As the 2014 general elections draw close, all major political parties have been vociferously showing their concern for Muslims and competing to woo the Muslim voter. Even BJP is trying to win them, using tokenism and stereotyped gestures. In the current milieu, some myths about Muslims are in circulation.
One myth concerns their voting behaviour. It assumes that Muslims are a homogenous community. They vote en bloc in favour of a party. A section of Muslims believes the community vote brings Congress to power. A section of the majority community too harbours this delusion.
The fact is that the Indian Muslim community is as diverse as Indian society. Religion unites as much as caste, sect, region and trade divide them. These divisions make them fit into the plural, diverse patterns of Indian life.
A majority of Muslims live in states such as UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Kerala that have a strong presence of regional parties. Congress figures only in the third or fourth position in these states. In these states, a majority of Muslims vote for regional parties. In states such as Assam and Andhra Pradesh, Muslim voting for Congress has come down.
According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, more than 70% of Muslim votes go to Congress in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Delhi where the contest is bipolar, between Congress and BJP.
In states where the contest is multipolar and Congress is in number two or three position, or the junior partner, Muslim votes for Congress come down to 30%. A majority of Muslim votes are fragmented and go to different political parties, reflecting their local and class interests. It is evident from this that no party can take the Muslim vote for granted.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, they are likely to vote for the best-placed candidate to defeat BJP nationally. In 2009, Muslim votes started to come back to Congress in UP. They voted for Samajwadi Party and BSP also in almost equal proportions. There is a ray of hope for Congress in UP in the post-Muzaffarnagar situation, where Muslims may largely vote for Congress and BSP.
AAP is a new phenomenon and Muslims are still sceptical. The AAP agenda does not fully reflect their hopes and fears. For Muslims, communalism is a much bigger issue than corruption.
There is another myth, largely among Muslims, that they have not benefited from economic development. It is nobody’s argument that a lot has been done for Muslims by succeeding governments. However, it is not the case that nothing has been done for them.
Since Independence, the state’s approach to the rights of religious minorities has proved inadequate in promoting inclusion. Despite constitutional safeguards and stark backwardness of the Muslim community, it has been kept out of the purview of affirmative action policies, except for a small number of Muslims in the OBC category.
Their issues were limited to protection of religious identity and security. But over the last decade a noticeable shift has occurred in political thinking regarding minorities, and many policy initiatives have been taken to empower them. The Sachar Committee report was one such landmark step.
In pre-Sachar days, talking about Muslims meant ‘appeasement’. Sachar gave an atmosphere in which pluralism and diversity could be acceptable socially and legally. In the wake of Sachar’s recommendations, many welfare programmes were started for Muslims, yielding substantial improvement in some areas.
As per latest data by HRD ministry, enrolment of Muslim children at elementary level has risen to 13% from 8% in 2006-07. The refrain about no benefit having reached Muslims is obviously untrue.
As per government data, the flow of priority sector credit to minorities during 2012-13 reached Rs 1,71,960 crore, which was more than 15% of total priority sector lending.
Many studies found problems in the delivery mechanism of minority welfare schemes during the 11th plan. In the 12th plan a focused strategy has been adopted, making blocks instead of districts the basic unit for planning and implementing these schemes. Now that an area-specific approach has been adopted, benefits should go directly to minority-concentrated villages where a substantial number of Muslims live. Bottlenecks are now being identified and the delivery system is being streamlined. Amid all this, nobody can honestly claim that benefits of economic development have bypassed Muslims.
Finally, there is a misunderstanding among some people, mainly Muslims, that preservation of secularism is the exclusive responsibility of Muslims. This certainly is not the case. India is secular not because Muslims want it to be so, but because this country has evolved over millennia in a way that religion and its practice have been left out of the domain of the state.
This is reflected in India’s Constitution. It is relevant to note that Europe did not become secular to accommodate Jews, Muslims or Buddhists, but to protect people from sectarian strife within Christianity. US secularism has similar origins. India too is secular because of Hindus, not Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Parsis.
Nehru’s idea of nationalism was based on a shared historical past and a future project of common development. This idea still holds good. It is a broad reflection of Congress thinking and a tradition of accommodation and synthesis that stretches back to a hoary past.
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