Who speaks for Muslims in Lok Sabha? The answer is quite tricky
Representation is just a necessary and not a sufficient condition to ensure that relevant Muslim issues find a voice in Parliament.
Muslims are witnessing two contradictory trends in Indian democracy. Between 2001 and 2011, the share of Muslim population in India increased from 13.4% to 14.2%. This rise in share, however, has not led to a rise in share of Muslim members of Parliament (MPs) in Lok Sabha. In fact, the 2014 Lok Sabha had the lowest share of Muslim MPs in India. One of the biggest reasons for this was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which got a majority in the 2014 elections, gave less than 2% of its tickets to Muslim candidates, and none of them were elected.
Should this be a matter of concern? The answer to this question depends on whether political representation for a community is necessary for voicing its concerns in the legislature. One useful way to measure this is to look at the questions MPs ask about Muslims in India.
Using natural language processing algorithms, we were able to extract and analyse more than 1,800 questions about Muslims raised in the Question Hour in the last 20 years.
Muslim MPs have had a greater relative share in questions asked about Muslims in Lok Sabha. This means that the share of questions asked by them is much larger than their share of seats in the House. They also seem to ask different kinds of questions compared to non-Muslim MPs. And there are certain issues, such as concerns regarding Muslim women, which are ignored by both Muslim and non-Muslim MPs.
Our analysis picked up 1,875 unique instances of questions raised about Muslims between 1999 and 2017. Muslim and non-Muslim MPs had a share of 22% and 78% in these questions. When seen with the fact that Muslim MPs did not make up more than 6% of Lok Sabha at any period, it shows that Muslim MPs have a larger relative share in questions concerning Muslims in the House.
Among issues concerning Muslims, questions about Haj had the biggest share, while violence against Muslims and welfare of Muslim prisoners had the smallest share in these questions. The most skewed Muslim versus non-Muslim division can be seen in questions on Islamic terrorism, where non-Muslim MPs asked 97% of such questions. Non-Muslim MPs also had a larger share in questions about Haj.
Does the fact that Muslim MPs have a bigger share in questions about Muslim issues mean that they only raise issues of their own community in the Lok Sabha? Data suggests otherwise. Only 2% of all questions raised by Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha are about Muslim issues. This figure was 0.3% for non-Muslim MPs.
To be sure, there is a difference between asking questions on an issue concerning Muslims and doing justice to the concerns of the community on that issue. The best example of this is education. Our analysis shows that 44% of the questions asked by MPs in the Lok Sabha regarding Muslim education were focused on madrasas. This, when seen with the fact that barely 4% of Muslim students are enrolled in Madrasas (National Council for Applied Economic Research, 2005), suggests that interventions by MPs might not be highlighting the relevant issues for the community.
On the other hand, there are issues that, despite having a widespread currency among Muslims, are not given adequate attention by MPs. For example, a 2017 Gallup survey found that more than 85% of Indian Muslims support equal access for both genders in education, and think that women should be able to hold a job outside of the house. However, questions related to the condition of Muslim women, in terms of education, employment and overall development, make up only 1.5% of all questions asked about Indian Muslims. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF) found about 13% respondents cite issues of security for Indian Muslims. However, this topic barely makes up 3% of all questions pertaining to Muslims in India.
So who speaks for Muslims in the Lok Sabha? The answer is tricky. Data tells us that both Muslim and non-Muslim MPs express a range of issues for India’s largest religious minority group. However, the decreasing representation of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha remains a challenge as it leads to a lower expression of the concerns about Muslims. While both Muslim and non-Muslim MPs raise these concerns, the questions differ in both the frequency and quality of questions being brought up. However, Muslim or not, MPs do not necessarily address all the issues faced by Indian Muslims, notably among women.
Analysis of Lok Sabha questions is just one part of assessing whether MPs are taking care of concerns of the Muslim population in the country. Even this exercise tells us that representation is just a necessary and not a sufficient condition to ensure that relevant Muslim issues find a voice in Parliament. A fall in share of Muslim MPs can lead to a reduction in raising issues concerning the community in Lok Sabha, while the need is to diversify their ambit towards issues which are being given adequate attention currently.
Saloni Bhogale is a research fellow with the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal