E T Mohammed Basheer is a prominent Muslim parliamentarian in India known for his timely interventions. Recently he spoke against the triple Talaq bill and voted against the reservation for upper-castes in the parliament. He’s been vocal on issues of mob lynching and false fabrication of terrorism cases against the Muslim youth. He represents Ponnani Lok Sabha constituency of Kerala. As an organizing secretary of Indian Union Muslim Muslim League he traveled far and wide of the Muslim India. Twice, he was an education minister in Kerala government. Here, he speaks to Twayyib Rajab. Edited excerpts:
1. Hindu nationalists have been on power for nearly five years. How do you rate your performance as an MP representing the IUML?
It has been around ten years since I have become an MP. It was my second stint as an MP when 16th Lok Sabha came into being under Narendra Modi. Records show I actively participated in around 90 discussions and raised 314 questions. In addition to that I raised matters of urgent concerns ten times during the zero hours. I have also been part of the discussions on 28 government bills and have presented five private bills. See, we have only myself and P. K. Kunhalikutty representing the IUML. Mr Kunhalikutty came to parliament after the demise of E Ahamed. Our voices, as they represented the minority, were always heard. We have also engaged in other issues of public interest in keeping up with the legacy of the IUML. We condemned all incidence of violence that took place in the country, especially the one against the minorities. Such incidents are outrageously rampant during the term of this government. In every sphere the minorities are being cut to size.
A major issue is communalization of institutions. School textbooks and curricula were altered, functioning of Kendriya Vidyalayas was changed, extreme right-wing members were chosen to lead institutional bodies such as NCERT and UGC. I spoke over these issues in the parliament, citing the changes in textbooks and all. These statements are available on social media.
Mob lynching was another concern. I visited families of the victims. I went to Katwa (where a minor girl was gang raped and brutally murdered) in Kashmir. We tried our best through party mechanisms and individual contributions to help them, even though it didn’t compensate for their loss.
We also worked on Rohingya refugee camps. We have visited almost all Rohingya camps in the vicinity of Hyderabad, Delhi, Kashmir, Faridabad and Mewat. We were interested in building better shelters for them, but the government did not permit. And these refugees have been under the constant police surveillance. Nevertheless we tried to reach out to them. Our party’s Kerala state president collected 1.3 crore Indian rupees for the Rohingya refugees. And with the permission of India’s Ministry of External Affairs one crore Indian rupees we deposited to a bank account in Dhaka dedicated to the welfare of Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps, with all legal documents. The remaining 30 lakhs rupees were spent on the other Rohingya camps elsewhere. There were hundreds of Muslim young men booked under draconian UAPA and AFSPA in various jails across India without trial. We opposed this excess from the state, individually and through other means, irrespective of politics. In the cases of Muslim preachers who were legally targeted, I had raised the issue in the parliament citing article 25 of the Indian constitution that guarantees religious freedom. We have also raised our voices for the people of Kashmir when the issue was in need of the attention of the parliament. Maybe we didn’t do too many things, but we certainly do represent a ray of hope. People can evaluate us, as all our activities are documented.
I’m also part of the Hajj committee and central Waqf committee. I opposed the government whenever it tried to interfere in Hajj committee. Each MP can choose one standing committee, and I have chosen the Minority standing committee for the last nine years as it is the only committee where the minister could be involved directly. Our (IUML’s) intervention on issues such as triple Talaq bill, economic reservation and citizenship bill speaks volume about our stance.
2. Getting the rights of a minority by not antagonizing the majority community was the strategy of IUML in Kerala. Why the party couldn’t work out this model on national level?
The Muslim League believes in a principle that the politics of minorities should not lead to conflicts in the larger society. During my seven years as an education minister in Kerala, one of the complicated job in the state, I tried to implement our vision with equal justice. When minorities did not not receive their rights we delivered without discriminating others. Grants were allotted considering the needs of every section of the society. It was during my time Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit (SSUS) was established. Which was sort of revolutionary. Questions were asked in Kerala Legislative Assembly that how a Muslim League minister could allocate funds for a Sanskrit university. I told them ‘it’s the problem with your mindset that see Sanskrit as the language of Hindus and Arabic, of Muslims.’ There were objections when I introduced an Urdu department in the SSUS. But there were provisions in the university for inter-cultural, multilingual studies. I also appointed the Farook College’s head of the department of Urdu as the director in the SSUS department. I can proudly say the SSUS in Kaladi is the best of its kind in India.
The minority have always had trouble receiving what they deserve. But we were able to solve it to an extent. Institutions were also built for the other disadvantaged groups such as OBCs, SC and ST. Despite all these track record, there were limitations for us to grow beyond Kerala. There were reasons for that.
After the Independence, a debate raged within the then Muslim League weather the party to continue to work. Some people wanted the League dissolved. But another section strongly demanded the party remain same, as a necessary political movement for the protection of minority rights in the partitioned India. And that led to the establishment of Indian Union Muslim League. But the party failed to grow in North India due to the trauma of Partition. In north India, League was still associated with the memories of the formation of Pakistan.
