minority report

Maharashtra's Muslims cautiously place great expectations in new BJP government

Representatives from Muslim NGOs met BJP spokesman Madhav Bhandari to push their demands, but got no commitments in return.

Will Maharashtra’s Muslims get from the new Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state what they could not from the Congress all these years?

The BJP has surprised everyone by retaining the Minority Affairs Ministry (which was abolished by the Shiv Sena-BJP government in 1995, when Bal Thackeray called the shots) and by appointing one of its senior-most leaders, Eknath Khadse, as minister in charge – the first non-Muslim to hold the post. Among his earliest announcements was that Urdu will be an optional subject in Marathi-medium schools, a move opposed by the Shiv Sena, which has hardened its Hindutva stance after the election.

At a meeting held on Sunday by the Maharashtra Muslim Sangh, which represents Marathi-speaking Muslim NGOs from across the state, great expectations were raised. But chief guest and BJP spokesman Madhav Bhandari promised nothing, barring that the government would table the Mehmood-ur-Rehman Committee report. The report on the status of Muslims in Maharashtra was submitted in October 2013 to then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, but his government did not table it.

Caution first

At the meeting, both the BJP and the Muslim Sangh walked the tightrope. Though Muslim NGOs had authorised Muslim Sangh leaders to negotiate with the BJP, the leaders were at pains to maintain a distance from the party, even pointing out that the “secular” Nationalist Congress Party was giving support to the BJP. As advocate Nizam Kazi, Konkan convenor of the Muslim Sangh, noted, no Muslim had joined the BJP and retained the respect of the community. Advocate Faquir Mohammed Thakur, chief convenor of the Muslim Sangh, quoted Prophet Mohammed to justify the Sangh’s support for the BJP. Prof Ijaz Raut pointed out that they were dealing not with the BJP, but with a democratically-elected government, whom everyone had the right to petition.

For Bhandari too, striking a balance was important. He had to carry along his personal beliefs as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, his party’s policies, and his equation with the Muslim Sangh. It was Bhandari who had acted as the bridge before the elections between the Muslim Sangh and the BJP’s top leadership. Kasim Raza, president of the Vidarbha Welfare Association, who presided over the meeting, made it clear that they wanted Bhandari to continue in that role.

Newfound hesitation

Behind the strains at the meeting were some unfulfilled assurances. Before the assembly elections, BJP leaders Mukthar Abbas Naqvi, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Bhandari had assured the Muslim Sangh of the inclusion of two demands in the party’s manifesto: the tabling of the Mehmood-ur-Rehman Committee report along with its action- taken report, and the recovery of encroached Wakf community properties. Though the second assurance became part of the manifesto, the first did not.

Of the over 93,000 acres of Wakf land in Maharashtra, about 23,500 acres has been encroached upon. The figures were announced in June by then Wakf Minister Naseem Arif Khan in the legislative council. The BJP, which was then in the opposition, had seized the issue, even bringing out an Urdu booklet on Wakf scams. For the party, this made sense because the Congress government, and individual Congressmen, are said to be the biggest encroachers of Wakf properties. Now that it is in power, the BJP should obviously find it easy to get these lands back.

Yet, Bhandari ruled out getting all the land back, suggesting instead that a few pilot cases be chosen by the community which the government could pursue.

Reservation about quota

The BJP spokesman was even more non-committal on implementing the suggestions of the Mehmood-ur-Rehman Committee report. And understandably so.

The report recommends reservations for Muslims in education and employment. The Congress government, as a pre-election sop, had announced 5% reservation for Muslims and 16% for Marathas in education and government jobs. But last week, the Mumbai High Court stayed the two reservations for Marathas and the job reservation for Muslims. But it upheld the education quota for Muslims.

Bhandari joined the meeting in its second half, at which point most speakers switched from Urdu to Marathi. While the majority of Muslim Sangh leaders urged Bhandari to fulfil the community’s main demands, Dr Zahir Kazi of the Anjuman-I-Islam group of educational institutions suggested the new government start with “doable” measures, sticking to “minimum government, maximum governance”. These include returning the government-run Ismail Yusuf College to the community; enacting Wakf legislation and ensuring that minority areas get a few centrally-funded schools. These measures, he said, would cost the government nothing, but make the community believe that “achhey din” had arrived for them too.

But Bhandari made no promises. While conceding that Maharashtra’s Muslims had fallen behind, he noted that a sizeable part of the population in India lived below the poverty line. The BJP was committed to helping the antodyaya, the last man, irrespective of religion. He added that skill development – which Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to encourage –would be more beneficial than reservation.

Free of Congress

In his concluding remarks, Kasim Raza put the BJP-Muslim predicament in perspective: “What we have demanded of you neither compromises your agenda nor our faith. Fulfil a few of our demands and we assure you that the 14% Muslims who voted for you this time will go up to 84% next time, even 100%. It’s up to you.”

Not every delegate was happy with Bhandari’s caution. Abdul Rashid Solkar, who works with Mumbai’s fishermen, said that despite campaigning for the BJP he had hesitated before pressing the lotus button on the electronic voting machine. His fears had now been realised. Immediately after the High Court order on reservations, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had declared that his government would implement Maratha reservations come what may. “But he kept silent on implementing job reservation for Muslims,” said Solkar.

A few others felt the less ideological Shiv Sena would have been a better bet. Its chief Uddhav Thackeray had in fact been approached before the elections, but had given no commitment.

On one pre-poll decision though, no one had regrets: they felt liberated from the Congress’s stifling hold. They also pointed out somewhat triumphantly that the creditable debut of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in the Maharashtra assembly elections had sent a warning to all parties that Muslims could not be neglected for too long.

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