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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

Muslim Demand for Political Empowerment

Reservation In Legislatures Or Proportional Electoral System

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Syed Shahabuddin

My purpose of this article is not to scratch the countless wounds, received since independence, nor to recite old grievances, but basically a fresh endeavour to achieve social justice in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and to make a new beginning.


SOCIAL JUSTICE has many aspects including sharing power, due benefits for every social group in the development that the country is making, part-nership in governance and thus in the utilisation of its natural resources, Justice and Equality without discrimination for all social groups which make up our great nation. Our objective is to achieve Social Justice not only for the Muslims but for all weaker sections in the national society and to remove social stigma, economic backwardness and political differen-tiation among various groups, to reduce if not eliminate class disparities arising from birth and wealth.

It is undeniable that since 1947 our mother-land has steadily moved forward in every field. Yet the fact remains that social disparities have widened, that nearly 75-80 per cent of the people live on a daily per capita expenditure of Rs 20.

Taken as whole, 60 years after independence, the Muslims remain economically backward, socially marginalised, politically under-represented, educationally much below the national level and practically unrepresented in any field of governance and administration. Three points illustrate the overall level of Muslim backwardness. According to the Report of the Sachar Committee, the Muslim community is almost as backward as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and more backward than the non-Muslim OBCs. Secondly, since 1947, whether in the Central Parliament or in State Assem-blies. Muslims have been consistently under-represented by 50 per cent in proportion to their population. Thirdly, the Muslim community lives in a state of apprehension, wrapped in a miasma of fear. Their localities are in a state of siege and the youth are afraid that they may be picked up by the police from their homes and put under arrest or detention without any warrant. Once arrested, many may not be released for years while they are subjected to torture to extract confession for uncommitted crimes, and prosecuted, if they are lucky to escape custodial killing and eventually acquitted.

The Muslims are forced to ask themselves whether they are living in freedom or whether they are free citizen of a free country.

Rising Surge of Hindu Communalism

WHY should such a situation obtain 64 years after independence? Since before independence there has been growing polarisation between Hindu and Muslim communalisms. Even today they both exist and feed each other but, as Jawaharlal Nehru once said, Hindu communalism is much more dangerous for the country as it may develop a fascist dimension while Muslim communalism cannot do much harm to anyone else but only to themselves. Hindu communalism has slowly reduced democracy to majoritarianism and, through the political system as well as the media and education, it is penetrating young minds which are imbibing anti-Muslim distrust and hostility. Indeed the new middle classes which have emerged simply do not care about the neglect of the Muslims, their travails and deprivation and see them through the prism of historical hatred and prejudice.

Shadow of Pakistan and of Terrorism

THE failure of the freedom movement to work out a mutually acceptable solution of the communal problem finally led to the partition, which was a great tragedy for the Muslim community of the subcontinent, followed by the consequent history of diplomatic wrangling as well as military confrontation between India and Pakistan. As if the memory of historic hostility and the existential shadow of Pakistan was not enough, the Muslims are now living under the shadow of the largely false accusation of involvement in acts of ‘Islamic terrorism’. The global wave of the Islamophobia in the West has been generously supported by Hindu extremists in our country and the new elite.

Powerless in a Democracy

AS a politically conscious community, the Muslim Indians could have effectively grappled with and struggled against these factors but even in a democracy they feel powerless, politically unable to present their case before the nation. Because power resides in the final analysis in the political structure, executive, legislative and judicial. Muslims enjoy universal franchise but in the recognised parties and national fora they have hardly any representation. When a national body meets or the government convenes a meeting of political parties in Parliament to discuss and reach a consensus on a matter of national concern, the Muslim community is shocked when it never sees a Muslim face among the decision-makers; there is hardly any Muslim among the leaders or spokesmen of the political parties. It may be that the Muslims are not as active in politics or in mass movements as they should be, but it is also true that out of frustration they rarely take any initiative and when they do they are not welcomed or encouraged by those who are in.

