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Monday, February 6, 2012

Believe me, Muslims are not a herd

Opportunistic politicians are projecting Muslims as a monolithic ‘vote bank,' whereas the reality is of a diverse community divided along caste and theological lines.

The myth of the Muslim vote bank, though denied by sociologists and debunked by psephologists, refuses to die. It reasserts itself with new vigour at every election. Even those well aware of the diversity within the community cannot resist building their arguments on this spurious claim.

The vote bank theory has been convenient for labelling Muslims and shoving them into handy brackets. It was done in India to explain the political behaviour of Muslims across regional, linguistic, caste, class and social barriers. Today it is done globally to gloss over inconvenient and inconsistent behaviour: it is a one-size fits all formula that cuts across regions and rides over locational differences and circumstances. Whether they are Thai, Chechen, Palestinian or European, Muslims are judged unfailingly by their faith and so-called beliefs. In this foretold story, everything is pre-decided: the crime, the culprit, the cause, the evidence and the punishment.

The vote bank

The idea that there is something called a “Muslim vote bank,” which behaves uniformly across the board, suits equally the Muslim leadership and its right wing Hindu counterpart. Muslim leaders and middlemen can bargain with political parties on behalf of this “collective” vote, as if individual Muslims have no opinion of their own and can be herded together in a pre-determined direction for a price decided mutually between the politicians and the community's self-appointed spokespersons. The Muslim vote bank helps communal Hindu organisations to manufacture their own “Hindu vote bank,” and use the whipped up Muslim threat to achieve their ultimate objective: a Hindu-Muslim electoral polarisation. The secular sections too have become unwitting participants in this game. Their intention is presumably to lift Muslims out of their sense of insecurity but the constant focus has only served to perpetuate the fear and victimhood that have been the bane of the community. Experts on 24x7 TV channels habitually use the vote bank theory to offer pat explanations for Muslim behaviour and to reach pre-fabricated conclusions.

I know I will be roundly attacked for these assertions for they question the very basis on which sectarian elements on both sides have built their arguments. The Muslim Ulema refuse to accept the ground reality of Islam in India which is as much mired in caste politics as any other Indian religion. The plain truth is that Muslim society is as divided as Hindu society and along the same caste and regional lines. Caste is such a formidable Indian/Hindu institution that no ideology can escape it: Islam, Christianity, Marxism, rationalism, modernism have all floundered on the bedrock of this hard reality. Islam became acceptable in medieval Indian society as a caste group and not as a religious group. Mughals, Pathans, Turks, Sheikhs and Syeds were regarded as sub-castes, so much so that other Indian converts to Islam came to be conveniently regarded as outcasts.

Diverse and complex

It suited the Turk/Pathan/Mughal rulers to be treated as caste groups and not as a monolithic religion. Those who understand Western Uttar Pradesh Muslim society will vouch for the existence of castes such as Jhojhas, Ranghars, Gharhas which are peculiar to Muslims of this area. Then you have Muslims divided along Hindu caste lines, among them Muslim Rajputs, Mode Jaat (Muslim Jat) and Khatri, Gujjar, Tyagi and Teli Muslims. Others such as Ansaris, Qureshis, Rayanis, Sulemanis and Saifis are as divided socially as any other caste groups. Add to this the Shia-Sunni and Deobandi-Barelvi divides and a dozen other divisions based on different school of thoughts, and you have a complex and diverse community.

