Four months before the Uttar Pradesh election results sent Muslims in India reeling in shock, former Rajya Sabha MP Mohammed Adeeb delivered a speech in Lucknow, which, in hindsight, might be called prescient.
“If Muslims don’t wish to have the status of slaves, if they don’t want India to become a Hindu rashtra, they will have to keep away from electoral politics for a while and, instead, concentrate on education,” Adeeb told an audience comprising mostly members of the Aligarh Muslim University’s Old Boys Association.
It isn’t that Adeeb wanted Muslims to keep away from voting. His aim was to have Muslim intellectuals rethink the idea of contesting elections, of disabusing them of the notion that it is they who decide which party comes to power in Uttar Pradesh.
Adeeb’s suggestion, that is contrary to popular wisdom, had his audience gasping. This prompted him to explain his suggestion in greater detail.
“We Muslims chose in 1947 not to live in the Muslim rashtra of Pakistan,” he said. “It is now the turn of Hindus to decide whether they want India to become a Hindu rashtra or remain secular. Muslims should understand that their very presence in the electoral fray leads to a communal polarisation. Why?”
Not one to mince words, Adeeb answered his question himself.
“A segment of Hindus hates the very sight of Muslims,” he said. “Their icon is Narendra Modi. But 75% of Hindus are secular. Let them fight out over the kind of India they want. Muslim candidates have become a red rag to even secular Hindus who rally behind the Bharatiya Janata Party, turning every election into a Hindu-Muslim one.”
Later in the day, Adeeb met Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was in Lucknow. To Adeeb, Azad asked, “Why did you deliver such a speech?”
It was now Azad’s turn to get a mouthful from Adeeb. He recalled asking Azad: “What kind of secularism is that which relies on 20% of Muslim votes? The Bahujan Samaj Party gets a percentage of it, as do the Samajwadi Party and the Congress.”
At this, Azad invited Adeeb, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, to join the Congress. Adeeb rebuffed the offer saying, “First get the secular Hindus together before asking me to join.”
Spectre of a Hindu rashtra
A day after the Uttar Pradesh election results sent a shockwave through the Muslim community, Adeeb was brimming with anger. He said, “Syed Ahmed Bukhari [the so-called Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid] came to me with a question: ‘Why aren’t political parties courting me for Muslim votes?’ I advised him to remain quiet, to not interfere in politics.” Nevertheless, Bukhari went on to announce that Muslims should vote the Bahujan Samaj Party.
“Look at the results,” Adeeb said angrily. “But for Jatavs, Yadavs, and a segment of Jats, most Hindus voted [for] the Bharatiya Janata Party.” His anger soon segued into grief and he began to sob, “I am an old man. I don’t want to die in a Hindu rashtra.”
Though Adeeb has been nudging Muslims to rethink their political role through articles in Urdu newspapers, the churn among them has only just begun. It is undeniably in response to the anxiety and fear gripping them at the BJP’s thumping victory in this politically crucial state.
After all, Uttar Pradesh is the site where the Hindutva pet projects of cow-vigilantism, love jihad, and ghar wapsi have been executed with utmost ferocity. All these come in the backdrop of the grisly 2013 riots of Muzaffarnagar, which further widened the Hindu-Muslim divide inherited from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1990s and even earlier, from Partition. Between these two cataclysmic events, separated by 45 years, Uttar Pradesh witnessed manifold riots, each shackling the future to the blood-soaked past.
I spoke to around 15 Muslims, not all quoted here, each of whom introspected deeply. So forbidding does the future appear to them that none even alluded to the steep decline in the number of Muslim MLAs, down from the high of 69 elected in 2012 to just 24 in the new Uttar Pradesh Assembly.
A relative holds a photograph of Mohammad Akhlaq in the village of Bisada near Delhi. Akhlaq was lynched by a mob in September 2015 after rumours that he had eaten beef. (Photo credit: AFP).
They, in their own ways, echoed Adeeb, saying that the decline in representation of Muslims was preferable to having the Sangh Parivar rule over them with the spectre of Hindutva looming.
“Muslims need to become like the Parsis or, better still, behave the way the Chinese Indians do in Kolkata,” said poet Munawwar Rana. “They focus on dentistry or [their] shoe business, go out to vote on polling day and return to work.”
