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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 communised 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.
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.