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Engendering Hope Among Muslim Youth

The Aam Aadmi Party

Jyoti Punwani (jyoti.punwani@gmail.com) is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist and human rights activist.

It seems that the Aam Aadmi Party’s politics has found resonance among Muslim youth. Disgruntled with the Congress and other secular parties, the new generation of educated Muslims are flocking to AAP, who they think would provide them with a non-discriminatory and an enabling environment for fulfilling their aspirations.

What is the special appeal that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) holds for Muslims? Across the country, Muslims are a visible presence at the party’s offices. Such has been the enthusiasm within the community for the new party that groups working with Muslims have had to sit up and take note, while the Congress has had to work overtime to win back its base.

The question itself–what is AAP’s appeal for Muslims?–implies that Muslims must be somehow different from other voters. The AAP phenomenon has been analysed to shreds; its popularity, especially among the youth who had stayed away from “dirty politics”, is now a given. There is reason enough to believe that it is also popular among Muslim youth.

The Surprise Element

The surprise this popularity has caused is for two reasons. First, it discredits the prevalent myth of “the Muslim vote”. Despite every election proving that Muslims do not vote uniformly as a community, journalists cannot rid themselves of the notion that they do. Hence the sight of Muslims surrounding AAP leaders, sets their  antennae buzzing

It is not as though the same phenomenon was not visible when the Samajwadi Party was formed in 1992, or before that when V P Singh had resigned in 1987 and presented himself as an alternative to Rajiv Gandhi. Indeed, whenever there has been a credible alternative to the Congress, Muslims have supported it.

The difference this time lies in AAP itself; it is a party that is not yet a political party in the conventional sense, with many of its leading lights having come from fields of academia and activism. Majority of them being first-timers in politics, they come without any of the trappings associated with politicians. Even after joining AAP, they have remained activists first.

Then there is the unusual campaign theme of AAP founder Arvind Kejriwal that whoever wins, be it Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress, the end result will be the same, that is, the rule of corporates and  continuance of corruption, which only AAP can put an end to.  Finally, AAP got into the 2014 general elections knowing it was not going to form the government at the centre. The fight has been for something less tangible. 

For all these reasons, AAP was not where one expected Muslims to gather. Muslims by and large, have been conspicuous by their absence in activist circles. Their activism has been related to their community; if they have gravitated to new parties, it has been on the promise that these will form governments.

But those who have been surprised, including this writer, have obviously not understood what has been going on under the surface in the community. We have seen the obvious signs of political activity, and these have confirmed our worst fears. The hordes of topi-clad bearded men (no women) at anti-George Bush rallies in Delhi and Mumbai (organised by Left groups in 2006),  protests against the Danish cartoons that ridiculed Prophet Mohammed and the Iraq and Afghan wars–all causes linked to their community. Similar crowds showed up at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan rally in August 2012 called by religious leaders to protest violence against the community in Myanmar and Assam, which itself degenerated into a riot against the police and media. These rallies only confirmed the stereotype of the ghettoised fanatic Muslim.

Aspirations of Muslim Youth

That there exists another kind of Muslim youth has been evident in recent developments–the visible presence of Muslims in call centres, malls and to a lesser extent in English newspapers; the profusion of burqa-clad girls in colleges, to cite two very obvious instances.  In social media, young Muslims were vocal in condemning the violence by their coreligionists in Azad Maidan.  21-year-old Shaheen Dhada, whose Facebook post against the shutting down of Mumbai for Bal Thackeray’s funeral led to her arrest, was a vivid example of the new Muslim who comments on social issues with  confidence, unencumbered by the baggage of being Muslim that marked her elders, at least in Maharashtra, where Thackeray’s Shiv Sena held sway.  

These developments have been noticed, but what they signify has been missed‒the yearning for change in leadership, a changing set of values that have little to do with religion and a desperation to get out of the ghetto.

The amazing thing is that these aspirations seem to have taken even Muslim leaders by surprise. The spontaneous upsurge in support for AAP among Muslim youth took place without any consultations within the community. By the time the Congress and its NGOs and maulanas decided to sound the tired notes of their old bugle “vote Congress, don’t split the secular vote”, many Muslims had already enrolled as AAP volunteers. Some had enrolled as early as 2011 itself, when Anna Hazare brought his India Against Corruption movement to Mumbai. Young Aadil Khatri, an exporter from Mumbai, was one such youth. “When I joined Anna’s morcha, I felt for the first time a sense of Indianness,’’ he recalled.

The RSS Tag

In fact, among the first persons to meet Arvind Kejriwal and Mayank Gandhi in Mumbai at that time were the community’s established “leaders”. But the association did not last long. These “leaders” were tied to the establishment; following the unknown Kejriwal was a risk they could not dare take. As the Congress told them off for hobnobbing with the enemy, they backed off, saying Anna had Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) support. 

