Using Afzal for a resurrection

The President has to follow the due process of law before he arrives at a decision, writes Prakash Patra.

india Updated: Nov 30, 2006 00:27 IST

It goes without saying that the right to protest is an essential ingredient of a vibrant democracy. All the same, it was pathetic to witness the BJP taking out a rally in Delhi demanding the execution of Mohammad Afzal, one of the convicted in the Parliament attack case. The BJP maybe devoid of issues, but one does not expect the principal opposition party to go to the extent of baying for blood on the streets to catch people’s attention.

Afzal has been convicted by the highest court of the land and sentenced to death. His petition for clemency, a right that every citizen in this country enjoys, is pending before the President. It is for the President to decide as to whether he shall grant clemency to Afzal or not. The President has to follow the due process of law before he arrives at a decision.

But the BJP seems to have already jumped the gun, concluding that the UPA government is becoming ‘considerate’ towards a militant who has been found guilty. It has preferred to gloss over the fact that it was during its own regime that militants breached high security and attacked the Parliament House. Did the then government hold itself responsible for failing to provide security to the law-makers and protect the symbol of India’s democracy? Did the then Home Minister, L.K. Advani, who was in the forefront of last week’s rally, offer to resign for the spectacular governmental failure?

What is the real reason for the BJP to go ballistic on the ‘Afzal hanging’ issue? It could be a calculated move to consolidate the BJP’s Hindutva vote-bank. For hardcore Hindutva forces, Mohammad Afzal is a symbol of Islamic terror. A ‘soft’ approach by the UPA government could provide the BJP an opportunity to whip up sentiments along communal lines. That could provide a fillip to the dwindling support base of the party that owes its genesis and growth to such divisive politics.

The timing of the rally is also important. It comes at a time when the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee has submitted its report highlighting the plight of Muslims in the country. The committee has virtually come to the conclusion that the minority community is worse off than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in many spheres of activity. Their representation in various sectors, be it in education, jobs or politics, is abysmally low. According to all human development indices, the community is virtually at the bottom of the ladder. These findings are, of course, not news to anyone.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already expressed concern and spoken about giving a “fair share” to the minority community. But only time will tell whether anything tangible will happen to change the situation. It is true that there is suddenly an awareness that affirmative action is needed to uplift the socio-economic condition of a large segment of our population. The past record shows that Muslims have been victims of vote-bank politics. In the process, only the Muslim elite — like any other elite group — have gained and furthered their interests. The backwardness of the community has given an opportunity to fundamentalists to appropriate the role of community spokespersons.

Political parties have suddenly woken up to this reality. Even the Left Front government in West Bengal is talking about spending 15 per cent of funds in almost all sectors on the minority community. The Andhra Pradesh government wants the Centre to enact a law to provide reservations to backward Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, where assembly polls are to be held early next year, Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav wants reservations for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.

For the BJP, all this provides the ideal time to raise the ‘minority appeasement’ bogey again. The party is aware that the Congress stands to make major electoral gains if the minority community shifts towards it. One of the major factors behind the Congress’s precarious position in UP and Bihar is the alienation of Muslims from its fold. In UP, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are major beneficiaries of the shift in the Muslim vote. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal(U) have appropriated minority votes. With the UP assembly elections round the corner, the shifting of the Muslim vote towards the Congress could lead to a disastrous showing for the BJP. So, the BJP is doing its level best to bring back the ‘minority appeasement’ issue to the forefront. A communally surcharged atmosphere can only help the party regain its dwindling support base.

The BJP is also conscious of the fact that unless it regains its hardcore vote-bank, it will not find allies to support it at the Centre. It has to go back to its basics — Hindutva politics — if it is to remain a force in national politics. With the Congress being a Centrist party, the BJP’s tilt from the Right towards the Centre will not help it improve its position, a position that the Sangh parivar has been saying all along in any case. So, for the BJP, the issue of Mohammad Afzal’s clemency can become a major opportunity to reassert its hardcore position.

It is pretty clear that Afzal’s case is not really the symbol of the ‘Muslim issue’ in this country. But the sad reality is that the political games being played out on the issue could once again overshadow the larger issues of the community.

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First Published: Nov 30, 2006 00:27 IST