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Muslim appeasement: More myth than reality
Sunday August 4, 2013 2:12 PM, Aijaz Zaka Syed

Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies, said Emerson. In this age of spin, advertorials, PR and all that jazz that passes for journalism these days, you seldom realize when myths, rumors and half truths turn into facts and put on the garb of truth. One of the most enduring myths of Indian politics has been the fiction about the appeasement of Muslims.

As the country flexes its muscles getting ready for the battle 2014 and two principal parties dip into their bag of tricks, the issue is back in the spotlight. So is the bewildered community, uneasy at being forced from margins to the center stage.

While the Congress portrays itself as an inclusive political force representing the resplendent diversity of the nation — a claim not easy to ignore despite its myriad flaws and a long history of opportunism, the BJP is trying to resurrect the familiar ghosts of saffron pantheon. Muslim baiting is back in fashion as the opposition accuses the governing party of resorting to "vote bank" politics.

"The Congress hides behind the burqa of secularism to cover its failures," thundered Narendra Modi, the BJP's new face and possibly its prime ministerial candidate, recently targeting both the grand old party and the community it is supposed to be mollycoddling.

Congress' Shashi Tharoor, the former UN diplomat and author of many a tome on modern India, was quick to respond: "Burqa of secularism is preferable to khaki shorts of the Italian fascists of the 1920s."

Unlike in the past, the Congress isn't running away from this "secularism versus communalism" debate and familiar accusations about minority appeasement. The Congress rejects the notion that the party is either falling into the trap set up by the BJP or is deliberately playing along the agenda set by Modi in an attempt to deflect the voters' attention from issues such as corruption, runaway inflation and the state of the economy. "We will just not allow the claims made by Modi go unchallenged," asserts Tharoor.

The ruling party seems to have finally mustered the courage to confront the extremist right on its brand of hate-laced politics. All these years the Congress has tried to be all things to all people. And when pushed to the wall, it cleverly preyed on both the misgivings of the majority and insecurity of the minority, playing one loyal constituency against another. Indeed, having ruled India for the better part of the post-Independence period, the Congress has sort of perfected the art putting it to use with deadly effect in election after election.

In the wake of the Partition, the traumatized Muslims instinctively rallied around the Congress and stayed with it largely because of the gravitas and charisma of Pandit Nehru, the first prime minister known for his liberal image, and stalwarts like Maulana Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Dr. Zakir Hussain. Besides, no credible alternative to the Congress was in sight.

In dutifully voting for the Congress even after Nehru, the Muslims hadn't necessarily bucked the national trend. If they supported the Congress, so did the rest of India because of the simple fact it had led the nation to Independence. But Muslims were nothing more than a vote bank for the grand old party even as the community's condition steadily worsened. Battling for survival, it lagged behind all communities in all areas. Under Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, things went from bad to worse.

Even as they faced the combined onslaught of Hindutva groups and increasingly communal police and administration in recurring religious riots across India — from Bhagalpur to Bhiwandi and Maliana to Moradabad — the Congress exploited their insecurity and fear psychosis to keep the community forever under its thumb.

Playing lip service to the grievances of the community and successfully using the dumb politics of tokenism — throwing an iftar party here and putting up some Muslim show pieces in ceremonial positions there —the party has presided over the meticulous marginalization and political and economic dispossession of Muslims all these years.

Within six decades of Independence, the community has successfully been driven to the margins of Indian society. Today, it struggles well below the lowest of the low, according to Indian government's own social and economic indicators.

When the Congress returned to power nine years ago with Muslim votes having played a significant part in its victory, there were great expectations. Under Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it was perceived as a different party altogether. But clearly the more things change for the Congress and Muslims, the more they remain the same.

The elaborate studies and recommendations of government appointed panels — Justice Sachar Committee and Ranganath Mishra Commission — remain on paper. On the other hand, thousands of usual suspects have been languishing in jails across the country or being summarily dealt with as Ishrat Jahan, Qateel Siddiqui, Khalid Mujahid and numerous others have been.

Not surprisingly, angry Muslim intellectuals see little difference between the BJP and Congress; one is perceived as an open enemy while the other is seen as playing games forever calculating in terms of political constituencies and electoral profit and loss.

Rajiv Gandhi had to turn over Ayodhya's Babri Masjid to Hindutva groups apparently to assuage Hindus' hurt feelings over the Muslim Women's Bill, brought in the wake of the infamous Shah Bano case. How an issue that is essentially an internal affair of a community affects Hindus is something only the Congress pundits can explain.

The nation has paid and is still paying a heavy price for those electoral gimmicks. Ironically, it was the Ayodhya agitation that helped the Congress' bête noire, BJP, to transform itself from a 2-member outfit into the party of power and one of the two major parties today.

The Congress is too preoccupied with its too-clever-by-half calculations about the minority vote and majority sentiment to notice that it has ended up squandering both. And it's not just the Congress; late entrants like Mulayam's Samajwadi Party are fast catching up.

But in this cynical game of electoral poker and political one-upmanship, the real losers are the Muslims. Repeatedly betrayed by Congress and other parties and tormented by the Hindutva brigade, they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Instead of fighting for their genuine demands and share in power like other communities, they are grateful for shallow tokenism and crumbs thrown their way. They loathe the Congress for its duplicity and treachery. Yet they cannot help but vote for it to keep out the forces whose raison d'être is their annihilation or total subjugation.

So this perpetual tirade about the "Muslim appeasement" by political parties isn't just unfair and absurd, it's downright silly and ridiculous. If Muslims had been "appeased" and successive governments had doted on them all these years, would they be in the pathetic state they are in today? They are seen as second-class citizens in their own country.

Yet this brazen lie and narrative has been going around for so long and is so pervasive that everyone including the media, forever in love with Muslims, has unquestioningly embraced it. It's not just the likes of Arnab Goswami who are beside themselves with righteous rage over proposals like fast-track courts to deal with Muslim "terror suspects," more reasonable voices are peddling the same nonsense.

It's perfectly fine if innocents are locked away for years without trial and without due process, as Delhi's Mohammed Aamir and numerous others have been, but heavens would fall if hope of justice, however faint, is held out to Muslims. Let them rot away in their ghettos but governments mustn't move a finger to grant their rights and assurances that Indian constitution guarantees.

If this isn't unfair, what is? God knows Muslims want no special treatment from anyone. They are not looking for favors and lollipops from governments or political parties. What they need is justice and their just and fair share of the pie with dignity in accordance with their numbers. Is that asking too much?

Aijaz Z. Syed is a Gulf-based commentator. He can be contacted at aijazzakasyed@gmail.com

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