Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian Muslims
Author: Muhammad Mujeeb Afzal
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2014
Pages: 484

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) recent electoral victory has raised certain questions about the party’s ideological makeup, organisational structure, financial sources and its policy and approach towards India’s minorities, especially the Muslims. Such themes are identified and addressed by Muhammad Mujeeb Afzal, who teaches (Indian) politics and international relations at Quaid-e-Azam University, in his book Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian Muslims. The present study posits, from a constructivist perspective, that modern identities are rational, progressive and popular. The elite middle class groups construct them in their interaction with material and non-material structures. Their objective is to re-establish their social control over their imagined in-group that undergoes changes due to the process of modernisation from a predetermined status in traditional, segregated structures to individualism, merit and material achievements. The elite middle class, in the process of identity construction, selects traditions from the shared knowledge that carries ritualistic value. These traditions are reinterpreted in accordance with the challenges of modernity and provide invented links with the past.
Historically, the British Indian Empire introduced a process of modernisation to facilitate its strategic purpose of colonial control. It was initially designed to fulfil the imperialistic requirements of the Raj with regard to political collaboration of the local elite to control the masses and recruitment in the lower ranks of the civil bureaucracy and the military. The Raj justified this through the concept of racial differentiation. Subsequently, it viewed its subjects as a collection of differentiable castes and communities.
These processes of reinterpretation and invention of the traditions were in accordance with the constructs of the Raj with regard to the challenges of modernity. Also, the process of modernisation expanded the locals’ desire for more share in the economic and political life of the Raj. Paradoxically, it generated competition among the former. Contextually, the competing groups of local elite middle class invoked primordial identities via the British. Unsurprisingly, the Hindu upper caste, i.e. Brahmins and the Indian-Muslim Ashraaf (aristocrats) wished to preserve their respective traditions of the Verna system and Islam/Urdu against the mobilisation of the lower sections of their imagined in-groups and against the perceived rising political and economic competition from each other.
The tradition projects that the communities opted to emphasise the (re)construction of respective identities, excluding the ‘other’. For example, the Hindus constructed their golden age in the ancient period of the Aryans whereby the gods revealed the secret of life in terms of the Vedas that, in turn, became the foundation for the sustainability of the civilisation. From the orthodox Hindu’s perspective, the Muslims corrupted this Vedic civilisation by their imperialistic advent in India. Similarly, the Indian Muslims constructed their golden age outside India (the Middle East) and linked themselves with the larger Muslim community, the ummah. Furthermore, Urdu and the culture based on it were used to provide them with a distinct personality. They, for instance, blamed Hinduism for polluting pure Islamic tradition and held their Hindu subjects responsible for betraying them vis-à-vis the British. Similarly, symbols like cow protection or Urdu-Hindi language, and heroes like Mahmud of Ghaznavi, Aurangzeb, Shivaji, Mohammad bin Qasim, Bakhtiyar Khalji, Prithvi Raj and Rana Pratap Singh that the two communities picked from their historical accounts, were in opposition to each other, argues Dr Mujeeb.
These oppositional identity constructs when employed for the institutionalisation and mobilisation of the in-group generated mutual suspicion and hostility. Both identity constructs were institutionalised through exclusivist organisations that overtly claimed their legitimacy to protect the in-group against the projected threats of the ‘other’ such as the Aligarh Movement, the All India Muslim League, the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevakh Sangh (RSS).
In the post-independence period, both the Hindu and Indian-Muslim identity constructs faced adverse circumstances for their perpetuation: they felt compelled to reinterpret and reinvent their primordial construct in accordance with the Congress system of secular composite culture and liberal democracy. The RSS, which claimed to be a Hindu nation in miniature, was forced to adopt a constitution like an ordinary organisation. Not only this, the aggressive secular rhetoric of the Congress national leadership marginalised it as a communal and non-democratic entity. Simultaneously, the Congress’ state-level leadership, through its Hindu traditional policies, deprived the RSS, and later its political wing, Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), of their Hindu agenda: cow protection, Hindi language and Indianisation of the Indian-Muslims. On the other hand, the Indian Muslims became an absolute minority that the majority community blamed for the partition of the country. They sought accommodation for the preservation and perpetuation of their identity-construct in the Congress system through Mutahiddah Qaumiyat and the conservative reinterpretation and reinvention of Islam and Urdu.
The Hindu nationalists struggled against the Congress’ dominant system and declared secularism and socialism as a non-Indian concept borrowed from the west to appease the Indian Muslims for electoral purposes and deprived the Hindus of their religious-cultural rights. Alternatively, they projected Hindutva as the antithesis to the Congress system. Both the identity constructs adopted parallel and mutually antagonistic policies of preservation and in-group mobilisation. The 1975 emergency brought them closer to each other against the threat of the Congress under Indira Gandhi. Nevertheless, even on that occasion, the RSS rejected the Janata Party’s proposal for opening its membership to the Indian Muslims and other minorities, the author notes.
Moreover, the BJP initially did attempt to accommodate, under its Gandhian socialism, the Indian Muslims as Bharatiya Muslims who had neither rejected the Hindu ethos nor expressed their distinct religious-cultural constructs. Later, under Advani, the BJP followed a policy of direct mobilisation of the in-group for the Hindu vote bank with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) support on the issue of Ram Janmabhumi at the site of Babari Masjid, removal of Article 370 from the Constitution and imposition of a unified civil code. The rise of majoritarianism, decline of the Congress, move towards market economy from mixed economy and aggressive mobilisation of the Indian Muslims on the Shah Bano issue facilitated the strategies of the BJP/VHP RSS for the creation of a Hindu sensitive constituency, argues Afzal.
Last but not least, the popular Ram Janmabhumi movement put the conservative and modernising Indian Muslim elite and the middle class on the defensive because of their rigid stance on, for example, the (re)solution of the masjid/mandir controversy. Moreover, the demolition of the Babri Masjid gradually stopped the expansion of the Hindu vote bank for the BJP and polarised the Indians into Hindu and secular blocks. The Indian Muslims generally also enlisted the caste and secular Indian political element into their strategy against the BJP. Resultantly, the expansion of the social support base of the BJP significantly declined with the fact that it lost two successive general elections against the Congress (2004 and 2009). Its recent electoral victory is largely due to economic mismanagement by the Congress-led governments that the BJP exploited. Estranged, the Indian Muslims, by and large, preferred non-BJP parties.
In summation, Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian Muslims by a Pakistani scholar is a welcome addition to existing accounts on the BJP’s politics, in particular Hindu-Muslim relations and India’s politics in general. The book’s reliance on constructivism as a conceptual framework further adds to its explanatory potential. Nevertheless, further research is needed to explain the BJP’s contemporary and future politics. For this, the present study may serve as a point of departure.