Anxieties over the threatened advent of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Mujlis Ittehadul Muslimeen are causing more political tremors than perhaps justified. The last event was the proposal approach by the Congress to the maulana of Furfura Sharif, who is a popular leader in his area. As has been reported, Owaisi had stated during his visit to West Bengal that he has tied up with Furfura for fighting the forthcoming assembly election together.
Some observers feel that Mamata Banerjee is also worried about a Hyderabad invasion cutting her votes. Owaisi’s apparent creditability in eastern India is owed to his party’s win in five assembly seats in the recent Bihar assembly polls. In these polls, Owaisi also gained a reputation for being a greater spoiler than a winner.
No matter what he does in West Bengal, it is Uttar Pradesh in 2022 where Owaisi would be revealed to be a true Asad or lion, or merely a regional mouse. Whether his presence achieves a communal polarization in India’s largest state, as happened in 1937 will be known soon enough. Within three years of that provincial election, M A Jinnah brought forth the Pakistan Resolution at Lahore.
If Owaisi achieves a big divide, it would be a matter of great challenge to all political parties in the country. For the BJP, the challenge could also be a great opportunity to divide the Muslim vote; Shia-Sunni, Ahmediya versus Muslims, mardana (men) versus janana (women), a common civil code, especially the abolition of polygamy. Plus, the BJP could publicize the pathetic post independence history of Pakistan and how badly Islamabad has treated the Balochs and the Sindhis. Nevertheless, following Owaisi’s AIMIM is like asking for a reverse CAA law.For the self-styled secular parties, the threat posed by Owasi is more immediate. MIM speakers would argue that they are at the exclusive service of their Muslim brethren. Other than them, MIM has nobody else to cater to. The Samajwadi Party has Yadavs and other voters to look after. The Bahujan Samaj Party has particularly Dalits to lead. The Trinamool Congress has more Hindus to cater to than Muslims. Similar is the case with parties like the Telangana Regional Samiti (TRS), Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the CPM.
The Congress has always claimed that it represents every segment of Indian society. This has been so since the days of Gandhi. In any case, Muslims have been voting for the Congress for six decades, Owaisi would argue, but what has the community gained from it? We are a less educated society; some would say rather backward and certainly less well off. This has been the community’s refrain since the 1952 elections and continues to be so.
If Muslims vote only for the AIMIM, their identity would be secure. The community can of course ask the party to provide schools and hospitals and also expect jobs. Owaisi can forcefully argue that his party has succeeded in convincing a section of the Muslim qaum to not only vote for it, but also enable it to win seats in the recent Bihar elections, and is quite hopeful of making an entry in West Bengal in the state’s assembly elections due this year. In opposition to MIM, the secular parties might contend that the MLAs of the MIM would be less than sufficient to form governments. What then would its five MLAs from Bihar do? It will be the same story again and again. Janab Owaisi might feel pleased, but what about those who vote for his party? However, the threat of polarization posed by Owaisi and his party is real.
It would perhaps be no exaggeration to state that more than Bihar or Bengal, Owaisi’s real target is Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest and politically most important state, which is to go to the polls in March next year. The BJP not only dominates the state politically but in power headed by Yogi Adityanath has been unequivocal about its Hinduness, which also sees assertive expression from time to time. On the other hand, there is a sense of angst among the Muslims at having lost the political veto they held over the state’s ~ and the nation’s ~ politics during the ‘secular’ heydays of Congress and Samajwadi rule. A good showing by Owaisi’s AIMIM in Bihar, Bengal or elsewhere might just be the green light that segments of the community are looking for. It is of course, easy to dismiss such reasoning as alarmist. But one mustn’t forget that in the 1937 provincial elections held across India following the passing of the Government of Act of 1935, a near defunct Muslim League not only came back into the political reckoning strongly, but within just five years by 1942, had become the sole spokesperson of the subcontinent’s Muslims. The slippery road to Partition thereafter is well known.Significantly, the Muslim League itself fared poorly in the 1937 provincial elections. But the Congress, which claimed to be sole spokesperson for all Indians, fared very badly in the Muslim seats of the United Provinces (as Uttar Pradesh was then known). Of the sixty Muslim seats in UP, the Congress contested nine but did not win a single one. However, its spectacular performance in the General seats enabled it to form provincial governments, as it now had comfortable legislative majorities of its own.
Earlier commitments of incorporating the Muslim League were soon dumped; in UP for example, the Congress agreed to include some leaders of the Muslim League into the government only if they agreed to dissolve the Muslim League in UP and merge themselves into the Congress. The League in no mood to commit political suicide, naturally refused. It now turned increasingly and firmly to M A Jinnah as its only saviour.
More significantly, Jinnah and the Muslim League used the 1937 elections to portray the Congress as a Hindu-only party. The perception was successfully utilized in galvanizing Muslim masses and political leaders in Punjab and Bengal. The prospect of de-colonization and the thought of an India under Congress, i.e., Hindu rule was anathema to them. They realized they needed a leader and forceful negotiator to advance their interests, which Jinnah repeatedly told them could be guaranteed only by the carving out of a separate state for themselves based on religious identity. Arguably, the UP and India of 2022 are very different from 1937. But the intransigence once of a particular community and political leaders waiting to exploit it are eerily similar.
Admittedly, the signs are not reassuring. No one in his or her right mind can even contemplate another partition along religious lines as a solution to this polarized existence. The times of the 1930s and 1940s were different; the majority community then in awe of Gandhi went out of its way to seek accommodation with others. But with the majority having turned assertive and stridently nationalist, any talk of a vivisection would be tantamount to wishing for civil war.
Clearly, the onus of taking a moderate path is squarely upon the religious minorities. No nation or modern polity can survive, leave alone prosper by continually caving in to obscurantist religious demands, which only invite backlash and are counterproductive to those indulging in it. Muslims are thus in need of genuinely moderate leaders and organizations which will lead them out of the dark fantasies of failed and destructive ideas and enable them to march lockstep with progress and modernity.