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Indian Politics: The Dangerous Game of Appeasement

The Congress party in India has appeased Muslims by granting them policy favors. This strategy has produced unforeseen side effects and is leading to further fragmentation along religious lines.

“Peace for our time,” proclaimed the British premier Neville Chamberlain after his Faustian bargain with Hitler at the Munich conference in 1938. His appetite satiated by appeasement, Hitler was soon rampaging through Europe.

India’s ‘Munich moment’ arrived in 1985 courtesy of an old Muslim woman’s fight for justice.

Shah Bano, a 70-year-old Muslim divorcee, was sanctioned maintenance money by the Supreme Court of India. Her husband was ordered to pay Rs.500 ($9 by current rates) as maintenance money.

Howls of protest went up from the orthodox Muslims, especially the clergy who termed the decision as interference in the internal affairs of the community. Sixty-five years after gaining independence from the British, India still has no uniform civil code and accepts personal laws on the basis of religion.

Then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made an initial attempt to stand up to the fundamentalists. But in the face of rising Muslim discontent inflamed by the clergy, Gandhi backed off.

The Congress party, which had tacitly encouraged Muslim fundamentalists in order to garner their support during the elections, now played the appeasement card. The party could not let the judiciary wrestle Muslim support from its control. Votes were evidently more important than women’s rights.

Misusing the massive majority in Parliament, Gandhi ensured the passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986. The retrogressive bill absolved the Muslim husband of any responsibility towards his divorced wife, irrespective of her pecuniary condition.

The defeat of rationality and jurisprudence signaled the arrival of India’s Munich moment.

Gandhi might have bought peace from the fundamentalists, but he let loose a monster that has assumed mythical proportions in Indian polity.

Gandhi then earned the wrath of the Muslim orthodoxy by opening the locks of the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi –Babri mosque complex in Ayodhya and allowing Hindus to pray there. The disputed complex, which has been the scene of ugly confrontations between the Hindus and the Muslims, had been locked since 1949.

Gandhi’s act was an attempt to appease the middle class Hindus who had been isolated from the Congress party after its pro-Muslim decisions in the Shah Bano fiasco. Hindus, who are a majority in India, revere the site of the disputed complex as the birth place of Ram, the God-King of Ayodhya. They allege that the Mughal emperor Babur built a mosque after demolishing the temple during his invasion of Ayodhya in 1528.

For all his civility in public life, Gandhi remained a naïve politician, never realizing that appeasement was a double-edged sword.

Muslim anger against the opening of the locks, combined with allegations of a major financial scam involving the purchase of artillery guns for the Indian army, put Gandhi’s regime in peril. Even the Hindus (who Gandhi had unsuccessfully tried to appease by opening the locks at Ayodhya) shifted their allegiance towards the right wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was leading a strident movement for building a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya.

Fortuitously for Rajiv and the Congress, this political tension coincided with Salman Rushdie’s 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses.

Muslim fundamentalists threatened massive protests against the allegedly blasphemous novel. Muslim politicians attacked Rushdie, stating all the while that they had not themselves read the book.

India became the first country to ban The Satanic Verses in 1988 as a pre-emptive measure. The ban was put in place even before Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (religious edict) for the beheading of Rushdie.

The respected Indian newspaper, ‘The Hindu’ called the decision to ban the novel ”a Philistine decision.” In an emotive open letter protesting the decision, Rushdie queried Gandhi: “What sort of India do you wish to govern? Is it to be an open or a repressive society?”

But like an opportunistic politician hankering for votes and power, Gandhi did not respond to the criticism. In politically troubled times captive vote banks could not be antagonized.

Rushdie is not the only author to be at the receiving end of the Muslim fundamentalists and the appeasement policy of the Indian polity.

Fundamentalists have incessantly targeted Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, whose stance against the discriminatory Islamic practices against women has seen her exiled in India.

In 2007 Taslima was hounded out of the metropolis of Kolkata, considered the cultural capital of the country, by fundamentalists protesting her presence in the city. After being physically assaulted by a mob in the southern city of Hyderabad, Taslima was eventually pressured to leave the city for New Delhi.

The silence of the politicians—especially the Congress party—against such violence has gradually emboldened fanatics to take the law into their own hands.

In 2010, Prof. K.T. Joseph lost his right hand after being attacked by fanatical Muslim activists in the southern state of Kerala. Joseph raised controversy by assigning a paper for university students that allegedly contained derogatory references to the Prophet Muhammad. Rather than protecting the Professor, the state ensured that he also lost his job.

