The Myth of the Muslim Vote Bank
The recently concluded assembly elections in U.P were marked once again by an intensified debate on ‘Vote Bank Politics’. The debate was not provoked by the emergence of any new trends in political mobilization but was the standard fare that is dished out by so called commentators, experts, political analysts and people who not only think that they have inside information about how entire communities think and react, they also claim that there are agencies capable of engineering conditions that programme these communities to go and vote for this or that party.
The essential argument behind this discourse hinges on two presuppositions, one that particular religion or caste based communities can be mobilised and made to move in one pre-determined direction and two that this becomes possible because such communities react and behave as one individual and therefore all that is required is to catch hold of a handful of community leaders and you can as good as have the entire community in your pocket.
There are certain unstated formulations behind this ‘larger picture’ and these formulations are founded on many imagined truths, for instance the belief that it is only the rural, muffassil, illiterate, backward and religiously orthodox, in other words those not part of the “mainstream”, that can be so mobilised and that this phenomena is restricted to these groupings alone and that the “larger polity” (in other words people like us) is free of these tendencies and if the policy of appeasement, that only favours select vote banks is given up, we will be able to rid our body politic of these vitiating tendencies. How liberated is the “larger polity” from this menace of “Vote Bank Politics” is something that we will return to later.
What are the communities believed to be more susceptible to vote bank manipulations? The Dalits, the Tribals and the Muslims are the usual suspects that allegedly constitute the ‘Vote Banks”. Earlier it was only the Congress that seemed to benefit from these vote banks, of late the circle seems to have expanded a bit for some non-Congress political formations and shrunk by the same measure for the Congress.
Under the leadership of Kanshiram and Mayawati the Dalits found a new voice, earlier leaders of the Dalits, like Jagjeevan Ram and even Ram Vilas Paswan were so steeped in the “Mainstream Political Culture” that they could not dream of setting up a separate party of the Dalits and so the Dalits had to wait till the 80s to break out on their own. Now ‘Dalit Vote Bank of the Congress’ has been replaced with “Casteist Politics”. Leaders of the Other Backward Castes like Yadavs, Kurmis and others came forward to articulate their aspirations after the Anti-Mandal agitation and were soon branded as another set indulging in ‘Caste Based Politics’. The Muslims however continue to be seen as “The Vote Bank” par excellence, while many of the others who were till recently seen as vote banks have now emerged as rather clearly delineated political formations.
Let us look at the assumptions upon which the theory of Muslim vote bank rests and see if the theory has any substance in it. It is assumed that Muslims vote as a block and that they vote according to the directions given to them by religious leaders. Now these formulations are based upon three assumptions whose validity has never been tested and yet everyone accepts them as true, these assumptions are that Muslim are more religiously inclined than others, that their lives are governed by religion and that Muslims are a Monolithic block.
Let us take them one by one. The assumption that Muslims are more religiously inclined is based on selective observation, Muslims congregate for prayers every Friday at a specific time and so their religiosity becomes more visible but the more dispersed-through the day and through the year- nature of Hindu worship, like worshipping Surya in the Morning, Shani on Saturday, Vaishno Devi On Friday, Sai Baba (a very recent phenomena and growing rapidly) on Thursday, Hanuman on Tuesday and Shiv on Monday or the congregations at all the Dhams through the year and the yatras to Tirupati, Badri-Kedar, the Jyotirlings, to other periodic or yearlong pilgrimages or worships like Ganesh Chaturthis, Ekadashi, Poornmashis etc hide the extent of Hindu religiosity.
The idea that the lives of Muslims are governed more by religion than is the case with other communities is also based on selective readings of the life of Muslims, in fact, A Hindu shopkeeper goes through a much more elaborate ritual of Puja than does a Muslim shopkeeper at his shop or a Muslim artisan at his workplace, for the Musalman a “Bismillah” serves the purpose. There is no ritual of the worship of the tools of the trade among Muslims whereas among Hindus it is an annual ritual, rituals associated with birth, the first hair cut, the first lesson, wedding, child birth etc exist among all communities and Muslims exhibit no specific proclivity to ritual that would mark them out.
And yet this stereotyping continues.
And now about Muslims being a Monolithic block?