It was the people of Kerala who welcomed the League wholeheartedly. In Tamil Nadu, the land of Quaid e Millat also, to an extent. We were able to build a Kerala model of minority politics. But we want to expand now. Of late we have started to work in North India with our limited resources.
But things were little better few decades ago. In Maharashtra we had an MLA and corporation councilors. We had a presence in Karnataka too. Once we even had seven councilors in Bangalore municipal corporation. League also had a minister in Bengal. Hassanul Zaman handled ministry of trade for years. We had even bases in in Bihar. However we don’t have much hold in these places now.
Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait, G. M. Banatwala and E. Ahamed of League were well-respected beyond Kerala. E. Ahamed was the last one in that lineage. Sait was a popular Muslim leader with international reputation. League was stronger when we had these popular leaders. If you ask me whether the League is as strong as then, I would say no without any hesitation. But the League is getting active these days. We have formed state committees everywhere. They are doing lots activities which are significant. We visit them regularly for better working and unity within them.
3. Political parties like AIMIM, AIUDF etc. have similar ideology which is communitarianism. How does the IUML engage with these parties? What is the role of IUML in Muslim collectives like All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat?
We maintain good relations with them. Even though they are Muslim organizations it is very important to think twice before we align with them. It is not good to have an emotional connection with an organization just because they represent Muslim minorities. It should be done carefully by analyzing their ideology and activities. But when it comes to public issues we try to engage with those inside and outside the parliament as we are representatives of the oppressed minorities. No attempts have been made from our side to unite with these organizations. Such efforts can be made only after thorough contemplation. However, we have expressed our solidarity in various movements and protests, such as the struggle against the abolition of minority status for Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia.
Now we have only 22 Muslim MPs which is an all-time low. Still we do take the initiatives on minority issues and discuss solutions. We also make it a a point to attend the meetings called by other Muslim organizations when invited. We are active in Majlis-e-Mushawarat, and the Muslim Personal Law Board. I am a member of Majlis-e-Mushawarat.
4. Whenever Muslim League demands for an extra electoral seat or ministerial post in government, those at the helm of the United Democratic Front (IUML is part of this Congress-led coalition in Kerala for almost three decades) opposes. They say it will ‘break the communal equation’ in the state. Those in other fronts and even public sound to have some stake in this claim. This time too that murmuring is audible when there was a talk that Muslim League might ask for an extra seat in the Loksabha election given its strong base in the north Kerala. What do you say?
It’s true that such demands often get the ‘communal’ brand. It’s strange. Allocation of seats on communal basis is so common in India. Caste, religion and the emerging conflicts have always been the driving forces of Indian politics. Citizens have religious rights, too, based on their faith. When the League demanded a fifth ministerial post in the last UDF government in Kerala, there were widespread campaigns invoking ‘communal proportions’ and ‘communal balancing.’ That only the IUML is the target of this attack is very unfair. This is because of the faith and community that the IUML represents. This is to curtail the existing rights the community enjoy and to prevent the community from making progresses with larger political representations.
5. With the historic low number of MPs in parliament, some studies show, Muslim issues and concerns are not adequately discussed. Muslim League had supported proportional representation and presented a bill on that in parliament. What is your position on the proportional representation now?
If anybody wants the reservation system in India to stop because it is based on castes and communities then we are of the opinion that reservation must be done on the basis of population. We have always said that. We also have worked for its fulfillment. What a community deserves should be decided by their proportion in the population and it must be rightfully awarded to them.
6. Muslim League is a part of the UPA at the centre. It was during the UPA ruling tenure that controversial cases like ‘fake encounters’ including the one in Batla House happened. Many UAPA cases were charged against Muslim youths. Also in the recent assembly elections, there were allegations that the Congress party tried to reduce Muslim presence in rallies and that Rahul Gandhi visited only Hindu temples during the campaign. What is your take on the criticism that the Congress is playing a soft Hindutva card to defeat BJP?
Of Course, there were oppression and violence against the vulnerable groups during the UPA period. I raised certain issues including that of under-trial prisoners. But the UPA government effectively used police forces during the communal riots. They have never deviated from their secular ideals. But now the murder and mayhem is an open policy. Some people do tend to liken the Congress with the BJP. They brand the Congress as promoters soft Hindutva. We are against such labeling. Congress is not an exclusionary party. Congress was criticized for Rahul Gandhi’s visit to temples and inclusion of Sri Ram in their election manifesto. There is no need to be critical about Hindu traditions and rituals. We are only against the political agenda called Hindutva which was set by BJP and which has no relation with the Hindu religion. Hindu brothers can be secular while keeping their faith. If they want their places of worship be protected, let that be. It’s meaningless to brand the Congress being soft Hindutva just because they call for Hindus to vote for them. BJP’s agenda is different. They want to homogenize the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of India through the implementation of their Hindutva ideology.
To this end they censor and threaten the writers and artists who disagree. We understand this difference between BJP and Congress. We never failed to condemn the UPA governments when the justice were denied. But the UPA government never adopted an open policy of instigating riots only to further political gains.
Twayyib Rajab is a research scholar in sociology in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi