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What does AAP’s Victory in Delhi Assembly Election say about Muslims?

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By Mosarrap H. Khan

I must begin with a caveat: I am neither a political analyst nor a psephologist. Like many in India, I am an avid follower of politics and try to make sense of the happenings with common sense. This piece is an attempt to make sense of AAP’s victory in Delhi and situate this victory within the larger popular discourse about Indian Muslims, particularly their supposed victimhood, lack of leadership, and ghettoization.

What’s up with Indian Muslims?

Here I sump up very briefly the arguments from three newspaper articles about Indian Muslims, which give us a glimpse into the popular discourse about Indian Muslims.

In a well-intentioned piece, coincidentally published on the morning of 7 January, 2015, the day the Charlie Hebdo massacre took place, Sagarika Ghose recommends that Indian Muslims shouldn’t allow themselves to be pushed into perpetual victimhood over issues of ‘love jihad’ (inter-faith love/marriage between Hindus and Muslims)  and ‘ghar wapsi’ (religious conversion of minorities to Hinduism). She recounts the achievements of Indian Muslim icons and frames them problematically with Indian nationalism, “India’s exceptional Muslim citizens are icons whose achievements are proudly, subliminally claimed by Indian nationalism even if the ‘Muslim’ is apparently antithetical to it.” Ghose’s concern is borne out of the fact that Asaduddin Owaisi gained prominence as the ‘sole spokesperson’ of the Muslim community in India, after his impressive electoral debut in Maharashtra, outside his home-turf, Hyderabad. Further, Ghose answers why Indian Muslims might be opting for Owaisi’s supposedly communal brand of politics, “A leaderless community is now seeking refuge in their own demagogues, in the belief that they alone can offer an effective counterpoint to both majoritarian and flawed secular politics.” While she makes an ardent appeal for a modern, moderate Muslim leadership that can steer Muslims to national mainstream, her final message is one of self-congratulation: “Beyond the yelling bigots, there’s a silent more welcoming truth: Indian Muslims would not be the second largest community in the world, if the true Hindu was anti-Muslim.”

While Ghose’s piece was published sometime after the Maharashtra assembly election, Vir Sanghvi’s piece was published after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which had its distinct ramifications for Indian Muslims. Sanghvi lays out the field with a distinction between western (individual interest) and Indian (group interest) approaches to liberalism and believes that in India, it has always been liberal Hindus who have spoken out against bigotry, “…people within each community or group must begin to speak out for individual freedom…So it is with liberal Muslims…Unless more liberal Muslims speak out for freedom of speech, it is the mullahs who will continue to speak for the community.” Here the emphasis is again on a regressive Muslim leadership – the Mullahs.

A retired Muslim bureaucrat and secretary general of Lok Janshakti Party, Abdul Khaliq, too, argues for an elightened Muslim leadership, who would be able to bridge the gap between Hindus and Muslims to fight systemic discrimination against Muslims and defeat the self-serving leaders from the community, “More than ever before, Muslims need an enlightened modern leadership…Unfortunately, what they have are media-advertised, self-appointed Muslim leaders — the deadly free-riders who have, through their divisive hate-mongering, further corralled Muslims in their ghettos.”

I have focused here on mainly three out of many opinion pieces which urge a rethinking on the part of Muslims about their place in Indian society and the need for a liberal Muslim leadership and intelligentsia that could steer the community to the path of integration, assimilation, ultimately enabling the community to stake its claim in the national mainstream.

If one were to flip the main arguments in these opinion pieces, one would take away a very familiar argument that Muslims as a community are still regressive, separatist in spirit, and obstinate in their passion for religion. In other words, as much as the leadership has failed Muslims, ordinary Muslims are themselves to be blamed for failing to choose leaders who are more liberal, rational, and assimilationist.

How did Muslims vote in Delhi?