Muslims, who constitute around 14-15% of Indian population, are treated merely as a vote bank by most of the prominent political parties. It is presumed that the community votes en masse. Therefore most Indian political bodies, especially the predominant Congress party, prefer to encourage the fundamentalists and the clergy in the community. Fatwas (religious edicts) are routinely issued by the religious leaders of the community in favor of a particular party.

India, a secular state, therefore has the ironic situation of political parties carrying favor with the Muslim religious leaders for a fatwa in their favor.

This appeasement of fundamentalism has also ensured that moderate and progressive Muslim voices are slowly receding into the background.

Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi was removed as Vice Chancellor of the Darul Uloom Deoband, a theological Muslim University for his support of Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Modi is treated as a pariah by the fundamentalist Muslims for his alleged role in the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.

It was perhaps the worst kept secret that Vastanvi was in reality removed because of his efforts to modernize the Darul Uloom Deoband. The academicians of the University, who are accustomed to issuing fatwas on inane issues, were apprehensive of Vastanvi’s modernizing efforts.

The appeasement practiced by politicians has ensured that while they canvass with Osama lookalikes in Muslim areas during elections, they prefer to look the other way when moderates like Vastanvi are maligned.

The politics of appeasement has reached its nadir during the ongoing elections in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The state that sends the largest number of representatives to the national Parliament is witnessing a no-holds-barred electoral slugfest for Muslim votes. Muslims, who constitute 18% of the population of the state, are being lured with promises galore, some of them patently dangerous to the national interest.

The ramifications of the Uttar Pradesh elections, which are considered as a prelude to the national elections in 2014, are being felt all over the country.

Rushdie, who was scheduled to visit the Jaipur Literary Festival in the state of Rajasthan in January, was forced to cancel his visit. The Rajasthan police had warned Rushdie of hired assassins on the look out for him.

Indian intelligence agencies later denied any perception of such a threat to Rushdie. The public displeasure of the Congress Chief Minister of Rajasthan against Rushdie’s proposed visit and the red herring thrown by the police makes the Congress strategy evident. The Congress party resorted to chicanery to keep Rushdie away and keep its perceived Muslim vote bank intact.

Even the hastily arranged video conferencing of Rushdie was cancelled at the last minute to appease extremist Muslim groups for whom the very image of Rushdie had become an issue. The Rajasthan police stood by silently while several dozen fanatics misbehaved with the audience and offered religious prayers in the form of jihad (religious war).

And yet the same police were proactive in accepting criminal complaints against the four authors who read portions from The Satanic Verses as a protest against the cancellation of Rushdie’s visit.

The fight for the Muslim vote has intensified since Salman Khursheed, Union Law minister and the Muslim face for the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, took on the Election Commission of India. The Commission censured his blatant attempt to entice Muslim voters through a series of quotas for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions.

At an electoral rally, Khursheed challenged the Commission by asserting that his fight for ”Muslim rights” would go on, even if the ‘Election Commission hanged him.’ Even for a heated electoral battle, with political survival at stake, challenging a constitutional authority is a bold decision.

For the first time in independent India’s history the Election Commission has approached the President of India for “an immediate and decisive action against the minister.”

Appeasement for the sake of votes has obscured all constitutional propriety.

India’s fight against terror is also being compromised for the sake of Muslim votes. The controversial Batla House encounter in New Delhi in 2008 is being communalized in the electoral battle.

Politicians like Khursheed and Digvijay Singh of the Congress party are questioning the authenticity of the encounter, which saw the deaths of two suspected terrorists and one Special Forces officer. The fact that the Union Home Minister has repeatedly vouched for its genuineness is being conveniently ignored.

India, which has been targeted by Islamic terrorists for the past two decades, could do well to maintain the integrity of its security. But in the mad rush for Muslim votes, the discipline of the security forces makes them soft targets for politicians hell bent on damaging every institution in the country.

The Rajinder Sachar Commission revealed stark statistics about the welfare of Indian Muslims. Muslims have the highest dropout rates at primary level education. As per findings of the Commission, only one out of 25 students at the graduate level and one out of 50 students at the postgraduate level in India’s premier colleges is a Muslim. The representation of Muslims in the bureaucracy is therefore abysmal.

But not one politician clamoring for Muslim votes has raised the topic of educational welfare, which could liberate the community from control of the orthodox maulanas (Muslim scholars). Development has become a non-issue within political discourse surrounding the Muslim community.

Perhaps it suits the politicians to keep common Muslims in depravity and appease the fundamentalists, to rake in votes. Elections have unfortunately taken priority over real social conditions.

For a religiously divided country like India, the ghettoization of a community resulting in rising fundamentalism has dire consequences. Assimilation, not appeasement, is the requirement of the hour.

“An appeaser,” said Winston Churchill, “is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

Salman Khursheed and his ilk could do well to pay heed.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.