Losing by Religion

Muslim exclusion in Modi’s de facto Hindu Rashtra

The proportion of Muslims in the Indian Police Service fell below the three-percent mark in 2016. shammi mehra / afp / getty images
01 March, 2019

In 2002, the Israeli political scientist Sammy Smooha published an article titled “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” in the journal Nations and Nationalism. Smooha defined ethnic democracy based on a broad but precise set of criteria. It is, first, the product of ethnic nationalism, a majoritarian ideology that implies a strong sense of belonging and often one of superiority. This identity is also premised on the rejection of minorities, generally perceived as threats to the survival and integrity of the ethnic nation. According to Smooha, although many countries have gone down the road of ethnic democracy, the archetype of this political system remains Israel—a state that endeavours to combine an ethnic Jewish identity and a parliamentary system drawing its inspiration from Western Europe. The two sides of this coin are the Jewish nature of the nation-state and the restrictions imposed on the rights of minorities, primarily the Palestinians.

Ethnic democracy implies two-tiered citizenship, the majority enjoying more rights than the minority, both de jure and de facto. In Israel, Jews have more rights because the state recognises their religion. Hence the Judaisation of symbols of identity: “Israel’s titular name, calendar, days and sites of commemoration, heroes, flag, emblem, national anthem, names of places, ceremonies and the like are all Jewish,” Smooha wrote. But Jewish dominance at the expense of Muslims is also exercised de facto, in contradiction with the law. Smooha added: “Most of the discrimination is, however, rather covert. The extensive use of military service as a criterion for the allocation of benefits is very striking, because most Jews serve in the army, whereas most Arabs do not. … Unfair allocation of funds and provision of unequal services by governmental offices are quite common.” Majority public opinion contributes to legitimising these practices, given that Muslims “are regarded as potentially disloyal to the state and placed under security and political control,” not to mention the fear generated by their demographic growth.

India under Narendra Modi has moved towards this model over the past five years, while exhibiting a specific variant of it. The main difference lies in the lack of any major legal reform, as evident from the fact that the constitution continues to embody the ideals of secularism—and therefore multiculturalism—as well as equal citizenship for all. But while the de jure aspect of ethnic democracy is virtually absent, the de facto aspect, on the other hand, is omnipresent, given the shrinking of minority representation in elected assemblies and the role that vigilante militias play in conducting Hindu-nationalist cultural policing, often with the blessing of the law-enforcement agencies. Of all the minorities, the principal victims of this trend are Muslims, the traditional target of Hindu nationalists.

Muslims have remained on the sidelines of some of India’s institutions since 1947, which led the political scientist Gurharpal Singh to consider that India has been an ethnic democracy from its inception. But this analysis, in fact, holds only for the administration, the army and the police. In elected assemblies, Muslim representation grew until the 1980s, despite extensive regional variations.

A database I compiled with the help of Shweta Bhutada shows that in the 1950s, the percentage of Muslim officers in the Indian Police Service was already lower than five percent, less than half the proportion of Muslims in Indian society according to the 1951 census. While the share of Muslims in the population subsequently rose, reaching 14.25 percent in 2011, the proportion of Muslims in the IPS dwindled, falling beneath the three-percent mark in 2016, and even plummeting as low as 2.5 percent if Jammu and Kashmir is excluded from the calculation.

This state of affairs is one of the reasons why Muslims fear the police more than any other community. According to the Status of Policing in India Report 2018, published by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and the non-profit Common Cause, 64 percent of them are “highly” or “somewhat” fearful of the police. The main reason for this fear appears to be the fact that “Police often implicates Muslims under false terrorism charges.” Indeed, there are many cases of young Muslims who have been to jail and even spent years behind bars for this reason, before the judiciary, at long last, released them: according to 2015 figures released by the national crime-records bureau, 21 percent of those in prison awaiting trial were Muslims. Yet the Muslim share of those sentenced—15.8 percent—was nearly the same as the proportion of Muslims in the general population, a sign that many of those arrested are cleared at trial. Moreover, the Indian justice system is so notoriously slow that an arrest can mean a long prison term before an actual trial.

Since Independence, the situation has been even more critical within the army. Partition led to the departure of virtually all Muslim officers to Pakistan. Nehru himself expressed concern over the situation in 1953, the year in which his defence minister confirmed that the share of Muslims in the Indian army had gone down from 32 percent in 1947 to 2 percent. In the defence services, Nehru said in a letter to India’s chief ministers, “there are hardly any Muslims left … What concerns me most is that there is no effort being made to improve this situation, which is likely to grow worse unless checked.”

