Where are the Muslims?

Seventeenth Lok Sabha

A Muslim shows her ink-marked finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh. AFP

The gender and social composition of Parliament is an indicator of political inclusivity. This inclusivity in Parliament in its formative years played an extraordinary role in uniting and integrating the nation post-Partition, thereby successfully avoiding the threat of balkanisation. The NDA rule, through its majoritarian politics, has severely affected the democratic fabric and social inclusion of religious minority communities in the decision-making process. Mob and lynching attacks by extremist Hindu religious groups against Muslims rose at an alarming rate after 2014. The divisive and ideological politics in not fielding sufficient Muslim candidates is antithetical to the citizenship rights. Will this change in the 17th Lok Sabha, with better representation for Muslims?

The Muslim population may well reach more than 15% of the population by the time of the 2021 Census of India. The 16th Lok Sabha had a low percentage of Muslim members (4.23%, 23 members), grossly inadequate representation of the community. In 1952, when they had 4.22% of MPs for a population that was 9.8% of the total Indian population. The highest representation of Muslims was in the 7th Lok Sabha – 1980-1984 – with 9.3% of the members (49) in the Lok Sabha. Between 1952 and 1977, it was in the 2-7% range.

Muslim representation in Parliament can be classified into several phases. They are the phase of ascendancy (1967-1980), phase of decline and stagnation (1984-85 to 1996), the phase of revival (1999 to 2004) and phase of renewed decline (2009-14). The political under-representation of Muslims is not just confined to Parliament, it is manifested in the state assemblies and local governments, too. The low political representation of Muslims in various assemblies, in particular in the Hindi heartland states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, is evident. It’s the case in Gujarat and Punjab, too.

The representation of Muslims in legislative bodies is highest in Assam, followed by Kerala and West Bengal. Though Muslims have considerable representation in these states, it’s not in proportion to that of the Muslim population in them. To illustrate, the current legislative assembly of Assam has 23.8% Muslim MLAs against their population of 34.22%. In Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, it’s 1.1% and 5.88% MLAs, respectively, against populations of 9.06% and 19.26%.

Suffice to argue that the exclusionary politics operating in India since Independence, and more particularly the delimitation exercise, have systematically marginalised the effective representation of Muslims in legislatures. The rising majoritarian politics is one of the main factors contributing to the shrinking political space for Muslims. Chatterji et al., in their book ‘Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India’ (2019) have highlighted that “this under-representation, linked to the boom in Hindu majoritarianism, was reflected at the government level by an unprecedented situation. Only two members in the Modi government – or less than 3% – were Muslims...Both had come from the Rajya Sabha (the upper house), given that there was none among the BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha and that only MPs can be appointed as government ministers in India”.

It must be noted that since the rise of the BJP, the Muslim representation in Parliament has shown a gradual declining trend. In the 2014 elections, the party fielded only seven Muslim candidates and no one was able to make it through. The classic example of the BJP’s exclusionary politics is the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The party did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2017 assembly elections, and it won 312 seats out of 403. As a result of this, the Muslim representation has dramatically declined, from a substantial 17.1% in 2012 to 5.9% in 2017.

The foregoing data and analysis of political under-representation of Muslims indicates that Indian democracy has failed to accommodate Muslims in adequate number, certainly not in proportion to their population. The limitations of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the exclusionary politics played out by the major national and regional political parties have systematically alienated the Muslims from effective representation in the decision-making process.

The political under-representation of Muslims is only a consequence and needs to be understood in consonance with the poor socio-economic background, insufficient education and a high rate of unemployment among Muslims. Even some well-off sections of the Muslim population are unable to climb up in the ladder of politics owing to the nature of the electoral system and the unwillingness of political parties to field Muslim candidates in elections.

The crucial aspect is, even though there is an increasing trend in terms of Muslims voting, the same is not being reflected in an increase in the number of contesting or winning Muslim candidates in the elections. The communal conflicts in the country have further deepened the political marginalisation of Muslims.

Inclusive State

The erosion of values in politics in general and the rise of majoritarian politics in particular are antithetical to democratic norms. The political equity and equality, as enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution, is the commitment to the social justice and inclusive governance. The State in India must reform itself to initiate necessary measures to include the Muslims in the decision-making process through affirmative actions as a means of political development. This must be supplemented by the social and economic policies to bring about the holistic development of Muslims.

(The writer is a PhD Fellow, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru

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