Author: Eram Agha
Date: March 13, 2017
In 1986, Arif Mohammed Khan walked out the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet when the government gave into pressure from the clergy and reversed Supreme Court's Shah Bano verdict granting alimony to a divorced Muslim woman. Over the years he stuck to his conviction that secular parties blatantly playing the Muslim card would only harm the interests of the community. Now, with the BJP making a saffron sweep in Uttar Pradesh without fielding a single Muslim candidate, Khan feels it's time the community leaders understood the lesson. In an interview to News18's Eram Agha, Khan said non-secular parties played the Muslim card clumsily and that a suspected Muslim vote consolidation may have evoked a reaction from the majority community. Excerpts:
The Prime Minister in his speech has promised to work for everyone — those who voted for the BJP and those who didn't. The takeaway from this speech?
Whatever Prime Minister has said is only reaffirmation of the statements that he made soon after forming the government at the Centre. I am glad he has further assured everybody that India is a democracy and in a democracy there are no winners and losers, but participants in a process that must result in the victory for India and our democracy. I am very happy that he has acknowledged the role of Indian women and I hope he would justify their trust by ensuring that all women irrespective of their religious affiliation are ensured equality and dignity as guaranteed by the Constitution and they are not allowed to be oppressed either by any law or customary practices.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has got a majority in UP elections. On what lines were this election fought and won by the BJP?
The BJP has got more than two-thirds majority. The issues highlighted in the election were many like the economic backwardness, development, low literacy rates etc. But the caste and community cards were equally in vogue. In fact, the media has reported about many caste and community conferences that were organised by different parties. The clerics were equally involved as they made appeals in favour of one or the other political party. The BJP was not in power in UP, so one can guess that they must also have devised their strategy to counter the ruling party. We have read media reports that the BJP fine-tuned their strategy for every succeeding phase of the election.
A lot of things happened for the first time in 2017 polls but didn't take off well. There was the Congress-SP alliance.... Mayawati gave 99 tickets to Muslim candidates, but that didn't work either. Why?
I personally feel the non-BJP parties played the Muslim card very clumsily. The tickets are given to candidates not on the basis of their religious affiliation but on their capability to win or help the party to win. Today, we have territorial constituencies, but the manner the parties wore the religious affiliation of the candidates on their sleeves was highly undesirable.
Before the alliance between the SP and the Congress was finalised, the general impression was that Muslims, like other voters of different communities, were supporting more than one party and the likelihood of any polarisation on religious lines seemed difficult. But somehow after the alliance was forged, it was generally seen as a powerful move by the SP and the Congress to consolidate Muslim votes. Now, if anybody thought that this will not arouse reaction, then that was an error of judgement.
Kalbe Jawwad in Lucknow tried to stitch together a coalition of Shia-Sufi Muslims across the state to defeat the SP and support the BSP. Bukhari came out in support of Mayawati's party. Mahmood Madani designed a Dalit-Muslim unity program to defeat the "fascist forces". What does the UP verdict say about the role of ulemas and do they have any sway over the Muslim electorate?
India is a secular democracy and everyone has the right to support or oppose a candidate or a party. But when political appeals are made by people in their capacity as religious leaders, then it produces a vicious cycle of action and reaction which is not conducive to the growth of secular democratic ethos. It does not mean that people associated with religious work should not participate in elections. They have every right as citizens of India, but mixing religion with politics revives the bitter memories of the Partition which was demanded in the name of religion.
Do you think the ulemas need to restrict their role in political domain? What is the right response to their political pronouncements?
It is they themselves who can decide what role they should play. On one hand, many of them consider democracy and secularism as dirty words as the idea of sovereignty belonging to people is repugnant to the religious idea of sovereignty belonging to God alone, and on this basis they justify the non-democratic rule in some Muslim countries. In Pakistan, the clerics belonging to Deoband school had issued a fatwa during Bhutto’s time that: ‘socialism is disbelief’ (KUFR). Now as far as any religion is concerned, its values are universal, and cannot differ from country to country.
