minority report

Why haven’t Gujarat’s Muslims produced young leaders like Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani?

Consigned to ghettos and disadvantaged by the law, youngsters of the minority community feel compelled to shun political activism.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s firm grip over Gujarat appears weakened by the rise of three young men – Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani – all of whom have come to prominence by articulating the concerns of their social groups.

However, there is perhaps no community in Gujarat that is as anguished or marginalised as the Muslims. “Poverty amongst the urban Muslims is eight times (800%) more than high-caste Hindus, about 50% more than the Hindu-OBCs and the SCs/STs,” noted Abusaleh Shariff and BL Joshi, in a 2012 study for the Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy. “... On the other hand, rural poverty amongst the Muslims is two times (200%) more than high-caste Hindus.”

Muslims constitute nearly 10% of Gujarat’s population. Sixty per cent live in urban areas and were once a force in the manufacturing and organised sector. Not any longer – they constitute just 13% of the workforce, as against the all-India figure of 21%. About 53% of Muslims are self-employed or involved in petty trades which, “in comparison to other sectors, have shown only a marginal income growth over the last two decades”, Shariff and Joshi pointed out.

The economic plight of Muslims should have pushed the community to the barricades. With a population that is a little higher than that of Dalits and just a little lower than the Patels, the Muslim community is large enough to build a movement of its own. So, why have the Muslims of Gujarat not produced a figure like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor or Jignesh Mevani?

On the sidelines

No doubt, the success of a movement depends on the financial resources it can command. The relatively wealthy Patels have a distinct advantage over Muslims on this score, but not so much the Dalits.

Muslims include prosperous mercantile groups, such as the Bohras, the Khojas and the Memons, which could potentially bankroll political initiatives. However, they justifiably fear that they could be targeted.

In the Economic and Political Weekly, Abhirup Sarkar of the Indian Statistical Institute has argued that the rising prosperity of Muslims made them sitting ducks in communal riots. Sarkar furnished the calculations of two scholars, Anirban Mitra and Debraj Ray, who estimated that between 1984 and 1998, there were 15,224 casualties in communal riots all over the country, of which 4,499 – almost 30% – were from Gujarat.

The scholars pointed that during this period, the per-capita Muslim expenditure had also increased, which had been accompanied by a significant rise in Hindu-Muslim conflicts. “The [Mitra and Ray’s] analysis is very carefully carried out and it leads us to believe that the prosperity of Muslims in Gujarat has made them vulnerable to riots,” Sarkar writes. “In other words, there is little reason for Mulsims to be proud of this prosperity.”

Compelled to protect their wealth from plunder and their families from assault, the wealthier among them migrated to community ghettoes. This trend began in Ahmedabad, where it intensified after every major riot, especially those of 1969 and 1985. The BJP’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement from 1989-1992 turned the ghettoisation of Muslims into a state-wide phenomenon that was completed with the riots of 2002, often referred to as state pogrom.

The ghettoisation of Muslims made them invisible in the commonly shared public space, which is where political action is scripted and acted out for efficacy. To have an impact, a protest should be visible to the State, other citizens and the media. What significance could the venting of fury by Muslims in their ghettoes possibly have?

The Jamalpur area of Ahmedabad. Sam Panthaky/AFP
The Jamalpur area of Ahmedabad. Sam Panthaky/AFP

Silenced and targeted

Yet, in a changing and aspiring India, it is bewildering that young Muslims have not tried to break out, politically and existentially, from the ghetto. It is tempting to argue that years of socialisation in a ghetto subculture have reconciled them to their marginalisation.

“That is not true,” said Dr Hanif Lakdawala, who has worked extensively in the health and education sector. “I meet young Muslims who are eager to take the political jump. Two already have, and both are liberals.”

The leaders Lakdawala refers to are Shamshad Pathan and Mujahid Nafees. Pathan is a 37-year-old lawyer-activist and has doggedly sought justice for the victims of Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gram massacres that occured during the last riots. During the statewide protests that followed the flogging of Dalits in Una last year, Pathan emerged as the Muslim face of Mevani’s campaign to unite Dalits and Muslims. But Pathan received just a passing mention in media reports on the Una protests.

“One of the defining traits of Hindustani media is that it just doesn’t like to show Muslim leadership that is progressive,” said Pathan. Media exposure is vital to the making of a leader, as was the case with Hardik Patel, Mevani and Thakor.

Nafees, 35, was luckier. He was spoken about, at least by the state media, when his Minority Coordination Committee presented a charter of eight demands to every district collector in the state on September 18. The charter included demands considered unthinkable in Gujarat, such as a separate budgetary allocation and a ministry for minorities.

