Not even Islam or for that matter, any other major Indian religions which "officially" do not subscribe to social stratification by virtue of one's birth. Therefore it is not unusual to hear of "Brahmin" Christians, "Kshatriya "Sikhs and "Rajput" Muslims of high birth.The effects of the Hindu caste system go beyond the grotesque practices of exploitation and brutality for which it is notorious. Most social interactions from matrimony to business dealings are largely dictated by caste considerations. Indian politics are rife with loyalties and rivalries based on caste and religion. There are layers upon layers of cultural/ social / religious dimensions to regional and national politics in India, and the candidates for public office rely heavily upon identity politics. Communities in India irrespective of wealth and status, quietly practice their own individual forms of the caste system in private as well as public life, frequently giving shape to the political leadership. These differences are particularly sharp during communal unrest. In more placid times, people tend to think more of their own economic interests and the voting pattern of a particular religious group or caste cannot be taken for granted. It is not uncommon for unethical politicians to instigate riots and disturbances close to elections in order to divide communities and then pander to one side or the other. Right now elections are being held in several north Indian states with sizable Muslim populations. Politicians are predictably watching the "Muslim vote bloc." But some are warning that to count the vastly diverse and complex Indian Muslim communities as a monolitic entity may prove to be a miscalculation. Shahid Siddiqui, a Muslim member of the Indian Parliament from UP explains why.
The myth of the Muslim vote bank, though denied by sociologists and debunked by psephologists, refuses to die. It reasserts itself with new vigour at every election. Even those well aware of the diversity within the community cannot resist building their arguments on this spurious claim.
The vote bank theory has been convenient for labelling Muslims and shoving them into handy brackets. It was done in India to explain the political behaviour of Muslims across regional, linguistic, caste, class and social barriers. Today it is done globally to gloss over inconvenient and inconsistent behaviour: it is a one-size fits all formula that cuts across regions and rides over locational differences and circumstances. Whether they are Thai, Chechen, Palestinian or European, Muslims are judged unfailingly by their faith and so-called beliefs. In this foretold story, everything is pre-decided: the crime, the culprit, the cause, the evidence and the punishment.
The vote bank
The idea that there is something called a “Muslim vote bank,” which behaves uniformly across the board, suits equally the Muslim leadership and its right wing Hindu counterpart. Muslim leaders and middlemen can bargain with political parties on behalf of this “collective” vote, as if individual Muslims have no opinion of their own and can be herded together in a pre-determined direction for a price decided mutually between the politicians and the community's self-appointed spokespersons. The Muslim vote bank helps communal Hindu organisations to manufacture their own “Hindu vote bank,” and use the whipped up Muslim threat to achieve their ultimate objective: a Hindu-Muslim electoral polarisation. The secular sections too have become unwitting participants in this game. Their intention is presumably to lift Muslims out of their sense of insecurity but the constant focus has only served to perpetuate the fear and victimhood that have been the bane of the community. Experts on 24x7 TV channels habitually use the vote bank theory to offer pat explanations for Muslim behaviour and to reach pre-fabricated conclusions.
I know I will be roundly attacked for these assertions for they question the very basis on which sectarian elements on both sides have built their arguments. The Muslim Ulema refuse to accept the ground reality of Islam in India which is as much mired in caste politics as any other Indian religion. The plain truth is that Muslim society is as divided as Hindu society and along the same caste and regional lines. Caste is such a formidable Indian/Hindu institution that no ideology can escape it: Islam, Christianity, Marxism, rationalism, modernism have all floundered on the bedrock of this hard reality. Islam became acceptable in medieval Indian society as a caste group and not as a religious group. Mughals, Pathans, Turks, Sheikhs and Syeds were regarded as sub-castes, so much so that other Indian converts to Islam came to be conveniently regarded as outcasts.
Then there is this story which points out the ways in which caste politics is now being exploited with Muslim voters by pandering politicians. What I found interesting in this article is what I had suspected all along. A community votes as a bloc when their existence or identity is threatened in some way. With right wing Hindu parties like the BJP mostly in a waning phase in Indian politics, Muslims in India are voting for pocket book issues and not cultural ones. More interesting is the Congress Party's shameless pandering to the community by awarding Scheduled Caste / Scheduled Tribe status to "low caste" Muslims. As I pointed out earelier, it is an open secret that in India, there is "always" a caste system, irrespective of the faith of a community and that there are indeed rich and poor Muslims in India whose livelihoods and status fall across social lines based on traditional occupations which mirror the Hindu caste system. But isn't it somewhat cynical and ironic to introduce this kind of stratification as policy for a religious group which at least on paper, doesn't recognize such classifications? The third interesting item in this news report is that the Muslim special groups which may benefit from the government quota are anxious not to anger the large and powerful Yadav community (a designated SC / ST Hindu community) of UP with whom the Muslims had in the past joined hands to break the upper caste Hindu monopoly in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. This is identity politics at its best - making strange bedfellows, creating and disrupting unlikely alliances and fostering atavistic tendencies.