Now, Deny 'em the Vote: Thackeray's Campaign to Disenfranchise Muslim Voters
Bal Thackeray, the leader of India's Hindu chauvinist party, never disappoints Indian Muslims. The cartoonist-turned-politician keeps the community constantly conscious of its minority status, its role in 'dismembering' India and creating Pakistan and 'betrayal' of the country of its birth, by his outbursts at regular intervals. When the goons of Thackeray's party are not burning them alive in anti-Muslim pogroms, he calls them "Pakistanis, traitors, terrorists" in his speeches and editorials in his newspaper, Saamna.
Inflammatory interviews and editorials have always been something of a Thackeray trademark. Two years ago, the Supreme Court of India had suspended Thackeray's right to vote for six years for his anti-Muslim speeches and editorials. In July last year, he had been arrested by the Bombay police for his role in the 1992-93 anti-Muslim riots following the destruction of Babri Masjid that claimed more than two thousand Muslims lives. But he was let off hours later after a pliant judge ruled that the charges had passed their three-year statute of limitation. The release, as feared by many, further emboldened India's Hitler in his campaign against Muslims.
However, despite his constant harassment, the Indian Muslims have not taken him seriously or done little to check his vitriolic onslaught. They have looked upon Thackeray as representing only a tiny, intolerant fringe of the majority Hindu community. But it seems the 'tiny fringe' that Thackeray and his ilk represent, has grown by leaps and bounds in the recent years. A considerable chunk of the country's majority - 37% to be precise - not only does not see any thing objectionable in Thackeray's persecution of Muslims, it actually subscribes to and supports his Nazi approach.
Last month, when Thackeray called for disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims, The Indian Express, one of the country's largest chains of newspapers, thought it a fit subject on which to conduct an opinion poll. It asked its readers: "Do you agree with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's demand that voting rights be taken away from Muslims?" The newspaper chain has publications in English and major Indian languages. The readers could post their answers at the websites of any of them. A week later, the paper reported that 60 per cent of the readers had given "a resounding no" to Thackeray's suggestion to disenfranchise the Muslims.
The newspaper was actually sugar-coating the result of the poll. While 60 per cent said no, 37 per cent had said yes, and 3 per cent had expressed no opinion. In other words, while three out of five persons disagreed with Thackeray, two did not. Against three cries of 'no', there were two of 'yes'. Does that make a resounding no? When 37 per cent of the readers of a leading newspaper chain are willing to go along with Thackeray on denying the right of vote to the Muslims, there are reasons for the Indian Muslims to worry and do something about it.
The Indian Express poll shows that the lunatic fringe is much larger than the Indian Muslims or the so-called Indian liberals imagine. It occupies much more than the fringe. In fact, it occupies nearly two-fifths of the space and is fast growing.
Threatened with legal action by the state government of Maharashtra, Thackeray has explained that he proposed disenfranchisement of the Muslims with a 'good intention'. He claims he wanted to create a situation where the political parties do not feel tempted to "pander to the Muslim vote bank." Haven't we all heard that the path to hell is paved with good intentions! But then Thackeray is well qualified to talk of communal vote gathering. After all, he once earned a certificate from the judiciary on that count. He, of course, sees nothing wrong in the creation of a Hindu vote bank. Pandering to the Hindu vote bank cannot be communal politics, points out the Sena chief. "It is only patriotism!"
The disenfranchisement call came in an interview given to Saamna, (it literally means Confrontation), the Shiv Sena mouthpiece. Thackeray said that the best way to keep the Indian Muslims on leash and check their 'growing influence' in the nation's affairs was by taking back their voting rights. India's 150 million Muslims, the country's largest religious minority, should not be allowed to vote, he added. "If you have the guts, disenfranchise Muslims. Let's see then who cries for the Muslims. Then, all the secular-minded politicians will become pro-Hindu," the Saamna quoted Thackeray. "Muslims in India will continue to be uppity as long as political parties woo them for votes. It is unfortunate that Muslim votes count for more than the Hindu votes in our motherland. All this talk of secularism is rubbish and is the greatest danger to our country. Muslims are taking the most advantage of this term 'secularism'. They are converting Hindus to Islam and propagating their religion."
The state government of Maharashtra, which last year had failed to nail Thackeray for his involvement in 1992-93 riots, says it will file a criminal case against the Shiv Sena chief for demanding denial of voting right to Muslims but has done little even a fortnight after the inflammatory interview.
The reaction of most Muslim leaders to the Thackeray call has been of shocked silence. Except for solitary voices like that of Syed Shahabuddin, former member of parliament and editor, Muslim India, no major Muslim leader has reacted to the call. Abu Asim Azmi, president of the Maharashtra unit of the Samajwadi Party, who took on Thackeray many a time in the past, criticises the state and central governments for their silence and inaction over the 'no vote' call. Azmi demands tough legal action against Thackeray and threatens to launch a massive public agitation if the government failed to act in the matter.
Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, social activist and director of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, who has closely followed the rise of chauvinist Hindutva in the country's politics, says, "Thackeray's statement should serve as a warning of the dangers of unfettered Hindu nationalism. Thackeray is indicating what the Hindu parties will do if they come to power on their own. They will make India into a Hindu theocratic state with all other religious minorities reduced to second-class citizens."
Although the Indian Muslims - politically and economically battered as they are -- have played only a very marginal role in the country's politics and its affairs, they have been portrayed by the Indian media and viewed by the country's majority as enjoying enormous power and clout and as a community which plays the role of a kingmaker in the country's politics. No wonder, Thackeray vents his spleen against the trappings of democracy and the vote power of Muslims. In fact, such has been the power of propaganda that a large section of the populace believes that the Indian Muslims are a pampered lot.
While the Congress party, which largely ruled the country in five decades after independence, pretended to be its saviour and protector in a majoritarian rule and enjoyed power thanks to the community's vote while doing little for its welfare, the Hindu chauvinist parties like the BJP whipped up the Muslim bogey to get the majority's votes. As a result, India's Muslims, largest in the world after Indonesia, have been at the receiving end both ways: from its so-called friends as well foes.
Aijaz Syed is the Executive Editor of Meantime newsmagazine published from Bangalore, India.
Topics: Bal Thackeray