Shazia Ilmi – Why Her Exit is Such a Blow: Jyoti Punwani

Guest post by JYOTI PUNWANI

Shazia Ilmi’s exit marks a real blow for AAP supporters. Her frequent TV appearances as AAP spokesperson made her out to be an articulate, confident woman who didn’t need to assert her religious identity to prove a point, which is a rare thing in today’s politics. Her participation in the Anna andolan was as much a pointer to its inclusive nature as it was to the emergence of a new kind of Muslim in public life: one who had no hesitation plunging into a mass movement which had strong nationalist overtones, was avowedly against the political system and had little to do with minority concerns.

When Shazia almost won from Delhi’s R K Puram constituency, it suddenly came home – for the first time in years, a Muslim candidate had been fielded from a Hindu-dominated constituency, and the Hindus had voted for her. In Mumbai, a Muslim political activist who’s friendly with every political party, has for long told Shiv Sena leaders that the moment they field a Muslim from any of their strongholds, he would join them. “The ability to take the other community along, that’s the test of a secular politician,’’   a senior Congress Muslim in Nanded  told me, rueing the fact that Muslims who could do this were ignored by his leader Ashok Chavan (one of the two Congressmen to win in the state this time).

The Congress does not give Muslims tickets to stand from Hindu-dominated constituencies, on the grounds that they lack “winnability’’. This party, that defines itself as the `secular’ alternative to the BJP, and which continues to be seen as such by secular activists, has always believed that Hindus as a community will not vote for Muslims. Party leaders are unwilling to test this assumed prejudice and work to break it.  The few tickets it gives to Muslims, are from Muslim areas.  Wearing your religious identity on your sleeve becomes inevitable then, for these Muslim candidates. As it is, the kind of Muslim the Congress chooses as candidates, are anyway there only because they are Muslim. That’s their only qualification. The more steeped they are in their identity, the better – that’s the Congress formula to win Muslim (“secular’’) votes. As Muslim activists have long pointed out despairingly, the kind of Muslim projected by the Congress is unlikely to have a vision for the community. Even the seemingly modern Salman Khurshid didn’t.

What of the other ‘secular’ parties? The Samajwadi Party’s Muslim candidates (at least in Maharashtra) have been the kind from whom most educated Muslims prefer to keep their distance.  In Maharashtra, the NCP has a sizeable Muslim membership; however, its leadership is constantly sending mixed messages. Sharad Pawar has yet to live down his role as impassive onlooker during Mumbai’s 92-93 riots, despite having been sent by PM Narasimha Rao to the burning city to save it as Defence Minister. And before every general election, he makes it a point to flirt with the Shiv Sena-BJP, as he did this time. This might well be only to blackmail his ally, the Congress, but it certainly leaves the party’s Muslim cadre confused, to put it mildly.

Shazia Ilmi therefore was like a breath of fresh air. As it is, young educated Muslims were attracted to AAP. Shazia being one of its prominent faces made them so proud. She represented everything they wanted to be known for, unlike the Muslim leaders in the Congress, NCP and SP, who they were ashamed to describe as their leaders.   That is why they were so disappointed when she made that “Muslims must become communal’’ remark in Mumbai, on the eve of the Mumbai election. The bunch of people whom she chose to say this to are totally discredited as Congress dalals. So low is their stock in the city that when they called a press conference in April to tell Muslims to vote for the Congress, so that the “secular vote is not divided’’, Muslims in the audience booed them.

These elections posed a real dilemma to many Muslims. Instinctively attracted to AAP like so others, they still wondered whether a vote for AAP would defeat Modi. Had Shazia tried to persuade such Muslims to trust her party to deliver them from vote bank politics, had she interacted with the numerous grass-root community activists who flocked to AAP, she would have actually strengthened her party. But she chose to waste an evening with self-proclaimed community leaders and ruined her  image with her careless remark.