But ordinary Muslims had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Asked about the India Against Corruption’s RSS connection, Aadil replied, “Yes I’d heard about it but I didn’t feel anything like that among the people I marched with in Mumbai”.

Even today, the RSS tag has not left AAP. When party leader Kumar Vishwas praised the RSS in April, Mumbai’s Muslim leaders sent out mass text messages to Muslims to quit APP, but hardly anyone did so.  When asked about this, S M Malik, who had once worked for the implementation of the Srikrishna Commission Report and is now a member of AAP’s Social Justice cell in Mumbai, responded, “If Kumar Vishwas is so pro-RSS, why is he with Kejriwal?”

AAP meetings are incomplete without the singing of patriotic songs and slogans such as Inquilab Zindabad (long live the revolution), Vande Mataram (Mother, I bow to thee!) and Bharat Mata ki Jai (victory for mother India). The latter two slogans have for long been the staple of Hindutva parties.  But this writer saw AAP’s Muslim supporters shout Bharat Mata ki Jai as vociferously as anyone else, with a few even shouting Vande Mataram.  Interestingly, AAP’s non-Muslim members have in the process got sensitised to the Vande Mataram controversy.

Advocate and activist Shakil Ahmed, known in Mumbai for pursuing the Srikrishna Commission Report on the Mumbai riots and the Gundewar Commission Report on the police firing that killed 11 dalits in Mumbai in 2007, joined AAP as soon as the party was formed. He set up the Special Justice Cell to focus on the special problems of dalits and Muslims and found himself explaining sensitive topics such as reservation, Vande Mataram and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to AAP’s non-dalit, non-Muslim and hitherto apolitical members. “For the first time, I was talking to the unconverted’’, he recalls. “I found them open-minded and willing to debate these issues’’.

Ahmed’s was the only Muslim name in the party’s Maharashtra executive committee, and he was flooded with calls from his community, wanting to join without pre-conditions. This was in direct contrast to many “leaders” who wanted to convey their support, but refused to do so till AAP candidates approached them, a reflection of the politics of patronage that is a hallmark of the Congress.

AAP a Natural Choice

AAP’s initial silence on the issue of secularism, the absence of a “policy for Muslims”, which has so troubled the traditional Muslim leadership as well as secular intellectuals, has not mattered to its Muslim supporters. Obviously, the new generation of educated Muslims do not see themselves as separate from other Indians.

Take Javed Azmi, who campaigned for Jalal Ansari, an engineer and AAP candidate from the communally sensitive town of Bhiwandi, whose campaign team comprised his colleagues in the profession. Javed said, “We are pure Indian Muslims. We believe in the Constitution. We don’t need a separate package, nor do we need lollipops of the kind the Congress tempts us with. We have many Hindus in the party. We joined AAP because it gives a voice to the person who works behind the scenes, and because we also want swaraj‒we want to decide how our town is run”.

Bhiwandi got a municipal corporation only 12 years back. But already, its residents are disillusioned with the way corporators have looted the powerloom township without doing anything for it. In December last, Bhiwandi’s powerlooms– its lifeline‒had shut down for 12 days to protest against a hike in electricity rates, but no politician had come to meet them. Textiles and minority affairs minister Arif Naseem Khan had visited Bhiwandi, but had chosen to attend a mushaira instead of showing up at the protest. “That’s when we decided we’d had enough of these politicians,’’ said Azmi. Azmi's views were echoed in Benares by Muslim weavers who told Shakil Ahmed, “Tell Kejriwal our demands:  treat Hindus and Muslims equally; whoever among us does wrong, must be punished. And tell him to protect the weak”.

For many Muslims trapped in ghettoes, AAP’s one-point anti-corruption agenda, which so irritates Left ideologues, is its unique selling proposition. When Javed Shaikh lived in the sprawling slums of Jogeshwari East, he worked with the Muslim youth there‒getting them interested in education, getting arrested for fighting the police-liquor mafia that ruled the slums.  After he shifted to Mumbra, he gave up activism, but has nurtured a tremendous anger against the politician-builder mafia that has led to a profusion of illegal buildings in the predominantly Muslim township. One such building crashed in April 2013, killing 28 people. Mumbra’s Muslims held a fiery meeting demanding action against everyone responsible, including politicians. However, Mumbra’s most powerful politician, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA Jitendra Awhad, whose wife was booed at the meeting, acted quickly to douse the fire, leaving many like Shaikh bitter and frustrated.   

