Finding a voice: Muslims search for a say in Gujarat

The BJP seems to set for power again in Gujarat. How should Muslims deal with a party, which has again denied them tickets to fight elections? Raheel Dhattiwala writes about the community's tough choices.
Updated on Dec 03, 2012 03:29 PM IST
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ByRaheel Dhattiwala

This was during the days after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Then chief minister of Gujarat, Chimanbhai Patel, was looking for a Muslim police officer to get a hold on the tension in Surat. He called upon the services of A I Saiyed, an IPS officer posted as deputy municipal commissioner in Ahmedabad. Saiyed said: "When I put on the uniform, I am not a Muslim police officer. I am just an officer, and my caste and creed stay at home." He was not asked again.

Saiyed retired as additional director general of police (DGP) of Gujarat a few years later. Today, not many remember him for this incident which he penned in 2008 in a newspaper article. Most, however, do remember him as the man who could have been the "first Muslim mayor of Ahmedabad under the BJP" after the 2010 municipal elections.

Saiyed lost the election but managed to create enough recall with his 13,000-odd votes, presumably of Muslims, in Sarkhej ward so as to be among the most likely Muslim candidates of the Hindu nationalist party in the December assembly elections. Of course, none of the BJP’s lists shows any Muslim representation (triggering, in the process, a fresh debate on the genuineness of 'sadbhavna'). Yet, Saiyed is proud of being considered as among the key Muslim candidates of the party. He aspires to hold the hands of his co-religionists to a brighter future of quality education and healthcare, one in which "we are no longer seen as a homogenous mass of illiterate people who refuse to assimilate".

"Only with education can Muslims realise what's best for them," he had said to me a few days before the BJP had declared its candidates, as we sat over a cup of tea in his house in Juhapura--a segregated neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, infamous for its tag of "India's biggest Muslim ghetto". Its 300,000 (the exact figure is not known) Muslim inhabitants are an even mix of the well-heeled and the deprived--the majority being evacuees of communal violence since 1985. It was in 2010 when the 'sadbhavna'-seeking BJP had first decided to test its pitch here. Saiyed, an educated, moderate Muslim became their Muslim face. Now, even after the BJP has opted to stick to ideological than pragmatic politics by ignoring Muslims, Saiyed stoically says to me he is “not disappointed”.

The transformation is telling: a police officer who refused to use his religious identity as a bargaining tool is today compelled to join a right-wing political party and do just that as the only hope for the betterment of his community. Not only Saiyed. Recall S S Khandwawala, ex-DGP of Gujarat, speaking to a newspaper in 2009: "A policeman has no religion". This election he, like Saiyed, was reported to have sought a BJP ticket.

This transformation need not be confirmed as a sign of opportunism. Given our structure of a patronage democracy, both voter and political aspirant are compelled to stay close to a party that is in power and is likely to stay in power in the near future. What it does confirm is the quandary that moderate urban Muslims of Gujarat are caught in today. They are Muslims who follow their religion but do not want to wear it on their sleeve. They wish to assimilate but are not allowed to. Not by the Hindus who prefer to live in homogeneous neighbourhoods disinfected by Muslims; not by the Muslims who see the assimilation of their co-religionists as a mark of defection. This is probably because many interpret religious moderation as a sign of untrustworthiness. Fitting the stereotype has become sort of an obligation not just for Muslims but also for Hindus, else you are not considered "authentic" enough. Neither here nor there.

For a small but visible section of such moderate Muslims--both political aspirant and voter--the pressure to 'belong' has overlaid ideology. Pragmatism controls, as if by compulsion. When such a pragmatic moderate Muslim seeks political office, joining a party in power becomes the best option even if it means facing a co-religionist voter's scepticism. This is because 'authenticity' becomes important for the voter in an assembly election where identity presides over the individual. What counts most in a municipal election is a candidate's capacity to provide civic facilities to the prospective voter. In an assembly election, the 'individual' becomes nearly unreachable for the voter. Trust is therefore crucially linked to identity. "Unlike a municipal election, in an assembly election Muslims vote for Muslims, Hindus for Hindus. Then comes the party and lastly the individual," Shakeel Ahmed, a municipal corporator in Ahmedabad had said to me. That’s why, said a Muslim BJP worker in Juhapura, the BJP this time decided to play it straight--stick to identity: “The presence of Keshubhai’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) has only strengthened the BJP’s intent to stand by its core ideology of identity politics than be pragmatic by putting up Muslim faces.”

One section of moderate Muslim voters I met admitted that the identity of a candidate inevitably gets scrutinised during an assembly election, but that it should not deter Muslim political aspirants. Nadeem Jafri, an educated Muslim entrepreneur in Saiyed's neighbourhood, believes that the absence of a competent political alternative has forced Muslims to be pragmatic: "It is not easy to dissociate the BJP from the 2002 violence. Had Mr. Saiyed joined the Congress, his 'authenticity' would not have been questioned. At the same time can we survive without the reigning powers? This is the dilemma. The BJP will continue to be in power for at least the next five years. Maybe the presence of an educated Muslim like Mr. Saiyed in the reigning government could have provided space for a less discriminatory outlook towards Muslims. I was ready to take that chance."

(The writer is a doctoral candidate in sociology in the UK. The views expressed are personal.)

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