Flaws in Democratic System

WHATEVER be the reason, if one considers the situation and analyses the cause of their poor representation in the political structure from year to year, from election to election, from State to State, the conclusion stares us in the face that there are basic defects and flaws in our political and electoral system which limits the reach of our democracy.

Under the existing system the legislators are elected under the first-past-the-post electoral system generally by about 25-35 per cent of the voters considering an average turnout of 60 per cent and 35 per cent for winning a seat. It is these legislators who together represent a fraction of the eligible voters, and make the government, in our political system. Generally governments represent in the days of coalition government only about 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the voters. This is a fatal moral and political weakness of the democratic system. The result is that in a weak democratic system, the decision-makers, the legislators surrender to the wishes of the powerful upper class and the elite. It would not be incorrect to say that democracy originally defined as the government of the people, by the people and for the people has become the government of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. This explains why the legislature and the government, chosen exclusively out of a handful of legislators, are not as sensitive as they should be to the difficulties and privation faced by the common people. Between elections, political parties are concerned with verbal skirmishes and campaign against each other. Who cares about the rising cost of living and surging unemployment, organised violence by the forces of the state as well as by communal and caste groups against the weaker sections? Or about rising corruption or the deprivation of the common man or the pampered injustice at every step?

It is not surprising that under such a system despite repeated declarations of good intent for inclusive development and power-sharing, the Muslims, the Dalits and other weaker sections receive little attention and face a dim future.

Government Ignores its Own Reports

THE historic report of the Mandal Commission, submitted to the government in 1980, took nine years to be implemented! The Gopal Singh Panel Report, 1983 was similarly filed away. Today we have the Sachar Report which I have already quoted; its recommendations have been reduced to the award of a few thousand scholarships which are hardly never delivered within the current year. And we have the recent example of historic National Commission on Religious and Linguistic Minorities, headed by a former Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranganath Mishra, which has gathered dust on the table of Parliament for three years without being discussed!

There are hundreds of other reports since 1950, of general and particular interest, which have been forgotten by the power structure. A recent one comes to my mind, the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report on the Bombay Disturbances of 1993 which is yet to be acted upon. Thus Commissions are set up by the government to silence the people. Some take their own time like the Liberhan Commission on the Demolition of the Babri Masjid which took 17 years but submitted its report three years ago; it is yet to be looked at and any action against the culprits would follow thereafter.

Traditional Methods of Redressal do not Work

AS far as Muslims are concerned, their problems complaints and grievances have been piling up since 1947. Committed as they are to democracy, they use the traditional methods, organise seminars and symposia, hold meetings and conferences, draft memoranda and submit those to the government, meet the Ministers and wait on the Prime Minister or Chief Ministers to draw their attention but nothing happens. That is why the Muslims today feel helpless and do not know which way and to whom to turn. The governments do not listen to them; Parliament does not take-up their issues, it does not even discuss the annual reports submitted by the scores of institutions set up by the government to please them. Universal apathy kills their hope. When Muslims turn to secular parties, they find that all treat them as a vote-bank. They wake up to their existence and to their problems only at the time of elections, when they need their votes or wish to divide them so that they do not benefit their rivals.

All parties make many promises in their manifestos. Nobody reads them. In any case, people regard them as false promises and insincere assurances. But to secure Muslim votes the drum-beaters of the system, particularly those who represent major political parties and write in the Urdu press, go on telling them that they hold the key to power and that no party can form the government without their support! On the other hand, the Muslims do not see that any party is prepared even to field adequate number of Muslim candidates from winnable constituencies, acceptable to the community. Every party has its own social base and it only wishes to have a share of the Muslim vote so that it can have a competitive edge over its rival. That is how the system runs.

Finally, the few Muslim legislators elected on party tickets are afraid of the party bosses, do not effectively participate in the legislatures or even raise Muslim issues as in the government they become Ministers. Sometimes when they do so, they are rarely allotted a portfolio which matters like Defence, External Affairs, Finance or Home Affairs (with the solitary and short exception under V.P. Singh). What is happening then is that the Muslims are not only unhappy but disenchanted with the system and resigned to their fate. They have lost trust in the system as it exists and operates.

