Muslims in MP grapple with TINA factor as Congress embraces Hindutva
Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath (centre) hosted the controversial self-styled godman Dhirendra Shastri for a jamboree in Chhindwara earlier this month. | File photo

Muslims in MP grapple with TINA factor as Congress embraces Hindutva

Grand Old Party calls itself secular, but its current version of Hindutva can't even be termed ‘soft’ anymore

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As the BJP and the Congress sharpen their electoral rhetoric in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, the state’s Muslim community is confronted with a Hobson’s choice.

The Congress, under its state president and former chief minister Kamal Nath, has distinctly swerved right. Though it continues to call itself ‘secular’, the Congress has embraced a version of Hindutva that can no longer be termed ‘soft’. The ruling BJP, under CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who until a few years ago stood out among his colleagues as a moderate leader willing to host iftaars, don the skull cap and share stage with Islamic clergy and common folks alike, has dialled up its faith in communal polarisation promising, among other things, ‘bulldozer justice’ and an unsparing crackdown on love jihad and religious conversion.

Caught between the two dominant parties are the Muslims, who have a substantial presence across 25 of the state’s 230 assembly constituencies but find no mention of their concerns – social, economic or political – in the prevailing electoral discourse.

Taking Muslims for granted

The community’s angst stems not so much from the hysteria kicked up against it by the BJP’s drumbeaters but from the apathy that the MP unit of the Congress has shown towards concerns of the Muslims and from Nath’s desperate attempts at wooing the Hindu electorate using tricks that seem straight out of the BJP’s electoral handbook.

“To ask what electoral choices Muslims have in MP is pointless. A choice would mean that the community has alternatives. In MP, you have just two parties, the BJP and the Congress. The Muslims will not vote for the BJP for reasons known to everyone. Why Muslims feel betrayed is because the Congress today takes Muslim support for granted and doesn’t feel the need to engage with the community,” Aziz Qureshi, a former governor of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh and one of the state’s seniormost Congress leaders tells The Federal.

Qureshi claims that despite the increased targeting of Muslims in MP by “Hindutva goons” and othering of the community “in every field”, Congress leaders like Nath “aren’t bothered...their message to the Muslims is ‘you are a liability for us’... Muslim leaders in the party don’t count, their views don’t matter.” He adds, “I am the seniormost party leader in the state today because I became a member of the All India Congress Committee in 1972 when people like Kamal Nath had not even entered politics but today I am a nobody; if I write to our leaders red-flagging concerns of the community, I don’t even get a reply.”

Arif Masood, Congress MLA from Bhopal Central and one of only two Muslim MLAs in the 230-member MP Vidhan Sabha (the other is the ailing Arif Aqueel, six-term Congress MLA from Bhopal North), disagrees with Qureshi but failed to explain why many in his community feel betrayed by his party. “The Congress was, is and will always be committed to the Muslims,” Masood told The Federal, asserting that while “there may be some issues on which we could have been more vocal but it is wrong to say that our political approach to the Muslims has become like the BJP’s... we are a secular party, BJP is communal and everyone knows that but still, if there is a view that we need to do more to earn the trust of the Muslim community, we will surely do that”.

Dearth of options

Vijay Dutt Shridhar, Bhopal-based political commentator and founder of the Madhav Sapre Museum of Newspapers and Research Institute, says the only difference between the BJP and the Nath-led Congress in MP today is that unlike the former the latter “doesn’t instigate or commit violence against Muslims”. He explains, “maybe because the Muslim population is only around 50 lakh, the Congress feels actively raising their issues is a bad strategy because the community anyway will vote for the party but what makes the Congress’ current posturing troublesome, or even dangerous, is that while it is absolutely silent on attacks against Muslims, it seems eager to engage with and patronise those elements of the Hindutva ecosystem who are responsible for not just instigating but even carrying out such attacks.”

Shridhar adds, “the cries of Jai Shri Ram, which have unfortunately taken a very militant colour in our politics because of the way the BJP used the slogan ever since the Ram Janmbhoomi movement, are now heard in Congress’ public events and rallies... you will rarely see any senior leader of the MP Congress, perhaps with the exception of Digvijaya Singh, who will speak up when Muslims are under attack; obviously such things make Muslims uncomfortable but then the community has no other alternative but to vote for the Congress and just hope that if it comes to power, things will improve or at least stay the same and not worsen.”

Nath’s steering of a centrist Congress towards the Hindu right was visible even during the 15 months from December 2018 to March 2020 when he served as the state’s CM before his government was toppled due to mass defection to the BJP by MLAs loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia. In the short period that he led the state government, Nath announced various projects and schemes that could endear him and his party to the Hindus, liberal and hardline alike.

Peddling soft Hindutva

Nath’s government had unveiled projects such as the multi-crore Mahakaal Corridor in Ujjain, promised to set up gaushalas in every panchayat across the state and vowed to cracking down against cow slaughter. A strong push to appease Hindus has also been made by the state Congress organisation, which is headed by Nath since 2018. When the Supreme Court cleared the decks for construction of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Nath lost no time in directing his colleagues in the MP Congress to donate generously to the corpus for building the temple.

A self-proclaimed Hanuman devotee, while Nath got a massive 101 feet Hanuman statue built in his political bastion of Chhindwara and was routinely seen visiting prominent temples in the state, he also asked his party colleagues to organise mass celebrations of all major Hindu festivals. Last year, Nath carved up a new department for ‘religion and religious events’ in the state Congress which is now helmed by Sadhvi Richa Goswami, a kathavachak or religious storyteller. While these may still seem relatively kosher means of electoral outreach, Nath posturing and politics subsequent to his unceremonious exit from power is what has left the state’s Muslims, in particular, and secularists, in general, repulsed or, at the very least, confounded.