He continued: “And Muslims?” They hold meetings at night, cook deghs (huge vessels) of biryani, and work themselves into a frenzy. “They think the burden of secularism rests on their shoulders,” said Rana. “Educate your people and make them self-reliant.”
Readers would think Adeeb, Rana and others are poor losers, not generous enough to credit the BJP’s overwhelming victory in Uttar Pradesh to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development programme. In that case readers should listen to Sudhir Panwar, the Samajwadi Party candidate from Thana Bhawan in West Uttar Pradesh, who wrote for Scroll.in last week on the communal polarisation he experienced during his campaign.
In Thana Bhawan, there were four principal candidates – Suresh Rana, accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, stood on the BJP ticket; Javed Rao on the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s; Abdul Rao Waris on the Bahujan Samaj Party’s, and Panwar on the Samajwadi Party’s. It was thought that the anger of Jats against the BJP would prevent voting on religious lines in an area where the Muslim-Hindu divide runs deep.
This perhaps prompted Rana to play the Hindu card, and the Muslims who were more inclined to the Rashtriya Lok Dal switched their votes to the Bahujan Samaj Party, believing that its Dalit votes would enhance the party’s heft to snatch Thana Bhawan.
Sample how different villages voted along communal lines.
In the Rajput-dominated Hiranwada, the Bahujan Samaj Party bagged 14 votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal not a single vote, the Samajwadi Party seven, and the Bharatiya Janata Party a whopping 790.
In Bhandoda, a village where the Brahmins are landowners and also dominate its demography, followed by Dalits, the Bahujan Samaj Party secured 156 votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal zero, the Samajwadi Party nine, and the Bharatiya Janata Party 570.
In the Muslim-dominated Jalalabad, the Bahujan Samaj Party received 453 votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal 15, the Samajwadi Party 6 and the Bharatiya Janata Party 23.
In Pindora, where Jats are 35% and Muslims around 30% of the population, the Bahujan Samaj Party polled 33 votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal 482, the Samajwadi Party 33, and the Bharatiya Janata Party 278, most of which is said to have come from the lower economically backward castes.
In Devipura, where the Kashyaps are numerous, the Bahujan Samaj Party got 86 votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal 42, the Samajwadi Party 1 and the Bharatiya Janata Party 433.
In Oudri village, where the Jatavs are in the majority, the Bahujan Samaj Party bagged 343 votes, the Rashtriya Lok Dal 15, the Samajwadi Party 12, and the Bharatiya Janata Party 22.
This voting pattern was replicated in village after village. Broadly, the Jat votes split between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Muslim votes consolidated behind the Bahujan Samaj Party, with the Samajwadi Party getting a slim share in it, the Jatavs stood solidly behind the Bahujan Samaj Party, and all others simply crossed over to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP’s Suresh Rana won the election from Thana Bhawan.
“Can you call this election?” asked Panwar rhetorically. “It is Hindu-Muslim war through the EVM [Electronic Voting Machine].” Panwar went on to echo Adeeb: “I feel extremely sad when I say that Muslims will have to keep away from contesting elections. This seems to be the only way of ensuring that elections don’t turn into a Hindu-Muslim one.”
The Bahujan Samaj Party’s Waris differed. “Is it even practical?” he asked. “But yes, Muslims should keep a low profile.”
Hindu anger against Muslims
For sure, Muslims feel that the binary of secularism-communalism has put them in a bind. Lawyer Mohd Shoaib, who heads the Muslim Rihai Manch, pointed to the irony of it. “For 70 years, we Muslims have fought against communalism,” he said. “But it has, nevertheless, grown by 70 times.”
Indeed, those with historical perspective think Uttar Pradesh of 2017 mirrors the political ambience that existed there between 1938 and 1946 – a seemingly unbridgeable Hindu-Muslim divide, a horrifyingly communalised public discourse, and a contest for power based on mobilisation along religious lines.
Among them is Mohammad Sajjad, professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University. “The 69 MLAs in the last Assembly was bound to, and did, raise eyebrows,” he said.