In fact, according to the political scientist Steven Wilkinson, Muslims no longer made up more than one percent of higher-ranking officers—colonels and above—in 1981, a figure confirmed in 1999 by the then defence minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Yadav’s successor, George Fernandes, bluntly explained the situation: “The Muslim is not wanted in the armed forces because he is always suspect—whether we want to admit it or not, most Indians consider Muslims a fifth column for Pakistan.” In 1985, an opinion poll showed that the majority of Hindus interviewed believed that Muslims should not be allowed to join the armed services.

Muslims are also under-represented in the Indian Administrative Service. While the proportion of Muslims in the IAS rose slightly between 2006 and 2016, going from 3 percent to 3.3 percent according to the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, this share did not show any improvement when compared to the rise in the Muslim population in India. In 2017, the situation improved somewhat, with the share of Muslims among the candidates who passed the entrance exam rising to 5.1 percent. But this figure fell to 4.5 percent in 2018. Such under-representation is partly due to the fact that many Muslims do not sit for the civil-service exam. According to the political scientist Amitabh Kundu’s estimate, they make up only eight percent of the candidates on average.

While the proportion of Muslims in the civil services has never been very large, their political representation was far more significant up until recent years. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of Muslim members of parliament in the Lok Sabha diminished by more than half. Responsibility for this trend lies primarily with the BJP, which has endorsed very few Muslim candidates, mostly in constituencies where the party had a slim chance of winning, even as its representation in parliament continued to increase in number.

In 2009, the BJP fielded four Muslim candidates, and only one got elected. In 2014, it fielded seven Muslims out of 428 candidates—less than two percent—and none were elected. For the first time in India’s history, the winning party in a general election had no Muslims in its parliamentary group in the Lok Sabha. Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims make up over eighteen percent of the population and where the BJP won 71 out of 80 seats, did not have a single Muslim MP, compared to six in 2009 and ten in 2004.

source: SPINPER (The Social Profle of India’s National and Provincial Elected Representatives), CNRS, TCPD, Ashoka University, Sciences Po and Bordeaux University.

The BJP’s decision not to field any Muslim candidates was aimed at liberating the party entirely from the “Muslim vote,” a constituency it accused other parties of wooing for electoral gain at the expense of the Hindu majority. During the 2017 state election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, one BJP leader told the journalist Prashant Jha:

Everyone was wooing the Muslims. We told the Hindus—they will unite, will we always remain divided? Trump in the US showed that it is not blacks and Hispanics and Muslims who will decide who becomes US president. It is whites. Here, too, it is not Muslims who will decide who rules UP. It is all other Hindus. They want to defeat us. We want to defeat them and their parties. It is a battle.

The formation of a Hindu vote bank by the BJP prompted other parties to no longer nominate Muslim candidates as well, except in areas with a high Muslim majority. This tactic was especially clear in the case of the Congress, which the BJP has consistently accused of cultivating a Muslim vote bank by showing concern for their social and economic condition—a false claim, if one goes by the impoverishment of Muslims under Congress rule. In 2009, the Congress only endorsed 31 Muslim candidates, among whom only 11 won seats. Five years later, the Congress fielded 27 Muslims out of 462 candidates—less than six percent. Among non-Muslim parties, only the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) fielded a percentage of Muslim candidates higher than the share of Muslims in the population. But in many cases, the candidates in question were in constituencies far from the areas where these parties were strongest. Muslim MPs made up about four percent of elected representatives in the lower house.

This under-representation was reflected at the government level by an unprecedented situation. Only two members in the first Modi government in 2014 were Muslims—both were drawn from the Rajya Sabha. The journalist Shekhar Gupta wrote, “India’s minorities have never been so out of the power structure. They are justified in having a sense of unease about it.”

An examination at the level of the states is necessary to make a full appraisal of the situation. Aside from the fact that there is no longer a single Muslim chief minister, the presence of Muslims in state legislative assemblies and governments is on the wane. In January 2018, out of 1,418 elected BJP representatives in these assemblies, only four were Muslim, and only two members of BJP state governments—not counting coalitions—were Muslim. This situation holds true as much in states where the BJP has been governing for a long time, such as Gujarat—where the party did not endorse a single Muslim candidate in 2007, 2012 or 2017—as in more recent conquests such as Assam, where, despite Muslims having an over thirty-percent share in the population, only one of the BJP’s 61 legislators is Muslim.