Muslims have been divided between Shias and Sunnis for centuries, a division that has resulted in and continues to lead to a lot of strife, they now have and have had for long, separate mosques, separate prayer timings, separate clergy and separate rituals, then there are the Deobandis who detest any Muslim who visits Sufi Shrines and Barelivis who do not so detest the shrine visiting types, there are Qadiyanis or Ahmadiyas who are not considered Muslims by a majority of other sects, the Ahl-e-Hadis who insist on following the acts and sayings of Prophet Mohammad and there are the Ahl-e-Quran, who insist that only the Quran can be a Guide.
These may appear to be minor differences but it is only such minor matters of detail that mean the difference between those that are included and those that are excluded, for example the difference between the Iyers and the Iyengers was whether one used Vibhuti or Tilak to draw the lines on one’s forehead and whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal.
To the sectarian divisions among the Muslims you can add the peculiarities created through the interaction of Indian traditions and Islam and you have Muslims who think of themselves as the Ashraf- those born to rule and according to whom the non Asraf are the Arzal – those who are not fit to rule. The Ashraf would be the Sheikhs, the Syeds and the Pathans and everybody else will fall in the category of the Arzal.
The Ashraf Arzal division is fairly deep and the division goes back a while. While addressing the Second Convention of the Muhammadan Educational Conference in Lucknow in 1887, Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the MAO College, the present day Aligarh Muslim University asserted that those of low birth were not useful for the country and government and that only the high born and those belonging to the nobility were loyal to the British. He listed the Pathans, the Syeds, the Hashmis and the Quraishis as his own brothers from “whose blood the smell of the blood of Abraham emanates” and claimed that it was only these who were of any use to the country and the Government’. He argued that if the nobility succeeds in winning the favour of the British and provides modern education to its children they would soon be employed in senior positions in the British Army.
Syed Ahmad Khan and with him the Muslim nobility opposed the British proposal for democratically electing the members to the legislative council and insisted that only those from the nobility and those of High birth be made members. He opposed merit as a criteria saying even if a boy from an Adna –Low- family is able to acquire a B.A. or even an M.A. degree, he cannot be allowed to sit in the Viceroy’s Council. Syed Ahmad Khan also opposed the holding of the Indian Civil service exams in India and his argument was that even the low born will be able to sit for the exams and God forbid they could become officers and lord over those of Noble birth. Syed Ahmad Khan had elsewhere argued that it was only the low born Muslims, the riff raff as it were, that had taken part in the 1857 revolt and that the Muslim nobility was always loyal to the British, he also stated fairly clearly that he had opened his college for the sons of the Shurafa and not for the Arzal, the sons of weavers and water carriers.
So now aside from the Shia Sunni, Deobandi, Barelvi, Nadwi, Ahl-e-Hadis, Ahl-e-Quran and the Qadiani, who no one else is prepared to recognise as Muslim, we also have the Ashraf and Arzal, to these you must also add the modern day differences between the Land-Lord and the Poor-Peasant or landless labour, between the industrialist and the factory worker and all other economic distinctions and classes that exist among the general population, it may come as a surprise but it is a fact that there are Muslim scavengers, who face as much discrimination as do the Dalits.
Given all these divisions, almost as many as there are among Hindus, the argument of Muslims being a monolithic block, is clearly untenable. But this will not stop the votaries of the theory of a “Muslim Vote Bank” from insisting that communal mobilisation in the name of religion is possible and does happen. Let us explore this a little more deeply.
Islamic scholars who have the authority to interpret the Quran in the light of Fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence have to be people who have received training in Fiqh at an established centre of Learning like Deoband and reach the level of a Mufti before they can issue a Fatwa. All Muftis have to be familiar with the interpretations of the four great experts of Islamc jurisprudence, these traditions are named after these gentlemen and are known as the Hanafi, Hambali, Maliki and Shafii traditions.
Strictly speaking a Fatwa is an opinion, given in the light of precedents established by earlier scholars and interpreters, and not a judgement of the Supreme Court of India and therefore not universally binding. A fatwa may receive great acceptability because it was issued by a universally acceptable scholar or Mufti, but such occasions are rare and are becoming rarer since currently there isn’t a single Mufti in India with universal acceptance. The fact that many of the large number of sects have become rather powerful also helps in eroding the acceptability of any one religious scholar.