But what irks Hindus even more is that Muslims constitute nearly one-third of all members in panchayats and local urban bodies. “It is they who have become a sore point with Hindus,” said Sajjad. “When they see Muslim panchayat members become examples of the rags-to-riches story, the majority community feels aggrieved. It is not that Hindu panchayat members are less corrupt. But every third panchayat member being Muslim has given credibility to the narrative that Muslims are being favoured.”
The Hindu angst against Muslim empowerment is also on account of both the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party being popularly perceived to be indifferent to the aspirations of certain subaltern social groups. For instance, it is this indifference that has led to non-Jatav Dalits and most backward castes, clubbed under the Other Backward Classes for reservations, to leave the Bahujan Samaj Party, as non-Yadav middle castes have left the Samajwadi Party. They did so in response to Mayawati turning hers into primarily the party of Jatavs, and the Samajwadi Party pursuing the Yadavisation of the administration.
“These aspirational Hindu groups are angry with the SP [Samajwadi Party] and the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party],” said Sajjad. “Their anger against them also turned into anger against Muslims.” This is because it is popularly felt that the support of Muslims to the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party brings them to power, turning these parties callously indifferent to the aspirations of other groups.
It is to neutralise the efficacy of Muslim votes, and also to teach their parties of choice a lesson, that these aspirational groups have flocked to the BJP. “This is why the very presence of Muslims in the political arena has become problematic for Hindus,” Sajjad said.
So then, should Muslims take Adeeb’s cue and retreat from the political arena or at least keep a low profile?
Sajjad replied, “Go ahead and vote the party of your choice. But after that, play the role of a citizen. If people don’t get electricity, protest with others. You can’t be forgiving of those for whom you voted only because they can keep the BJP out of power. This is what angers aspirational Hindu social groups.”
Indeed, it does seem a travesty of justice and democracy that Muslims should rally behind the Samajwadi Party in Muzaffarnagar after the riots there. Or that they voted for the Bahujan Samaj Party in Thana Bhawan in such large numbers even though Mayawati didn’t even care to visit the Muslim families who suffered unduly during the riots.
Introspection and self-criticism
Like Sajjad’s, most narratives of Muslims have a strong element of self-criticism. Almost all vented their ire against Muslim clerics. Did they have to direct Muslims which party they should vote for? Didn’t they know their recklessness would trigger a Hindu polarisation?
Unable to fathom their irresponsible behaviour, some plump for conspiracy theories. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise to hear Obaidullah Nasir, editor of the Urdu newspaper Avadhnama, say, “They take money from the Bharatiya Janata Party to create confusion among Muslims. I got abused for writing this. But how else can you explain their decision to go public with their instructions to Muslims?”
Poet Ameer Imam, who teaches in a college in the Muslim-dominated Sambhal constituency, said, “Muslims will have to tell the maulanas that their services are required in mosques, not in politics. When Muslims applaud their rabble rousers, can they complain against those in the BJP?”
To this, add another question: When Mayawati spoke of Dalit-Muslim unity, didn’t Muslims think it would invite a Hindu backlash?
Most will assume, as I did too, that Muslims fear the communal cauldron that Uttar Pradesh has become will be kept on the boil. But this is not what worries them. Not because they think the Bharatiya Janata Party in power will change its stripes, but because they fear Muslims will feel so cowered that they will recoil, and live in submission. “Our agony arises from being reduced to second-class citizens, of becoming politically irrelevant,” said journalist Asif Burney.
True, members of the Muslim community are doing a reality-check and are willing to emerge from the fantasy world in which they thought that they decided which party won an election. The Uttar Pradesh results have rudely awakened them to the reality of being a minority, of gradually being reduced to political insignificance, and their status as an equal citizen – at least in their imagination – challenged and on the way to being undermined.
But this does not mean they wish to enter yet another world of fantasy, which journalist and Union minister MJ Akbar held out to them in the piece he penned for the Times of India on March 12. Akbar wrote,
“…[T]his election was not about religion; it was about India, and the elimination of its inherited curse, poverty. It was about good governance.”
One of those whom I spoke to laughed uproariously on hearing me repeat Akbar’s lines. So you can say that with them believing their future is darkled, Muslims at least haven’t lost their humour.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.