Available Options

WHAT then are the available options for the Muslim community? They see small groups indulging in violence and getting away with it with the government taking notice. A peaceful people who believe in political dialogue, they cannot take to violent means. Therefore, they must struggle through peaceful and democratic means.
Many think that a time has come to change their mental attitude. First of all, the Muslim youth is beginning to come out of the shadows of the past and become active in politics. Secondly, the Muslim community is making a clear distinction between long-term changes which will come and the short-term problems and local questions for which they have to continue to struggle through the existing system.

Failed Parliamentary System: Introduce Proportional Electoral System

ALL deprived sections feel that the parliamentary system has failed and therefore to achieve long-term goals they must organise all weaker sections to unitedly demand basic changes in political, administrative and above all the electoral system. The first-past-the-post-electoral system must be thrown out of the window, to be replaced by the proportional electoral system to make our democracy more sensitive to public grievances. To introduce the proportional electoral system they have to build a national consensus on the ground that the first-past-the-post electoral system is hostile to the interests of all weaker sections, including the minorities, in a multi-dimensional or multi-level society.

In the proportional system the voters shall vote not for parties but for candidates. The result will be that in many constituencies distributed over various electoral zones, the candidates representing weaker sections, including whom the Muslims vote for, shall be elected, representatives who will raise their questions in the legislature, demand debates and discussions on issues and subjects of their concern and press the government to provide equal service to them and distribute the gains of development proportionally.

The alternative is reservation in legislatures. The alternative is that the Muslims may be provided with reservation in legislatures. This was agreed to when the Constitution was being drafted in 1948 and then deleted from the draft in 1949 by questionable means.

Immediate Tactical Approach

WHAT can be the immediate approach? The Muslims and weaker sections must fight future elections with only one demand. When parties approach them that must ask them to support reservation in legislatures in proportion to their population, as in the case of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. They should declare from the house-tops that they shall vote only for parties which support this demand and refuse to accept their promises and assurances.

To make their voice effective, they need not only forge unity within each weaker section but create a United Front of all Weaker Sections in every constituency to select a candidate who is dependable and reliable. They must not allow their vote to be divided but vote unitedly and massively for one chosen candidate in every constituency. The Front of Minorities, Dalits and Weaker Sections should form an Elelction Committee in every constituency to decide whom to vote for, grill all candidates and their parties in the field and ask them to sign on the dotted line and assure them that once the election is over, these parties shall work for national consensus in favour of the proportional electoral system which will make our democracy more representative, deeper, wider and stronger and our government truly sensitive to the needs of the people.

Long-term Strategy of Change in Political System

AS regards the political system, the country and every State needs a directly elected head of government who is not subservient to the legislature and can induct in his government capable, efficient people who are socially conscious persons of integrity and of national stature from all social groups.

Our Model should be Mini-Tahrirs in Many Places

BETWEEN one election and the next let us learn some lesson from the current surge of democracy in the Arab world.

All of us have been impressed by the massive struggle which is changing the conservative and federal order. We cannot re-enact a Tahrir in India, because we are too many and our country is too big which makes the cost of movement to Delhi colossal. But the United Front of Minorities, Dalits and Weaker Sections can work out a feasible alternative to the Tarhrir experiment; organise Mini-Tahrirs, simultaneously mass meetings in all major cities and district headquarters on the same day and at the same time, with common slogan, common placards, common posters and, using the benefits of modern communication technology such as phones, mobiles, SMS, social network and websites, assemble people in hundreds of thousands at each meeting.

Any government will shudder to watch the spectacle of hundreds of simultaneous mass meetings in different parts of the country and will be forced to listen to their common demands to change the current political and electoral system; then the common people shall come to power, not the elite, not the parties which serve the system as their agents.

Once the people come to power under a united non-violent, struggle of all marginalised sections, Equality, Justice and Fraternity shall dawn for all Indians.

[Based on a speech at the Social Justice Convention, New Delhi, November 27, 2011]

The author is an ex-MP, and the former editor of Muslim India.

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