The floating of a new political party, styling itself the 'Welfare Party of India', by the Jamaat-e Islami Hind late last week has, predictably, set off a vigorous debate in Indian Muslim circles.
The men behind the party insist that it is not a Jamaat front, though critics argue otherwise, pointing out that the top-brass of the party are mostly senior Jamaat activists and that everyone knows that the party has been set up under the orders, and with the blessings, of the Jamaat top-brass. The party, for its part, explains its agenda in predictable terms: of promoting 'genuine' democracy, secularism, human rights, social justice and so on. The subtext that underlies its justification for its formation is that Indian Muslims have been denied justice by existing political parties, and so a new party is necessary to secure justice for them, in addition to other marginalised communities.
No sooner had the WPI been officially launched in New Delhi than Muslim supporters as well as critics began posting their comments on various, mainly Indian Muslim, websites, arguing for and against the party. Some, mostly members or sympathisers of the Jamaat, hailed the new party as a welcome development.
One such enthusiast praised the Jamaat as supposedly being a team of dedicated and sincere Muslims, and hoped that the new party would help bring 'morals and ethics' into the Indian political system where, he said, they were badly missing and sorely needed. He even opined that the WPI and its 'value-based politics' would be 'a role- model for other political parties in India.'
Another supporter claimed that by setting up the WPI, the Jamaat was working for the broader 'Islamic cause' because, he claimed, echoing the Jamaat's consistent line, 'Islam is a complete way of life, with solutions to all problems, and it does not recognise any distinction between religion and politics.' The WPI, he hoped, would help the Jamaat in its agenda of 'establishing Islam' or iqamat-e deen, in all spheres of Indian social life -- possibly a subtle reference to working for the eventual formation of an Islamic State (on which the Jamaat's understanding of Islam is based) in India.
Yet another ardent supporter welcomed the formation of the party by expressing the hope that it would consolidate Muslim votes across India, which would make Muslims a political force to reckon with, as a result of which other parties would no longer be able to ignore them or take them for granted. This, he argued, would be a powerful counter to forces that were bent on further marginalising Muslims.
The floating of the party was met with trenchant criticism by many other Muslims, however, who feared that it boded ill, rather than auguring well, for Indian Muslims. One such critic, who identified himself as a 'Salafi', thereby indicating his affiliation with Saudi-style Salafi Wahhabism, argued that by forming a party that would operate within the Indian system of democratic politics, the Jamaat had accepted democracy and, therefore, had turned its back on its original agenda of struggling to establish an Islamic caliphate in India. In doing so, he claimed, it had abandoned the vision of the Jamaat's founder, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, who had been viscerally opposed to democracy as a man-made, and, therefore, 'un-Islamic', system. He warned the Jamaat that if truly wished to establish the caliphate, which considered an Islamic imperative, 'it could not do so by remaining enslaved to the existing false and polytheistic political system.'
Criticism of the WPI on such supposedly 'Islamic' grounds seemed to be less of a concern for most other Muslim opponents of the party who commented on it on various websites and online discussion groups. Instead, many of them expressed the worry that by entering the field of electoral politics, the Jamaat would give a fillip to anti-Muslim Hindutva forces. If the WPI intended to consolidate Muslim votes, it was bound, they argued, to further widen existing antagonisms between Hindus and Muslims, which would only benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
An irate Munaf Zeena, an Indian Muslim based in London, remarked that the WPI 'seems destined to create a predictable onslaught on the Muslim community of India', predicting that the party would also fail in its ambition to politically unite the Indian Muslims because most of them were not ideologically linked to the Jamaat. Instead of setting up 'separate' platforms like the WPI, which could only result in 'chaos', he sensibly urged that 'all Indians should work together for the benefit of all.'
