Photo: A member of election staff pastes a tag on an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) at a distribution centre ahead of India's general election, in Ahmedabad, India, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave
As alleged hate crimes and ‘cow vigilantism’ increase in the Hindu-dominated country, Muslims seek to return politics to the pre-2014 level of secularity
As India undertakes the world’s biggest democratic exercise of franchise, the country’s 172 million Muslims, who account for 14 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion population, are expected to play a decisive role in electing a new federal government.
Polling opened on April 11 and will be held in seven phases until May 19, with results to be announced on May 23.
India generally sees around 60 per cent voter turnout as evident from 16 general elections that the country has held so far since attaining Independence in 1947, with Muslim participation in votes anecdotally remaining at around 50 per cent.
In this year’s election, however, community leaders say Muslims are expected to come out in large numbers to exercise their vote as they are wary of “the deteriorating secular fabric of the country” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“The Muslim voter turnout is expected to increase significantly in this election,” Maulana Saifullah Rahmani, an Islamic scholar and founder member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), told Salaam Gateway on the phone from Hyderabad.
“I think they will come out in large numbers to vote for secular parties as Muslims feel it’s very important to preserve the country’s secular identity, which is under threat right now.”
He admits that some Muslims don’t understand the importance of their vote due to lack of awareness or education, “but they have realised this now after seeing what has happened under the BJP government”.
VIOLENCE AGAINST MUSLIMS
Muslims are the largest minority in Hindu-dominated secular India, but the incidents of hate crimes against religious minorities have often made the headlines over the last five years.
“The community has never felt as insecure as it does today. Physical security followed by mental peace is the priority for them right now,” said Dr. Shariq Nisar, a Mumbai-based Islamic finance academic and professional.
Dr. Nisar said the community has never been so serious about the power of their vote. “For the first time, I am seeing even ulamas encouraging people to cast their votes. The community at all cost wants the communal forces out of power,” said Dr. Nisar, adding that “security of the community” remains the most important issue for them in this election.
There has been a spurt in cases of mob lynching and violence against religious minorities, mainly Muslims engaged in the cattle or meat trade, allegedly by Hindu right-wing groups and ‘cow vigilantes’, with Amnesty International documenting at least 721 such reported hate crimes since 2015, based on local newspaper reports.
“The foremost current concern of the Indian Muslims is that the rightist bluff should be called and the political bandwagon should be brought back to the course that it has been charting since Independence - at least to the pre-2014 position,” said Dr. Syed Zafar Mahmood, President of Zakat Foundation of India, a non-governmental non-profit organisation that collects and utilises zakat for socially beneficial projects.
He said Muslims have been politically targeted since 2014 in order to “polarise the votes of illiterate, unemployed, uninformed” Hindu masses. “The election discourse is deliberately turned to ‘Hindu versus Muslim’,” said Dr. Mahmood.
Despite that, Dr. Mahmood told Salaam Gateway, Muslims are very clear about their voting pattern and “they wish to get rid of the situation that has been imposed upon them”.
“They are sure that their vote will make the difference. In the Lok Sabha Election 2019, the paradigm has shifted. Currently, Muslims’ priority is not to seek any specific political promises but to make sure that secularism overpowers communalism,” he said.
For Muslim women the big issue in this election is also safety and security of the community, besides the common issues relating to joblessness, economic crisis, and others, said Zakia Soman, a Mumbai-based women’s rights activist, who fought against the triple talaq practice.
Enthusiasm among Muslim women towards the election is very high, said Soman. “I expect ordinary Muslim women to really believe in the power of the vote and go out to vote in large numbers. They feel that they should vote and elect a person who will help them,” she said.
She, too, addresses the insecurity felt by Muslims as a result of the increase in violence perpetrated against their community. “The way the lynching incidents have taken place – a question mark has been put on the existence of Muslims. The whole politics of who is nationalist and who is anti-national and the way demonisation is happening based on identity, it is affecting the whole society. Women also have that realisation that this is this not right,” said Soman.
Community leaders say that, apart from security, Muslims’ fundamental issues are the same as any other religious community’s.
“Muslims are as much a part of the country as anybody else. So whatever issues are faced by people of the country are faced by Muslims also. Be it jobs, education, health, infrastructure, corruption – Muslims’ issues are no different,” Zafar Sareshwala, a Gujarat-based businessman and Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University, told Salaam Gateway.
Maulana Rahmani agreed that Muslims don’t like to present their issues in the name of the community because Muslims are part of Indian society. “The issues of unemployment or health care impact Hindus as much as they impact Muslims. I think both Muslims and Hindus should collectively talk about these issues as they are common for all communities,” he said.