When the election campaign started, it became common knowledge that AAP had dealt unfairly with one of its valuable assets by denying Shazia a Delhi ticket. Despite that, she fought gamely from Ghaziabad and campaigned for other AAP candidates. Why then did she leave at this stage, when the chips were down? The reasons she has given do have substance in them, as AAP activists will admit in private, but hasn’t she dealt the party she helped form and to which she contributed so much, a terrible blow?  Where does her exit leave the thousands of supporters of AAP, Muslims specially, who looked up to her?

11 thoughts on “Shazia Ilmi – Why Her Exit is Such a Blow: Jyoti Punwani”

  1. Shazia’s two specifics criticisms were lack of intra party democracy and a propensity for sensationalism.

    AAP hasn’t had the time to set up an organization. Intra-party democracy and more importantly a democratic process for selecting candidates are important. I am sure AAP will implement both of them soon.

    When does campaigning end and sensationalism begin. Calling out the corruption of Nitin Gadkari, Salman Khurshid, Robert Vadra through press conferences can be called sensationalism. Protesting inaction of police officers can also be called sensationalism.

    When you are a small party, you have the ability to respond faster, use guerilla tactics If there is an underlying issue that requires addressing, you need to act. When you are a poor party representing the poor people, you cannot expect media to oblige.

    Shazia also opposes Arvind not having taken bail. If not for Arvind’s principled stand I would not have known that 67% of India’s prisoners are under trials, not yet declared as guilty by court. I would not have known that accused are harassed in courts routinely by having them appear each time the case is taken, even though it’s not required by law.

    So long as AAP keeps highlighting the plight of the common man, and fight for their problems there will always be a space for AAP. Shazia’s point about intra-party democracy is an issue, and I am sure the party is aware of it. Having faced with the task of contesting national elections with very little time to prepare, AAP took the smart decision of contesting maximum number of seats, getting name recognition and leaders for it all around the country.

    Now it’s time for AAP to build an organization and establish intra-party democracy and a democratic way of selecting candidates. It can even be modeled like the primaries in US.


  2. It is the same identity politics that you are loathe you do not seem to unwittingly agree to.Ilmi represented a minority community and in that was her perceived strength.But does anyone qualify to fully represent the Muslim voter.He or she is like any other Hindu and with similar aspirations and divided.He is an individual too, beyond that kind of polarised politics.
    Secondly, Ilmi lost and not almost won.Is that some kind of new positivist, gender-sensitive motivational writing for a fallen sisterThirdly,she having lost the Assembly Elections was prompt to seek Lucknow MP seat and got Gaziabad instead.Now it is not very important to me whether that was wrong or right.I would like to understand did it represent an ambition that lusted for power quickly and come what may!?In that she was a modern woman and entitled like all self seeking men.I am okay with it.Provided, she and her fans recognise this rather human frailty.Ornating such tastes for the good and nice as forward looking and developmental ,least of all as people-friendly is a travesty.
    AAP and Ilmi are the new carpetbaggers who would like to make a quick buck while riding on the shoulders of an angry and damned society at large.The honest and sincere are but few.Power they seek and wish to seize at any cost.Methods constitutional, agitational, non violent(whatever that means) may be adopted.What gets illegal in the meanwhile is known only to them.1789,!917,1939 are dates that may mislead them to believe that history is on their side.But without a party, ideology, organisation and a mass of people committed to it they shall have to bear the burden of having to answer why it is that they failed the ‘cursed” when they had had their trust.
    I am a lotus- eater and have plenty to be amused with.I shall continue commenting while All of us make the Red fort burn.In a manner of speaking…


  3. AAP has lost nothing because of these exits. Anything that curved its niche in history had to suffer from autocracy or had been blessed by autocracy. When someone leaves it, it is because of lack of personality, courage, will and energy to establish his/her on points.
    Organisations that curved its niche in history had to suffer from autocracy or had the blessings of autocracy.


  4. No truly secular person will say that only a muslim candidate (and nothing less) will be able to look after those citizens who are muslim by faith. You are mixing matters of faith with secular matters such as governance. If a common man can understand this, and so can most ordinary AAP workers, then surely I expect better from intellectuals who write in these columns.


