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WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE
Conversations: 'We Need to Bring India's Muslims Into the BJP's Fold'
Interview with Bangaru Laxman, president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party
By MASEEH RAHMAN

September 26, 2000
Web posted at 1:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:00 a.m. EDT


Bangaru Laxman, 66, provoked a nationwide debate with his very first speech as president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in August when he called upon party workers to make "sustained efforts to reach out to Indian Muslims." The BJP, often described by the international media as a "right-wing Hindu nationalist party" (a label Laxman rejects), has few links with India's 120 million Muslims. The lack of support among Muslims is partly responsible for the party's failure to get a majority in India's Parliament, forcing it to head a coalition government in New Delhi. Muslims remain distrustful of the BJP but now Laxman, a lower-caste Dalit known to be close to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, wants his party to woo them. Laxman spoke with TIME contributor Maseeh Rahman in New Delhi recently. Edited excerpts:

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TIME: Why have you called your party workers to rework the BJP's relationship with India's Muslims?
Laxman: The call came from my heart. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the country's major minority community cannot keep themselves apart. They have to come together now in the interests of the country.

TIME: In your August speech you also said that the BJP's "future prospects" would be hurt if it kept away from Muslims. What did you mean by that?
Laxman: When I said "future prospects" I didn't mean electoral prospects. I'm looking at it from an emotional integration point of view. If the 21st century is to be India's century, then we will have to make a conscious effort to see that Muslims are brought into the BJP's fold.

TIME: Skeptics say that your call has been made with an eye to the state assembly elections scheduled next year, especially in Uttar Pradesh state, where the BJP might ally with the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati, which has a significant Muslim following. So your objective, according to them, is to ensure that some Muslim votes come to the BJP. What's your reaction?
Laxman: I don't know where the talk of an alliance with Mayawati has come from. Whatever happens in the Uttar Pradesh elections will happen. Certainly, my call has created shock waves among people who were dubbing the BJP as an upper-caste, anti-secular party. My idea is to emotionally integrate this large section of society, a religious minority (and we are proud that it is so large), with the largest party in the ruling coalition. Unless the BJP and Muslims come together, there is no real national integration in the country. Once this happens, I hope countries that are opposed to India will be silenced.

TIME: What has prevented the BJP from attracting Muslims?
Laxman: In the last 10 years the party has been able to attract a sizable number of Muslims, but I'm not happy at the rate at which they're coming. I would certainly aim for more. Therefore I'm asking party workers to go to Muslim neighborhoods and invite them to join.

TIME: What will the BJP workers tell Muslims?
Laxman: Up until now Muslims have kept away from the BJP because they were told that, if the BJP came to power, there would be more communal clashes, their religious freedom would be scuttled, and they'd become second-class citizens. The BJP has been in power for the last two-and-a-half years and there has actually been a reduction in communal clashes; people who want to go to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage are given a larger subsidy; and more funds have been made available for economic development of Muslims and promotion of the Urdu language. These are facts that the workers can explain to the people.

TIME: But BJP leaders have been telling the people that promises contained in the party manifesto and kept in abeyance, such as building a temple in Ayodhya, would be honored once the BJP manages to get a clear majority in Parliament.
Laxman: The Prime Minister has clearly said that as far as building the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodha is concerned, let's wait for the judicial pronouncement. The matter is in the courts. As far as an issue like introducing a common civil law for all religious communities is concerned, a national consensus has to be created, and that's a long, drawn process.

TIME: What would you say are the three main problems facing Indian Muslims today?
Laxman: The economic development and literacy of Muslims has been badly neglected. They have also not been kept abreast of modern life.

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TIME: So illiteracy, unemployment and backwardness are the three main problems of Indian Muslims. How would you tackle them?
Laxman: Allocations for literacy programs will have to be made more effective. And Muslim madrasas [religious schools] should not be confined to spiritual teachings, but other subjects including computer science.

TIME: Would you support the demand by Muslims and Christians for affirmative action in government jobs and education?
Laxman: I have pleaded for more funds to be made available for education. Once that happens the literacy program will have to cover Muslims.

TIME: What about reservations for government jobs?
Laxman: Some Muslims--Ansaris, Qureshis-- have already been covered under the Mandal Commission recommendations [reserving government jobs for certain backward castes]. If a better case was made with regard to the others, it would be examined.

TIME: After the killing of over 100 Hindus in Kashmir in August, Muslims were attacked in Surat City, Gujarat, reportedly by workers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [a radical Hindu organization]. The VHP is close to the BJP. Don't you think such incidents will make it difficult for Indian Muslims to develop faith in the BJP?
Laxman: I don't approve of these kinds of incidents [retaliatory attacks on Muslims]. Even if one incident occurs, it's unfortunate and it should be condemned. On the other hand, an atmosphere of greater amity prevails now. Where 10 Surats used to take place earlier, today only one Surat has happened. Even that one should be wiped out.

TIME: The Muslim community has also been singled out for harboring Pakistani spies by a Shiv Sena [a militant Hindu party] member of parliament, though in the past more non-Muslims have been arrested for spying.
Laxman: Look here, if one or two people make such statements that are not based on reality, it's an aberration. I don't think it needs serious attention.

TIME: Would you say that the question of loyalty to India, something that has often been brought up in the past to attack Muslims, is no longer an issue? Do you believe that India's Muslims are loyal to the country?
Laxman: They are. That feeling is becoming increasingly evident. Even in the Kashmir Valley today militant organizations are not able to attract local people. The way Muslim brethren also condemned the Kashmir massacre goes to prove that what is being attributed to them is not correct.

TIME: At the same time a Muslim organization in your home state, Andhra Pradesh, is charged with engineering bomb blasts at the behest of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
Laxman: That's different. They [the ISI] are trying to involve some Muslim youthŠ but the [Indian] government is busting any such plans.

TIME: A development in the last two years has been the attack on Christians throughout the country.
Laxman: I don't know why this has received so much publicity. Every instance has been blown out of proportion [by the media]. For instance, in Agra, if a principal's house is attacked or he is stabbed with the simple motive of robbery, the next day it appears [in the newspapers] that a Christian was attacked.

TIME: But there's no denying that the attacks on Christians have increased in recent years.

Laxman: Robberies don't have a religious connotation. It happens to everyone, but if it involves a Christian then it occupies a place [in the media]. I'm not supporting these attacks; I condemn them. But they have been blown out of proportion in such a way that it has unnecessarily tarnished India's image internationally.


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