An NDTV report suggested that Delhi’s 11% Muslim votes could be the deciding factor in eight seats spread across the walled city, Seelampur in East Delhi, and Okhla in South Delhi. AAP had fielded 5 Muslim candidates, one less than in 2013. In contrast, BJP had fielded a lone Muslim candidate, Shakeel Anjum Dehalvi, who left AAP just before the elections, from Matia Mahal.

There is no reliable data to base one’s observations (and I am no psephologist, as I mentioned earlier) about how Muslims voted in Delhi. Today’s Chanakya’s exit poll suggests that 71% Muslims voted for AAP, a far larger number than other communities. The Schedule Castes come closest with 55% votes for AAP. Contrasted to this, according to a CSDS survey, 55% Muslims had voted for Congress in 2013 Delhi assembly elections. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, AAP had consolidated 56% Muslim votes in Delhi and Congress had garnered 39%.

Why did Muslims leave the Congress and choose to vote for the AAP? There have been two distinct theories: first, Muslims felt only the AAP could counter BJP’s communal politics; second, Muslims were concerned about basic amenities, just like any other community. An IANS report quoting a Delhi Muslim resident sums up the reasons well, “We chose AAP on the issues of water, power and basic amenities. But our first priority was to choose a party that will be impartial on caste and community based politics.”

After AAP’s victory in Delhi, the Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI) wrote a letter to Mr. Arvind Kejriwal in which it claimed that during “the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and  in  the  just  concluded  Delhi  Assembly  elections, Muslims overwhelmingly voted for AAP.” Further, it put forward a list of requests which included demand for increase in access to education and health, as well enabling the community to maintain its religious and cultural heritage like the preservation of Urdu.

What conclusions could we draw?

After AAP’s victory, when I looked up the twitter for reactions, Sagarika Ghose’s tweet stood out for me:

I don’t intend to challenge Ghose’s contention because it is made from the same premise that all Muslims are not terrorists, yet it is pretty sweeping. However, that’s not my main point here. My concern is that Ghose’s tweet loops into her earlier op-ed piece (as well as two other pieces that I summed up) in which her final conclusion is not so much about Muslim feeling of victimhood but about Hindu ‘liberalism.’

What other conclusions could one possibly draw from this conflictual discourse about Muslim (almost self-imposed) insularity and their willingness to vote for AAP, a supposedly non-communal party?

First, Muslims in India, like any other community, are eager to access the basic necessities and amenities. They are looking for a party that will provide them the fundamental things required to lead a decent and dignified life. I doubt if Owaisi had won if he had fought the elections, as the defeat of Muslim Congress leaders are a testimony that Muslims didn’t vote only for one of their own community. And this trend was found even in Varanasi during the Lok Sabha elections, where Muslims voted en masse for Kejriwal.

Second, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Muslims are constructed categories and predominantly conceptualized from a majoritarian perspective. If voting could be taken as a form of ‘freedom of speech’, Muslims in Delhi have shown how liberalism should actually be ‘in practice’. By voting for AAP, Muslims have demonstrated that any ‘ism’ taken literally amounts to a form of absolutism. How one practices it in a particular context is what should matter most.

Third, should we look for Muslim leadership only from within the community? I know this is hugely contentious (and we intend to have a larger debate on this) and I am all for a Gramscian organic intellectual/leader, evolving out of the community. However, in the absence of credible Muslim leadership, Muslims seem to repose their faith in a supposedly ‘progressive’ leadership predominantly from outside the community.

Lastly and, most importantly, the time has come to redefine ‘librealism.’ As I had written earlier, if we keep on viewing Muslims through the narrow prism of western liberalism, we will forever fail to view the churning within the community. If our liberals keep on conceptualizing liberalism as an idea without visible presence of religion, they will wrongly accuse the Muslim community of retreating into perpetual victimhood.

There is a great churning happening within the Indian Muslim community. Delhi assembly elections once again gave us a chance to grasp those changes. If we fail to take note, it will be one more missed opportunity for Indian Muslims and for all Indians.


Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is an editor of Cafe Dissensus. 

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