How India is failing its Muslims
The community has been left alone to defend their constitutional rights in a secular State
Late Sunday evening, I spoke with a Muslim acquaintance who lives in a JJ colony in south-east Delhi. In the aftermath of the Delhi riots, Sunday night was tense as rumours of imminent violence were doing the rounds on social media. He had heard rumours that mobs armed with knives and swords had entered the colony. To which I rather naively asked what could be done to protect him and his family.
Nothing, he said. It is now left to "us" to protect ourselves as best as we can. Fortunately, the rumours were false and the night and days since have seen restraint.
However, there is no escaping the harsh truth that this conversation revealed. The Indian State, and dare I say, Indian society, has failed India's Muslims.
It is now left to them alone to defend their constitutional right to equal citizenship in this secular land. And regardless of the eventual outcome of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)/National Population Register (NPR)/National Register of Citizens (NRC) quagmire, the ideological project of "othering" the Indian Muslim has now dug its roots deeply in our everyday political and social life.
In the months since the passage of the CAA, the protests, especially in Delhi but also in other parts of north and north-east India, offered some respite from the relentless ideological project of remaking India being pursued by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Although led largely by Muslims, the grammar of the protests, and the reclamation of the language of secularism, of the Constitution, of the Tricolour and other nationalist symbols, rekindled hope of developing a new counter-narrative to the current hegemony.
Importantly, the protests in Delhi have emerged as a critical site for the expression of solidarity across communities, sharing in Muslim anxieties and fears. But amidst the hope and promise of these protests and what they symbolise, there is an equally depressing reality.
As was highlighted at a panel discussion on Indian politics at the recent Centre for Policy Research Dialogues 2020, these instances of cross-community solidarity remain limited to Delhi and the student community.
For the most part, and despite their commitment to constitutionalism, the protests against the CAA and the anxieties this has fuelled have been largely confined to Indian Muslims.
Moreover, these anxieties now coexist with a new idiom of violence that has visible State sanction.
The fact that politicians and mobs can chant slogans like "Goli maro...." with impunity in the Capital is evidence of how deeply this "othering" of protesters has penetrated our social life. And absent broad based support, it is India's Muslims who have to shoulder the burden of defending themselves from this new language of violence and from being pushed deeper into the margins.
Muslims have chosen the Constitution as their means of protest, but the rest of India is yet to join them in solidarity and in defence of India.
What explains the silence from the rest of India? Part of the answer can be found in the failures of the political Opposition.
While all non-BJP state governments have opposed the CAA/ NPR/NRC, passed resolutions and even taken the matter to the Supreme Court, but none have had the courage to craft an ideological counter-narrative to Hindutva, anchored in secularism and constitutionalism.
In fact, the strategic choice has been made to avoid going against the "mood" of the nation and steer clear of "secularism", of "nationalism" and even the Constitution, for fear of the BJP appropriating these words to their own cause.
This is precisely what the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did in the Delhi elections. And while this may be tactically wise — after all it did win the election by consolidating the Muslim vote firmly in its favour — it lacks courage, moral conviction, and most important, it fails in the long run.
This is exactly what has happened with the AAP in these last few days following the Delhi riots.
Once you give up ideology in favour of strategy, you lose the moral authority with which to lead. Most important, you lose the ability to negotiate compromises across social bases and strategically created voter coalitions to mobilise and create a counter-narrative to divisiveness and violence.
Despite Muslim consolidation, the AAP has to worry about isolating the "Hindu" voter. It is hardly surprising then that the AAP has been found wanting. It simply doesn't have the vocabulary, legitimacy or moral authority to provide an alternative to the language of Hindutva. Of course, as a government, it could and still can do a lot more in terms of relief camps and rehabilitation. But it cannot make Muslims feel less vulnerable.
There is no escaping this fundamental tension in the AAP approach of poll strategy and tactics versus articulating an ideological opposition.
It is, of course, unfair to focus only on the AAP. This choice of strategy and tactics over ideological conviction pervades all political parties, not least of all the Congress.
Our politicians have convinced themselves that the BJP wins elections because of its tactics — money, mobilisation and communication. And these are the grounds on which they should be fought. They are wrong. As political scientists Rahul Verma and Pradeep Chibber have argued, there has been a shift in the ideological make-up of the median Indian voter toward the Centre-Right.
This shift underlies the BJPs electoral success. It can only be challenged with a robust ideological narrative that confronts Hindutva, head on. And in the absence of this, India's Muslims will remain on their own in this war to save India's Constitution and preserve its social fabric. India will lose even if our politicians win.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research.