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Secularism in Crisis: The Fate of ‘Muslims’

By Abdul Matin

The success of ‘democracy’ in India has been generally defined only in terms of conducting free, fair, and smooth elections. This has become the official and standard definition not only for the Election Commission of India but also for spokespersons, media, and even for a large section of the psephologists. Transformative concepts like equality, social justice, fraternity, secularism, and development with dignity, which are supposed to be important elements in a democracy, have always taken the back-seat in the electoral politics of India.

Being the largest religious minority in India, Muslims in the states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, etc. are determining factors in the elections. It is a well-known fact that Muslims in general have always been treated as a ‘vote bank’ by political parties, including the various so-called progressive Left parties.

The Sachar Committee Report (SCR, 2006) has brought forth three general perspectives regarding Muslims of India.

First, Muslims are a socio-economically marginalized community compared to other religious groups. This glaring fact refutes the idea of Muslim appeasement, generally put forward by the rightwing political parties. Second, Sachar Committee created new debates on public policy discourse and affirmative actions toward Muslims not as a homogenous religious community but as heterogeneous religious groups based on caste, class, and deprivation. Third, SCR has broadened the horizon of Muslim politics, which was basically limited to identity politics through upholding the cause of Urdu, Aligarh, and Personal laws in the Hindi heartland. Sachar Committee has played a major role in redefining politics not only at the national level but also among various states, especially eastern Indian states. Zoya Hasan and Mushirul Hasan have argued that one of the biggest gains of Sachar Committee was its reconstruction of the Muslim community as ‘developmental subjects’ of the state rather than primarily as a cultural and religious community. Surinder Jodhka also argues that in analyzing the issue of Muslim exclusion, the Sachar report foregrounded the question of citizenship and relegated issues of identity or cultural distinctiveness, and treated ‘the Muslim question’ as a question of social justice, human rights, and  development of the marginalized and excluded.

The projection of Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate of India is not only against the idea of India but also against the basic ethos of democracy, secularism, fraternity, social justice, gender, and minority rights. Various scholars and political commentators have described Modi as a blot on Indian democracy as well as a threat to inclusive policies, affirmative action, and social development.

It is not fair to exclusively talk about the 2002 Gujarat massacre where more than 2000 innocent Muslims (human beings) were killed. One has to go beyond 2002 and understand the so-called ‘Gujarat Model of Development’, where farmers, indigenous population, Muslims, daily wage laborers, women etc. are excluded and marginalized in the process of development. Atul Sood in his seminal work has exposed the naked truth of this so-called ‘development model’ in which industrialists and corporate houses get free and subsidized land, electricity, capital, and infrastructure.

One cannot understand ‘secularism’ just by criticizing RSS, Sangh Parivar, or BJP. In order to produce a more complex understanding of secularism, we must analyze the practices of the masked secular parties such as Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Lok Janashakti Party in Bihar, and the Telegu Desham Party in Andhra Pradesh.

The Indian National Congress is responsible for the rise of the Modi-phenomenon because it has created the environment by highlighting the issue of minority development through large newspaper advertisements and hoardings without doing anything substantial at the ground level. INC has been ruling for more than 50 years in post-independent India and has never tried to sincerely address issues of employment, education, health, and development. For example, the recommendations of Ranganath Mishra Commission, creation of Equal Opportunity Commission, Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, Multi Sector Developmental Programme (MSDP) etc. have deliberately not been passed in the recent winter session of Parliament or not implemented.

This is not only true for Congress but also for many other so-called progressive parties such as Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh. The question of development has always been ignored by SP that would rather play dirty politics over communal violence for electoral benefit.  In the recent Muzaffarnagar violence, more than hundred Muslims were killed and thousands were literally uprooted from their own birthplace. Some of the victims are still living in relief camps. The so-called progressive and secular left in West Bengal has hardly done anything for the development of the most deprived Muslims, which constitute around 27 percent of the total population. The scenario is quite similar in other Indian states such as Bihar, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharasthra.

Muslims in India are facing serious questions of security, identity, and equity.  The 2014 election will greatly influence the trajectory that the community will be put on in the coming years. The electoral scenario is becoming increasingly confusing and one needs to understand the complexities of the political process in contemporary India. We hope that the next government will uphold the fundamental constitutional principles based on secularism.


Abdul Matin is a research scholar, Centre for Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Email:

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