Speaking for ourselves

The controversial and much Youtubed speech made by Andhra MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi landed him a spell in jail. The nearly hour long speech has evoked comparisons with inflammatory speeches by Varun Gandhi and Praveen Togadia. Now, his brother Asaduddin Owaisi, Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) chief and an MP from Hyderabad, has been sent to jail because of his alleged involvement in riots in 2005. Together, the brothers constitute an emerging brand of "Muslim neta" who finds it fruitful to look for an exclusively Muslim constituency.

Akbar Owaisi's speech has a context. In the cyber-world of "Muslim issues", where there is a constant lament over things not yet done for Muslims and the insurmountable institutional bias, a case for a committed "Muslim" leadership is being made. Even TV debates seem to look for a "Muslim" counter, a suitably rightwing rabble-rouser, rather than a political counter to those arguing against Muslim "appeasement". The presence of such a soapbox has fuelled the political ambitions of some who feel that as Muslims, only they can understand and fix certain problems.

The most important political takeaway from Akbar Owaisi's speech comes when he lampoons advocates of "secularism", saying with pride that he is a "Muslim-parast" — a votary of the Muslim cause. Unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav and others, he is the "real thing". It becomes evident that Owaisi's fighting an old battle once again, one that was first fought in the 1930s, when his party, the MIM, was formed in the state of Hyderabad, then under the nizam. The MIM was formed in opposition to the secularists who had staked a claim to the political turf and fought feudalism. These secularists recognised and sympathised with Muslim backwardness, but did not cast it only in an identity framework. It is possible that after years with Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and the Congress, the MIM now finds it necessary to reassert itself and its original agenda.

India's still narrow but emerging Muslim middle class, which lies outside the traditional Muslim elites and occupations, has made forays into areas like pharmaceuticals, IT and other forms of entrepreneurship. This middle class, active on the internet, would be aware of the online platforms and chat rooms where there are animated discussions of the Muslim problem. For the last five years or so, websites that claim to give us "Muslim India" news have all carried a subtext — the absence of a Muslim leadership. A recently activated website has been carrying the responses of Indian Muslims, from varying backgrounds, who were asked to identify three problems that affected the community and judge whether the political leadership was capable of solving them. Speculation that Narendra Modi could become PM has added to a subliminal anxiety among Muslims — that they would become invisible voters in an electoral battle that only seeks to win the Hindu vote.

In chat rooms on the internet, some advocate the formation of a party modelled on the Bahujan Samaj Party of the 1990s or the Samajwadi Party, both of which voiced the concerns of a particular constituency. What is missing in these discussions is the fact that both the BSP and the SP eventually grew desperate to extend their constituencies and become more inclusive. The Muslim yearning for representation has been met in some places by a Muslim leadership — by Badruddin Ajmal's Assam United Democratic Front, by the controversial Popular Front in Kerala and, for a while, by the shortlived Peace Party in UP. But a legitimate desire for representation is being clouded by the idea that Muslims must be represented by "one of our own". It is important to understand the need for representation and contest this narrow notion of Muslim leadership, because such identity politics continues to hold hostage the idea of modern representation in India.

The myth of the monolithic Muslim vote has circulated since 1952. But after the Muslim League faded from politics, Muslims have seldom looked to a Muslim leadership to represent them. After staying with the Congress till 1967, the Muslim vote moved away from it, looking for alternatives. Except for some pockets, the majority of the Muslim electorate has supported parties like V.P. Singh's Janata Dal, the Left, the SP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and later even the BSP and the Trinamool Congress. Parties like the MIM in old Hyderabad — and the Indian Union Muslim League, now in alliance with the ruling Congress in Kerala — have been exceptions.

After 2004, the Congress re-emerged as a strong favourite and the UPA has consolidated its image as a "secular" alliance, distinguishing itself from the NDA. So the period since 2004 has been an interesting time for the Muslim vote. It started with the Sachar Committee Report, which spoke of discrimination in secular terms, with secular solutions. It spoke of the need for more common schools, not just madrasas, more general hospitals, not just unani centres, and a more equitable share of common resources, whether in terms of jobs or bank finance. The report prioritised these over a different set of rights and privileges for Muslims — in terms of personal law, waqf land matters etc. But the enthusiasm over the Sachar Committee Report's attempt to frame the debate in terms of fairer access to resources soon flagged. The political gains of discussing sarkari salaries for imams and madrasa modernisation were greater than those of trying to set up common schools in Muslim areas.

Some months ago, a prominent national leader made a startling statement to a group of Muslims. Since Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, he said, there had not been a big Muslim leader. That India's first education minister and a formidable nationalist like Azad could be called a Muslim leader frames the problem itself.

The pressure on Dalit, Yadav, Muslim or even women leaders to always be seen to be speaking for their respective constituencies can have damaging consequences. Sixty one years ago, when India made the transition to universal adult suffrage, caste and other identities certainly did not die. But it was a transcendental idea, offering a poor, unequal, caste- and prejudice-ridden society an important way out.

The failure of secular parties to fulfil the secular aspirations of the last few years has allowed parties like the MIM to use the prevailing sense of disappointment and claim their turf once more. But in India, for a Dalit voice to make the loudest case for Dalits, or a Muslim voice to make one for Muslims, is like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi organising a dharna for the cause of Gujarati lawyers recently returned from South Africa.


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