Another such commentator argued that the WPI would serve as 'a boon and bonanza for the RSS'. He reminded the Indian Muslims of the advice given to them by Abul Kalam Azad soon after the Partition -- to desist from setting up their own political party on the grounds that this would strengthen Hindu reactionary forces. Sadly, he said, the Jamaat leaders had ignored this sage advice, and he accused them of being politically illiterate. Rather that jumping into the political arena, he went on, Jamaat leaders should concentrate on promoting modern education among Muslims, including among themselves, which, he remarked, was woefully lacking.
Yet another critic, a certain Dr. Mookhi Amir Ali, likened the WPI to the BJP and opined that the two would have a symbiotic relationship with each other while posing a grave danger to secular, democratic and progressive forces. He scoffed at the claims of the WPI of being a 'truly' secular, and not an exclusively Muslim, party. Simply because one of its several vice-presidents was a Catholic priest who recited the Gayatri Mantra at the inauguration of the party, it did not make it secular, he insisted.
'The Welfare Party of India, spawned from the Jamaat-e Islami Hind, reminds one of the BJP, the offspring of the mother RSS. Its Christian vice-president Father Abraham Joseph brings back memories of the BJP's almost permanent vice-president, a Muslim Sikandar Bakht. When Ashok Singhal of the VHP hears of the Gayatri Mantra being chanted at the launch of the WPI, he will exclaim, "I am loving it!"' Mookhi caustically remarked.
In a similar vein, in a mail sent to members of the progressive Indian Muslim online discussion group, The Moderate Voice, a critic, calling himself simply 'Ansari', mocked the claims of the WPI of being genuinely committed to secularism, democracy and social justice. '"Welfare Party" by Jamaat-e Islami? Hahaha! Must be a joke,' he scoffed. 'The main aim of the Jamaat is to establish an Islamic State in India on the lines of the caliphate. [ ] The Jamaat is a mirror image of the Hindutva parties. Let it first deny [this] claim before trying to fool people in the name of welfare.'
In a similar vein, a certain Dr Irfan Waheed, writing in NewAgeIslam.com, claimed that the WPI might give a boost to unwanted tendencies among Muslims, and that it might incline them even more towards conservatism, and even possibly extremism. 'There is a possibility,' he wrote, 'that the rise of a right-wing Muslim political party like the WPI will give rise to radical Islamic thought and a rigid un-pluralistic outlook among the Muslims who have very successfully integrated themselves into the secular and cultural atmosphere of the country while retaining their religious identity.'
Dr Waheed also noted that the claims of the WPI of being genuinely committed to social justice could easily be questioned by its critics. For instance, he explained, the WPI would be unable to deny that the Jamaat's ideological mentor, Syed Maududi, was on record as having declared that 'he did not bother if the Hindus treat the Muslims of India worse that the mlechhas' because 'he was only bothered about making Pakistan an Islamic state at any cost.'
Further, he went on, the Jamaat could not deny that the Pakistani Jamaat-e Islami, then under Maududi, 'not only extended ideological support to the Pakistani military' in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle, 'but actually formed a militia whose members fought the Bengalis, killed and raped both Muslim and Hindu women and declared that no library in Bangladesh would have any book on secular topics either by Hindu writers or Muslim writers.'
In other words, what Dr Waheed seemed to suggest, the devastatingly stained record, as far as secularism, democracy and social justice were concerned, of the Jamaat's own founder Syed Maududi rendered the Jamaat morally totally incapable of defending what it presented as the rationale for the floating of the WPI.
Challenging this view, a few commentators opined that the WPI would actually help promote moderation and act as a dampener to fringe extremist elements among Muslims, rather than promoting radicalism. Thus, a certain Ilyas Ameen pointed out that what he characterised as a radical Islamist outfit, the Popular Front of India, was spreading 'like cancer' across the country, and noted that this boded ill for Hindu-Muslim relations. He suggested that the Jamaat could act as a counter to the Popular Front, by weaning away Muslims who had been attracted by the Front's rhetoric.
