Muslims and Indian elections

India's ruling Congress Party may well lose its government and politically cost it dearly in the current election because of its "war against terror" policies followed with vigour domestically. If so they will be another big name in the loser's column of those that lost power since 9/11 began to unfold its effects worldwide on governments big or small. Not only large scale arrests in key Indian cities and alleged extra-judicial killings of young Muslim have antagonised the Islamic community, it is certain that its leadership feels threatened by many government policies considered against the future of Islamic well being in the established secularism of Indian political system. Delhi's highly influential Imam of Jamia Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, summed this up eloquently in a recent press conference by saying: "People in power have branded us as terrorists yet used us as a vote bank; this cannot go on forever." Although in "neighbouring Pakistan such occurrences are much widespread as people often die while in police custody" Bukhari demanded that the Muslim community "wants justice" about the "deaths of two Muslim students allegedly at the hands of police in South Delhi's Muslim area", last October. This sense of injustice has resulted in creation of new Muslim political parties throughout India; while believing in the Indian democracy and indeed in its established parliamentary system, these new entrants in Indian polity assert boldly that the said system needs to be strengthened. Party manifestos available with the elections authorities in India reveal that they all want to focus on the "safety and security" of all communities, especially minorities including of course the Muslims. "The security of Muslims is one big issue, as after every blast in India a series of arrests of Muslim youths takes place," reportedly observed by the official spokesperson for the influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He went as far to point out that Muslim men were "systematically killed" in routine police encounters. In more ways than one, Indian Muslims are a gigantic block of humanity as the country possesses more Muslims than say Pakistan, for long considered to be the voice of Muslims in the international community. Muslims comprise more than 14 percent of India's population and many have raised the issue that proportionately they only have about half that much representation in Parliament. Accordingly, almost double the figure of the last election, over 25 Muslim political parties, big and small, are in the run for seats this time as they are contesting these elections. Veteran and established political parties having an Islamic content in their avocations like the Muslim League and Indian National League in Kerala, the Democratic Secular Party in Bihar and the Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin in Andhra Pardesh, are running along with several lesser known ones such as the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), Ulema Council and Indian Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Muslim Munettra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu or the People's Democratic Council in West Bengal. Why so many of these want to run is perceptively summoned up Buranuddin Qasmi, an election analyst of the AUDF. "Our primary aim is to erode the presumed vote bank of the Congress Party and then to win a few more seats for ourselves," However this evolution has its critics as well as many Muslims question the logic behind the hasty launch of such parties. They maintain that a party like, for instance, the Ulema Council will not even be able to emerge as a minor player because it lacks proper planning and goals. However, statistics reveal that the parties that manage to win the votes of poorer or "lower caste people" along with the Muslim vote bank have a strong chance of winning and to eventually matter. Ever since India's independence from British rule, Congress has always obtained the largest number of seats from the Muslim voters at national level, largely because Muslims (1) felt they had to prove their loyalty to India in early post-partition days, and (2) the fear from extreme right wing Hindu dominated political parties. Many Muslim leaders have thus constantly and have traditionally supported Congress since independence "to prove their loyalty." Yogendra Yadav, the noted Indian political commentator, thinks that for Muslim parties this was a clear historical trend but that now they seem to have matured or in his words "have come of age." He went on to observe that: "...In the last decade or so they (Muslim political parties) have been speaking for themselves, a very positive sign for Muslims as well as for democracy." The voting pattern and elections figures seem to support this assertion. The proliferation of new political parties with an Islamic persuasion means that no one single national level party is expected to get more than 60 percent of Muslim votes. The main political or even philosophical opposition to this perception seems to emanate from several Congress leaders who are opposed to this awareness. The Congress believes Muslims cannot be empowered by a Muslim party alone. "Muslim parties have traditionally voted for Congress and will continue to do so, as they know only a majority party like Congress with secular credentials can empower them," says Imran-ur Rehman Kidwai, the chief of the Congress Party's Minority Cell. He also dismissed the idea that there is any kind of "insecurity among Muslim youth", and thought that it is a "non-issue." In at least one state a Muslim party is creating serious trouble for the Congress is in Northeast disputing the Kidwai thesis. The Islamic vote in Assam makes up more than 20 percent of Muslim votes and appears to be making forays into Congress bastions. The right extremist Hindu nationalist BJP, which Muslims tend to vote against, could win in the state if the Muslim went otherwise than predicted by the Congress Party. The AUDF is running the anti-Congress campaign. "Enough of that - whenever Muslims vote against Congress, it is said to be in favour of the BJP. Can't we ever raise our voice because of right-wing parties like the BJP?" The AUDF's election strategist importantly observed recently when Buranuddin Qasmi, asserted this much empathetically. Ironically this trend said to be the direct result of the report set-up by the prime minister of India himself. The real Achilles' heel for Congress is thus this Sachar Report. This high powered and apparently genuinely nationalistic collection of political Indian leaders and jurists had clearly recommended several measures to improve the living conditions of Muslims in India. This report was actually initiated by Congress and tabled in Parliament in 2006. This document has become central to the Indian Muslim community and is often quoted to voice their grievances. Therefore, it is really not surprising that during the current election campaigns, Muslim parties have pointed out that none of the recommendations of this report have been implemented. "Congress and Manmohan Singh may have done a commendable job in commissioning a report of this magnitude. But the Minority Affairs Ministry has done literally nothing to implement it, with the exception of giving scholarships to Muslim students," said Dr Abu Saleh Shariff, member cum secretary of the Sachar Committee Report. However Kidwai on the contrary maintains that 19 out of 22 of its recommendations have been implemented. Time will soon arrive when the results of the elections will speak for themselves. But knowing the sub-continental mind as I do, I think the change over noted by me will definitely be revealed. The writer is an advocate at law (US), barrister at law (UK), and Professor at Harvard University

The writer is barrister at law (US and UK), senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and professor at Harvard University.

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