asghar-ali-engineer"Bewildingerly diverse" is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.

Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai's Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I've transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post. (Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)

What is the role of communalism in Indian elections?

"The BJP bases its whole politics around accusations that Congress uses Muslims as vote banks and does a lot of favours for them. 'The Muslims vote for Congress and we are against vote bank politics,' that's what they claim. But the BJP itself is basing its politics on Hindu vote banks, (especially) certain castes among Hindus, particularly the upper castes. But when they saw that upper class support cannot put them into power in Delhi, they widened their circle and tried to include some OBC (Other Backward Class) Hindus. Many OBC leaders have become militant Hindu leaders. They are more militant than the upper-class leaders. They see this as the only way to carve out their niche in upper-class politics. Dalits are lower than the OBC. Dalits generally vote for secular parties. Most used to vote for Congress, but now many caste parties have come into existence -- for example, (the Dalit politician) Mayawati. She's also widening her political base by including the upper class.

mayawati So are the politicians mostly to blame for using "wedge issues" between religious and ethnic communities to mobilise their voters? (Photo: Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, 9 August 2008/Pawan Kumar)

"Left to themselves, there would be no tension (between communities). But politicians have to face so many elections -- municipal, panchayat, state assembly, parliament - and during all these elections, identity has become important. Since the late 1980s, the Indian population has been polarised like never before. During all those years Congress was ruling, it was a sort of umbrella organisation trying to carry certain castes and communities with it. But not all castes and communities were getting justice, so other parties came into existence. You see it's 60 years of our democracy and each election brings more and more political awareness among the people ... All politicians make promises to Christians, to Dalits, etc. When the promises are not fulfilled, then some regional parties come into existence."