In general, when the BJP conquers a new state that was ruled by a regional party, the number of Muslim legislators drops. The most spectacular example is found in Uttar Pradesh, where their proportion dropped from 17 percent to 6 percent in 2017. The state’s earlier success with regard to Muslim representation—which nearly met the 18.5-percent Muslim share of the population according to the 2011 census—owed to the success of the Samajwadi Party. Once the BJP assumed power, the steep decline to 6 percent reflected an under-representation comparable to that of 1991, when the party first took control of the state.

In instances where power changed hands from the Congress to the BJP, a similar decrease in Muslim representation was not noted, simply because the Congress never fielded many Muslim candidates, especially in northern and western India, where Hindu nationalists traditionally have the highest influence. In Maharashtra, whichever the winning party, the proportion of Muslim legislators has never exceeded five percent—half the proportion of Muslims in the state—including when the Congress won, because it never endorsed more than seven percent of Muslim candidates. In Gujarat, Muslim legislators made up no more than one percent of the assembly in 1990, prior to when the BJP came to power, and they have remained at this level, as the Congress never fields more than a half-dozen Muslim candidates. The situation is comparable in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. In Rajasthan, however, despite the rise of Hindu nationalism, the Congress has always fielded the same proportion of Muslim candidates—which matches their share of the population—since the 1990s. The only state where the percentage of Muslim legislators continues to grow is West Bengal, because of the Trinamool Congress.

Not only are Muslims marginalised in major institutions and the public sphere, they are also targeted by Hindu nationalist militias, who are trying to rid the public space of this minority by (re)converting its members to the dominant religion, preventing them from praying in the open and prohibiting them from acquiring real estate in mixed residential areas. They are also trying to cut the majority community off from the Muslim minority by preventing interfaith marriages, and are also attacking Muslims on charges of cow slaughter. These militias often enjoy police protection.

The fact that vigilantes and police work hand in glove has several explanations. First, even as Muslim presence in the police remains very weak, Hindu nationalists endeavour to aggressively infiltrate this pillar of law enforcement. A BJP legislator from Karnataka told journalists from the news portals Cobrapost and Gulail: “We have tried to send some of our boys into police. When I talk to students I tell them to join the police. So, when we need help there are a lot of karyakartas”—the militant cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Sixty percent of the young constables are our students.” Second, while the conduct of the militias is illegal, they enjoy a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the Hindu majority. Third, vigilantes enjoy popular support and neutralise opponents, not only because they promote Hinduism, but also because of their sense of organisation, their penetration of society and the weapons they carry.

All these developments are taking India on a majoritarian path, oriented towards building an ethnic democracy. As the controversial BJP legislator Sangeet Som explained: “This is Hindustan and it does not matter which party is running the government. In a democratic country like this, there are many other ways to get things done. The police know it well that we will do picketing, hold demonstration and all this will lead to rioting. So, they perforce cooperate with us.”

Som was indeed speaking of India’s democratic nature as a good thing. The country can thus continue to enjoy a positive image abroad, and majority rule is naturally appreciated by proponents of Hindu majoritarianism. Once the majority is won over to Hindutva, its champions are bound to benefit from this regime. This is indeed the position of proponents of an ethnic democracy.

This notion is a contradiction in terms because it divides the “demos” into two categories. But majority communities living in ethnic democracies do not see things in this way. According to Smooha, in Israel, “Jewish public opinion not only condones constraints imposed on Arabs, but also endorses preferential treatment of Jews.” An opinion poll taken in 1995 among Israeli Jews showed that 74.1 percent of them expected the state to give Jews preferential treatment over Arabs—who, for a significant percent of the respondents, should not even have the right to vote, or be hired in civil-service jobs. Smooha underscores the scope of the problem: “Most Jews do not even perceive the above differential practices as discriminatory against Arabs, but consider them rather as preferences rightfully accorded to them as Jews in a Jewish state.”

Paradoxically, Smooha concludes, “The Israeli case demonstrates the viability of an ethnic democracy as a distinct type of democracy in deeply divided societies. … As a mode of conflict regulation, it is superior to genocide, ethnic cleansing, involuntary population transfer and systems of non-democratic domination.”

Such an approach resonates as an invitation to minorities to accept a status as dominated, second-class citizens. In India, a similar evolution may result in constitutional amendments, transforming a de facto Hindu Rashtra into a de jure one.

This is an edited excerpt from Christophe Jaffrelot’s chapter “A de facto ethnic democracy?” in Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India, edited by Angana P Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Jaffrelot, forthcoming from Hurst Publishers and HarperCollins India.