A man identified as Shahrukh pointing a gun at a policeman in Delhi, February 24
HOURS AFTER VIOLENCE—arson, petrol bombs, stone-pelting—and terror overran poorer localities of northeast Delhi on February 23rd, a video from the Jafrabad area appeared in the public domain. Jafrabad is just a few kilometres from the seat of power where preparations were on to host US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and their entourage. In the other part of town, people witnessed a bearded young man in a red shirt, brandishing a gun, heading towards an unarmed Delhi Police constable. The man, at gunpoint, forced the policeman to step back. And then he fired in the air, over and over. The video was shot from a nearby rooftop and showed half-a-dozen men approach the policeman, threaten him and pelt him with stones. With his hands up in the air, the constable moved back slowly.
The police said they were taken aback by the sudden attack and could not react on time. Dozens of shops were gutted, as was a petrol pump. Several Metro stations were shut. Houses in residential areas and places of worship were targets of stone-pelting and petrol bombs. Goons had taken over the streets. Cars and buses were set on fire. By the time Trump left town, the death toll had climbed to 20, including two policemen—a head constable and an Intelligence Bureau officer. Hundreds were injured, some grievously. Delhi resembled a war zone.
The aggression of groups protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the capital peaked with the killing of a police constable at Jafrabad-Maujpur, in the thick of clashes between groups opposing and supporting the CAA. The violence in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh—both visited by Trump—was timed. It was influenced by the stone-pelting and sectarian slogans, a mayhem engineered by shadowy hardliners. Although symbols of the Indian state rivalled those of Islam at the protests, including at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the engineered violence has exposed the sinister political motives behind prioritising community interests by holding the country to ransom.
Two trends have surfaced from the CAA protests. First, politicians from the majority community have become somewhat apprehensive of getting fully identified with Shaheen Bagh-type protests dominated by a minority community. Barring the likes of the CPI’s D Raja and the Congress’ Digvijaya Singh, prominent leaders of all parties largely kept a safe distance from the protests. Despite the Delhi election campaign, Arvind Kejriwal did not visit the protest area. This represents a marked change from the time when leaders like Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad appeared to pander to extremist sentiments in the Muslim community.
Second, the contours of Muslim politics appear to have quietly but radically altered. In the past, Muslim leaders masked their community’s demands behind more acceptable secular ideals. The intellectual vanguard used to project leaders like Syed Shahabuddin and Azam khan as secular. The new approach seems to be in-your-face.
AFTER THE CAA, the terms of minority politics have significantly changed. Leaders flaunt their community identity. They are no longer shy of overtly religious slogans and symbols: hundreds of women in hijab are ostensibly driving the protests at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere in the country. Slogans of “Nara-e-taqbeer” and “La ilaha Ilallah” reverberate through the protest areas. The language of protest is also reinterpreting recent events related to the minority community. As part of this, the community’s angst over the criminalisation of Triple Talaq, the abrogation of Article 370 and the creation of two new Union Territories in place of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the apex court’s verdict on the Ayodhya dispute, has been vented by the women in hijab. On both Triple Talaq and Ayodhya, it was the court that had a key role to play. But that has not stemmed the community’s angst, despite protestations of “trust in the judiciary”. These issues are now being viewed through the lens of identity.
There is a history of hypocrisy and manipulation when it comes to the ‘secular’ language in independent India’s politics and culture as well as in the engagement of ‘secular’ leaders with the Muslim community. The late Arun Jaitley used to narrate a story from 1987 to illustrate this. VP Singh had quit the Rajiv Gandhi Government and formed the Jan Morcha after announcing a probe into the deal signed with Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) for the supply and indigenous manufacture of submarines for the Indian Navy. There was a problem though. Singh’s Morcha did not have adequate ‘Jan’ to sway voters and establish him as a credible challenger to Rajiv Gandhi. He depended on organisations like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for attracting crowds and they obliged.
Singh knew how to extract what was required from those who came to support him. He made certain that the BJP’s support and that of student organisations did not come in the way of the ‘secular’ politics he was planning to unleash. On the eve of a trip to Bombay, Singh lashed out at the Shiv Sena and its leader Bal Thackeray, announcing that his new Morcha would join the fight against the Sena. Jaitley, who was liaising with Singh, met him at his residence late that evening and protested that such an attack was uncalled for as the Sena was a long-term ally. “It will be difficult for ABVP volunteers to attend your meeting,” Jaitley told Singh. Singh retorted that he fully empathised with the ABVP’s sentiments, but ‘secular’ politics demanded such symbolic statements.
Singh, who struck a deal with the BJP in the 1989 General Election, piggybacked on the saffron brigade’s support but refused to share the dais with BJP leaders or allow its flag at his rallies. Even the coordination meetings of his Government were held at the residence of Viren J Shah. All those who practised political untouchability vis-à-vis the BJP, like CPM veteran Jyoti Basu, regularly attended the deliberations and rubbed shoulders with BJP leaders in the privacy of this house. Thus, optics was more important in the ‘secular’ politicians’ engagement with the Muslim community.
Since Independence, the Congress had been successful in keeping the Muslim community at its side by making efforts to sidestep issues like the civil code. Armed with such quid pro quo, the community began exercising its veto over the election process by the mid-1960s. The All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, formed in 1964, attempted to exert its influence indirectly by extending support to individual parliamentary and Assembly candidates from different political parties, based primarily on the candidate’s willingness to accommodate their interests.
