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Agnostics, atheists and seculars all clutching at Muslim faith to secure their political fortunes

When the dust settles, the five ongoing assembly elections will be remembered for a paradox: A contest where the agnostic, the atheist and the secular all clutched at the straws of faith to secure their political fortunes. At least four of the five battleground assemblies are witnessing alliances between mainstream political parties – traditionally sworn to keeping religion out of politics – and sectarian parties, promising Muslims a “better alternative”. This chaperoning of sectarian parties into the political mainstream by established outfits made an impression in last year’s Bihar assembly election.

In elections across Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala the outcome will hinge on the influence of these parties – AIUDF, ISF, SDPI and IUML. That’s saying a lot when there are plenty of traditional “secular” alternatives for Muslims to choose from. Congress, the Left, DMK, TMC and AMMK, which claim to champion an inclusive liberal outlook attractive to Muslim voters, have all suffered performance anxiety. Aside from TMC, confident of the Muslim vote in Bengal, all other mainstream parties have insured themselves by signing up with sectarian alternatives.

The Congress tie-up with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF and the Communist-Congress arrangement with the Indian Secular Front are fraught with implications for national politics. ISF is perhaps only the second party Muslims have floated in Bengal since the pre-independence era Muslim League went on to become a vehicle for the creation of Pakistan. Like AIUDF in Assam and SDPI across India, ISF, under Abbas Siddiqui (the head cleric of the country’s second most prominent mazaar Furfura Sharif), is isolationist.

While these sectarian outfits might be justified in resenting mainstream parties for paying lip-service to Muslim uplift, it’s problematic they view themselves as being apart from the secular crowd. Even more alarming is that Indian liberals have all but acquiesced in this schism. But evolving a robust political response to Hindutva can’t be through forging alliances with the Ajmals and Siddiquis in the hope of expanding the secular space.

Perhaps Indian liberals fear history. Before Independence, Congress snubbed Mohammad Ali Jinnah who saw himself as the real custodian of Muslim aspirations. That reluctance to reconcile with Muslim League ultimately triggered a revanchist insurrection that partitioned the subcontinent. History does inform the future but only if analysed correctly. While it stands to reason that assimilating isolationists blunts their exceptionalism, there’s no guarantee assimilating Muslim League would have tempered its outlook.

After all, didn’t Muslim League in post-independence Pakistan all but junk Jinnah’s dream of creating a modern liberal Pakistan? Within ten years of his death Pakistan became an Islamic republic. Pakistan’s descent into Islamism happened regardless of Muslims enjoying a privileged status in Pakistan. There was no Hindutva there. There’s little denying the causes inspiring Muslim activism, in contrast to other social inclusion movements, lie beyond merely attaining justice or equality.

In Europe, the attempt at integrating assertive ethno-religious Islamic groups have largely been unsuccessful. This isn’t for want of trying. There’ve been legal interventions as well as a feverish outreach by secular mainstream parties to reduce the gap between the state and Muslim minority aspirations. At its highest point “Cool Britannia’’ became a hip buzzword for evoking pride in Britain’s modern multi-cultural roots. But unfortunately, while most immigrant ethnic groups have responded well by integrating, some Islamic groups have placed several rigid pre-conditions upon their secular, liberal hosts.

This is true of mainland Europe also. Today, several Islamic parties are demanding the state make exceptions to allow Muslims to arbitrate their own affairs under Sharia laws and preserve some patriarchal practices. This mismatch in expectations between European states and their Muslim populations has had serious consequences. The rise in extremist violence on the continent is the most apparent. There’s also the disturbing trend of some European Muslim youth leaving to join fundamentalist Islamic organisations across the Middle East to set up caliphates to punish the “Kufr”.

Cautious and disappointed, most European states have come to rethink moderate political secularism. There is now greater sympathy for the French “laicite” – which brooks no exceptions in upholding the secular framework of French republicanism.

Unfortunately, the hard learnt lessons of Europe are lost on the secular consensus here in India. Instead of standing up to sectarianism, secular-liberal mainstream parties are aligning with exclusivists to fight the allegedly divisive forces of Hindutva. The clash of extremes will only shrink the middle ground – not enlarge it.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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