  5. To suggest that Muslims “look up to” Shazia is a bit far fetched. APP despite all its rant is a party that believes in the notion of a good-capitalist-can-do-wonders. Shazia is not different from them. While AAP may have lost a good leader in Shazia but Muslims have not. It is unfortunate that the writer is tying up the fate of an entire community to a cheer leader of Corporate driven economy. This is a new low for Kafila that is known for its sincerity!

    Imtiaz Akhtar.


  6. With all due respect to Miss Punwani, she has treated Shazia Ilmi with kid gloves. The following statement is particularly surprising:
    “When the election campaign started, it became common knowledge that AAP had dealt unfairly with one of its valuable assets by denying Shazia a Delhi ticket.”
    How can it be called “unfair” when all major AAP leaders preferred to put themselves on the line rather than contest from the ‘safe’ Delhi seats, the most prominent examples being Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav? With the example set by these leaders, when one sees a Shazia Ilmi trying hard for a New Delhi ticket, she comes across as not quite in the same league as the others as a fighter who is ready to put her neck on the line. To put it mildly, by trying for a safe ticket, she came across as unworthy of a major leadership role in the AAP.
    Moreover, I feel Miss Punwani is mistaken when she talks of the “thousands of AAP supporters, especially Muslims, who look up to her.” The Muslim supporters, like their non-Muslims counterparts, see the likes of Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav as those who inspire confidence. I doubt whether Shazia Ilmi would figure so high in the list of people they look up to, or the level of significance her persona had in many educated Muslims looking up to AAP.
    I have always looked forward to reading Miss Punwani’s articles, but this one was disappointing.


  7. Punwani’s article singing praises of Shazia Ilmi as one of the best secular Muslim politicians among all parties in today’s murky politics sounds very strange. Punwani has carried her sisterhood sympathies too far. Ilmi is a good social activist but currently she lacks the stamina for real struggle, sacrifice and perseverance for alternative politics that entails much hardship. She is a “silk stocking” activist who drives a mercedes car and lives in a posh house. Compare her intellectual abilities and her ctivism record with other high profile AAP people eg: AK, Yadav, Bhushan, Sisodia, Vishwas Kumar, Medha Patkar, Anjali sanyal, Anjali Damania, Kanchan Bhattacharya, Rajmohan Gandhi, Ashish Khetan, Phulka, Udaykumar. She simply does not compare. She was a prominent AAP leader prior to December 2013 when AAP was small and confined to Delhi. As AAP has grown and has attracted many good activists with solid social activism and intellectual background, there is a competition for leadership in AAP. Only those who make substantial contribution will come up in the top ranks of leadership. In this democratic tussle Shazia is finding herself not very high and is frustrated. The remedy lies in her working harder to contribute more quality stuff and not be a cry baby all the time. While other senior AAP leaders agreed to contest parliamentary election from outside Delhi, she looked for a sdafe seat. Ghaziabad was a good seat for her as it is only a outer suburb of Delhi where Delhi TV channels are always seen. In the polling she placed 5th in Ghaziabad. Previously she lost in the Delhi state election from RK Puram – her home constituency. In the parliamentary election she played on both sides of the religiious divide; first she prayed at a Hindu temple and got her photo of that event displayed; then in Mumbai she told a Muslim community meeting to be “more communal”. Indeed with these actions she put AAP in a tough spot to face many questions from the media and public. It is very strange that the same media that was then demanding that AAP sack Shazia is now exploiting her leaving AAP to blast AAP.

    For Punwani to say that Shazia comes with support from the Muslim community is a height of imagination. Is the Muslim community so dumb that any Muslim candidate who appears secular will get their support without the candidate giving any demonstration of their abilities and contribution. It made me laugh when Punwani said that even Salman Khurshid does not qualify for the august position of being a secular Muslim politician. Also Punwani went just too far in saying that no Muslim candidate of Congress, SP, BSP is really secular; that they all are tainted with the “Muslim color”. Look around and you will find many. Some of Shazia’s criticisms of AAP’s tactics are what some other AAP leaders have also pointed out. Indeed in recent weeks Yadav discussed Shazia’s comments with her in detail and asked her to put it up in the AAP national committee meeting due in the next few days. But she chose to resign and create a media sensation to draw attention to herself. Indeed with her cry baby tactics Shazia is constantly demanding attention and for her suggestions to be accepted as AAP policies. She forgets that now AAP has about two dozen real luminaries with real record and real abilities.

