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Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s espousal of secularism before a Muslim delegation led by Jama Masjid imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari is in step with the party’s ideals. But this is also an attempt by the Congress to secure the support of India’s largest minority before the election through the Bukharis, who have at least twice, in 1977 and 1989, opposed the party. But then on both the occasions their inimical attitude rested on the immediate political backdrop.
In 1977 it was the demolitions around Turkman Gate and in 1989 the Bhagalpur riots that made the then Shahi Imam turn his back on the Congress. This time, though, there is no single factor that can drive a wedge between the community and the party. But in this case there is a catch. Though Ms Gandhi’s concern is that the secular vote should not be divided, the truth is Muslim votes do tend to get scattered across various outfits, as research by various scholars has shown. And it is happening more strongly in recent years.
When one looks at the relation between the Muslim community and political parties over the past 20 years, two changes are noticeable. It is only during this period that regionalism as the holding theme in the Indian polity has come to establish itself. Till the mid-80s the Congress had the first claim to Muslim votes almost all across the country, except in West Bengal.
It is certainly not so now. And the second change is that the Muslim community has now started questioning many assumptions that went unchallenged in the earlier years. For example, in the discourse on poverty and education among social categories it is inexplicable how the Muslims did not figure till recently despite their visible plight on both counts. One is also at a loss to understand how and why some ministers and chief ministers of various parties survived and continue to survive in office despite their failure to control communal disturbances, even if one does not suspect their having been complicit in them. After what happened in Muzaffarnagar last year, if the Samajwadi Party tries to reach out to the Muslims, as it did on Wednesday through its manifesto, it is nothing but an old chestnut that contributes to the fatigue of the community.
Rabindranath Tagore in one of his essays had written ‘Satan cannot enter until he finds a flaw’. In the light of this it may be safely said secularism in theory has to find expression in secularism in practice. Since the Congress’ commitment to secularism has never been in doubt, the party should take the first step towards arresting alienation among the Muslim youth. That way it can get back its status of being the vanguard of the community.