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March 14, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Double Jeopardy

Most of this Parliament session went in noisy protests by the Opposition against the Gujarat government's decision to allow its employees to join the RSS. Even the NDA was under stress with the allies of the BJP refusing to support the government on the issue. Eventually, the decision was reversed, much to the delight of the government's critics. And Sonia Gandhi got yet another breather.

But one question remains unanswered: Was the RSS issue raked up in Parliament to expose sneaky Hindu fundamentalism? Or was it yet another cunning move on the political chessboard to woo the Muslim vote bank? To convince them that all those who were protesting against the RSS are the true flagbearers of Indian secularism. That, without them, a huge saffron wave would have washed up India?

Everyone has clambered onto this bandwagon. The Congress. The NCP. The Marxists. The regional parties. The Samajwadi Party. The RJD. You name it. Even allies of the BJP like the Samata, the JD-U, the TDP and the Trinamool Congress are anxious to send out the same message to the Muslims. That they all want to bring Hindu fundamentalism to a screeching stop.

This is what secularism means today. Standing up to saffron. The RSS is seen as an embarrassment in liberal, secular India. The VHP or the Bajrang Dal are dangerous, malevolent forces that must be swiftly fought back. Whereas Islamic fundamentalism is seen to be something that exists far, far away in countries like Afghanistan under the Taleban and Occupied Kashmir, aided, encouraged and armed by a bellicose Pakistan.

The spectre of Osama bin Laden crops up once in a while but is quickly forgotten. As yet another manic anti-American living somewhere back of beyond, training impressionable young militants to spread the word of Islam. Yes, he is a somewhat scary figure. But not someone who impacts our lives or immediate security environment.

Islamic fundamentalism is seen as neither frightening nor worrisome because the Muslims are, after all, just a minority in India. They are poor and illiterate. If we protect them and treat them as one among us, we have nothing to fear from them: that is the general belief. Meanwhile, given the growing size and importance of the Muslim vote, everyone is bending backwards to woo it at the same time.

It makes sense in terms of numbers.

In 1947, when India became free and the subcontinent was partitioned, Muslims were less than 8 per cent of the total population. Most of them had migrated to Pakistan. The 8 per cent who stayed back could barely influence 30 to 40 Lok Sabha seats.

In the 52 years since then, the demographics have changed dramatically. Muslims in India have grown manifold and, if you include the illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh who have over-run many of our states and whose actual numbers far exceed what the census reveals, the Muslim population has almost touched 30 per cent. What is more important, today they influence at least 450 seats in the Lok Sabha.

How? Well, voting patterns show that Hindus are more laid-back, more cynical. Barely 30 to 40 per cent of them go out to vote during the elections and, when they do, their votes are split between different candidates on the basis of caste, community, politics. Muslims, on the other hand, tend to vote en masse. Over 70 to 80 per cent votes being cast in predominantly Muslim areas is not unusual. And most of these votes are invariably captured by one candidate. Often on the basis of a fatwa issued by the local Imam.

So even where they are in minority, the Muslim vote is critical. It can decide who wins simply because it is cast in bulk in favour of one candidate, while the Hindu vote is invariably split on considerations that have nothing to do with religion. It could be caste. It could be politics. It could be local issues.

As a result, the Muslim vote bank, dispersed as it may be, ends up easily influencing almost 450 seats out of 550 in Parliament. The Congress, the Marxists and the Samajwadi Party have figured this out a long time ago and that is why they openly root for conservative Muslim causes. Laloo does the same, which is why he has, despite all the prognostications of doom, won back Bihar. It was inevitable. For the Muslims were on his side.

The same happened to Mulayam Singh. The entire media wrote him off but he came back in UP so strong simply because the Muslims rooted for him. Similarly, the Muslims by joining hands with the backwards have strengthened Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. The Sonia Congress, rejected by the entire nation, stays afloat simply because the Muslims are still charmed by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. India is second. But the way the Muslim population here is growing and illegal immigrants are coming in, we will within a few years reach a stage where the Muslim population in India will be the largest in the world and they will call the shots in each and every constituency where elections are fought. While the Hindu vote will be splintered between Yadav and Kurmi, Kayasth and Kshatriya, backward and forward castes, the Muslim vote will actually see a candidate through.

While more than 40 per cent Hindus will rarely vote, the Muslims will turn up in huge numbers at the polling booths. To reaffirm their importance in the decision making process and ensure that their candidates win.

Who knows, there may come a day when Muslim voters, having tested their might at the hustings, would decide to install the Islamic Republic of India! While we will be too busy protecting our secular credentials.

It does not require Hindu fundamentalists to point this out. Any patriot, any democrat would be concerned about this. For predominantly Muslim societies have this dangerous habit of becoming overtly conservative and radical. The spirit of democracy that liberal Hinduism has nurtured and cherished over the decades will be its first victim. Even liberal Muslims recognise this simple fact and fear it but they are so few in number that they cannot make a difference even if they wanted to.

Hence this entire demonology about Hindu fundamentalism.

Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms. If at all it exists, it is marginal and somewhat comic if you ask me. No one takes old men in khaki half pants seriously. But Muslim fundamentalism is a different ball game. It means violence and terrorism. It means bloodshed on our borders. It means mujaheedin power. It means Osama bin Laden and his awesome wealth that drives an angry, obsessive worldview which refuses to brook any resistance.

It is time we realised how dangerous this can be without worrying overmuch about Hindu zealots or the RSS.

Pritish Nandy

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