As CAA protests intensify, Muslims in the BJP face a moment of reckoning
Many members of the BJP’s minority cell in Maharashtra remain unconvinced about the need for the CAA and the proposed NRC
On 27 December, members of the minority morcha of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra held a press conference in Latur. Its district chief, Afzal Khan, and former mayor Akhtar Shaikh released the following statement at the event: “The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) are against the Constitution and against the Muslims. There’s injustice happening to our community. It’s irrational and incomprehensible for us to be with a party enabling this injustice."
And with that, the two, along with nearly 100 Muslim members from the Latur BJP unit, announced their resignation.
“Soon after the Act was passed, we had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and the state leadership, expressing our reservations," Khan explained over the phone from Latur. “We received no response, we were left with no choice."
“Most Muslims never vote for the BJP," says Hamid Shaikh, secretary of Latur’s BJP minority cell. “Those who do, it’s because of people like us. But even we can’t defend them on this (CAA and an imminent NRC). Modi aur Amit Shah ki neeyat mein hi khot hai(Modi and Amit Shah don’t have the right intentions)."
Like those from Latur, several minority-community members of the BJP have greeted the CAA and the proposed NRC with a mix of fear, apprehension and hostility. Sayid Thaha Bafaki Thangal, part of the Kerala state executive committee of the BJP’s minority morcha, too quit on 29 December because of the Centre’s unwillingness to address the community’s fears.
Even as it remains bullish about the merits of the CAA, the BJP announced on 21 December that it would be undertaking a nationwide campaign to expose the “lies" and “myths" being spread against it. A crucial aspect of the campaign, Union minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told The Hindu on 27 December, would be direct outreach to the members of the Muslim community across the country.
On 28 December, the BJP’s Maharashtra unit held a workshop for its minority cell at its headquarters in Dadar, Mumbai. Madhav Bhandari, BJP’s Maharashtra spokesperson, tells Lounge that the workshop aimed at addressing the concerns of members and teaching them how to defend it from criticism when they reach out to their community.
“Most of the criticism against the CAA and NRC being ‘anti-Muslim’ is by people from journalism and political opposition with vested interests," he says. “We have been trying to counter those in our public rallies. But it is much more effective when members of the minority communities hear it from their own people."
Those invited for the Mumbai workshop included the party’s district leaders from the state. Members were expected to follow this up with outreach, distributing pamphlets, going door-to-door and conducting interactive sessions to counter the anti-CAA “propaganda", Bhandari adds.
Muslim leaders in the BJP, however, say this will not be enough to quell the disquiet.
“I have been part of the party for 22 years," says Hyder Azam, vice-president of the BJP’s Mumbai unit. “But today I have to stay quiet. I can’t go to pray in mosques. Our people glare at us like we are the enemy. When some of our workers went for an anti-CAA rally, members of our community chased them away.
“The only way out is if Modi and Shah organize a meeting with 50-100 of our community members and hear us out," he adds. “If we are convinced, we will present it to the society. But if we go to the people now, log joota leke humare peeche daudenge (people will chase us away)."
His concerns are not misplaced. On 29 December, Murtaza Agha Qazmi, a BJP minority cell leader from Amroha district in Uttar Pradesh, was thrashed by locals while he was trying to explain the benefits of the CAA and the NRC.
Over the past five years, a series of decisions by the BJP-led government have fuelled the fears of the minority community, be it the criminalization of triple talaq, the revocation, effectively, of Article 370 of the Constitution relating to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, or the lead-up to the Babri Masjid verdict in November. In March, in her annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, cautioned India against continuing its “divisive policies".
“We are receiving reports that indicate increasing harassment and targeting of minorities—in particular, Muslims and people from historically disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as Dalits and Adivasis," said Bachelet.
The ruling party came under further criticism during the 2019 general election, when it did not give tickets to any member of the Muslim community. Today, the party has only one member from the community in Parliament—minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in the Rajya Sabha.
“Our party doesn’t believe in caste, community, region or religion," Naqvi told Lounge at a press conference in Mumbai. “Every worker, if capable, is welcome to contest the election.... (An electoral) ticket is not the criteria of secularism. Our commitment is nation-building. It’s strong and effective."
But Farzana Iqbal, vice-president of the BJP minority cell in Mumbai, says the party often contradicts itself when it comes to its outlook towards Muslims. She cites the example of a speech by Ram Gurjar, a BJP MLA from Haryana, last week where he is heard saying, “India is not of Jawaharlal Nehru or of Gandhi today, but it is of Narendra Modi. If we get a signal, within one hour we will wipe them (Muslims) out."
“If the BJP isn’t against Muslims," she says, “why can’t the PM condemn such statements?"
A Marathi-language academic, Iqbal says she has encountered Islamophobic comments throughout her life. “But over the past five years, people are doing it openly. When I was roaming on Chowpatty yesterday with a scarf around my head and face, I overheard someone say, ‘We should send these people away.’"
Afzal Khan, a former BJP minority cell chief from Latur, says it’s the uncertainty that bothers him the most. India, he goes on to explain, is a huge country with complex, multilayered problems.
Latur, for example, saw a devastating earthquake in 1993, which killed over 10,000 and devastated hundreds of thousands of houses. “If an NRC is enacted tomorrow, like they had said earlier they would, most of us won’t be able to show any documents proving our birth or land records before 1993. Where will we go then?"
“I’ve heard that more resignations from Muslims in Maharashtra BJP are in the offing," he said. “And why not. If you alienate Muslims, who will we ask for votes?"
BJP leaders on CAA and NRC
Home minister Amit Shah on 23 April
“Understand the chronology, first we will bring Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) and after that we will bring National Register of Citizens (NRC) and NRC will not only be for Bengal but for the entire country."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 23 December
“Has anything happened with the NRC yet? Lies are being spread. After my government came to power, from 2014 to now, let me tell the 130 crore citizens of this country, nowhere has the NRC word been discussed, been talked about."
Minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on 29 December
“There is nothing in CAA that takes away citizenship of any Indian. No community, including Muslims, has anything to fear because so far as we are concerned, they are equal partners in the progress of the nation."
Minister of road transport & highways Nitin Gadkari on 19 December
“There is no country in the world for Hindus. Earlier, Nepal was a Hindu nation but now there is not a single Hindu nation...so where will Hindus, Sikhs go? For Muslims, there are several Muslim nations where they can get citizenship...the opposition is trying to mislead people."