Can a Muslim party as part of a secular coalition address the problem of Muslim marginalisation in politics?
Muslims constitute more than one third of the population in Assam and more than one fourth in West Bengal and Kerala that are going to polls. Two political parties in Assam and West Bengal, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Indian Secular Front (ISF), respectively, are trying to emulate the success of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in mobilising the community in Kerala.
The IUML is a key constituent of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala, while the AIUDF and ISF are constituents of coalitions in Assam and West Bengal that include the Congress and Left parties.
The marginalisation of Muslims is pronounced in politics. In the current Lok Sabha, there are 27 Muslims members; a proportionate representation would be 80. In 2019, only 32 of the Congress’s 423 candidates were Muslim. In West Bengal, the number of Muslim MLAs is currently the highest in history — 59 of 294, but even this is 27% short compared to their share in the population, an analysis by Sabir Ahamed, national research coordinator at the Kolkata-based Pratichi Institute. Facing charges of Muslim appeasement, the ruling Trinamool Congress has fielded 46 candidates from the community this year, compared to 53 in 2016.
While the catchment areas of ISF and AIUDF are Muslim pockets of West Bengal and Assam, respectively, both parties claim to be catch-all rather than exclusive, and both claim to represent tribals and Hindus as well. And both parties face linguistic and class diversities within the Muslims that question any notion of a monolithic identity.
“ISF presence is only among the Bengali-speaking peasants among Muslims in pockets of south Bengal. The Urdu-speaking Muslims in urban centres of Kolkata, Asansol and Islampur, who constitute 8% of the Muslims are not part of this. They used to speak for the whole community,” said Mr. Ahmad.
Hyderabad-based Asaduddin Owaisi’s plan to plant his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in West Bengal, through the Urdu-speaking segment, was pre-empted by Abbas Siddiqui, the descendant of a 19th century Sufi saint, who announced the formation of ISF.
The AIUDF is largely confined to the Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam. “The Assamese Muslims are not part of the AIUDF politics,” said Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a researcher based in Guwahati. “Language still remains a major factor among the Muslims. There isn’t much social intermingling between the Bengali Muslims and the Assamese Muslims.”
Can class politics work?
ISF says it is a party of the poor and not Muslims. “Poor people have no religion. We have Dalits, tribals and all castes and all religions with us,” said Gazi Shahabuddin Siraji, ISF candidate in Canning East, in South 24 Parganas.
In Bhangar, another stronghold of the party, an activist said: “The Muslim elites have enriched themselves at the cost of the community, as TMC leaders.” Badruddin Ajmal, a Deoband-trained theologian, who founded the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) which was renamed AIUDF in 2013, claims to speak for all Assamese. “I am Assamese first and Muslim second,” Mr. Ajmal, a Lok Sabha member, said in a recent interview. These claims of inclusive politics are weakened by facts on the ground and labelling by their opponents, in both cases.
The combined votes of the Congress and the AIUDF in 2016 was above the BJP in enough number of constituencies to overturn the latter’s victory. But the Congress-AIUDF alliance has triggered other dynamics. A Muslim Congress leader in Assam said: “The BJP’s campaign that Ajmal will become the CM has been effective among Bengali Hindus and Assamese nationalists. This alliance is a net loss for the Congress, and beneficial for the BJP.”
Kazi Shorawar Hussain, a community leader in Barpeta in Assam is also conflicted about the impact of the AIUDF. “The Hindu voters of the Congress are largely going to the BJP…This is a difficult question for me. The anti-Miya (Bengali Muslims) sentiment would be more when there is a Muslim party. That is already showing. The BJP is presenting Ajmal as a communal leader,” he said.
“…the rise of the BJP is leading to a partial erosion of linguistic divide in the community. In BJP politics, all Muslims are the same,” says Mr. Rahman.
“The West Bengal BJP chief rose in support of Abbas Siddiqui when Mamata Banerjee criticised him,” recalls Mr. Ahmed.
Muslims are cognisant of the possibility that a vote to ISF could benefit the BJP. “TMC could remain the primary choice of the community,” said Mr. Rahman.
The religious hostilities could overwhelm the class solidarity that the ISF proposes in West Bengal. For instance, the Dalit Matuas who migrated from Bangladesh to West Bengal expect to benefit from the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and find little common ground with Muslims who feel threatened by the same law.
In a situation of extreme marginalisation of the community, any nitpicking is irrelevant, feels Shajahan Madampat, political commentator. “The current situation is sure to trigger a range of reactions from the community — from the odious to the thoughtful. The only point worth stressing is that in the existing scenario, when all parties increasingly shy away from fielding Muslim candidates, only Muslim parties such as the AIUDF in Assam, the ISF in West Bengal or the Muslim League in Kerala are in a position to ensure some semblance of representation for the Muslims in legislative bodies. All other questions would have mattered in normal times, but we are way past normalcy and sanity,” he said.