As someone who has been very vocal in criticising the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) – I have been critical of the previous UPA government’s policies too – and Narendra Modi, I was particularly restrained (self-censorship, you may call it) since May 16, when the BJP, under Modi, won a convincing mandate to rule the country for next five years. In the last two weeks, I have been thinking of writing a ‘reconciliatory’ piece and urge the Muslim leadership to not make the ‘historical mistake’ and try to engage with the new government in power for the betterment of the community.
As I sit to write this article, I am afraid there are not many positive takeaways from the new government, and if these are the signs of things to come, the situation really appears to be glum.
As the new government takes shape, there are reports from Karnataka of how right-wing Hindu organisations are demanding a ban on the morning calls for prayer, and another group demanding a total ban on loudspeakers in mosques in Maharashtra. There were also reports of vandalism by jubilant mobs celebrating Modi’s victory in Bijapur. These were all small news and hence did not really catch the attention of the national media.
But in the light of the chauvinistic government at the helm, at a time when you see the top-rung of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), including Sadhvi Rithambara, an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, and Indresh Kumar, alleged to be a co-conspirator in the Samjhauta train blast case, seated along with other seers and spiritual leaders during Modi’s inauguration, such news cannot be ignored.
Modi’s gesture of inviting leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, particularly Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was seen by many as an overture to reach out to Muslims, like his political mentor LK Advani who visited Jinnah’s grave to project himself as more inclusive, much to ire of the RSS. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta tweeted on May 26, “SAARC leaders were called to legitimise, and give cover to the invitation to Pakistan and send comforting, positive signals to Indian Muslims.”
In fact, in the first message issued by the new prime minister immediately after taking oath, he talked of “a strong, developed and inclusive India that actively engages with the global community to strengthen the cause of world peace and development”. But that is the most we heard in a cabinet that has the full imprint of the RSS.
One of the first controversies surrounding the new government is the statement made by Minister of State Jitendra Singh on Jammu and Kashmir and Article 370. The BJP had given a ticket to veterinary surgeon Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, who was accused of participating in the mahapanchayat and giving a provocative speech that led to the Muzaffarnagar riots last year. He has now been made a minister and already the theory that he was framed has begun circulating, like so many others in the past.
This is not the end, senior police officers accused of being involved in extrajudicial killings and false implications of Muslim youth are being reinstated in Rajasthan and Gujarat already as former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Ajit Doval is slated to be National Security Advisor (NSA) to Modi.
The most surprising was Modi’s choice of Dr Najma Heptullah as the minority affairs minister. To be fair, Heptullah is a doctorate in cardiac anatomy from the University of Denver, and thus educationally most qualified among the cabinet ministers. But that is not why she has been appointed minister, or else she would have been given a meatier portfolio. She is the grand-niece of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and was in the Congress and the Rajya Sabha for a long time. She has always been a political nobody whom the Congress kept in the Upper House, where she later became deputy speaker.
In 2004, when several people were hoping for a comeback of the NDA government, she switched sides apparently after differences with Sonia Gandhi. She had said she had been “humiliated” by the Congress leadership that has “moved away from the ideology of Nehru, Azad, Patel and Gandhi”. One wonders if the party she chose follows their ideology, according to her. Heptullah has been made a minister to reward her decade of loyalty to the party, clearly overlooking two other more vocal Muslim faces, Shahnawaz Hussain, who lost the election, and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
In 2006, the then UPA government formed a new ministry of minority affairs that has been assigned the responsibility of implementing minority welfare schemes. Clearly, Heptullah got this portfolio because of her name and because she belongs to a ‘minority’ community. However, immediately after assuming charge, in her first statement as a minister, she says Muslims are numerically too large to be called a minority, a line often taken by the RSS and its associates, though the Constitution too declares Muslims a minority.
According to the 2001 census (data of religion-based census of 2011 not yet out), Muslims comprise 13.4% of the total population while Hindus are over 80%, and the remaining communities together form just about 6% of India’s population. Compare this to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, where 11.2% of the total population are Sri Lankan Tamils while another 4.2% are Tamils of Indian origin. 74.9% of the people are Sinhalese while the rest comprise other smaller communities including Moors, Malays, etc. Thus, roughly 15.7% of the Sri Lankan population is a minority, for which not only Tamils but even the current PM expressed his concern and urged President Mahinda Rajapaksa to implement the autonomy in spirit. In Bangladesh, with 8.2% of the population, Hindus are the second biggest community, and the third largest in the world after India and Nepal.
Our PM’s heart bleeds for minorities in India’s neighbouring countries so much that he has announced they will get asylum to protect them from persecution. Yet, despite the riots and despite the 2006 Sachar committee report clearly stating that the lot of Muslims is worse than even the Dalits, their representation as a minority is in question.
Heptullah also said on her first day as minister that reservations were not the solution. One may argue on whether communities as a whole deserve reservations, or only the backward amongst them are in need, but what is interesting is that reservation is seen as appeasement only in context of Muslims, not for SC-STs, or OBCs or Kashmiri migrants or when Jats are included in the list of OBCs.
Another concern has been that several scholarships programmes meant for minority students already appear to be facing a financial crunch, and there are fears they may be stopped altogether. Heptullah also said the PM’s 15 point programme need a revisit. Certainly they do, but in if she attempts to abolish it altogether in an attempt to create a “level playing field”, it will only result in the marginalisation of the minorities, the pet agenda of the RSS.
Now that the new government is here, one hopes that in the 100 days’ programme the ministry of minority affairs would lay out plans to bring the minorities at par with the rest of the population, and only then can there be a truly level playing field.
M Reyaz is a Delhi-based journalist.He tweets at @journalistreyaz.