How do politicians benefit from these pronouncements? Also, is there a case in recent times that rejected ulemas support?
I find it very strange that the parties that claim to be secular feel no pangs in bending over backwards to secure support of the clerics and these clerics make appeals to the electorate in a manner that arouses fear and hatred in the mind of certain groups. Anybody using terms like 'fascist' for the political opponent is sad and does not help build a cordial atmosphere where, despite being competitors for power, we can rise above party to address issues that are vital to our national interests. Every passing election is proving that the cleric appeals are not yielding any benefit instead they create much stronger adverse reaction. In this matter, it is interesting to recall that during last election to Delhi Assembly, when a prominent cleric issued an appeal to support a particular party, the leader of that party promptly declined it, saying: we do not want your support. But there are some other parties who still view the clerics as effective instrument of voter mobilisation and see it not as contrary to their protestations about secularism. I feel very sorry for this state of affairs and I feel that there is urgent need to rescue secularism from these secular parties who are distorting it in every possible way.
You recently said that after Partition it was the Shah Bano case that heightened communal sensitivity. What needs to change with the ulemas in the post-Shah Bano scenario?
After the passage of the Act to reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court in Shah Bano case, I had said that we can make and change laws according to our requirements, but it would be difficult to put an end to the communal poison that has been injected into the body politic of India by the speeches made by Personal Law Board members. They demanded reversal of Supreme Court judgment to protect (MILLI TASHAKHKHUS) that separate community identity. This slogan of ‘separate identity’ of MPLB was seen by many people as a revised version of ‘separate nation’ theory of Jinnah and it was commented upon in the media. Further, like Jinnah, the MPLB also claims to be the sole spokesman of Muslims.
If you read two books on the history of free India by Professor Bipin Chandra and Professor Ram Chandra Guha, then you see that both of them have described the movement against Shah Bano judgment as the political turning point. The editorials and articles published in leading papers in 1986 had also used very strong language to describe these developments.
I feel that what all of us, including the government, failed to appreciate was the fact that the freedom of religion is guaranteed to all persons individually by the Constitution. But when the government accepted the interpretation of the Personal Law Board and accordingly enacted a law, it became applicable to all Muslims whether they agreed or disagreed with their interpretation.
Logically speaking, this amounted to denial of freedom of religion to those who disagreed with the interpretation of MPLB.
And strangely, only about two years later in 1988, the then president of the MPLB acknowledged that the new law they had secured after historic agitation failed to meet their demand and it proved to be “Koh Kandan Kah Bar Awardan” that is we dug the mount and found a mouse.
How important is the 19-20% Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh? There are attempts to consolidate the Muslim vote by politicians as well as community leaders. Do these efforts reap benefits for anyone?
When we talk about consolidation of the votes of one community or caste, we flagrantly violate the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Do not forget that India had a separate electorate system. It is clear from the debates that the Constituent Assembly was clearly of the view that it was the system of separate electorate introduced by the British in 1909 that erected the walls of separation and ultimately resulted in demand to divide the country on religious lines. The Assembly took a conscious decision to abolish separate electorate to demolish religious separatism and abolished untouchability to demolish social seclusion. The political parties have a constitutional and moral obligation to promote the constitutional objectives and not act in a manner that undermines them.
What does this verdict mean for the Uniform Civil Code and Muslims?
I don’t think this result of UP Assembly can be linked to Uniform Civil Code, which is the subject matter of the Union government. Since you have asked about Muslims also, let me say that the BJP government at the Centre is now more than two and half years old. Even earlier, the BJP had a government for six years under Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Honestly, I fail to understand this attitude of suspicion, mistrust and fear. Even if we do not wish to trust others at least take cognizance of the fact that India is a rule of law society and it is the only country outside Western hemisphere which has more than 70 years old full-fledged democracy with robust institutions and fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Let us realise that unlike under the colonial rule, free India is not a zero sum nation where one community can prosper only at the cost of the other. Today we are one nation and pace of our progress and development depends on our national unity, mutual respect and trust.