into question the future stability of Indian plurality and viable presence of Muslins in electoral politics. The Hindu nationalism undoubtedly represents one of the major challenges Indian democracy has faced in its 74 years of existence.

The 17th Lok Sabha that was formed in 2019 has 25 Muslims member of parliament, only three more than the previous legislature formed in 2014. In 1980, 49 Muslim MPs were elected to Lok Sabha which is the highest so far. The population of Muslim in India is 14.5% of the total population of country, but their representation in the new Lok Sabha constitutes 4.42 per cent.

The average Muslim representation in Lok Sabha, at 5 per cent, has been significantly less than their population share. There have been only two parliamentary elections – in 1980 and 1984 – where the community representation has been closest to its population share. States like Punjab and Lakshadweep have significant representation of Muslim in the Lok Sabha in comparison to J&K, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Kerala which have less representation of Muslims in proportion to their population.

A majority of Muslim representatives in the Lok Sabha since 1952 have come from just four states – UP, WB, Bihar, and Kerala – and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. It is not surprising because as per the 2011 census, 46 per cent of Muslims in India reside in just three states – UP, WB, and Bihar. Though both J&K and Kerala account for just 5 per cent of the Muslim population in the country, they are heavily concentrated in these regions.

BJP influences other parties’ policy viz a viz Muslims

According to political scientist Gillies Vernier, the anti-Muslim sentiments stoked by the BJP have led to the deprivation of tickets for Muslim candidates even outside the BJP. Fear of being tagged ‘anti-Hindu’ has forced the Congress and other parties to field less and less number of Muslim candidates.

Thousands of young women and housewives protested for days at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood close to Jamia Millia Islamia. Image: Caravan Daily/Abdul Bari Masoud

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of Muslims MPs in the lower house of parliament and their percentage witness a gradual decline by more than half. At the same time the share of Muslims in the Indian population has risen. As a result of this change the gap between their proportion of population (which rose from 11.1 to 14.2%) and that of their representation in the Lok Sabha (which dropped from 9 to 3.7%) increases rapidly.

The responsibility for this trend lies primarily with the BJP which has endorsed fewer Muslim candidates, and it is amplifying this trend more than any other parties because it occupies more political space than other parties.

Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot in ‘Majoritarian state: How Hindu Nationalism is changing India’ writes that “the formation of a Hindu vote bank by the BJP, which in particular aimed to sideline minorities in the political arena, prompted other parties as well no longer to nominate Indian Muslim candidate, except in areas with high Muslim majority”.

In January 2018, out of 1,418 BJP MLA’s elected in northern and western India, only four MLA were Muslims. However, the BJP lost power in some of the crucial states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh when election results were declared. Muslim representation within the BJP is anecdotal for ideological reason. Its aims to liberate the party entirely from “Muslim vote” that other parties it accused of wooing for electoral gains at the expanse of Hindu majority.

However, if one goes by the number of Muslims MPs and impoverishment of Muslims under the UPA then these accusations are false. In 2009, the Congress, unwilling to embrace its traditional secularism, endorsed only 31 Muslims candidate among which only 11 managed to win. In 2014, lok Sabha election the Congress fielded 27 Muslim candidate out of 462 – less than 6% of the total population.

Non-BJP states failing Muslims

It’s important to note that the overall drop of Muslim representation has come from regional parties in the elections held between 2014 and 2020. Regional parties are also refraining to give tickets to Muslims in the wake of strong majoritarian politics. Parties such as Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj party (BSP) have significantly lost their grips over Yadav & Dalit vote banks respectively after 2014. Many states which are not ruled by BJP like Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu lack sufficient Muslim representation.

Since Independence, Muslims have largely backed secular formations like the Congress, SP, BSP, Trinamool and RJD. But while these parties have talked about protecting Muslim interests, they have been less forthcoming in giving them proportional representation.