For Shaikh, AAP was a natural choice. “Kejriwal would put these builders and officials straight”, he said. He further added, “Hukumran ki aisi hi pechan honi chahiye–kisise dar nahin; sewa bhaav se kaam (these should be the marks of a ruler: unafraid of anyone; and working for the people.) And look at the people he is surrounded with‒they’re all educated’’.

This last factor–the academic qualifications of AAP’s leaders–has proved to be a major draw for all its supporters, but more so Muslims. Revealed Malik, “The moment a Muslim boy becomes 15, his parents tell him, ‘Beta, go work for the Congress or the Shiv Sena will rule us’”. The alternatives that Muslims have found to the Congress‒the Samajwadi Party initially and later Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS)‒have never found favour among educated Muslims. AAP has therefore come as a refreshing change.

A Ray of Hope

Obviously, the traditional “secular” parties–the Congress, Shard Pawar’s NCP, the Samajwadi Party‒who regard Muslims as an unthinking vote bank, have failed to gauge that the community has changed. This gap between leaders and the community was expressed succinctly in a letter by Malik to the Urdu newspaper Inquilab, in early March 2013. The letter drew tremendous response from across the country. Malik wrote,

While the BJP is indulging in carpet bombing through the media, the Congress is simply not in the electoral race, having been written off by the people’s anger. Yet, our leaders are bent upon pushing us into this Titanic. But the ordinary Muslim sees hope in Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, which has shown that politics can be done without money, muscle power or negative propaganda, that tough decisions can be taken by governments, and that the dream of swaraj can be fulfilled by people becoming part of governance.

But it is not just the activist Muslims who have flocked to AAP. Two young men from the Muslim area of Sonapur in the Mumbai suburb of Bhandup said they had decided just a fortnight earlier that they did not want their sitting MP (from the NCP) to represent them again–he had never visited them in the last five years. They went to meet the AAP candidate to check her out; so taken in were they by Medha Patekar that they decided to mobilise support for her in their area. “Our campaign has forced the sitting MP to come and ask for votes at least on the main roads of Sonapur for the first time’’, they gloated. 

For long, Muslims have chafed at the way the Congress has treated them, not allowing any genuine grassroots leadership to emerge, promoting only a certain kind of politician who is incapable of a vision for the community and constantly raising the spectre of “communal forces” while doing nothing to contain them. Maharashtra has seen a series of riots in the last 15 years that the Congress has been in power. Muslims have  seen the party announce special measures for them but also retreating at the first cry of “appeasement” raised by the BJP.

The last decade of Congress rule at the centre has also been a decade in which the community’s brightest hope, its newly emerging educated youth, have been targeted as terrorists, shot dead in fake encounters or implicated and jailed. Maharashtra has had its fair share of such arrests. The state was also the site where Hindutva terrorism was first exposed, when two boys lost their lives in 2006 while assembling bombs in a RSS member’s house in Nanded. The accused are out on bail, and the trial has yet to begin. On the other hand, Muslims arrested wrongly for the Malegaon 2006 bomb blast had to spend five years in jail before they got bail.

Against this backdrop, emerged AAP, a party that had no special message for Muslims but treated them as they did all others, as citizens who have the power to bring a venal political class to heel. The enthusiasm with which Muslims greeted it and the sense of empowerment it gave them had the Congress deploying its oldest trick to win them back‒ invoking the fear of “Modi the butcher of Gujarat”. Still, Muslims held out, scoffing that the party that had presided over the 1992-93 riots was now trying to frighten them with the spectre of Modi. But when the election campaign changed with Amit Shah’s “badla lena (seek revenge)’’ and Giriraj Singh’s “go to Pakistan’’ speeches, the Congress began to taste success. Reluctantly, Muslims went back to their old patrons, pointing out that Modi had to be defeated, hoping that by the time the assembly elections came around, AAP would get its act together.

AAP too has made a lot of mistakes, chief among them being  ignoring the hundreds of grassroots activists and letting the most vocal entrants become “leaders” without checking their record and  denying tickets to those recommended by campaign committees, such as trade unionist Farooq Ahmed in Nanded and advocate Shakil Ahmed in Mumbai. Instead of asking the community’s discredited “leaders” to vote for AAP instead of the so-called secular Congress, Shazia Ilmi (AAP leader), whose remarks in Mumbai provoked a controversy, would have been better advised to meet AAP’s ground level supporters who were torn between the Congress and AAP.

But despite the Congress’ success in playing the politics of fear, and AAP’s mistakes, a significant number of Muslims remain defiantly with AAP. They do not fear Modi, and they feel the Constitution will be their shield against him. They do not want the mirage of “protection’’ from a party that has betrayed them over and over again; they would rather feel the tangible pride of being part of a new kind of politics that does not see them as separate.   

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