As the north-western districts of Uttar Pradesh with a high Muslim population vote on Tuesday, the minorities decided that staying away from controversies and maintaining silence should decree the electorate’s behaviour. Accordingly, the past few weeks have not heard edicts coming from the clergy or announcements from the mosques. Even a person as influential as Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, who helms the Barelvi religious sect of Sunni Muslims and is the great-grandson of Ahmed Raza Khan, the founder of the Barelvi movement, said nothing. Based in Bareilly that votes today, Khan did not use the veto power that he exercised during an election.
Muslim candidates and their cheerleaders were advised not to raise potentially contentious issues such as the ban on beef sale and consumption in their speeches. The ‘secular’ gamut, consisting of the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Congress, deliberately highlighted the ‘lead’ role played by their local Hindu leaders in supporting Muslim candidates so that electioneering did not come across as sectarian. These were some of the countervailing measures adopted by community heads and the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Opposition to try and neutralise the BJP’s charge that they were out to appease the minorities.
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Murtaza Iqbal, an Urdu scholar in Moradabad, said, “For us, this is a landmark election. The verdict can go any way but we have to exercise our right through the ballot.” In Moradabad, where the SP-BSP-RLD gathbandhan (alliance) candidate is a local doctor ST Hasan, the Congress has also fielded a Muslim, Imran Pratapgarhi, a poet from the Awadh region, whose late-night recitals were a hit.
Chand Khan, a BSP sympathiser and a travel agent, admitted, “In their heart of hearts, Moradabadis instinctively like the Congress. Remember how they voted as one for Azhar (former cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin in 2009)? But this time, more critical considerations are at work. We have suffered under the (Narendra) Modi and Yogi Adityanath regimes. For the period when Navratra was on and Hindus fasted, our meat trade closed. We can’t sell or eat meat. Hotels that serve non-vegetarian fare either shut or dished out ‘puri-aloo’ for which there were few takers. All the abattoirs in Moradabad have closed. The closest is in Sambhal (37 km away). Meat that was selling for Rs 120 a kilo goes for Rs 220. The BJP spares no occasion to insult us. On the day of Holi this year - that was on a Friday - there was an official order from Lucknow to wrap up the Juma Namaz by early noon. We have to vote with great care and not waste the opportunity on a poet.”
Between the lines, what emerged was the gathbandhan seemed better positioned than the Congress to take on the BJP wherever both put up Muslim contenders. “We cannot overlook the Dalit and Yadav votes that the BSP and SP command. In 2014 and 2017, I agree 10 or 20 percent might have gone to the BJP in the ‘Modi wave’. This time the votes are intact. The BJP is trying to polarise the election along religious lines. But how did the Congress win Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan without the Hindu votes? My point is not every Hindu is a BJP voter,” said Akbar Masood, who was associated with Rampur’s Mohammad Ali Jauhar University of which SP leader Azam Khan is the Chancellor. Khan is the gathbandhan candidate from Rampur against film actor, Jaya Prada, contesting this time from the BJP.
Is the BJP’s assumption valid, that in the end, the SP’s Yadavs and the BSP’s Dalits will shed their caste allegiances and vote as “Hindus” for Modi? Ashok Yadav, a former Border Security Force employee who sold agricultural implements in Asmoli (Sambhal Lok Sabha), emphasised he would vote Shafiqur Rahman Barq, the gathbandhan candidate from the SP. “There’s no Hindu-Muslim division. You might see a bit of it in the towns where Yadavs and Dalits are employed by high caste traders and have to obey their diktats, but it’s absent in the villages. For us, the damage caused by demonetisation is the big issue. In the previous hot season, the sale of hand pumps in my shop peaked Rs 70,000 in a day. This time, the maximum I have earned is Rs 30,000,” rued Yadav.
At Barq’s home-cum-office in Sambhal town, Ziaur Rahman, the veteran’s grandson and representative, stressed that the thrust of their campaign was on note bandi (note ban) and its impact on farmers and micro and medium traders who formed the local economy’s spine. “Cows and buffaloes are not an issue for us. There are enough Hindu farmers who are troubled by the animals running wild. We don’t have to speak on the matter,” said Rahman.
When the dispute set off by Azam Khan’s scurrilous remarks on Jaya Prada got out of hand and resulted in a 72-hour ban on his campaign by the Election Commission, Khan’s associates wanted the SP to launch street protests in ‘solidarity’. The word from Lucknow was a firm no. Akhilesh Kumar Gangwar, the SP’s Rampur district chief, said, “We decided not to add to the controversy that the BJP milked for its benefit. Why play into its hands? The BJP has demonised Khan so much that Hindus are afraid to meet him.”
BSP president Mayawati’s call to Muslims at a rally in Deoband to not split their votes between the gathbandhan and the Congress and strengthen the BJP created a flutter down the line. “Our reflexes kicked in fast. We managed to deflect attention from her statement and explained why it was imperative for the parties to come together. Our stress was on the economy and development and not anything else,” said Ikram Qureshi, the SP’s Moradabad Rural legislator.