Najma Heptullah gets her Calculations Right

By Fawaz Shaheen,

Ms. Najma Heptullah, the Minority Affairs Minister in Mr. Modi’s newly sworn in Cabinet, has shocked the public in her first public statement by saying that Muslims must not be called a minority in India since they are “so large in number”.

Data from the 2001 census puts the population of Muslims in India at around 13 percent. In the 2014 elections, most estimates put the Muslim population at around 170 million, which is just shy of 15 percent. This population includes, as various government reports and high-level studies have repeatedly shown, some of the most economically deprived and socially disadvantaged sections of Indian society.

Najma Heptullah

Compare this with the fact that India’s largest religious community, the Hindus, stand at over 80 percent even by the most conservative estimates. By all means and calculations, Muslims are a minority in India.

So what could have prompted Najma Heptullah’s inexplicable statement? Since she did not reveal any groundbreaking study or survey report, it must be assumed that her statement was not based on statistics. But it would be foolish to assume that arithmetic was nowhere involved. In fact, it would be safe to say that her statement was based on arithmetic of both the literal as well as the political kind.

Ms. Heptullah is probably in the prime of her political career. Having defected to the BJP from the Congress just before the 2004 elections, at the height of the ‘India Shining’ electoral debacle, she has been rewarded for her patience with a ministerial berth.

This reward has come over the heads of BJP’s other, more popular Muslim faces, including five-time M.P. Shahnawaz Hussain and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. In fact, Shahnawaz Hussain, who lost the elections by a whisker this time, is BJP’s only Muslim who has a proven electoral record, and was considered a shoe-in for any BJP Cabinet.

In other words, Najma Heptullah had much to thank for and prove her loyalty to the BJP. In Delhi’s durbari culture, accuracy is quite often the first casualty of sycophancy. What Ms. Heptullah said is merely the unspoken position of most in the Sangh Parivar (nowadays echoed frequently and rather aggressively on social media platforms) but even the RSS shies away from making such blunt statements officially.

India’s political discourse, while leaning more and more to the right in the last three decades, has always been sensitive to the constitutional mandate of preserving diversity and recognizing the need for providing special assistance to the underprivileged.

This sensitivity has often been reduced to tokenism and narrow-minded appeasement by the very forces who most vehemently proclaim their secular credentials. While it has done little to better the lot of minorities, this hypocrisy has consistently created more and more space for Hindutva forces to push their distorted notion of ‘equality’ devoid of justice or a multicultural consciousness.

The 31% vote share of the BJP in these elections contained a huge chunk of people disillusioned by the cynical opportunism and meaningless tokenism carried out by the Congress party and its ilk in the garb of secularism. For the Sangh Parivar, the obvious next step is to capitalize on this disillusionment and cement the idea that our constitutional values about creating equality and protecting diversity are nothing but a conspiracy against the Hindus, hatched together by ‘sickular’ Nehruvians and evil Muslims to destroy Hindu culture and tradition.

The effects of this distortion of ‘equality’ will not be limited to Muslims alone, although Muslims may be its first victims. Reservation for SCs and STs, special rights of forest tribes, minority –run educational institutions, cultural and linguistic rights, basically any recognition of being different from the Sangh’s idea of a ‘Hindu’ will slowly be rolled back.

Najma Heptullah has no illusions of being a mass leader, and rightly so. Her career has been built by banking on her political legacy and gambling on the winning team. She has finally made it big, and by speaking the Sangh’s mind she has reasserted her loyalties.

On a larger note, however, being the only Muslim face in Modi’s Cabinet, her statement has illustrated what it would take for a Muslim to have a seat at the table in Modi’s India. Before long, we will have many similar durbaris falling over each other in their effort to prove themselves more Sanghi than the Sangh itself.

We can hope that is not true. But if Najma Heptullah has got her calculations right, it most certainly will be.