However, Dr. Mahmood, who was an officer on special duty (OSD) in former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s high-level Justice Sachar Committee formed to study the social and economic status of Muslims, said Muslims face these issues more than any other socio-religious group.
“The committee released its report in 2006. Since then, four provincial reports have revealed that the Muslim situation has worsened,” he said.
Muslims also complain that the government’s controversial decision to withdraw high-value currency notes from circulation in 2016, followed by the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), has had a negative impact on their livelihoods, which come mostly from trade in the unorganised sector.
“Given that most Muslims work in the informal sector, whatever they were earning before has now diminished. ‘Demonetisation’ has obviously hit the informal sector badly and it affected the whole of India. But, because a large percentage of Muslims are in the informal economy, they bore the brunt,” said Soman.
The ban on export of cattle has also created problems for Muslims’ livelihoods. Soman pointed out that the effect of the ban is being felt in all related industries such as dairy, meat and leather. “On the one hand, there is violence in the name of cow protection, and on the other hand, you are curbing the whole agrarian sector,” she said.
Soman added that most Muslims still live in ghettos – be it in Mumbai, Delhi or Ahmedabad. “There are no civic amenities, primary schools or health care centres in these areas. They have problems with drinking water and waste disposal. Even in the middle of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Movement), there are mountains of filth and garbage in Muslim ghettos.”
Prime Minister Modi is very popular among vast segments of the population who see him as a powerful nationalist leader who has dealt effectively with corruption and, most recently, national security, especially after he ordered a cross-border airstrike into Balakot, Pakistan, in February.
However, his opponents and critics say people’s fundamental issues – such as unemployment, farmers’ distress, and the deteriorating domestic economy – haven’t been addressed by his government.
The government, which has often been accused of withholding or tampering with official data, hasn’t released any figures on unemployment. But a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report leaked to media earlier this year indicated the country’s unemployment had risen to a 45-year high at 6.1 per cent in 2017-18, although the authority later refuted the report as fake news.
India’s economy still relies on the farm sector, which is also the largest provider of jobs in the country. But farming incomes too have fallen to their lowest in 18 years, with an assessment by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations showing that it declined by 6 per cent per year for the 2014-16 period.
While Modi announced in 2016 that his government wants to double farm income by 2022, most economists feel it is impossible to meet that deadline given the pace at which the farm sector has been growing.
India’s multi-cultural society has a very complex political system, with class, caste, religion, social and economic factors playing a significant role in deciding who wins an election. The country has 900 million eligible voters that include 45 million who turned 18 and became eligible to vote since the last election in 2014.
Generally, Muslim voters are believed to prefer secular parties, but the BJP has also made some inroads into the Muslim vote bank, at least in the 2014 election, although it’s still statistically low.
Political observers feel the 2019 election is going to be very different from 2014, as, unlike the last election, most secular parties have formed alliances in Muslim-dominated states, giving them an edge over the rightwing BJP and its allies.
The Muslim population is comparatively higher in states like Assam (34 per cent), West Bengal (27 per cent), Kerala (26 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (19 per cent), Bihar (17 per cent) and Maharashtra (11.54 per cent), according to the 2011 census.
Some of these states also happen to be large constituencies in terms of the number of parliamentary seats, with Uttar Pradesh leading the list with 80 seats, followed by Maharashtra (48), West Bengal (42) and Bihar (40). These are expected to play deciding roles in this election.
This matters because Muslim representation in parliament is wanting. Gujarat-based Sareshwala pointed out that there has been a decline of Muslim representation in parliament since Independence.
“Once upon a time, you had 50-51 Muslims and that was also less than 10 per cent; but over time, that number has come down to only 20 Muslim MPs, which is less than 5 per cent,” he said. This is disproportionate to the Muslim community that makes up around 14 per cent of the population.
Sareshwala fears the new Parliament won’t have even 15 Muslims MPs. “The situation is even worse in state legislative assemblies, two-thirds of which don’t have a single Muslim MLA.”
Maulana Rahmani remains optimistic. “The good thing is that secular parties have formed alliances in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. So we are hopeful that the Modi government won’t come to power again,” he said.
He admits that if secular parties contest elections separately, it benefits the BJP as Muslim votes get divided. “But if secular parties fight the election together, then the importance of Muslim votes increases a bit.”
Muslims will vote “very intelligently” this time, said Sareshwala. “They are very quiet and don’t want to be intimidated. I say only one thing – even if you have anger, don’t show it on the streets, show it at the ballot.”
(Reporting by Syed Ameen Kader; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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