Mulayam Singh Yadav: Social Justice Champion Who Challenged Hindu Nationalists

Mulayam Singh Yadav was key to changing the course of Indian politics in the 1990s and along with Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then chief minister of Bihar, gave Muslims a breathing space from the backlash they suffered in form of repeated pogroms following Pakistan’s creation

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Mulayam Singh Yadav, a leading champion of social justice in India and among the politicians who notably impeded the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise to power in the 1990s and 2000s, has passed away at 82. His political career spanned over five decades and owed his success to his rootedness. A former wrestler, Yadav came from a marginalised caste background and yet went on to become one of India’s leading politicians. 

Yadav, a socialist, began his political career as an opponent of the secularist Congress, which claimed to be a party of all Indians but was dominated by the upper castes that account for just around 15 percent of the country’s population. He became a lawmaker in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, for the first time in the 1960s when he entered politics drawing inspiration from socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia.

Also Listen: Why Mulayam Singh Yadav Mattered

Yadav was catapulted to the highest echelons of power when he forged a formidable alliance of Muslims and the communities (around 85 percent of the population) historically disadvantaged under the Hindu caste system in the 1980s and 1990s. Congress’s failure in protecting Muslims when they faced increasing violence as the Hindu nationalists vied for power worked in helping Yadav cement the alliance. 

Yadav was key to changing the course of Indian politics in the 1990s and along with Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then chief minister of Bihar, gave Muslims a breathing space from the backlash they suffered in form of repeated pogroms following Pakistan’s creation as a Muslim homeland. The politics of the Yadavs enabled Muslims to think beyond their security and focus on education, helping create a new middle class within the community, which is now back to square one with state-backed exclusion and invisibilisation. There was a near complete exodus of Muslim middle and upper classes to Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947.  

The Muslim backing was key to the success of Mulayam Singh Yadav as he replaced Narayan Datt Tiwari, whose Brahmin community is at the top of the hierarchical caste system, as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 1989.  The Congress has not since returned to power in the state, which sends 80 of 543 members to the national parliament. 

Yadav adopted the Muslims as their own, which would eventually also help the BJP discredit the politics he represented. The BJP has leveraged the concentration of influence and wealth that upper castes, its traditional supporter base, have to successfully build narratives to break the lower castes and Muslim alliance by projecting politicians like Yadav as corrupt and nepotistic. 

Muslims under Yadav’s rule got representation somewhat proportional to their population for the first time when the community suffered its deepest sense of insecurity since partition with the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque and the mob violence it sparked across the country. The BJP has discredited the due share Muslims appeared to be getting to paint Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) as a “Muslim party”. It has for long opposed any Muslim representation as appeasement and successfully rendered the Muslim vote irrelevant and excluded Muslims from power.

The BJP has successfully used the “appeasement” card to discredit secular parties, particularly in north India, and benefitted electorally to emerge as a hegemon in Indian politics. It nurtured a persecution complex among its core supporter base even though people from upper castes control almost levers of power, wealth, information, and resources. 

The BJP’s ideological forefathers opposed the idea of equal citizenship for Muslims guaranteed in the constitution. They wanted them to stay in India “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation”, claiming not even citizen’s rights. The BJP and its allies have promoted the idea of Muslims as the other and delegitimized as appeasement the rights they are entitled to while amplifying unfounded demographic anxieties. 

The delegitimization of the politics Yadav represented is now complete. It is reflected in invisiblisation of the marginalised Muslim minority. Muslims account for 14 percent of the population, but none of the 36 Indian states or federally administered territories have an elected Muslim chief minister. There is no Muslim elected official in 15 states. Ten states have one elected Muslim official each mostly in charge of the insignificant minority affairs. None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim. BJP did not this year renominate its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House. The lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who headed the minority affairs ministry, hence lost his position.

Political parties including even Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, which rely heavily on the Muslim votes, have avoided being identified with Muslims. They can no longer afford to be seen to be standing up for Muslims. The BJP has pushed them on the back foot so much so that they would not speak out when they have been increasingly subjected to medieval collective punishments like house demolitions, highlighting the void Yadav’s death has left in Indian politics that seems hard to be filled in the foreseeable future.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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