Recognition of Muslim backwardness and affirmative action by the then UPA Governments have created a favourable environment for the right-wing forces to give impetus to the narrative of Muslim appeasement. In competing with right-wing parties, the non-BJP secular parties have given Muslim issues a miss
There is general perception that the recently-held Lok Sabha elections were fought on the two competing narrative of saving democracy and saving the nation. In this rhetorical war cry, the real question of who the elected leaders will represent was sent in oblivion. However, this question is highly relevant in the present political scenario where Muslims — who constitute 14.2 per cent of total population — are dichotomised into either the indispensable vote bank or the dispensable voters. That is why they represent just 0.5 per cent of the total seats in the 17th Lok Sabha. For the first time in independent India, the triumphant party does not have a single Muslim member in the present Lok Sabha.
Debates had been held in the Constituent Assembly over the need for the political representation of minorities in Parliament. The prominent view was that the focus on representation was not necessary if religious, cultural and educational safeguards were guaranteed. However, the moot point is: Can such safeguards be guaranteed if stakeholders from the community are not present in Parliament?
Latest data indicates that Muslims are the most backward group in terms of socio-economic indicators, with high incidence of poverty, low quality occupation, lower access to higher education and high school dropout rate, etc. These concerns were raised by the reports of the Sachar Committee and the Kundu Committee too. The worrying fact is that discussion about issues related to Muslim backwardness raises eyebrows, incriminating the debaters for alleged appeasement. That is how even the so-called secular parties feel compelled to avoid the issues related to Muslims.
The relation between the rights and the representation of Muslims is often considered disconnected. It is considered that the guarantee of certain rights like the right to practice and propagate religion obviates the need for representation of the community in people’s house. But in practice, political representation ensures guaranteed rights are availed.
The criminalisation of triple talaq manifests that no Muslim right is beyond revocation if Parliament feels so. These political developments pushed Muslims to the margin to such an extent that even so-called secular parties are not taking risk of mentioning Muslim issues in their speeches and manifestoes. For example, even the Congress mentioned the term Muslim in its 2019 election manifesto only once.
There is a strong legal-constitutional basis which envisages the representation of minorities in Parliament to ensure the effective implementation of minority rights. For long, political parties maintained a balance in the representation of minorities in their party and legislative bodies. However, the political development during the post-Sachar period has changed the scenario.
Recognition of Muslim backwardness and affirmative action by the UPA Governments have created a favourable environment for the right-wing forces to give impetus to the narrative of Muslim appeasement. In competing with right-wing parties, the non-BJP secular parties have given Muslim issues a miss.
Winnability and polarisation have become the stumbling block for a Muslim candidate’s chance of success. Even Muslim voters do not vote a Muslim candidate as it has low chance of success if the candidate doesn’t belong to the mainstream parties.
Bhimrao Ambedkar apprehended that until and unless the majority is dependent, at least, on one minority or collective decision of minorities, it cannot eliminate the threat of political majority as tyranny of majority is inevitable.
Representing a group by other will end up as hegemonic by making one group permanent leaders and the other group permanent followers. The question of representation, however, goes beyond nominal presence of a particular group member. It encompasses representation of both persons and opinions.
Some critics argue that electoral reservation for Muslim may lead to sectarianism but it lacks logic as the question of Muslim representation in today’s India is different from Muslim League’s demand of the same in 1940s. League was against the demand of common law for Muslim and non-Muslims and recognition of Muslim as exclusive communal group unlike present day Indian Muslims who showed faith in Maulana Azad’s position of common nationalism and shared heritage of Muslim and non-Muslims, and expressed their faith in Indian Constitution time and again.
Although Indian Muslims affinity with Muslims of other countries, including India’s arch rival Pakistan, cannot be denied, this is limited to religious and cultural question and unlikely to harm India’s sovereignty. Such affinities are natural as cultural links of India’s Bengali-speaking population with Bangladeshis do not make them less Indian.
What could be the solution to this political representation? Given the past poll results, the chances of Muslims’ election seem slim, given the heavy dependence on majority vote. Even if they get elected, they will not be able to effectively represent their communities due to their accountability to the home constituency comprising of diverse population.
This kind of objection was raised by Ambedkar in a letter to then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee by accusing the Congress candidate in 1945-6 election that it did not represent the interests of Dalits. Although proportional representation, advocated by Motilal Nehru Committee report, was criticised for threat of narrow nationalism, the present electoral process is itself engulfing the political culture with majoritarianism. It was argued that this may lead to mobilisation of electorate on narrow communal interest; however, the point which is ignored is that the present system is leading to the mobilisation on the line of majoritarianism which is becoming poisonous for Indian democracy.
Against the backdrop of electoral calculations, the question of balance of power among different communities has disappeared from political discussions. The fair representation of Muslim in Parliament is fruitful both for the community and the nation as a whole as complete integration of any group is determined by the extent to which ambitions and interests are attached to larger national interests. Under-representation or nominal representation in Parliament may grow a sense of isolation and otherness among Muslims.
(Md Chingiz Khan is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Khalid Khan is an Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi)