Enter Muslim voter; Exit Muslim veto
by Sandhya Jain on 21 Mar 2017 47 Comments

The Uttar Pradesh assembly election grabbed national and even international eyeballs because of the unprecedented victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which its opponents had hoped to deflate in the run up to the general elections of 2019. But its most spectacular outcome was the eclipse of the ‘Muslim veto’.


The Muslim vote has decided elections to Parliament and State Assemblies since 1952, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru crafted them into the Congress Party’s default vote bloc in lieu of ‘protection’ in post-partition India. Muslims supported Congress out of a mixture of guilt and insecurity, as a result of which the party needed only a small addition of select caste groups (mostly Brahmins and Scheduled Castes) to win.


As a corollary, Muslim leaders prospered as gatekeepers of their community’s vote, and nurtured orthodoxy to control its thought process, keeping it backward in modern education and its attendant opportunities. They paid scant attention to the sufferings of women due to instant divorce (triple talaq). When Shah Bano, a divorcee, won a niggardly alimony from a court, the clergy and Muslim leadership united to force the Rajiv Gandhi government to pass the monstrous Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986. Lone voices of sanity, that like of Arif Mohammad Khan, who resigned from the cabinet in anger, were brushed aside as educated and secular-left Muslims carried the day.


Since then, Muslim women and their children have had no redress against triple talaq and its adverse consequences. Clerics with totalitarian power have encouraged men to disregard the prescribed procedure of talaq delivered in three stages across three months (to provide scope for reconciliation), and pronounce it callously via telephone, SMS or even whatsapp.


The decision of Muslim women’s organisations to approach the Supreme Court for justice in 2016, and demand rights and protection as citizens, was a revolutionary moment. The Indian Constitution grants rights and freedoms to citizens, not to caste or religious collectives; the quest for gender justice has shattered the tentacles of orthodoxy. Hindu girls always had social and religious reformers to speak for them; the Government also introduced many reforms. But entrenched orthodoxy and vote bank politics put Muslim women beyond the pale.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who never lets grass grow under his feet, quickly indicated keenness to consign the disreputable Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, to the dustbin of history. The Government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court asserting that divorce procedures are not an intrinsic feature of Islamic religious practice, and can be amended in the interests of the community. At the start of the election campaign, BJP president Amit Shah promised a constitutional amendment invalidating triple talaq if the BJP was voted to power in Uttar Pradesh, which has a huge Muslim population.


Interestingly, at a post-election seminar of the Muslim Welfare Manch in the capital’s Constitution Club, delegates applauded the Prime Minister for speaking up for Muslim women on an issue that threatens their peace of mind throughout their lives. In contrast, the Congress and Samajwadi Party always evaded the issue. Claiming that not only Muslim women, but also men, had supported the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, they demanded a ban on triple talaq. Berating madrasas for teaching the Koran by rote, and not by its meaning, they asserted that personal study showed that the clergy was peddling its own version of the faith and demanded that the meaning of the verses be taught along with the text. Such a development would equal the Ataturk revolution in Turkey, with no one would speak for the caliphate this time.


A word on the BJP campaign and subsequent choice of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister is in order. By not fielding Muslim candidates, the BJP allowed the divided opposition (SP-Congress vs. BSP) to compete for the minority vote, and wooed Muslims at par with other citizens, on a development platform.


Now, battered by the election results, the secularists are trying to provoke the community with references to the Yogi’s election speeches. We may note that tensions between certain groups pre-date independence and flare up occasionally due to local irritants, which need to be handled maturely. Yogi ji’s moral authority in the State – he was star campaigner in all seven phases of the poll – is the best guarantor of peace and stability. That is why Muslims in the vicinity of Gorakhnath peeth spontaneously celebrated his anointment.


The Muslim voter has finally come of age. And the era of the Muslim Veto is over. As more and more Muslims come forward to taste the rights and freedoms bestowed by the Constitution, the near-monolithic vote bloc will be impossible to resurrect. This is the greatest takeaway from the UP election.


The BJP won 31 of the 42 seats where Muslims comprised one-third of the electorate; logically these seats should have been won by the SP-Congress or the BSP. State-wide, however, the BSP was battered because Amit Shah convinced non-Jatav Scheduled Castes to trust the Prime Minister’s development programmes. Akhilesh Yadav was worsted because Shah courted the non-Yadav OBCs and because umpteen incidents of communal tension across the State were hushed up and not handled politically. At election time, the SP-Congress alliance could not ensure mutual transfer of Yadav and Muslim votes; the rest is history.


Two issues deserve mention. Muslim women need legal relief from triple talaq and polygamy. Most second marriages occur without the consent of the first wife and without making adequate provision for her and her children. They also want an end to the repulsive practice of halala, whereby a woman has to marry another man and consummate the marriage before she can divorce him and remarry the husband who regrets having divorced her. The Centre and the Supreme Court must bring Muslim women within the ambit of existing laws.


The second is the Ram Janmabhumi temple in Ayodhya. As a fervent believer in the temple, this writer insists that the mandate of 2014 and of 2017 was not sought in the name of Sri Rama, but of development and progress for all. Like Prime Minister Modi, Yogi Adityanath must focus on governance and development – the civilisational circuits to promote tourism would make a good beginning – and restrain agent provocateurs. The Ayodhya dispute is pending in the Supreme Court which has a huge backlog of cases that deserve higher priority. Larger forces of history will determine when the grand temple will be built. 

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