There are a few myths about the Muslim population in India that have assisted in the growth of the politics around this community. One has to do with the rapid growth in Muslim population, debunked both globally and in India. The other is the ‘Muslim vote bank’, and the accompanying narrative that the current turn towards Hindutva is a reaction to decades of ‘minority appeasement’. But it is necessary to consider the data in order to properly examine these formulations.
The idea of the Muslim vote bank has been roundly disproven by those who have studied Indian voting data. Take this study about Muslim voting patterns in Uttar Pradesh by Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta. Its findings?
1. Muslim voters are not more politically active than the average voter, proving that Muslims are not disproportionately organising themselves to grab political power.
2. Muslim voters are not more likely to listen to community leaders and others who wish to dictate how they vote. About half of the wider electorate says they make up their own mind on who to vote for, and the proportion is the same for Indian Muslims.
3. Muslim voters are not more loyal to a single party, nor are they more likely to never vote for a particular party. About a third of all voters declare party allegiance; the figure is the same for Muslims. About a quarter of the wider electorate say they’ll never vote for a particular party; the figure is the same for Muslims.
4. The Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh is split between the SP, BSP and the Congress, with each enjoying the support of different groups of Muslims. There is no unified vote bank.
5. Multiple analyses of voting patterns show that even ‘strategic voting’ within constituencies of Muslims to defeat BJP candidates does not occur. There are very few constituencies where there is low fragmentation of the Muslim vote, and even there there is no evidence that the consolidation was due to a desire to defeat a BJP candidate — there is no correlation between consolidation and BJP’s vote share in that election.
6. Comparing Muslim consolidation and fragmentation with other groups, the study found that in 2012, Muslim and Brahmin votes were comparatively more fragmented, while Yadav and Jatav votes were more consolidated; in 2014, Brahmin and Muslim votes were more consolidated, while Yadav and Jatav votes were more fragmented. All this to say that all these groups are not at all, as is imagined by some upper-caste Indians, ‘vote banks’ in the sense they imagine. Each of these groups are fragmented to various degrees and at various times.
Next, look at Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s analysis of Muslim voting patterns in the recent Gujarat elections. It is clear from the data that Muslims voted along economic lines rather than consolidating to defeat the BJP across the state. The study reveals just how diverse the Muslim population in Gujarat is, and how much they vote according to their local, constituency-level concerns.
Consider also the 2019 book, Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India. Apart from debunking several myths about Muslim political participation, it also notes moments when Muslims vote for the BJP: most significantly, it shows how percentage of Muslims voting for BJP candidates goes up sharply when the main political contest is a bipolar contest, with only two parties contesting. If the Muslims were indeed a vote bank consolidated against the BJP, a bipolar contest would see fewer Muslims voting for the BJP, not more.
I cannot say that some parties have not tried to consolidate Muslim votes behind them using scare tactics. As noted by Mukhopadhyay, Indira Gandhi had famously tried to get Muslims to back her in 1974, claiming she was the only one who could defend them against the Jana Sangh. Similarly, in 1979, she got Imam Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid to issue a fatwa in support of her candidacy. What the studies above reveal, however, is that these tactics have mostly failed to deliver the results, because Indian Muslim voters, just like other Indian voters, are far from being sheep who simply do what they are told.
The first problem with the term ‘Muslim appeasement’ is that there has been no definition of it.
One definition can be the conferment of advantages to Indian Muslims that other groups do not get. The much-quoted examples of this is the Hajj subsidy, a colonial-era provision that was expanded by Indian governments, and which has been discontinued since 2018. The argument of Muslim appeasement runs that tax money is used to favour Muslims in particular.
The truth, of course, is more complex: tax money has been used to fund all kinds of religious practices, with Hindu religious practices getting huge sums of government funding. Take the Kumbh Mela of 2019, where a budget in excess of Rs 4,200 crore was spent from taxpayer money, drawing on both Uttar Pradesh and central government finances. The Ardha Kumbh of 2018 received Rs 2,500 crores from the Uttar Pradesh government.