But in his year-long preparation for his campaign, Nafees realised the difficulties encountered by Muslims who take political initiatives. For instance, Intelligence Bureau men enquired several times about his agenda and source of funding.

“In such a climate, who would think of entering the political arena to raise the community’s demands?” Nafees asked.

Pathan said that parents panic at the first hint of their children engaging in political activism. “They fear their children will have cases filed against them,” he explained.

This is not an exaggeration. Legal adviser Sufi Anwar Husain Sheikh was 25 years old when his house was burnt down in Vadodara during the 2002 riots. He moved to Ahmedabad, where he worked in relief camps that sprang up to accommodate victims of the grisly rioting. Sheikh incurred the state’s wrath – four cases were filed against him where charges included extortion and cheating.

Property politics

According to Sheikh, the biggest hindrance to the rise of Muslim leaders is the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act. The legislation bans the sale and purchase of property without the prior approval of the district collector in areas deemed disturbed as they are communally sensitive or have witnessed riots. Disturbed areas account for an estimated 40% of Ahmedabad.

The Act was promulgated as an ordinance in 1986 by the Madhavsinh Solanki government and then passed as an Act in 1991. It took a draconian form after an amendment in 2009, when Narendra Modi was chief minister. The amendment empowered the district collector to conduct an inquiry – suo motu or on receiving an application from any person – into a sale of property in a disturbed area. He can also impose penalties and even take the property in custody and manage it.

The 2002 riots saw Muslims flood into localities dominated by their community. Most of these are classified as disturbed areas. Applications to buy a property in such areas are kept in abeyance, leaving the migrants no option but to resort to subterfuges – they purchase apartments, for instance, but show it as a rented accommodation. Anyone wishing to move out of a colony will not readily get permission to sell their property. Deprived of the capital required to buy another property elsewhere, most of them cannot get out of the disturbed areas.

“After boxing in the Muslims, the constituencies they dominated were broken up under delimitation,” said Sheikh. “In Ahmedabad alone, Daryapur and Kalupur, both Muslim-dominated Assembly seats, were fragmented and attached to other constituencies. The Muslim-dominated Jamalpur was attached to Khadiya. It reduced the significance of Muslim votes – and, therefore, also the chances of producing a leader.”

The Disturbed Areas Act hangs like a sword on those Muslims who wish to mount a political challenge outside the electoral arena. Since most of them live in disturbed areas, the state can neutralise a rising leader by conducting an inquiry into whether their homes have been acquired in contravention of the Act. “This fear dissuades even the wealthy to support or finance political activism,” said Sheikh. “Basically, the Disturbed Areas Act has increased the Muslim citizen’s dependency on the state and reduced the possibility of a leadership emerging.”

Political indifference

Political parties too are not very interested in encouraging an independent Muslim leadership. “This is because such a leadership could turn the community against the political parties,” said Pathan. A community leader can also enter into a bargaining game with mainstream parties, withdraw support from one to rally behind another, a strategy Hardik Patel has deftly played in his rise to stardom.

But Muslims do not have Hardik Patel’s advantage. Gujarat’s politics has two principal poles – the BJP and the Congress. The BJP is not an option for Muslims as its Hindutva ideology continues to target them. And why would the Congress woo Muslims when it knows it will net their votes in bulk? It would rather focus on weaning away Hindu groups from the BJP’s fold.

“Isn’t this why the Congress is playing the soft Hindutva card?” Lakdawala said. “I don’t have problems with Rahul Gandhi visiting temples. But couldn’t he also visit mausoleums of Sufi saints in Gujarat?”

The Congress vice president is unlikely to do that, because the Congress’ KHAM success formula has been replaced by KHAP, said Sheikh. In the 1980s, Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki created the social alliance of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasis and Muslims, which helped him come to power in that year’s elections.“In this election, ‘M’ has been replaced by ‘P’ [Patels], both in political signaling and rhetoric,” said Sheikh. Disconcertingly, even the most cantankerous liberal has stayed silent on the Congress’ strategy of treating Muslims as irrelevant to Gujarat’s political calculus for the upcoming elections.

Curiously, most Muslims too do not seem worried about a lapse into electoral irrelevance. Since the Congress is not talking about them, they hope that the BJP will not succeed in communally polarising the electorate. They do not want the BJP to return to power because that would mean another five years of living in fear of violence and dislocation. By contrast, Congress does not pose such a threat. But Muslims are wise enough to know that they will remain ghettoised and economically marginalised in Gujarat, irrespective of which party comes to power.

That a community – understandably – repeatedly votes for safety over other interests is a sign that India’s democracy has become pathological. It is this pathology that has stopped the Muslims of Gujarat from supporting their own young leaders.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.