Priyanka Gandhi’s objective seems to be restructuring the Muslim community as the core Congress vote bank while arranging Hindu voters around the core
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However, that did not really work in the Assembly elections of 1967 as socialists, the Jana Sangh and the Left managed to put up a formidable alliance to challenge the Congress. Indira Gandhi tripped the community in the 1971 Lok Sabha polls. In the 1972 elections in UP and Bihar, the community interest card played by the Muslim leadership did not work as Indira Gandhi fought the polls on the back of India’s victory over Pakistan and her image as Durga astride a tiger.
The 1970s saw the community backing the Janata Party and, later, Charan Singh in UP. Eventually, the Samajwadi Party, formed in 1992, emerged as the biggest claimant for the community’s support in the biggest state with the most Muslim voters. Even then, community leaders did not quite abandon the mid-1960s’ transactional template of supporting parties that acquiesced in their demands. This was what fuelled slogans like “Pehle apna bhai, phir Bhajpa harayi, phir Sapai” (first one’s brethren, then the party that can best defeat the BJP, and then the Samajwadi Party).
Political leaders fell over each other to appease the community. Mulayam earned the sobriquet ‘Mullah’ because of his pandering to the community. Lalu Prasad was hailed by the ‘secular’ politicians for asking, sotto voce, whether Lord Ram had a birth certificate. The reference was to the prolonged political wringing of the Ram Mandir issue and experts’ findings that a temple had existed at Ayodhya, at the very place where the Babri Masjid was erected. That statement did not go down well with the majority community, which saw it as questioning the essence of its faith.
Even the tallest Dalit leader at the time, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) chief Kanshi Ram, was left with little option but to forge a Dalit-Muslim axis. However, he realised soon enough that his party would not be able to move ahead on prioritising the interests of the Dalit community. More importantly, he realised that the BSP could not reach its political goals by deploying the tactics of its key rival, the Samajwadi Party. He reportedly told his party colleagues in private that while Muslims got the Dalit vote, there was little reciprocity. That is a suspicion reflected even today by Mayawati. After the unusual alliance with the Samajwadi Party in the last UP Assembly elections, the hype that surrounded its ability to take on the BJP and the failure that followed, propelling the BJP to its biggest ever victory in the state, Mayawati broke off the alliance.
Shaheen Bagh has been ‘iconised’ by ‘political hobbyists’—to use a phrase coined by Eitan Hersh of Tufts University—as many saw it as a one-stop shop to flaunt their quasi-ideological credentials. Mainly academics, students and retired bureaucrats, they played a big role in promoting Shaheen Bagh’s image as the fulcrum of a ‘people’s movement’ against the Government.
The protests were then taken over by hardline youth leaders of the community who preferred to put the hijab-clad women upfront while manipulating events from the shadows. At the same time, the national symbols were eclipsed by those related specifically to the community. The narrative was clear. This was an Islamist movement meant to reset the Muslim community’s terms of engagement with the country. To be fair, there are sections of the community nervous about the direction that the anti-CAA protests are taking. But they are either disenfranchised from within, or are a minority of ordinary Muslims.
Shaheen Bagh is now a mindset. It is a statement that Muslims across India have the numbers to bend the mainstream and change the narrative. The Supreme Court-appointed mediators are not dealing with normal protests. They are dealing with this mindset. The symbols displayed at the venue are props for a larger script the message of which is clear. Hereon, the community will have to be dealt with on its terms—and those terms are Islamist.
The response of the ‘secular’ political class to this message from Shaheen Bagh has not been uniform. The pervasive fear of antagonising Hindu voters by taking an overt position in support of Shaheen Bagh has also led Akhilesh Yadav, the biggest beneficiary of Muslim support in UP, to distance himself strategically from the violence in the state. The Samajwadi Party’s role has been restricted to creating a ruckus in the UP Assembly and announcing a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of those killed in the violence.
Of all the political parties, it is the Congress that has been the most defiant in its embrace of the anti-CAA protests and its consequences. It has been openly espousing the cause. Priyanka Gandhi, the party’s General Secretary in charge of eastern UP, has been visiting the families of those jailed by the state government. Although these visits have included Dalits, the Congress leader has focused more on Muslims, till now staunch supporters of the Samajwadi Party. The bonhomie between Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav has evaporated after the BJP’s victory. Priyanka Gandhi’s preferred road to reviving the Congress in this key state for the next Assembly elections is a switch from the party’s attempts to make Muslims the core of its social constituency. Before the arrival of Mulayam Singh, Muslims were perceived as politically safest with the Congress, as an adjunct to the party’s core vote bank. But then they switched to the Samajwadi Party under Mulayam Singh, as did the upper crust of OBCs, even while Dalits moved their base to the BSP. Priyanka Gandhi’s objective seems to be restructuring the Muslim community as the core Congress vote bank while attempting to arrange Hindu voters around the same core. From a ‘Hindu-Plus’ party, the Congress is now working at reshaping itself into a ‘Muslim-Plus’ party.
If the Congress pursues this course, it will be a replication of what one sees playing out on American campuses as a key strategy of Democratic progressives. In coastal cities and among immigrant communities, there is an attempt to create a coalition of Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities to back the political project of the Democrats.
This ‘movement’ will not end with the mere reopening of closed roads in Delhi. Hereafter, the Muslim community will not back a political party just because its leaders acknowledge or indulge them. Hereon, mainstream political parties and leaders cannot escape the maximalist demands of the community. For the BJP, which has by and large checkmated the community’s electoral veto, this situation could pose a new challenge. But non-BJP parties will find it difficult to take an ambivalent position on, say, Israel. The leaders of the community will, in all likelihood, not see Kashmir as a matter of national security either but as an intrinsic part of a larger Hindu-Muslim issue. And they will lay down stringent terms on how the country should engage with Muslims in return for the community’s support.