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Learn from Obama

By A G Noorani (May 2, 2008, Times of India) 

India has had three Muslim presidents. Is it vain to think of a Muslim prime minister? Perhaps not. No two situations are identical but Barack Obama's rise and his travails in the US presidential race hold lessons for all Indians committed to secularism, particularly Indian Muslims. Obama's concern for African-Americans is genuine but it is part of his wider, equally genuine, concern for the entire nation. As journalist Ginger Thompson noted: "Previous campaigns by African-Americans - by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton - had overwhelmingly relied on black support that wound up defining and confining their candidates. By contrast, from the moment Obama stepped onto the national political stage, he has paid much attention to a far broader audience". In India, separate electorates vanished in 1950 but Indian Muslims' politics did not reckon with the political logic of a joint electorates with detriment to the community's and the nation's interests. Joint electorates have four healthy consequences - they enable the community to influence elections generally, compel candidates to reckon with the interest of all sections of society, compel the minorities to seek support for redress of genuine grievances from outside their community, and compel them to take interest in the affairs of the nation.

Isolation is the worst thing that can happen to a minority as Ambedkar had sagely remarked. Such is the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of a significant section of the Muslims that it never reckoned with the consequences of communal mobilisation. The Black Power movement in the US did so in good time. At a seminar at Princeton in December 1968, Roy Innis advocated "a social contract" between the blacks and the whites, drawing a withering response from Carl Kaysen. If their programme succeeded, they would find "a much more mobilised and repressive white society, in which the power equation between, in your language - 'you and us' - would be more sharply drawn. Would you get a good bargain?" The Babri Masjid question was truly a national question. The mosque was entitled to full protection under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The Babri Masjid Action Committee played into the hands of the sangh parivar and alienated many by their shrill rhetoric.

There is, doubtless, a big difference between the two situations. In India, the sangh parivar is a powerful force. The greater, then, is the challenge to the statesmanship of Muslim leaders and also to the leaders of secular parties. Sheikh Abdullah's advice to Indian Muslims on August 10, 1973 is relevant still. "The politics of Indian Muslims has not changed much after independence. As in British days, Muslims are divided between a group affiliated to the ruling party and other groups which work on communal lines in search of protection... The separate electorates which were the basis for communal parties and communal politics are gone. But the political pattern of the Indian Muslims is not altered. There is the same politics of grievance and bargaining and recrimination". Abdullah argued that far from improving the condition of the Muslim community in India, it had led to its deterioration - economically, culturally and politically. He believed that the legitimate grievances of the Muslims needed immediate redress and professed to be deeply conscious of the problems - denial of due representation in the public services, of fair opportunities in trade, commerce and industry, of adequate representation in the legislatures and in government, for instance.

But Abdullah also propounded a solution: Combat communalism with a secular approach. He was of the opinion that the Muslim community's separate grievances were as formidable as those common to the population of the entire country - poverty, illiteracy, disease, social injustice, backward customs, corruption and maladministration. He appealed to Muslims to shake off their inhibitions, stir themselves to improve their own lot - educationally, economically and socially - and fight for the redress of their grievances but uniting at the same time with their fellow Indians to work on a national agenda. It would serve Indian Muslims well to revisit his exhortations and also take a leaf out of Barack Obama's book.   

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