Nath’s unqualified obeisance for Dhirendra Shastri of Bageshwar Dham, a vocal proponent of establishing India as a Hindu Rashtra, was on full display earlier this month when he hosted the controversial self-styled godman for a jamboree in Chhindwara. After the event, Nath even seemed to endorse Shastri’s views on India as a Hindu Rashtra – a pitch routinely peddled by the BJP-RSS combine and their affiliates – when he said the notion was indisputable since 82 percent of the country’s population is Hindu. Nath had also paid Shastri a visit in February this year at a time when the former was being slammed by rationalists for his parlour tricks.

Shastri isn’t the only Hindu radical that Nath has tried to cultivate in recent months. Two months back, the former CM presided over the merger of militant fringe Hindu outfit Bajrang Sena with the MP Congress unit. Though not as well-known as the Bajrang Dal, the Bajrang Sena has been active in the Bundelkhand and Vindhyachal regions of MP, often stirring up trouble as a cow vigilante group.

Flirting with fringe

Ironically, at the press conference where its merger with the state Congress was announced in Nath’s presence, leaders of the Bajrang Sena declared how they had worked alongside Yogi Adityanath’s notorious Hindu Yuva Vahini to ensure a BJP sweep in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. With Nath leading chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ at the presser, members of the Sena declared that they shared a “common vision” with Nath on issues of Hindu empowerment and cow protection.

In stark contrast to Nath’s palpable patronage of this muscular and polarising Hindutva politics has been his silence on atrocities against Muslims in the state. The most disturbing example of this was Nath’s vanishing act when communal clashes broke out in MP’s Khargone in April last year during Ram Navami celebrations.

Scores of Muslim homes and shops were damaged during the riots and, in a double whammy, the state police swooped in to arrest over 150 Muslims, including many who were victims of the violence, and charged them with rioting. Chouhan and his home minister, Narottam Mishra, desperate to replicate Adityanath’s bulldozer justice formula in MP, were quick to order demolition of homes and commercial establishments belonging to riot-affected Muslims who were dubbed by the administration as aggressors.

Mum over Muslim issues

In the aftermath, riot victims and rights’ activists made repeated appeals to Nath and other state Congress leaders for help and intervention but barring former CM Digvijaya Singh and Congress’ Khargone MLA Ravi Joshi, none replied. Since the April 2022 riots, Khargone and its twin town of Khandwa have seen repeated instances of hate crimes against Muslims but Nath and his colleagues have maintained a studied silence on these atrocities, ostensibly for fear of alienating Hindu voters in an election year.

Ashar Warsi, an advocate practicing at the Indore High Court who appeared as counsel in a string of cases filed against Muslim victims of the Khargone riots, told The Federal, “The response of the Congress to the appeals of help from the riot-affected people was extremely disheartening but it was consistent with the approach that the party has had towards the Muslims over the past five years... we thought that at least in the aftermath of the riots the party leadership would come forward to express solidarity with the community or that when Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) reached MP, there would be some words of compassion for the community but none of that has happened”.

Interestingly, the BJY, which was in MP for about 11 days in December 2022, about eight months after the Khargone riots, crossed the Khandwa and Khargone districts. However, Congress sources told The Federal that “all efforts were made by the yatra’s coordinators in the MP Congress to prevent riot victims from meeting Rahul in public”. “The route of the yatra was made in such a way that the actual areas where the riots broke out was avoided even though the march was crossing the district. A delegation of riot affected people wanted to walk with Rahul but senior leaders of the state ensured this didn’t happen and only a handful of these people were allowed to meet Rahul when the yatra broke for rest while going to Dhar from Khandwa but images of the meeting weren’t shared by the party. Those who managed to meet Rahul did tell him that they were very disillusioned by the attitude of the state Congress leaders, especially Nath and former Khandwa MP Arun Yadav, towards the community but it hasn’t changed anything till date,” a party leader told The Federal.

Conscious effort

Zaheer Ahmed, a local Congress leader and former Bhopal district Congress, says the party has “consciously kept its distance from the Muslims because Nath believes being viewed as pro-Muslim has damaged the party electorally and since the community votes for the Congress anyway even though none of our concerns are addressed by the leadership, he perhaps feels it is more important to win the Hindu votes”. Ahmed says, “this is the same approach that has alienated Muslims from the Congress wherever the Muslims find a viable electoral alternative, be it the Samajwadi Party in UP, the RJD in Bihar or the Trinamool in Bengal... the day MP has a party, even if it is Asaduddin Owaisi’s party, that seriously tries to make in-roads in the seats where Muslims are in big numbers, like in Bhopal, some segments of Indore, Burhanpur and Khandwa, the Congress will lose the Muslim vote in MP too”.

With various opinion polls and political commentators alike signalling a definite edge to the Congress over the BJP in the MP assembly polls, due this October, Shridhar signs off with a note of caution. “Ordinarily, one would assume that with a secular Congress in power, the Muslims, irrespective of their population, can hope to live in peace or, if there is a riot or hate crime targeting them, then a Congress government will be more responsive to their needs than a BJP one. However, the way Nath has gone all out to woo fringe troublemakers from the Hindutva side such as the Bajrang Sena, it will be difficult for him if the party comes to power and he becomes the CM to rein in such elements. If Nath stays on the path he has taken, I can foresee more problems for the Muslims if and when the Congress returns to power,” says Shridhar.

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