Gandhinagar, Nov 29: Shh, don't talk about Muslims in times of hyper-nationalism.
The message is echoing loud and clear in poll-bound Gujarat. All political parties have jointly decided to take a 'maun vrat' (vow of silence) regarding the Muslims in the state.
They are 'comfortably' maintaining a stoic silence on the issues, challenges, and aspirations of the minority community in the state ahead of the all-important Assembly elections.
The Gujarat Assembly elections are scheduled on December 9 and 14. The counting of votes will take place on December 18, as stated by the Election Commision (EC).
The 'M' word is almost profane, both politically and socially, in the western state. In Gujarat, nobody talks about desires, angst, and problems of Muslims, as if the 'persecuted' community simply doesn't exist in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state.
It looks like a magician has used his wand to erase the "Muslim factor" from Gujarat during this election season.
For the BJP, especially in Gujarat, Muslims have always remained "untouchables". The horrific Gujarat riots of 2002 ensured that the saffron party stays away from anything that is remotely connected to the minority community.
However, it's the Congress' "new trick" of ignoring the Muslims which has taken many by surprise.
The Congress, infamous for its Muslim appeasement, in its attempt to reinvent itself and appeal to the larger Hindu voters in Gujarat, has decided to ditch the Muslims, like its rival BJP, during the election campaign.
So, we get to see Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visiting temples after temples during his campaign in the state since September. But all these days, he did not even care once to stop and talk to anyone in a Muslim slum or a village in the state.
If for the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, the Muslim voters don't matter at all, for the Congress, it's time to expand its base and reach out to the majority Hindus.
"The Muslims have been mostly loyal to the Congress since independence. They are surely going to vote for the Congress in Gujarat where the community has been almost silenced by the BJP," said a Congress leader.
"It is time for the Congress to woo Hindu voters openly. We have been always accused of indulging in Muslim appeasement, an allegation which is totally false," he added.
It is not that Muslims don't live in Gujarat. The minority community forms 9.67 percent of the total population of the state--out of which 5.91 percent lives in rural Gujarat and 14.75 percent resides in urban areas.
Along with the social and economic exclusion of Muslims in Gujarat, the upcoming elections completed the 'political ban' on the community as the Congress has fielded only six Muslim candidates and the BJP none for the 182-member state Assembly.
Instead of Muslims, religion, and riots, political parties are talking about Patidar agitation, Dalit angst, demands of the OBCs and anger of the business community over the demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) ahead of the two-phase polls.
"Muslims of Gujarat are completely missing from the ongoing electoral discourse, despite being almost every tenth person in the state and featuring prominently, albeit as the villanised 'other', in most recent polls. This 'absence' or exclusion is not just in terms of a minuscule number of candidates from the community," wrote author-journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay for The Economic Times.
"No issue specifically concerning Muslims is being raised in an election speech or publicity material. Social segregation has become more evident--for instance, no one is even apologetic about their discomfort at having to take a seat adjacent to a Muslim in a cinema hall. Muslim localities in cities and towns are not on the 'must-visit' list of any party," he added.
Talking about the total absence of Muslim factor from the election discourse in Gujarat, journalist Rahul Shrivastava wrote in DailyO that "India exists between nations either persecuting minorities or rendering them irrelevant.
"Hard and soft Hindutva are now being practiced more vigorously than the days of Ramjambhoomi temple movement."
The community members, even its activists, and intelligentsia, who are closely watching the development albeit silently, know one thing for sure--they are still not being disfranchised.
The Muslims will use their power to vote for a candidate whom they think is the best for the community and its interests.