Before Independence these divisions were not as sharp as they are today, primarily because the British had to be fought as a common enemy. However as electoral politics came to the fore, caste and sub-caste divisions got etched in bolder relief. Caste divisions in Muslim society were never as sharp or as rigid as they are in Hindu society. With the coming of democracy they became distinct political groups, and more so since the Mandalisation of North Indian politics. Today, Muslims in rural India do not vote as a single religious group. Their caste rivalries are so strong that if, for example, the Qureshis vote for one party, the Ansaris will vote for another. And the beauty of this voting is that it is irrespective of the candidate who could be Hindu or Muslim. To be sure, there does emerge from time to time a temporary “Muslim vote,” when the community faces a common threat like the “Ram Mandir” movement, or anti-Muslim pogroms as in Gujarat, Meerut or Bhagalpur. In fact it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which by raising the bogey of the Muslim vote bank, that turns this fragmented vote into a formidable political entity. Muslim leaders in turn play the “Indian Islam/Muslims are in danger” card in order to unite the community under one banner. Contrary to popular assumptions, the Muslim vote never goes en masse to a single party, be it the Congress, the Samajwadi Party or the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Before Independence , even the Muslim League could never get more than 50 per cent of the Muslim vote in U.P. So analysts deliberately obfuscate the truth when they talk of Muslims voting for this or that party under the sway of one fatwa or another. The voting behaviour of Muslims is as varied as that of any other religious group, based on their socio-economic, rural-urban and caste-religion divides.

Influence of global events

In the last 40 years of my active journalistic life I have always been asked this question by my friends from the media: “What will be the impact of Bangladesh or an India-Pakistan war or the situation in Iran or the death of Saddam Hussein on Indian Muslim voting behaviour? Recently it was Salman Rushdie who was thought to be able to affect Muslim voting. My reply has always been that these issues do influence the minds of a section of Muslims but they do not influence their voting behavior. They voted for Indira Gandhi despite her being responsible for the break up of Pakistan. They voted for the Janata Party in 1977 despite the presence of the Jana Sangh in that camp. They went along with V.P. Singh despite his association with the BJP. They voted by and large with the Left Front in West Bengal but moved towards Mamata Banerjee as the general mood changed in that state.

The point I am making is that Muslims don't generally vote against the trend in their State. Even when they vote for a particular party it is never as a single, undifferentiated block. The media and analysts should stop looking at Muslim voters through the prism of a “vote bank” and start treating them as individuals and groups. The subconscious contempt we have for the “other” (read Muslims) leads us to believe that they somehow behave irrationally, as a herd led by their fanatic leaders. The legend of the Muslim vote bank is strong and will be used and reused in this election as in the previous ones. However, for a better understanding of Indian politics it is best that we think beyond the vote bank.

(Shahid Siddiqui is a former Member of Parliament, editor of Nai Duniya and currently a member of the Samajwadi Party.)

The Hindu

Syria needs diplomacy, not intervention------ A. G. Noorani

If anything, the pursuit of regime change is hurting the international community's ability to end the crisis.

President Bashar al-Assad's government has used brute force to crush a genuine popular upheaval against his regime. The death toll is nearly 6,000. Human rights have been systematically violated. But the crucial question is how and what steps can international society lawfully take to bring an end to the crisis.

Libya is not a model for emulation but a warning to heed; more so, Iraq. Each was a split polity surviving on fragile unity. The Syrian regime, however unpopular, is supported by a significant section of people. Regime change through outside intervention wreaks havoc, violates the United Nations Charter, the rules of international law, and undermines the stability of the world order. These fundamentals must not be overlooked.

At the root of Russia and China's veto of the resolution on Syria in the Security Council on February 4, lies distrust, deep and justified. The world was taken for a ride twice by the Council's resolutions which did not authorise the use of force, but came in handy as fig leaves to cover the nudity of illegal recourse to war.

Obama's fatwa

Statements made in the Council as well as their texts establish that Resolution 1441 of November 8, 2002, did not authorise an attack on Iraq. Nor did Resolution 1973, adopted on March 17, 2011, authorise the use of force against Libya. However, on February 26, President Barack Obama delivered a fatwa on Col. Muammar Qadhafi: “He should go.” Now, on February 4, the very day the UNSC was to vote on the resolution on Syria, he peremptorily declared apropos President al-Assad: “He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately.” Few would believe Hillary Clinton when she said, on January 31, “there is no intention to seek any authority or to pursue any kind of military intervention”.

Suspicions of plans for regime change are justified. “Then you will start telling what King needs to resign and what Prime Minister needs to step down. This is not the business of the Security Council,” Russia's Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin remarked on January 31.