In the period immediately before independence there were scolars of the caliber of Mufti Kefayat-Ullah, Syed Ata-Ulah Shah Bukhari, Maulana Ahmad Saeed, Maulana Hifzur Rehman, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and others, fatwas issued by those from among these Ulemas who were also Mufitis were accepted by a vast majority of Muslims not only in India but outside as well. Fatwas issued by these Muftis were respected and quoted by scholars in major seminaries outside India as well, including Seminaries in the Arab World. Incidentally not one of these fatwas asked Muslims to vote for this or that political party. And even today it would be almost impossible to pull out a fatwa issued by any prominent Mufti where Muslims have been asked to vote for this or that party.
All kinds of individuals and there are several Imams of big and small mosques among them, issue statements in support of this or that party and if any of these happens to have a prefix of Mauvi or Maulana or Imam before their names, our media declares all such statements as a Fatwa and thus begins the 24X7 debate about the Muslim Vote Bank.
The Conduct of the voters of the Chandni Chowk constituency in the 2004 Lok Sabha election is just one instance that shows up the hollowness of all these Fatwas. A support Vajpayee committee had been formed and the Imam of the Jama Masjid of Delhi was a leading light of that committee. The impact of the appeal can be gauged from the fact that the BJP candidate contesting from the Chandni Chowk Parliamentary constituency, that includes the Jama Masjid area, did not win. Now if the Imam’s writ does not run in the Jama Masjid area, where else will it run, and if he can’t move the “Muslim Vote Bank” in the direction of his choice, then who can? And is there a vote bank that anyone can move?
So what do we have now, we have Muslims divided in a large number of sects, Muslims divided among high and low, Muslims divided among contending classes and there isn’t one religious leader whose pronouncements have universal acceptance. Is there then any possibility of Muslims still behaving like a Vote Bank?
We can try to see if a pattern emerges from the results of the general elections. In the initial years of the republic the broad parameters of the electoral scene in the country were that the Indian National Congress had a pan India presence, the second position was held by the communists the third by the various Socialist formations and the fourth jointly by the precursors of the BJP. These positions were by and large held for the first three elections The Congress won 343 out of the 489 seats in the 1952, 371 out of the 494 seats in 1957 and 361 out of 494 seats in 1962, cornering more than 2/3rds of the seats in all the three elections. In 1967 the Congress won only 283 seats out of a total of 520 seats, it still retained majority but its share was just a tad above 54%. In 1971 the congress returned with a thumping majority under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.
It is only with the Declaration of Emergency that the Magic of the congress finally wanes and it loses its majority in parliament for the first time in the 1977 elections.
This is the time that it loses Rampur, a traditional Congress Seat with a sizeable Muslim population, Congress looses Amroha as well, Meerut, that it had first lost in 67 but had regained during the Gharibi Hatao Indira wave of 1971, was lost again, So was Saharanpur, Moradabad, Bijnor, Bareilly, Bahraich, Katihar, Purnia, Araria, Kishanganj, Darbhanga, Madhubani and Motihari.
Congress lost these 15 seats across Bihar and UP for the first time in 1977. These 15 seats are among those seats that represent the location of the “Muslim Vote Bank” in the eyes of the proponents of this phenomenon. In each of these constituencies the proportion of Muslim voters is 30% or more of the total voters and so if the Muslim voter moved as a block it would seal the fate of any candidate. As the congress lost all these seats it is not difficult to surmise that it would have lost because the Muslims must have voted against it, or so the votaries of the theory would suggest. The question however is that if the Muslims are a vote bank of the congress it is in 1977 that they should have stood with the congress, How can a vote bank desert its benefactor in its hour of peril. But it did, so was it a vote bank to begin with?
Remember these seats and see what happens in 1980 and 1984? You will find that most of them have come back to the congress across these two subsequent general elections. The story of the “Muslim Vote Bank” seems to hold some water here. But this happens if you look at these seats in isolation, look at what was happening in seats where Muslims are not the deciding factor. Look at Mathura, Banaras, Basti, Jhansi, Hathras, Gonda, Ballia, Ghosi, Mungher, Begusrai, Samastipur, Sasaram, Buxar, Sheohar and Gaya, some of these are seats that are reserved for Scheduled Castes. While looking at the behaviour of these seats also look at the large number of seats across the country and you would see that, except for regional peculiarities, this broad pattern of returning to the congress fold across the 1980 and 1984 elections holds across the country.
