India Votes: Muslim Leadership Problems

By Kaleem Kawaja

Umar bhur ek hi gulti kurtey rahey,
Aur doosroon pur ilzaam daitey rahey.
Dhool thi chehre pur apney,
Aur hum aaina saaf kartey rahey”

Traveling in a train in north India a young Muslim Urdu poet was heard to recite the above thoughtful verse that so poignantly illustrates how the leadership of the Indian Muslims has gone off on a tangent and has gone off-track. They have gotten bogged down in locking horns with their adversaries on minor non-issues instead of challenging the mainstream parties, to give them their due share of infrastructure development in their townships, to protect them from rabid sectarian violence, and to stop denying them the benefits of democracy.

The 15th parliamentary election in sixty years of democratic India is looming on the horizon. Like others, Muslims too have repeatedly participated in these rituals of democracy. Why is it that for Muslims this important exercise in democracy became only a ritual that they repeated in the past 14 elections? Muslims, a solid fourteen percent block of Indians, have not only remained at the bottom of the Indian barrel, they have kept going down? In the same time frame, the Dalits and OBCs who were at the rock bottom in 1947, have utilized the same democratic exercises to make impressive gains up the national ladder.

To understand the puzzle note that for the coming election each major ethnic community has readied itself by highlighting their major issues for the political parties. The only exception is the Muslim community. The leaders of the Muslims in mainstream parties remain unfocussed and fragmented. Many of them with promises of election tickets remain beholden to the agendas of others and shelve discussion of their community’s issues with the top leadership of their parties.

Instead of bringing up the pressing issues of Muslim masses to the party leadership, they become yes-men of the party bosses and look for largesse for their own kith and kin.

Then there are Muslim leaders who have formed over half a dozen seasonal Muslim parties in the last six months alone. The Ulema Council, the Parcham Party, the Muslim Mahaz, the Peace Party, that sprung up in recent months, are on a narrow Muslim track with no serious effort to make common cause with like minded deprived non-Muslim communities. Other Muslim parties like Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) and the Milli Council, though a couple of years old, have also not made much headway in forming alliances with mainstream secular parties.

And then there are the decades old Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (Hyderabad) and Indian Union Muslim League (Kerala/Tamil Nadu), that split because the top leadership refused to share power with other dedicated activists. And there is the seventy year old Jamiat ul Ulema Hind, that though is not a political party, but its top leaders, the Madani uncles and brothers, first fought publicly to control Jamiat and now are contesting election from a variety of parties, backing the agendas and leaders of the respective parties whose candidates they are, often against each other. The agenda and issues of the Muslims has gone out of the window.

The United Muslim Front (UMF) of Assam that gave so much promise to get justice for the large but impoverished Muslim community of Assam a couple of decades ago got co-opted by the Congress party, which gave some government positions to UMF leaders like Golam Usmani, and then they stopped lobbying for the Assamese Muslims. Similarly the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (PMM) of Ali Anwar, who tried to get social uplift for the long impoverished Dalit Muslims of Bihar got co-opted by Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal, by giving the PMM leaders some largesse of positions of power, after which the PMM’s fervor for social uplift cooled substantially.

Also if you look at the leadership of these “Muslim” parties you find that they have low credibility since they are dominated by clerics and bereft of any of the Muslim intelligentsia who could broad base them. Why is the Muslim intelligentsia so indifferent to the pressing issues of the Muslim masses? Why are the Muslim clerics so indifferent to the Muslim intelligentsia? Why can they not cooperate a bit and in the process help the Qaum? Too many questions but too few answers.

With the Sachar Committee report released about two years ago Muslims had assumed that most Muslim leaders in mainstream parties and the Muslim organizations will make sure that the implementation of this committee’s findings is an integral part of the election platform of all mainstream parties. But that is not what we find on the eve of the election. This despite the fact that there are 90 parliamentary constituencies where Muslim population is about 20 percent, where they can pretty much make the political parties agree to address the basic issues of the community.

Instead the parties that claim to be the friends of Muslims are playing games with them. In Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati that only a few months ago opposed the US-India Nuclear Accord as being against Muslims, has given tickets to only 14 Muslims out of a total of 80 parliamentary constituencies in the state, while it assigned 20 seats to Brahmins, whom it claims to oppose. After winning the election for UP Assembly a year ago with solid Muslim support, BSP appointed only one Muslim as a cabinet minister. And that too is the minor portfolio of Environment. Also after becoming Chief Minister, Mayawati stopped the construction of the Mohammad Ali Jauhar Minority University in Rampur, that would have been of much help in reducing severe educational backwardness among the Muslims of UP.

The Samajwadi Party (SP) of Mulayam Singh Yadav that claimed to be the solid friend of Muslims, has co-opted Kalyan Singh, who as the BJP Chief Minister presided over the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992, into SP’s top leadership. As to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), when Muslims asked why no Muslim was in the top leadership of the party, its chief Laloo Yadav said that, he himself was the leader of the Muslims of Bihar.

As to the Congress party, with the election campaign in full swing, the party has not included any of its top Muslim leaders in the top tier of its campaigners. In fact in the last five years of its rule in New Delhi, Congress party did not give an opportunity to any of its Muslim leaders to rise and be in the national leadership echelons. And of course Congress has played deceptive games with Muslims when they asked for any real uplift opportunities.

So which Muslim leaders or groups are lobbying with the mainstream parties that they pledge to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee on the backwardness of Muslims, and that they restrain police high-handedness against the Muslim youth, the two top ‘make or break’ issues of India’s Muslims? I am afraid your guess is as good as mine.


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