There is no doubt that this indifference towards Muslims has been caused by the triumph of Hindu right-wing populism. The so-called minority-friendly parties have reoriented themselves, sidelining potential Muslim candidates in the name of ‘winnability’, given the compulsions of ‘polarization’.

Failure of secular parties in securing the representation of Muslims in the age of Hindutva politics clearly stated the fact that profound political change which took place in India after 1989 as a part of process of democratization has not been managed politically and Institutionally. It has created severe breach in the secularizing process of Democracy. The process of political secularization is now being overtaken by a new process of all around communalisation of Indian politics.

FPTP – Devaluing Minority Representation

A debate has been on for quite some time regarding the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system. The argument revolves around two major points. First, the system has been failing to provide a ‘popular’ government. This is because governments in India are being formed with less than 50 per cent of the vote share.

BJP which managed to form the government at the centre in 2019 lok Sabha Election had won just 37% of votes all over the country which was even less than half of the vote caste in polls. Second, such alternatives as the proportional representation system or the preferential voting system/ranked choice voting system have the potential to force the political parties to be more inclusive; it will ensure the representation of Muslims according to the proportion of their population.

The First-Past-the-Post system has drastic impact upon the representation of Indian Muslims. According to the Census 2011 estimates, there are more than 170 million Muslims in India, accounting for over 14% of the country’s total population.

A proportionate representation of the community in the Lok Sabha at present would amount to at least 77 parliamentarians. In the lok Sabha, their representation, since Independence, has always been below their demographic share.

Adnan Farooqui in his paper “Political Representation of Minority in India” writes that under the circumstances where the political system veers toward ethnic majoritarianism, the FPTP system is often detrimental towards minority interests, as ethnic consolidation would prevent political parties from nominating candidates from an ethnic minority group due to the fear of alienating majority community voters. Hence, the ethnic minority candidates are more likely to be elected from constituencies with a large concentration of the said group.

A legitimate democratic decision must ensure the inclusion of all stakeholders in the decision-making process. Forget the presence in decision-making, the FPTP system in practice has led to deprivation of Muslims in securing the representation. An Electoral system skewed in favour of a majority is not conducive to a heterogeneous India, particularly when the Indian constitution also does not have political safeguard for religious minorities.

Road Ahead for Muslims

The question of how to resolve the political marginalisation of Muslims in electoral politics is complex one. It is constitutionally infeasible to excise the First-Past-the-Post system despite recurring debate regarding the merits of a proportional representative system.

In an era of declining Muslim representation in legislatures, and demoralization in the face of a hegemonic Hindu-right party like BJP, Muslims in India should rally behind parties like All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) and any other party which is able to negotiate the multiple challenges for minority representation. Cross-ethnic alliance’s (Muslims/Dalits/backward castes) propagated by parties like AIMIM can make electoral sense of seeking to muster a plurality of votes.

It will work because territorial dispersal of Muslims as well as the geographical proximity of Muslims and Dalit’s at pan-India level will ensure the formation of such alliances.

Ethnic parties when comprised several other groups as their electoral base then it can be both moderate in terms of seeking cross-ethnic cooperation as well as extremist in the sense of being strong advocates for that particular ethnic group at the same time. Those who question parties like AIMIM for the exclusionary approach needs to understand that an identity-based ethnic demand on behalf of a group could be integrationist rather than separatist.

What one actually needs to investigate is the role of leaders in redefining the terms of political engagement and keep analysing the social and institutional identities and its configuration in the process of representation.

Along with the identity politics, Muslims of India should also focus on the quality leadership which can bargain with party bosses within their respective parties over the issue and representation related to Muslims. In the age of majoritarian nationalism, the Muslims should be willing to forge social alliances and political alternatives which focuses on the concerns of the community.


The authors are students of M A Political Science at Jamia Milia Islamia. Clarion India doesn’t necessarily share or support the views expressed in the article

2 COMMENTS

  1. Well written…congrats stay
    In the first paragraph there’s a typo error ” ‘Muslim ‘ plz correct it.

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