First Person | Limits of Democracy

Elections do not guarantee security and justice if the majority is radicalise

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

For the last few years, the world has been anxiously wringing its collective hands over what it regards as the subversion of democratic institutions in India. In the 2020 global Democracy Index released earlier this year by the Economist Intelligence Unit, India had slipped two places and stood at 53 out of 167 countries.

While the government worried about its reputation, protesting the duplicity of the parameters by which India was judged, the global minders of democracy were anxious about the impact of India’s slippage on the overall export of democratic values to the less fortunate citizens of the world. As part of this anxiety mitigating programme, I was invited to confabulate with ‘like-minded’ people on the progressive regression of democracy in India. The host, hailing from the oldest and the largest exporter of democracy worldwide, wanted to ascertain that the reported slippages were merely incidental; that India remained a democracy, at least theoretically.

After the hour-long interaction, never mind what the Indian interlocutors like me said, the host was both reassured and reassuring. We were told that for all its flaws, India is and will likely remain a kicking democracy. No pun intended. After all, India regularly holds free, fair and largely peaceful elections. All elements of democracy, such as the legislature and the judiciary are functioning. Barring a few geographical restrictions, the media is both independent and privately-owned. India has a vibrant civil society where people like us can criticise the government within reasonable limits. And in any case, the radical fringe exists everywhere. Remember the white supremacists’ storming of the Capitol Hill!

Coincidentally, also in July, the Journal of Democracy carried a special section on India titled, Is India Still a Democracy? Structured as a debate, the section carried essays furthering both arguments. Those essays which alleged that India could no longer be called a fair democracy used the example of curbs on press freedom, incarceration of journalists and civil activists under draconian anti-terror laws, restrictions on criticism of the government by terming it as seditious activity, subversion of the electoral process by money power and so on. All very well.

The opposite side insisted that such criticism was selective and driven by the politics of those critical of the government. Their argument was that not only the curbs that the present regime has imposed upon individual and institutional independence in the name of national interests, are constitutional, but they have been employed by previous governments too for various political objectives. The only difference between then and now is of degree or frequency. So, the contention that Indian democracy is in recession, is exaggerated. Valid arguments these were.

All these recent conversations on democracy in India reminded me of the 2008 conference on terrorism hosted by India’s biggest Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband. In February, Darul Uloom had hosted a discussion on terrorism and following this, in May the same year, it held a public rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan attended by a large number of Muslim clerics. There, in the presence of the who’s who of India’s Islamic community, the grand Mufti of Darul Uloom, Maulana Habibur Rahman Khairabadi issued a fatwa, saying, ‘Islam rejects all kinds of unjust violence, breach of peace, bloodshed, murder and plunder and does not allow it in any form.’

This was the first time any Indian Islamic organisation had spoken against terrorism. The fatwa was hailed as a progressive step, especially given the reputation of the Darul Uloom and its conflation with radicalisation. Especially with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Darul Uloom came under international spotlight. It was found that the Pakistani madrassas that were churning out radicalised Mujahids were teaching the curriculum based on Darul Uloom’s material. Closer home, in Kashmir, the Jamaat-e-Islami was accused of not only fanning religious conservatism and intolerance among the Sufi-inclined Kashmiris, but also spearheading the violent insurgency. The Jamaat-e-Islami, like several other conservative Islamic organisations, traced its theological roots to the Darul Uloom.

Around this time, with no little help from the west, a phrase had become popular—while all Muslims may not be terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims. Given this background, the Darul Uloom’s denunciation of terrorism was hailed as an important intervention during the global war against terror.

But was that fatwa really an important event?

No. And the Darul Uloom knew it, which is why it was not difficult for it to issue one. The reason was simple. Terrorism was not an Islamic issue. No Muslim person indulging in acts of terrorism was doing it thinking that he was committing terrorism. No movement, including the violent ones, of political resistance, were viewed by the perpetrators as acts of terrorism. Resistance was not terrorism, it was jihad. And this is what the Darul Uloom should have addressed.

Among the most sensitive verses of the Quran, which came with huge conditionalities, jihad has also been the most misunderstood. Most experts are content with the distinction of Akbar and Asghar—with the former being the personal struggle to ensure that one is a better human being, regarded as a greater and nobler jihad in comparison to Asghar which refers to resistance, both violent and non-violent, against the oppressors or injustice.

