Indian Muslims, fearful and insecure

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The general election in India, the largest democratic exercise in the world, is drawing to a close and the results will become clear on 23rd May. Whatever the outcome and although there is likely to be a reduction in the numbers of seats held by the ruling BJP, it will almost certainly be a win for them. This will consolidate the leadership of Mr Modi and give traction to Hindu nationalism, which whilst not exactly rampant is certainly to the fore in ways it was not hitherto. This is not good news for any of the minority faiths in India, and with 172 million Muslims (2011 figure) being the largest of those minorities there are real and justifiable fears for the future among many of them.

It was a poignant and touching report on BBC World News that sparked my interest and curiosity. It focused on a poor Muslim family and the difficulties they faced. They were unremarkable in every aspect, but the victims of ongoing harassment and persecution, moving from place to place scratching a living on the margins, their children poorly fed and uneducated, many of the family carrying significant health problems. They were welcome nowhere, powerless and with no support beyond their own meagre means. Although unstated the implication was that they were not an isolated case…there were an awful lot of Muslim families in a similar plight. It was harrowing to watch and listen to and a brave piece of reporting both by the BBC and a correspondent who from their name I am guessing is Hindu themselves.

Now I am not for one moment suggesting that Pakistan has anything to be proud of when it comes to its treatment of minorities of any faith because it most certainly does not. My own family is from a village in south Punjab that is 50/50 Christian/Muslim and over the last quarter century that I have observed them from inside and close up both communities have managed to not fall prey to the baser instincts, perhaps the defining moment in interfaith harmony being the solar-powered potable water project that opened a couple of years ago and is used, simultaneously, by Christians and Muslims alike without tension. The grown-up children of the family all have careers or businesses and whilst not wealthy they are not scratching for pennies as they were when I first met them in 1993. Not, on the face of it suffering much by way of discrimination. And certainly having no parallel with the minority Muslims that are across the border which runs through the desert close by.

Herders from the Indian side do stray over from time to time, and there is contact between my family and some of the Indian wandering shepherds – Muslims. They look to my poor little village in the back of beyond as a small oasis, not exactly a paradise but certainly a better place than that which they call home.

But back to the election and why we need to be worried for the Muslims of India. They are the second-largest Muslim population in the world and their representation in elected bodies is shrinking rather than expanding unlike their population numbers. The governing BJP has fielded just 7 Muslim candidates in the 437 seats it is contesting. It is fielding exactly the same seven as were fielded in 2014 when none of them won. None are expected to win this time either resulting in a government that for the first time has no Muslim members of parliament. The opposition Congress party is putting up 32 Muslims out of a possible 423 candidates. Congress has long presented itself as secular, representative of all faiths, but on present showing the claim is looking threadbare.

Two things – one is that yes this matters, and the other is that it is a mistake to attribute the downwards trend of Muslims in the legislatures just to the recent rise of the BJP. It is a trend that goes back decades. There was 9% representation in parliament in 1980, shrinking to 4% in 2014. There were 49 Muslim MP’s in 1980, and 22 in 2014. The Modi effect cannot be held accountable for this, it is something wider and deeper and perhaps in part linked to there being no recognised leaders of Indian Muslims as a whole. Some observers comment on how fragmented the Muslims are socially and politically, with a ‘rich’ strata with little interest in change atop a disenfranchised and impoverished majority of the minority. The Muslims claim, in caste-ridden (and driven) India to be caste-free which in theory they are, as are all Muslims worldwide. The practice is of course different, with stratifications that are no less exclusive and divisive – and impregnable – as the Hindu caste system that is as pervasive and pernicious as it ever was. Many Muslims are regarded – and treated – as Untouchables, the lowest of the low in Indian society.

To be scrupulously fair India elected a Dalit (Untouchable) as its president in 2017, and Raman Narayanan took office in 1997, half a century after Gandhi promised to bring an end to the caste system. His pledge can at best be considered ‘a work in progress’.

Why the lack of representation matters is that not only does it devalue the primary democratic institution, it fuels anger and resentment on both sides of the divide and social instability is just a hop and a skip down the road. All this may seem far away and irrelevant to Pakistan as it struggles to balance the books and stay afloat. It isn’t. It is next door, the fire next time. And there comes a point where even oppressed minorities take up the cudgels.