Textually, the resolution is misleading. It “calls for an inclusive Syrian led political process” but adds it “fully supports in this regard the League of Arab States' 22 January 2012 decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, … including through commencing a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition under the League of Arab States' auspices, in accordance with the timetable set out by the League of Arab States; Encourages the League of Arab States to continue its efforts in cooperation with all Syrian stakeholders.”

As Neil Macfarquhar of The New York Times reported: “Three clauses that endorsed specific aspects of the Plan — including that Mr. Assad delegate his authority to his vice-president to speed a transition to democracy — were removed. But Arab and Western diplomats said the essential idea remained, even if it was not spelled out.”

‘Demands, does not recommend'

The Resolution, obviously adopted under Chapter VII, “demands,” does not “recommend.” It says: “Demands that the Syrian government, in accordance with the Plan of Action of the League of Arab States of 2 November 2011 and its decision of 22 January 2012, without delay.” Six steps are listed. Finally, the Council “Requests the Secretary General to report on the implementation of this resolution, in consultation with the League of Arab States, within 21 days after its adoption and to report every 30 days thereafter. Decides to review implementation of this resolution within 21 days and, in the event of non-compliance, to consider further measures.” Of what avail the disavowal “Nothing in this resolution authorizes measures under Article 42 of the Charter” when the threat is implicit in the text itself? The League's Plan which is endorsed provides for Mr. al-Assad to step down.

Bashar al-Assad is no pushover. Diplomacy should seek his consent to a plan which leaves him in office but ensures a democratic transition. The resolution is not an aid to diplomacy but an instrument of duress. The Arab League and its Western backers were impatient on regime change.

Regime change has furtively acquired certain respectability. Time there was when Gladstone told the House of Commons on April 2, 1880 that “the rights of a Power, the rights of a nation, ought not to be invaded because it happens to have the misfortune of a despotic government.”

The law was laid down by the International Court of Justice on April 9, 1949, in the Corfu Channel case: “The Court can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever the present defects of international organization, find a place in international law. … from the nature of things it would be reserved for the most powerful States; …” These words are more relevant now than they were in 1949. This was reaffirmed in the Nicaragua case in 1986. The Court rejected intervention at a “request for assistance made by an opposition group in another state.”

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 opened new vistas of the play of power. In 1986, a British Foreign Office Policy Paper noted that “the overwhelming majority of contemporary legal opinion comes down against the existence of a right of humanitarian intervention”. In 1992, the Foreign Office held: “international law develops to meet new situations; we believe that international intervention without the invitation of the country concerned can be justified in cases of extreme humanitarian need.”

In this clime came R2P. In an inspired moment in 2000, the Canadian movement picked on the egregious Gareth Evans of Australia, with Mohamed Sahuom of Algeria, doubtless both of undying reason, to co-chair an independent International Commission on Intervention and State sovereignty. They coined the phrase “responsibility to protect”.

The doctrine was not accepted by the U.N. General Assembly on September 14, 2009, after a long debate. On September 24, 1999, Foreign Ministers of the Group of 77 “rejected the so-called right of humanitarian intervention, which has no basis in the UN Charter or international law”. This represents the opinion of 132 states; 33 Asian, 51 African, 22 Latin American, and 13 Arab states.

Crisis of legitimacy

Such an intervention inevitably entails regime change. One suspects that change is the main objective; human rights violations are a pretext for it. Witness the deafening silence on outrages by the favourites. Beneath the crisis in the U.N. system lies a deeper crisis of the legitimacy of an order which is devoid of an international consensus. That can be restored only by a wide consensus. We face a genuine humanitarian problem. Remember Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Russia's Foreign Minister said on February 4 that the resolution on Syria was not “hopeless” and that “we support the call of the Syrian people for change.” There was ample room for compromise. There is still time for that — a U.N. Mission comprising members of high credentials can go to Syria to bring about a settlement which leaves Mr. al-Assad in office but ensures democratic transition.

India's Permanent Representative to the U.N., Hardip Singh Puri, said “the main role of the international community, including this Council, is to facilitate engagement of the Syrian government with all sections of Syrian society.” Nominating its adversary, the Arab League, to accomplish tasks set by the Resolution is no way to secure that “engagement.”

The Hindu