The big Picture, as our 24X7 TV anchors are very fond of saying, that emerges is this:
The 15 seats where Muslims have more than30 % of the votes and other similar constituencies, except for regional peculiarities, were all lost to the congress in 1977, all of them, by and large, went back to the congress in the next two elections.
Look at the second set of 15 seats and many others seats where Muslims do not have a decisive strength and see how they behaved, all of them, except for regional peculiarities, were lost to the Congress in 1977 and most of them, by and large, went back to the congress over the next two elections.
The similarities do not end here, in the post 1989 -1991 period it is difficult to see a clear pattern and this confusion is visible in constituencies where Muslims have 30% or more votes and also in constituencies where their vote share is much smaller.
These trends are clear pointers to the fact that constituencies where Muslims have a higher share in the votes do not behave differently from general constituencies and this happens because the “Muslim Voter”, barring very local reasons or regional peculiarities, behaves exactly like the ‘General’ voter. This happens and it is crucial to recognise this, because the “Muslim Voter” is no different from the “General Voter”. Issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of educational facilities for her/his children, a crumbling health care system, rising crime, corruption, a totally compromised law and order machinery and a terribly skewed and sluggish justice delivery system are issues that inform the choice of the voter, Muslim and Non Muslim.
The very Idea that Muslims in India, almost 13% of the population, close to 160 million individuals, more than half of whom, 80 million people, are voters, with all their sectional, professional, cultural, economic, social, linguistic diversities and differences, at times rather antagonistic differences, can be herded like sheep and be guided, persuaded, pressurised to vote for a party or a set of parties or candidates is so stupendously devoid of commonsense that it is breathtaking in its stupidity.
The idea that a handful of Mullahs conspiring in secluded mosques and striking deals with hidden political operators are capable of delivering the Muslim vote to someone who has the monies to pay, is in its very conception a very undemocratic idea. The idea that 13.4 % of this country has stopped thinking is an idea that betrays a fascist bent of mind. Such an idea has its foundation in the assumption that Muslims are different from other human beings, that they are genetically designed to not have a brain. The idea that they can be led by their leaders and religious leaders at that in such, this worldly, secular, matters and made to do things that saner elements – read non Muslims- can’t be made to do is an idea that is born out of the tendency towards stereotyping, branding and profiling an entire segment of population?
All this talk of Muslim Vote Bank continues despite the fact that before every election there are Brahmin Maha Sammelans, Rajput Maha Sammelans, Vaish Maha Sammelans, Kurmi Maha Sammelans , Yadav Maha Sammelans and such other gatherings where calls are given to this or that community to ensure the victory of this or that party, demands are placed for reserving a particular proportion of seats for the concerned community, specific concessions are asked for and promised and yet no one describes these conclaves as ‘Vote Bank Mobilisation’. Despite all this it is the Muslims that continue to be described as a vote bank even in the face of the fact that till today Muslims have never held a Sammelan to decide to caste their collective votes for this or that party.
After the demolition of Babri Masjid and more specifically after the Gujarat Genocide, the Muslim Voters try to ensure in whatever manner they can, that as far as possible the candidates put up by the BJP should not win. But that is not vote bank politics that is sheer self-defence, what else can they do?
A community that has been discriminated against uninterruptedly for the last 65 years and a community that has been a victim of deliberate and conscious exclusion, marginalisation and demonization in every conceivable sphere of life, a community that has been denied education, healthcare and employment and a community that has been systematically ghettoised and whose loyalties are constantly questioned, a community that has been branded and treated as a pariah for too long, the least that such a community should be allowed to do is to once in five years try to keep its killers at bay.
If this is “vote Bank Politics” then certainly the “Muslims are a Vote Bank” but they are voting only to stay alive, since no one is giving them anything for their votes, because if they were getting anything in exchange of this vote, except perhaps the right to vote, they would not be where they are. The Sachchar committee Report is the biggest argument against the “Muslim Vote Bank and Minority appeasement.
(A slightly different version of this article has appeared in Think India magazine.)