Another such critic, who chose to remain anonymous, said that because Muslims lacked an all-India party till now, 'some extreme groups tried to fill the vacuum', but this had 'brought only humiliation' to the Indian Muslims. Hence, he hoped, the Jamaat's political party could help curb such radical tendencies.
Critics voiced their apprehensions about the WPI using other arguments, too. One anonymous commentator scoffed at the claims of the Jamaat of being sincerely committed to Muslim welfare by pointing out that it had done little, if at all, all these years for the social and economic development of the poor among the Muslims, accusing Jamaat leaders of being interested only in feathering their own nests.
'Many of them have sent their children abroad, to the Gulf and even to the USA, where they live comfortably and have become exceedingly rich. That is a true measure of their supposed commitment to the plight of the Indian Muslims!' he remarked. He further noted, 'The Jamaat and WPI harp on democracy and secularism in India, where we Muslims are a minority, but they, like other Islamists, vehemently denounce secular democracy as anti-Islamic in Muslim-majority countries. Is this not hypocrisy? Why don't they condemn the persecution of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries, often in the name of Islam, if they are really sincere about social justice, which is what they claim the WPI will struggle for in India?'
Similarly, a certain Pervez Yusuf mocked the claims of the Jamaat, including the men behind the WPI, of being dedicated to the welfare of the Indian Muslims. 'Their social work is only visible in Abul Fazl Enclave', he sarcastically remarked about the Jamaat, referring to the Muslim locality in New Delhi where the Jamaat has its national headquarters.
Questioning the Jamaat's and WPI's claims of disinterested community activism, he added, 'They collect funds from Middle East,' leaving it to readers to make of this not-so-cryptic statement what they wanted. Likewise, a certain Wajid caustically remarked that the leaders of the Jamaat were 'intellectually corrupt, ambitious and power hungry' and suggested that the WPI could hardly be expected to live up to its tall claims.
Other critics feared that far from consolidating Muslim votes and thereby empowering the Indian Muslims, as it claimed it would, the WPI would only further fragment the Muslim electorate. One anonymous critic pointed out that numerous Muslim parties in the past had failed, such as the maverick politician Syed Shahabuddin's Insaf Party, the short-lived Ulema Council of India, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Makkal Katchi, and so on, and raised the possibility that the WPI could go the same way, too.
A certain Tahira Hasan suggested that the WPI might follow other such Muslim political parties, which, in her words, 'just do not work for community', but, instead, enter into pacts with 'mainstream' parties in order to promote the interests of their leaders. Such parties, she went on, 'never raise voices against assaults on Muslims', while 'secular' non-Muslims do so, thus suggesting that Muslims must look to the latter rather than the former for hope to secure justice for themselves.
Another such commentator, Zaheer Ali, opined that by entering into the political arena, the Jamaat would be forced to make ideological compromises, indicating, for instance, the recent support given to the CPI(M) by the Jamaat in Kerala, although ideologically the Jamaat was vociferously opposed to Communism.
Several of these comments on the WPI, whether for or against, were hosted on okhlatimes.com, a website run by Asad, a young Muslim man based in Okhla, the same locality in New Delhi where the Jamaat has its national headquarters. In an article on the WPI hosted on the website, a commentator noted that from discussions about the party on Facebook, for instance, 'it could be made out' that the Jamaat 'is fast losing its respectability.' In another article on the WPI on the same website, tellingly titled, 'All is Not Well With the Jamaat-e Islami Hind', Asad himself wrote:
'Over the years, the JEIH [Jamaat] has undergone a sea change. Of late, it has built swanky offices in Abul Fazal Enclave, equipped with all the latest facilities. Also, its senior members don't miss the opportunity to share a podium with powerful politicians. Most of the senior JEIH leaders have adjusted to the changing time well by giving up a frugal lifestyle. Will it also adapt to the Indian politics that is out-and-out corrupt?'And that is a question that is troubling numerous Muslims concerned about the implications of the WPI for Indian Muslim politics.