    Shazia pooh poohing AK’s struggle against the misinterpretation of the law that demands anyone who identifies corrupt politicians shows her lack of stamina to struggle against common injustice to the aam aadmis. Ask the millions of “under-trials” who are in jail because of spurious charges and who lack the ability to give even a Rs 1,000 bond. Is that not high injustice that AAP should struggle against? Indeed this 1880 British law has since been abrogated by the parliament in UK. Why are Indian courts slavishly still following this miinterpretation?

    Finally knowing that AAP is going through hard times presently and under much pressure from the new BJP govt and media where was the wisdom and sincerity in resigning from AAP. Other than providing more fuel to AAP’s critics. Why is Shazia asking for special treatment?


  8. “No truly secular person will say that only a muslim candidate (and nothing less) will be able to look after those citizens who are muslim by faith.”-KK.
    I agree. I was reporting what Muslims feel about those who are chosen by parties like the Congress to represent them.
    “For Punwani to say that Shazia comes with support from the Muslim community is a height of imagination.” Kaleem Khwaja.
    I didn’t say Shazia “came” with Muslim support. She was one of AAP’s prominent faces who inspired AAP’s Muslim supporters. Pointing that out doesn’t negate the appeal other AAP leaders had. Had she not been there, Muslim support for AAP would still have remained. Her being there was a bonus.


  9. I am still unsure about the point you are trying to drive here. I believe most of the muslim and non muslim supporters alike supported the AAP because of the ideology and not because of the people involved. Agreed, its good to look up to someone in the party who brings about a fresh vibrancy given their religious backgrounds, but then if that’s the only reason behind rendering support its a sad thing. Having said that, I completely agree with the reasons cited by Ms. Ilmi for her resignation. If the AAP can go about conducting referendums for taking decisions, I believe they should start at the party level first. The party lacks a certain system / organization. I believe most people who believed in the cause and the leader are now losing interest because of the haphazard manner in which the party has gone about doing things. They really need to sort things out before they garner support again !


    1. As Muslims constitute about 15% of the country’s population and quite a few Muslims are politically active, it is natural that in every significant party (except BJP, Shiv Sena who are distinctly anti- Muslim) about 10% members/leaders should be Muslim. Secular parties that allow this to happen are neither indulging in a favour nor in vote bank politics; they are just being fair. When a party does not allow its loyalist Muslim activists to rise to the rank of senior leaders, due to their fear that the majority Hindus will see it as “appeasement of Muslims”, they are being unfair. This has happened in several secular parties. Thus a few Muslims should be among leaders and senior leaders in AAP. Yet they have to contribute comparable to other senior leaders to get attention and have their voices heard in policy making. Shazia had the advantage of joining IAC early on and making good contribution both in IAC and AAP. Thus she became visible as a senior AAP leader. Mrs Parveen Amanullah, former minister in Nitsh-JDU Bihar cabinet resigned from that position and joined AAP in January and contested on AAP ticket from Patna. She did not receive significant visibility either in AAP or media. Also another 4 or 5 Muslims political activists contested the Delhi election (eg Irfanullah in Okhala, Delhi) on AAP ticket and elsewhere. They also did not receive visibility in AAP or media. After watching AAP for some time the Muslim community did become a supporter of AAP in the parliamentary election in several cities where they thought AAP could stop the BJP or Shiv Sena candidate. In many cities in the states AAP candidates were very weak, hence Muslims voted for non-Muslim secular candidates of other parties. Punwani is right in saying that it is natural that Muslims who are supporting AAP try to see if AAP has given visibility to some Muslim candidates. Granted that many Hindu political activists do speak for Muslims, yet it is human nature that one wants to see a few of his kind in the leadership ranks of the party that he is voting for. I wish Shazia Ilmi had demonstrated more patience and perseverance with the AAP senior leadership that is going through a lot of stress at this time. AAP leadership is bound to streamline many aberrations that have occurred in the last few months.


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