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Desperately Seeking Leaders who Dare say ‘Muslim’

The community seeks stronger affinities with other disadvantaged groups as Opposition parties take their votes for granted.
indian muslims

Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Flickr

The roughly 20% Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh has always played a significant role in the hurly-burly of politics. The most populous state also holds the key to 80 Lok Sabha seats, which makes its electoral battles especially uproarious. But the dawn of Hindutva in 2014 at the Centre, followed by Yogi Adityanath becoming Chief Minister in 2017, has proved politically costly for Muslims. The community has repeatedly been placed in the eye of political storms, which has shrunk their political choices and made life more insecure. 

To be fair, Muslims have been among the least privileged and most neglected and disadvantaged among social groups in Uttar Pradesh for a long time. It’s a national phenomenon, made worse by the higher relative poverty and backwardness of Uttar Pradesh. For instance, according to the AISHE survey 2020-21, across India, Muslims have the lowest gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 8.9% in higher education institutions among all communities. The national average is 27.3%. In Uttar Pradesh, this figure is 5.43% for Muslim students at the higher education level. Other surveys have also established Muslims as the religious group with the lowest asset and consumption levels in India.

As their conditions worsen, in the run-up to the 2024 general election, the beleaguered Muslims are anxious about securing a dignified future in India and apprehensive about losing constitutional protections as a minority religious group. The reason is the persistent attacks on their lives and livelihoods and the enactment of discriminatory laws that target their ways of life and develop a sense of insecurity.

With the rise of Hindutva nationalist politics, the political representation of Muslims began falling at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh. A contributory factor was the Opposition parties shying away from fielding Muslim candidates, taking their votes for granted in a polarised political environment. It has been their complaint that the Congress party, despite its national heft, and the Uttar Pradesh-centred Samajwadi Party, which has counted on them in every electoral contest since 1993, evades addressing issues that concern the Muslims. 

The silence, some have argued, arises from the fear that speaking out will polarise the non-Muslim voters and invite, against the party advocating for justice, the charge of Muslim appeasement.

But even the grand old party has kowtowed to soft Hindutva even as it tries to rejuvenate itself with the support of Muslim and Dalit voters after three decades without power in Uttar Pradesh.

Ironically, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that most often makes overt appeals for Muslim votes, such as the Prime Minister’s recent appeals for pasmanda and Sufi support. Due to the attacks on their livelihoods, the Muslims, however, see these expressions of affection as eyewash. They believe the saffron party wishes to widen the fault lines within Muslim communities to split their votes and thereby push them further towards political irrelevance.

Hammad Sheikh, a businessman based in Uttar Pradesh, says, “We want to live a dignified life like any other Indian, but incidents like the lynching of Muslims by cow vigilantes, attacks on mosques by Hindu fanatic groups during religious processions, and hate speeches by right-wing leaders humiliate us every day.”

Sheikh says the BJP’s attempts to ignite the flames of communalism as elections approach, such as by fanning “non-issues” like the latest so-called halal ban in Uttar Pradesh, are not lost on the general public or the Muslims. He says the Muslims expect the Congress party, the Samajwadi Party, and others to stick to secularism and social justice as their electoral planks. 

Muslims are also annoyed by news of “infighting” within the INDIA grouping and believe the Samajwadi Party and Congress should improve their relations so that Muslim voters are not split.

Computer operator Izhaar Ahmad Ansari notices growing ambiguity among Muslim voters. The reason is the apparent cracks in the Samajwadi Party-Congress relationship. “If they do not cement their political alliance in time and contest the election separately, the BJP will reap the dividends of the division of Muslim votes,” he says.

During the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in 2019-20, nearly 21 Muslims were killed by police bullets, though the state police rejected these charges and blamed the protesters for the firing. Several other Muslim protesters and social activists were jailed for protesting against the discriminatory citizenship laws.

Muslims were subject to a state crackdown; their properties were seized, and bulldozers razed their properties. But, say some Muslim residents of Uttar Pradesh, the main Opposition party, the Samajwadi Party, did not hit the roads in protest against the crackdown.

Now, many Muslims say they are looking for political leaders who would vocally speak for their rights from the streets to the floor of the legislative assembly.

They recall the founder of the Samajwadi Party, the late Mulayam Singh Yadav, who did not hesitate to support the cause of Muslim uplift and advancement. Senior lawyer Saqib Siddiqi says Akhilesh Yadav, the present Samajwadi Party president and Mulayam’s son, fears the loss of Hindu voters. “Akhilesh even avoids taking the name of our community (“Muslim”), though we played an instrumental role in making him the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2012.”

According to Siddiqi, the Opposition parties seek Muslim votes by creating fear in them of the BJP’s ascendence—but it does not dare mention issues like reservations in government jobs and educational institutions for Muslims or their political representation.

“If the Opposition’s strength in state assemblies and Parliament is low, why do its constituents not protest on roads when our houses are bulldozed and properties confiscated,” Siddiqi asks. It is a question that has been raised to the Samajwadi Party, Congress Party and even the Bahujan Samaj Party numerous times, but no convincing response has been forthcoming. Indeed, the silence of the parties that claim to represent the interests of the Muslim community invited a jibe from the Prime Minister, who once said they dared not mention the word “secularism” any longer.  

But political analyst Shaira Naim believes it is important to recall that not only the Muslim communities but all marginalised sections who feel oppressed and further sidelined in Uttar Pradesh. She says, “With the Constitution already threatened, if the BJP returns to power in 2024, it will change or diminish its ethos, and in the future, the Dalits and backward classes will also face agony with Muslims.” 

Naim believes all the Opposition should come together to protect India’s Constitution and social fabric.

There are also apprehensions that the BJP will raise the communitarian pitch to shriller notes in the coming days. According to Prof Nadeem Hasnain, former head of anthropology at Lucknow University, the halal row in Uttar Pradesh is just the beginning of many divisive issues gamed to polarise society before the crucial 2024 polls. He observes that in instances of anti-Muslim violence, secular governments hand out compensation cheques to the victims but try to shield an accused from the majority community from legal action. It is this protection from the law that creates a climate of impunity. “The Opposition must dare to take a stand for the oppressed communities, including the Muslims, and ensure they get justice,” he says.

One of the articles of faith of the BJP has been that it has provided benefits such as free rations, subsidised cooking gas cylinders and other services like help constructing homes and toilets for all residents, regardless of religion or caste. However, Prof Hasnain says very few Muslim beneficiaries of government schemes would vote for the BJP. There are BJP leaders with influence over Muslim voters, but the numbers are electorally insignificant. 

Hasnain also believes that the BJP’s Pasmanda card would fail among the Muslims, for they constitute not just the weakest sections among the Muslims but also the majority of victims of right-wing hate crimes. “Indeed, the secular parties did not do much for the Pasmanda, but at least they did not humiliate them. So, the Muslims will again go with them,” he says.

Reena, a domestic helper residing in Lucknow’s densely populated Muslim locality, recently received a cheque from the government on Deepawali for filling LPG. She says that several Muslim women also got such cheques, but it does not mean they gave their allegiance [votes] to the BJP. “Security for my children is more important than a cheque of any amount,” