Siddhartha Varadarajan


The nuclear deal and other questions of foreign policy should be opposed or defended on their own merits. Sadly, both the government and its opponents have played fast and loose with the “Muslim” card, to the detriment of the community’s larger interest.


Going by the statements Indian politicians make, Hindus and Muslims must be the most gullible people on earth. How else can one explain the cynical revival, in the run-up to the next general election, of the Ayodhya temple card by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L K Advani? Or the manipulative assertion by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati that the nuclear deal is anti-Muslim.


Sadly, Mayawati is not the only one to look at one of the most important foreign policy issues confronting India in this manner. On June 23, M K Pandhe, a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), warned the Samajwadi Party against supporting the UPA government on the nuclear issue because, he claimed, “a majority of the Muslim masses are against the deal”. The CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat wisely disowned this shocking statement two days later by saying that Pandhe’s remarks “are not the view of the party” but the damage had already been done. Now that it has been let out of its bottle, this dangerous genie will not be exorcised easily. Parties eager to hoodwink Muslims into supporting them feel they now have an issue. And waiting in the wings are the traditional Muslim- baiters in the BJP, who thrive on the communalisation of any issue and will point an accusatory finger at the community when the time is ripe.


For the past three years, Mayawati has maintained a studied silence on the deal despite its supposedly “anti-Muslim” character. Now that an alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress is looking increasingly likely, however, she is discovering she can no longer afford to sit on the fence. “The UPA government is adamant to sign the nuclear deal with the US at the cost of much cheaper gas from Iran but Muslims would never accept the deal”, she declared at a press conference in Lucknow on July 1.


As if on cue, Muslim leaders like Zafaryab Jillani and Kalbe Sadiq have swallowed this poisonous bait hook,line and sinker. According to UNI, Jillani asked why the Congress government at the centre was supporting the deal when the minority community was against it. Can there be a better way of offering communal grist to the BJP’s political mill than the issuing of such foolish statements?


Apprehensions on Nuclear Deal


Like a large number of Indians, most Muslims probably have apprehensions about the nuclear deal adversely affecting India’s national interest. Even if they are agnostic or ignorant about the deal itself, the majority of Indians (including the majority of Muslims) are opposed to any kind of military or strategic alliance with the US. It is perfectly legitimate to hold such sentiments and express them too and it was wrong for the Congress Party to claim the foreign policy debate was being “communalised” because Muslim organisations demonstrated against the US president George W Bush when he visited India in 2006. However, for Mayawati or anyone else to suggest that the deal is “anti Muslim” or that the agreement should be scrapped because the Muslims are not in favour is an act of political cynicism that the “Muslim masses” would be well advised to be wary of. For today they are being used only as alibis to justify a political realignment. Tomorrow, they could well be turned into scapegoats when the next realignment occurs.


In 2005 I had argued that the Manmohan Singh government was under pressure from the Americans to sacrifice the Iran pipeline for the nuclear deal (‘A Farewell to the Gas Pipeline?’, The Hindu, July 22, 2005) so I have no problem with Mayawati attacking the Congress for this. But how is this a “Muslim” issue? India, I wrote at the time, needs Iranian gas till well into the 21st century and that it would be foolish for Manmohan Singh to “give up the energy in hand for two in the Bush”. Already, the shortage of gas in the country has led to more than 7,000 MW of installed thermal power capacity lying idle. According to ministry of power data, 13,400 MW of electricity generating capacity in the country is operating on gas with a plant load factor (PLF) of only 53 per cent as against the required 90 per cent.


The pipeline from Iran would help alleviate this shortfall and it is shocking that the UPA government is needlessly dragging its feet on the negotiations with Tehran and Islamabad. Equally shortsighted was the government’s capitulation to American pressure on the question of sending Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council. Thanks partly to that vote, there is a much greater likelihood of a new war being launched by the US or Israel. But how did these become “Muslim” issues? The majority of Indian expatriates in the Gulf whose livelihood would be threatened by a regional war are not Muslim. And aren’t Hindus also interested in “much cheaper gas”?


‘Shia’ Sentiments


Of course, the original sin of communalising the Iran issue belongs not so much to Mayawati or the Samajwadi Party but the UPA government itself. Unwilling to counter the American pressure on Iran with strong political and strategic arguments of the kind that the ministry of external affairs and the directorate general of military intelligence were making internally, our leaders preferred to buy time for themselves with the lame excuse of “Shia sentiments”. Both the prime minister and Natwar Singh, who was external affairs minister at the time, used this dangerous argument in 2005 in order to (unsuccessfully) tell the Americans why they were prepared to go thus far and no further on Iran. And as recently as April this year, national security adviser M K Narayanan told the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ conference in Delhi that one of the reasons India was concerned about how the west was handling Iran was because it had “a very large Shia population”.


Narayanan was being coy about India’s opposition to the use of force but another speaker at the conference, the former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, was more blunt. If asked to choose between Iran going nuclear and a war to stop it going down that route, he said, India would undoubtedly choose the former. However, no Indian leader would dare to spell out our national priorities in so forthright a fashion for fear that the Americans would take offence. It is much easier to use the Indian Muslims as an alibi. Of course, the Manmohan Singh government is not unique in this regard. If the erstwhile National Democratic Alliance government finally backed away from the folly of sending Indian soldiers to die alongside the American occupation forces in Iraq in 2003, this was not because of any “Muslim” opposition to its plans. Nevertheless, Vajpayee told more than one opposition leader who went to see him in the run-up to the Cabinet’s July 14, 2003 decision that if only the Muslims were to take to the streets of Delhi to protest the proposed deployment of Indian troops, this would make his job of saying ‘No’ to the Americans easier.


No Tangible Gains


For the Muslims of India, the idea that they wield so much influence over the country’s foreign or any other policy must surely come as a big surprise. Especially since they have no tangible gains to show for this influence. The Sachar Committee’s report has painted a vivid statistical picture of a community that lags behind the national average in most socio-economic indicators. When the UPA government came to power, it promised to do something to address the genuine concerns of the community.

Four years later, the record is spotty indeed. There has been some positive fiscal targeting of districts where Muslims live in large numbers but it is too early to judge how effective this has been. The promised Communal Violence bill – which is supposed to ensure that massacres of the kind that were enacted in Gujarat in 2002 never happen again – appears to have been quietly shelved. Even a simple issue like uniform compensation for all victims of mass violence and terrorism has not been addressed; the Congress-led UPA would much prefer making piecemeal announcements for each set of victims so as to maximise electoral gains.


To make matters worse, non-delivery in the core areas of Muslim concern is accompanied in the Indian system by quick action or outlandish promises on bogus issues. As chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, for example, Mayawati is not prepared to lift a finger to ensure that the ongoing trial of policemen charged with the massacre of Muslims in Hashimpura and Malliana 21 years ago is brought to a speedy and just conclusion. But she is all ready to fight the good fight against the nuclear deal in the name of the community. It is almost as if there is a conspiracy to keep Muslims, like other Indians, confined to pressing purely identity-based sectional demands. Muslims or Gujjars who protest against SEZs could find themselves arrested or shot and their demands will never be addressed in a 100 years. But if Muslims and Gujjars protest against Taslima Nasrin or for scheduled tribe status, they may still get shot at but their irrational demands are almost always acceded to.


All parties, whether secular or communal, Left or Right, need to fight it out among themselves on the merits and demerits of the nuclear deal. But to drag the Muslims into the midst of their squabbles is to do a great disservice to the struggle of the community against marginalisation and discrimination and to turn them into nothing more than sacrificial sheep at the altar of the BJP, if and when the party ever returns to power.


How unlikely is it that the party – which says it is against the nuclear deal but in favour of a strategic alliance with the United States – will reverse its stand on the 123 Agreement the next time it comes to power in New Delhi? When that happens, it is the Muslims of India who will be set up as straw figures and demonised for allegedly holding back the “progress” of the country.


(Economic and Political Weekly, July 15, 2008) 

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