Political Islam in the offing
by Amitabh Tripathi on 29 Apr 2009 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I predicted that this general election is pregnant with a hidden message of Muslim assertion, with alignment of Leftists and Islamists. At that time, even the first phase of voting had not taken place. Now with two phases of general elections over, the voting pattern of Muslims in various states has been gauged. 

The most populous state of Uttar Pradesh has revealed some trends, and according to some newspapers there, some Muslim parties are fighting with the help of the BJP to get Muslim votes of some regional parties known for their strong Muslim base. Although these parties denied the allegations, Muslim parties in UP are the best case study for the aspirations of political Islam in India.

In this general election, Muslims have astonished every political party which took Muslims for granted. It seems that the Muslim leadership collectively has formed a strategy for this election for some kind of showdown; a leadership transition is also happening there.

This was evident in some events which have gone unnoticed. In the last few decades it was almost routine for Muslims to look for religious figures and seminaries to decide for their electoral strategy, but in this election religious figures and seminaries have refrained from issuing any directive to Muslim voters. The most prominent seminary, Dar ul-Uloom Deoband only asked Muslims to use their democratic right of voting, with no political preference indicated. On the other hand, several Muslim parties fielded candidates in Uttar Pradesh; two prominent parties are Ulema Council and Peace Party, whose communal tone and theory of atrocity on Muslims, with a call for political empowerment was visible.

Ulema Council fielded candidates in several constituencies with non-Muslim faces with an electoral arithmetic of transfer of votes. Ulema Council concentrated more in Azamgarh, the district which rose to fame after several Indian Mujahideen were found to have local links here. Ulema Council contested the election in the name of discrimination meted out to Muslim youth in the name of terrorism, and for the political empowerment of Muslims.

The Peace Party fielded candidates in eastern UP and campaigned on the theme of atrocity on Muslims and crisis of identity. The Ulema Council and Peace Party are different in character but have one thing is common - both have been able to appeal to fellow Muslims to cast votes for these parties to show community strength.

The founder of AUDF in Assam, Badruddin Ajmal, was instrumental in forming the Ulema Council. AUDF was set up in Assam in the last Assembly elections with the ambition to emerge as a third force alternative for Muslims after Congress and the regional Asom Gana Parishad which, in the words of Ajmal, was trying to push an anti-Muslim agenda in the name of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators. After the rise of AUDF, political parties in general and Congress in particular, became passive about the issue of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators in Assam.

Ajmal’s rise was phenomenal and he pursued his formula in other states where Muslims are in sizable numbers, such as West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. In the last municipal elections in Maharashtra, Ajmal inspired various Muslim political groups to fight in areas where the Muslim population is decisive and they were successful in Aurangabad and Malegaon, where Muslim candidates won with a huge margin. 

Such in Assam and Maharashtra prompted Ajmal to replicate his experiment in other states where Muslims comprise over 15% of the populace, and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal fell in this category. Although Bihar and West Bengal were not directly influenced by Ajmal, the aspirations of political Islam are clearly visible there. West Bengal has witnessed how the Jamait-e-Islami has been successful in setting the agenda of the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee, and gradually demands are emanating for recognizing Urdu as the second language of the state after Bangla. It will be interesting to see how Bengalis react to these demands. Jamiat has been able to uproot the Left Front from various pockets in the name of political empowerment to get a share in resources and development. 

In this election, Muslims have come out of the Babri demolition syndrome and are more focused on political empowerment. In Uttar Pradesh, the Ulema Council appealed to Muslims not to fear Hindutva or its leaders and think only about their own interests. Once Muslims showed their strength, their voice would be counted. We must analyze this phenomenon carefully.

Today the Muslim leadership seems to be in transition; the political leadership is fragmented, but this situation will not last long as they are not confused about goals and priorities. This transition has some implications. In Hyderabad, traditional leader Owaisi of Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen is facing a stiff challenge from an independent endorsed by all parties except the BJP, the candidate being Siyasat Zahid Ali Khan, editor of the leading Urdu newspaper.

This trend could be interpreted in several ways. Is moderate Islam rising to root out fundamentalist Islam? Or is political Islam taking a new face? To understand we will have to reexamine the aspirations of political Islam in India. The encounter in Batla House and the 26 November 2008 attack on Mumbai were two occasions to read the minds of the Muslim leadership and academia. All Urdu press and Muslim intellectuals were more or less influenced by the conspiracy theory and atrocity theory. 

A new phenomenon in the Muslim leadership reflects Muslim intellectuals, professionals and ideologues, who are trying to supplant the religious leadership. This shows that in coming days, the debate will focus on Muslim reservation, political representation for Muslims and more allotment of resources for them, and non-discrimination of Muslim youths in counter-terrorism. 

The emergence of political Islam in the Indian context could evolve an elitist mentality within the Muslim leadership with more aspirations for political power, which could lead India towards a pre-Partition situation. The study of the emergence of political Islam indicates that once the colonial era ends and traditional village economy converts to new forms of economic development with rapid urbanization, and a chunk of Muslim population migrates to cities and urban areas, their fascination for an alternate worldview grows enormously and traditional Islam becomes a political ideology with an ambition to lead a political movement to impose Sharia. Political Islam believes in this utopian worldview and so called moderate and reformist Islam wants to achieve this goal by exploiting the lacuna of democracy and constitution; in India, secularism is practiced as Hindu-bashing and Muslim appeasement.

This general election shows a clear movement for Muslim assertion. Before elections were announced, a conglomerate of Hindu organizations under the aegis of the Dharma Raksha Manch send a letter to various Islamic organizations to declare India as a land of peace (Dar ul-Aman) not Dar ul-Harb, and announce unequivocally that Jihad against Hindus is not justified and remove them from the list of Kafirs. Dar ul-Uloom Deoband reacted saying Jihad was justified only in British occupation when Muslims were forced to live under non-Islamic rule, and after independence India has become a democratic state, so debate on Jihad has no meaning and relevance in today’s context. This argument is full of contradictions which cover up the goals and aspirations of Islam in India.

The traditional Islamic leadership in India is losing its clout and decisive role among the community, and is being replaced by a global Jihadi movement. In an era of modern communications, global Jihadi appeal and the Arab-Israeli strife attract Muslims more than the fatwa of Deoband to denounce terrorism as un-Islamic. The emergence of Al Qaeda and Taliban has thrown a challenge to traditional Islamic leadership worldwide, and needs to be watched as it incarnates itself with new mascots, new idioms, new plan of action, but with the old Islamic goal of imposition of Quranic and Sharia systems as an alternate world order.

The writer is a professional translator and social activist

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