Similarly, the Delhi government and the Madhya Pradesh government both subsidise Hindu pilgrimages, with the Madhya Pradesh government subsidising tirth yatras to holy places in Pakistan, Cambodia, China, and Sri Lanka. Are these to be called ‘Hindu appeasement’?
Another way of looking at appeasement is looking at outcome variables, as a report by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace does. If indeed Muslims are being given unfair advantages, they should be better off than Hindu communities. However, in no state across the country are Muslims better off than Hindu OBCs. Indeed, in states like Gujarat and West Bengal, which are both such communally charged terrains today, Muslims earn only 63 percent of what Hindus earn on average. In Haryana, the figure is as dismally low as Muslims earning 33 percent of what Hindus earn.
Since this charge of appeasement is clearly bunkum, let us consider another definition, which the BJP has been using of late: that Muslims are offered superficial religious sops that end up doing nothing for the community. Appeasement, in this case, harms both Muslims and Hindus, as only symbolic gestures are used to fool Muslims into voting for ‘pseudo-secular’ parties, and that leaves unscrupulous politicians free to abuse power while the BJP can do nothing to stop them.
It is this definition that is used to target Mamta Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal for praying at iftars or donning Muslim symbols, like the taqiyah cap. But can one really make this claim when our Prime Minister dons various headgear and traditional dresses when visiting communities? Is Narendra Modi appeasing Malayalis by wearing a mundu? Or Himachalis by wearing the Himachali topi?
Perhaps the problem is not with cultural dress, but religious dress? If so, how is it that the sitting chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is never seen outside of his religious robes? Or perhaps it is with someone wearing someone else’s religious dress? If so, why isn’t the Prime Minister appeasing Sikhs by wearing a turban?
In this way, it is made clear that it is only appeasement if it involves Muslim iconography; therefore, the whole question is not one of appeasement, but specifically about the fear of Muslims being given space in our political life.
My point is not that politicians turning to religious life is not problematic. We also know that many leaders have failed Indian Muslims while pretending to work for them, and using their fancy dress to project belonging. However, in a country like India, where traditions and customs hold weight, and among a religious people, the idea of a total separation of religion and government is absurd — just as it is absurd even in ‘developed’ democracies, where religion continues to play a prominent role in politics, from the US to Germany.
As a result, we will see many examples of this political theatre, but none of them amount to appeasement per se. Just as Himachalis and Sikhs are not fooled by Modi’s costumes, so too Indian Muslims are more than aware that they need more from their politicians than just the symbolic gestures.
Unfortunately, the above facts matter little in today’s contest. The Hindutva propaganda machinery has successfully sold this narrative to a wide range of people, including highly educated individuals who should know better. The reason the narrative is so successful is because each mistruth supports the other, and because each contains within it an ardhasatya, the infamous half-truth used to kill Dronacharya in the Mahabharata.
If you believe that Muslims will carry out demographic takeover, then you’re ready to believe that they will use their demographic clout to seize political power by forming a vote bank. And if you believe in vote banks, you will believe that ‘pseudo-secular’ political parties will sell out the interests of the majority to rule over the minority vote bank.
And as for the ardhasatyas? Yes, there are districts in India where the Muslim growth rates outpace Hindu growth rates, though this outpacing is both slowing faster than the Hindu birth rate is slowing, and these differences in birth rates have nothing to do with religion — they have everything to do with education and income, as seen in Uttar Pradesh Hindus having a much higher birth rate than Muslims in Kerala, or indeed Hindus in India having much higher birth rates than much of the Muslim world of the Middle East.
Yes, there are attempts made by political parties to get Muslims to form a vote bank, but the evidence shows that they are about as successful as the BJP is in consolidating Hindus, which is to say not very successful.
Yes, Indian politicians have donned Muslim icons and symbols to gain Muslim support, but similar tactics have been used by politicians for all other communities as well, and for decades if not centuries.
If I had to give a number, the truth content in all of this is about 1 percent. Unfortunately, the 1 percent seems to be enough for so many educated Indians to believe the whole narrative.