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Political Representation: Panacea or Red Herring

Title:  Absent in Politics and Power: Political Exclusion of Indian Muslims
Author: Abdur Rahman
Publisher: Manohar Publishers & Distributors
Published: 2023

Reviewed by Firasha Shaikh

With the Lok Sabha general elections just months away, the issue of political representation of Indian Muslims has never been more pertinent and this is the main focus of the recently released book, Absent in Politics and Power: Political Exclusion of Indian Muslims by former IPS officer Abdur Rahman.  He made the headlines back in 2019 when he resigned after more than 22 years of service, in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

His latest book is in many ways a thematic continuation of his previous two works, Sachar ki Sifarishein (2012) and Denial and Deprivation: Indian Muslims after the Sachar Committee and Ranganath Misra Commission Reports (2019).

As the title suggests, this book attempts to encapsulate the current scenario vis-à-vis Indian Muslims in politics. Indian Muslims remain woefully under-represented in what is supposed to be a democratic system. The book examines the historical causes and driving factors for this state of affairs and explores possible strategies and solutions to rectify the same.

The author’s fundamental assertion is that the socio-economic marginalization of Indian Muslims will continue to persist unless they get proportionate political representation. “Political empowerment is the key to all empowerment,” the author states.

In the following chapter, the author gives us a brief history of the Constituent Assembly Debates and shows how this particular moment in the history of post-Independent India is important for understanding how Indian Muslims came to be deprived of proper political representation in the Parliament. This was due to both Indian Muslim leaders being willing to compromise on the demand of reserved seats for the community to appease the majority and the Congress leaders’ nefarious actions to abolish the reservation of seats for minorities, particularly Sardar Patel.

In the next two chapters, the author gives us extensive data and statistics that prove how Indian Muslims have been systematically excluded from both Parliament and State Assemblies. The main reason for the ‘representation deficit’ of Indian Muslims is under-nomination by national parties like the Congress, BJP, and CPI(M), and also the OBC-based and regional parties. The other major reasons are the exclusion of ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims from SC status which leads to them being unable to contest from SC-reserved seats; making Muslim-dominated areas SC-reserved seats, reticence of non-Muslim voters to vote for Muslims and BJP’s communal and exclusionary politics. Most disappointingly, there is no structural mechanism for periodic assessment to correct this under-representation.

When it comes to the state level, apart from the division of votes among several Muslim candidates, missing names from voter lists, and discriminatory gerrymandering by the Election Commission, there are certain interesting observations such as the fact that Muslim MLAs emerge more from regional parties as compared to national parties.

In Chapter 5, the author goes through some of the glaring policy issues related to the political under-representation of Indian Muslims. He points out the failure to implement the recommendations of various policy reform committees throughout the years as well as the non-inclusive functioning of Indian democracy as being primary obstacles. The author advocates for some variation of the PR (Proportional Representation) electoral system as a possible alternative to the current problematic FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) system.

Chapter 6 discusses ground-level factors affecting Muslim representation such as the lack of dynamic and oriented leadership. He criticizes Muslim leaders across the spectrum, from Muslim politicians of mainstream parties to the Ulama. In both cases, the common theme is that these leaders neglect urgent socio-economic concerns (poverty, education, employment) in favour of superficial issues or in the case of the Ulama, for religious/ cultural concerns (Shari’ah, Urdu language, madrasas, etc).

The author draws special attention to the specific exclusion of the OBC, SC, and ST Muslim communities within Indian Muslims. He also goes into detail about the possibilities that could be availed from a strong Dalit-Muslim alliance and the inherent challenges therein. He believes Indians belonging to OBC/SC/ST communities should unite regardless of religion.

In the concluding chapters, the author explains the contours of ‘Pasmanda’ politics, its significance, and the primary demands of ‘Pasmanda’ Muslim activists. He also examines how secular parties have failed Muslims through majoritarian appeasement and neglecting the concerns of Indian Muslims.

Finally, the author scrutinizes the oft-repeated demand of a major national-level Muslim political party. He contends that this idea is unfeasible practically and instead, Indian Muslims need to adopt alternative strategies to achieve the goal of political representation.

The author concludes the book with a list of critical demands that can be taken up by Muslim leaders including amending key laws like Representation of the People Act, of 1951, and the Presidential Order of 1950 that are responsible for under-nomination. He also suggests practical political strategies such as voting or being part of a pressure group as per the numerical majority in a constituency. He advocates that Indian Muslim leadership should adopt inclusive social democracy as envisaged by Dr BR Ambedkar.

Since the author comes from a fundamentally liberal-secular perspective, his analysis falls short in certain areas. For example, he believes certain issues to be solely religious-cultural issues like madrasa education, and that Muslim leaders must focus more on socio-economic concerns. As far as madrasa education is concerned, it is not a religious issue but very much an educational policy concern that Muslim leaders are rightfully concerned about as madrasa students usually tend to be a deprived/ vulnerable section of the community.

He also believes that Muslims have a lot to learn from Ambedkarite leadership and believes in the Ambedkarite position of caste-based unity as opposed to religion-based unity. Prima facie, these are completely valid opinions, however, this analysis does not take into account just how much Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia has become the mainstay of Indian politics so much so that even Ambedkarite politics is not immune from its influences.

Several of the same points are repeated throughout the chapters which ends up being tautological.

Overall, despite these drawbacks, this is an important book at a crucial moment that we as a community are witnessing.


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