Ideally, the Darul Uloom should have held a discussion on jihad-e-Asghar and made public pronouncements on the conditionalities of the sword verses—why were they revealed, what were the circumstances of their revelations, who could call for jihad and against whom, what were restrictions imposed on those waging the jihad, what were the rights and privileges of non-combatants and so on.

I met the rector of the Darul Uloom Deoband, Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani, while working on my book Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India. On sword verses, he told me, “Some Quranic verses were circumstance-specific and were rendered redundant when the circumstances changed. Hence, these must be read within their context.” He further said, “These verses on jihad cannot be taken out of context and held as applicable for all time to come. The jihad verses came with very strong conditionalities. Not everyone can declare a jihad and nor can it be declared in all circumstances.” According to Mufti Nomani, jihad can only be declared by the leader of the ummah or an Islamic state. “Jihad cannot be declared by an individual against other individuals,” he said, adding, “Moreover, in the Indian context, no jihad can be declared here as it is a dar-ul-aman (land of peace) for Muslims.”

However, what Mufti Nomani told me in a personal meeting, his institute has been reluctant to say at a public forum. He used the plea of this being public knowledge, so there was no need to reiterate it. But the truth is, this discourse on jihad would raise questions about all kinds of political resistance by Muslims in the name of Islam, from Kashmir to Palestine with Afghanistan in between. Terming their resistance as jihad gave these uprisings a religious sanction helping them recruit more and more gullible people. Because as the Quran says, once a legitimate jihad is declared then it is incumbent on all able-bodied people to participate–not doing so would put unfair burden of fighting for justice on only a few.

Vested interests among Muslims deliberately allowed the label of jihad to be put on what are political problems requiring political resolution. And to get young Muslims to participate in their political agenda, large scale radicalisation was carried out, often using the literature produced at the Darul Uloom. But like the sword verses, the Darul Uloom texts were also contextual. Mufti Nomani told me that these texts exist as part of Quranic exegesis. They are not meant to be taken literally. Given this, ideally, the Darul Uloom should have either withdrawn these texts or ensured that they were taught cautiously with their correct context. But the seminary has done no such thing. Because no such thing was expected of it. It was presented with the omnibus term terrorism, and it denounced it. When you pose the wrong question, you get the wrong answer.

Just as the discussion then should have been on radicalisation of Muslims in the name of jihad, the discussion today should be on radicalisation of Hindus and how it is enabling subversion of Indian democracy, institutional strength notwithstanding. Democracies are meant to empower ordinary citizens. They give power to the weak to choose the kind of political future they desire, to punish those who deny them that future by voting them out. In a democracy, nothing is more important than a vote. But in today’s India, the vote of a certain section of the population, mostly Muslims, is irrelevant.

Notwithstanding India’s thriving, albeit flawed, democracy, Muslims are being systematically pushed out of the social, economic and political mainstream. In the social sphere, the criminals or terrorists (politely referred to as the lumpen) have unleashed a reign of terror on the streets and other public spaces. In the most recent instance of this, on July 31, 2023, a uniformed policeman, while on duty inside a train, picked up his service rifle and killed three innocent Muslims travelling in the same train after first killing his superior. There was no provocation. He simply killed his superior and then went looking for people who looked like Muslims (beard, skullcap, kurta-pyjama etc) through the train and shot them at point blank range.

It is possible to dismiss this incident as a policeman gone rogue? But this is not an isolated incident. A couple of days before this, a Muslim man was lynched by a mob in Rajasthan on suspicion of trading in cows. A few months before that another Muslim man was killed by a lynch mob in Karnataka on similar suspicion. A few weeks before that, two Muslim men were beaten and burnt alive in their vehicle at Rajasthan-Haryana border by a similar terrorist mob which goes by the euphemism of cow vigilantes. And the list goes on. One may wonder how it is possible for the terrorist mob to corner a Muslim. Why don’t they ever round up a Hindu cattle trader, given that the biggest meat and cattle product exporters in India are Hindus.

That’s because of their clothes. On December 15, 2019, a person no less than the prime minister of the country showed the way by which Muslims could be isolated in a crowd. In an election rally (where else) in Jharkhand, he told the crowd, in reference to the nationwide protests against the communally discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act that “Those who are creating violence can be identified by their clothes.” And the dutiful foot soldiers have been doing it without failure.

