One essential test of a true democracy is whether it protects the rights of minorities, especially when in tension with the political majority or government. Most modern democracies contain significant minority groups whose language, religion, or ethnicity differs from those of the majority. The issue is whether it is possible to accommodate these forms of diversity without weakening the bonds of common citizenship and democracy.
The Indian experience shows two tendencies. The first, which lasted seven decades, is that diversity and democracy can complement rather than contradict and weaken democracy. The second tendency, more prevalent after the rise of the right-wing forces is one which seeks to draw attention to diversity only to contain or repress it. The 2014 election marks the mainstreaming of this approach, based on the Sangh Parivar’s principal belief that India is a Hindu nation which will allow others to flourish only if they recognise the fundamentally Hindu nature of India’s culture and assimilate to that.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar have been engaged in a concerted campaign against all religious minorities, particularly Muslims. In fact, the Modi government has been quite busy with Muslim issues even as their estrangement has grown. It is hardly a coincidence that the issues most debated today relate to beef, love-jihad, ghar wapsi, Ayodhya, the role of Mughals in history, all of which serve only one purpose - to send a message to the Muslim minority that this is a New India, in which they have a different status than before. Behind these issues is a re-imagination of the idea of India built around constructed theories of Hindu subjugation and victimhood.
In the 1980s, only the BJP and its core constituency would support these extreme views and campaigns around it or the idea that Muslims held back India’s progress as a nation because of their intransigence. Twenty-five years later, this is not an unusual conversation among India’s middle classes and is also penetrating the discourse of ordinary people. Sorting out these issues or reversing the position taken thus far cannot increase economic opportunities or improve the lives of average citizens.
The Prime Minister talks constantly of development but has evaded the issue of India’s huge social and economic inequality, leave alone the development deficit with regard to minorities. The slogan, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, was supposed to provide equitable development for all, but it has not been translated into any specific social and governmental policy initiatives that can begin to address the development deficit on the ground. There is no substantive public policy issue that this government has taken up so far to create a level playing field to protect and empower the largest minority so that they can partake of the opportunities of development. This is not surprising because the slogan has very little to do with development or inclusiveness, and is an oblique way of telling Hindus that the era of ‘Muslim appeasement’ has ended.
The socio-economic deprivation of Muslims in India is well-documented. Their predicament is further complicated by frequent incidents of violence, ranging from small-scale violence to mass violence and pogroms. A spate of inflammatory political rhetoric and communal speeches has vitiated the atmosphere in the recent past. Attacks on religious minorities and regular lynching of Muslims in different states, often led by vigilante groups that claim to be supporters of the ruling BJP, are an increasing concern.
Cow vigilantism has been an important catalyst for violence stalking the country in the recent past. Hindu vigilante groups calling themselves gau rakshak dal have targeted Muslims and Dalits, especially Muslims, over cow and beef slaughter, consumption, trade and even possession. In these attacks, whether the victim actually possessed beef, or whether cows were actually being transported for slaughter, or even that cows were not involved, rather other forms of cattle is not relevant. These cases would not have been so frequent if it weren’t for the atmosphere of hate and suspicion created through a sustained political campaign and propaganda against Muslims.
The marginalisation of minorities has been aggravated by their underrepresentation in both public and private sectors. The fact that India’s largest minority community does not have an effective voice in elected assemblies underlines the diminishing importance of their vote and relevance. This is apparent in the electoral process which has sanctioned a new discourse of majoritarianism and political polarisation. The BJP won a full majority without even one minority Muslim or Christian MP elected to the Lok Sabha.
The party did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, even though Muslims constitute almost a fifth of the population, which is larger than the population of several Muslim countries. It does not have a single Muslim MLA despite over 300 seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. It did not field any Muslims in the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2012 and 2017, despite the group being the largest minority in the state, constituting one-tenth of its population. The BJP is ruling 21 of the 29 states at present, but has Muslim representatives in only three states.
The message is clear: Muslim votes are not needed to capture power in India because a ‘Hindu vote-bank’ has come into existence through a strategy of polarisation. This strategy has been so successful that all parties are busy chasing the Hindu vote. The political invisibility of the Muslims has gained momentum since 2014, denying them any political space.
What is less obvious is the silence and inaction of most political parties and leaders as Muslims are perceived to be an electoral liability. Even secular parties argue that they stand to lose Hindu votes if they focus attention on the protection and promotion of minority rights and claims of equal citizenship, which is constitutionally guaranteed.
Hence, the Congress party did not want to be openly associated with Muslims in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election, given that this would be used by the BJP to polarise society and to propagate the theory that Congress is a Muslim party. The Congress is keen to shed its pro-minority image in order to prevent the BJP from calling it a Muslim-centric and an anti-Hindu party. The anxiety to play down this perception actually ends up reinforcing the political insignificance of Muslims in Indian politics.
From this it would seem that the BJP has succeeded at least for the moment in a majoritarian reordering of the polity to establish the primacy of the majority community in India’s highly competitive democratic game.
Indeed, the electoral success of the BJP in 2014 and in the state Assembly elections since then shows that political majorities can be built by mobilising sizeable sections of Hindus into political blocs by deliberately polarising, demonising and excluding minorities. But the idea of a permanent majority vote is a myth; political majorities are constructed and contingent and don’t last, at least in part because opposition parties make adjustments to capitalise on opportunities.
Moreover, the Hindu community is not a solid monolith; it remains divided in the face of the concerted effort by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)/BJP to unite them. However, if secular political parties also surrender to the majoritarian logic and give preference to the sensitivities of the majority community and start believing in theories of victimhood, it carries the danger of ultimately becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and, in the long run, endangering the pluralist foundations of our democracy.
(Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The write-up first appeared in NH on Sunday.)
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