To be fair to them, they have been doing it since the present regime came into power. But while earlier there was deniability about hate crimes, now there is ownership. Clearly, the government has realised that there is a ‘benefit’ in owning up hate crimes against the minorities, mainly Muslims, but Christians too. That the radicalised Hindu majority sees in this the righting of uncountable historical wrongs and rewards the government by voting for it. This is one of the reasons that hate crimes against the minorities increase before elections. They unite the Hindu votes. In corporate terms, this is tantamount to monopoly of votes. And monopolies as we all know are unfair, unjust and unacceptable in any society that champions public welfare.

A consequence of this continuous violence in public spaces is that a growing number of Muslims are ceding the mainstream, slinking back into the ghettos they had left behind aspiring for a better quality of life. It is the not the absence of democracy which is forcing this social transformation. It is the presence of fear, which is spreading its tentacles despite democracy.

Inter-connected with this social terror is economic marginalisation. As more Muslims quit the mainstream, they are also turning their backs on employment opportunities available to others. A vast majority of Indian Muslims are semi-literate, dependent upon traditional trade or crafts. For instance, the ancillary industries pertaining to cattle, such as meat, leather and footwear. However, caught between government’s discriminatory regulations and impunity enjoyed by the terrorist mobs, many have quit the trade of their forefathers.

Those who earn their wages in the informal sector, such as fruit and vegetable vendors, carpenters, mechanics etc are being pushed out by ordinary, but radicalised Hindus, who are calling for economic boycott of Muslims.

The formal sector is only slightly better than this, because workplace discrimination is growing. In a stagnant economy, where employment is in short-supply, more educated Muslims are falling through the sieve. Even when available, jobs are seldom commensurate with the qualifications and expectations of Muslim aspirants. Sometimes, the fear of the street and the anxiety of travelling too far from home for employment also forces them to settle for self-employment in the unorganised sector, such as, giving tuition to Muslim students.

And finally, the politics itself, the touchstone of democracy. It’s a well-known fact that Muslims are the most politically marginalised community in India—both in terms of representation as well as value of votes. This process started right after Independence, when Muslim political representation in Parliament could never match the proportion of their population. The highest percentage that they have ever reached was 10 per cent of the total parliamentary strength. This was in 1980, when 49 Muslims won Lok Sabha seats, 30 of them from the Congress party. This was an aberration. Their average percentage has hovered around five, despite they being close to 15 per cent of the national population. The 2011 Census put the Muslim population at 14.23 per cent of the nation.

Analysts say that the declining Muslim representation is a consequence of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The argument goes that given its antipathy towards Muslims, the BJP does not field Muslim candidates, unless it must. However, this is only half the story. The other half is that a candidate is fielded depending upon her winnability. Today, very few Hindus vote for a Muslim candidate, unless everyone in the fray is a Muslim. In that case, they would vote for the candidate representing the party they like. Otherwise, a Muslim candidate has to depend upon only Muslim votes. And in only a handful of constituencies today, Muslim votes hold enough sway to determine the election results.

There are three reasons for this. One, the delimitation of constituencies over the years has divided Muslim populations in such a manner that they no longer hold a collective decisive vote in any district. In addition to that, over the years, several districts have been declared as reserve constituencies, which has further reduced the possibilities of Muslim candidates because despite a sustained campaign, the government of India does not recognise backward/lower castes Muslims as Scheduled Castes.

Two, all the while when the BJP was deploring the cultivation of the Muslim vote bank by the Congress party, it was assiduously building a Hindu vote-bank. Such has been the impact of this consolidation that even in districts with substantive Muslim populations, where until a few years ago a Muslim politician had a chance of winning, even parties in opposition to the BJP are wary of fielding a Muslim candidate. They feel that the presence of a Muslim candidate will consolidate all Hindu votes against him. The assumption behind this thinking is that today an upper-caste Hindu voter will not vote for a Muslim candidate.

Three, elections in India are about money, which is required not only to run a campaign, but sometimes also to win it. For reasons mentioned earlier, very few Muslims have the money to run a campaign, forget its success.

However, democracy is not just about the ability to win elections; a more critical aspect of it is participation in the process in the belief that your participation can make a difference to your life. This belief is now at grave risk. A recent study has found that in many constituencies, especially where the BJP fears close contest, voter names (mostly Muslims) disappear from the voter lists. This rendering inconsequential of the Muslim votes will, eventually remove the incentive for the politicians to care for Muslim participation in the democratic processes. From there to total invisibility of the Muslims from the national mainstream would be a short distance.

Worrying about democracy is not enough. What that democracy is delivering should be the question.



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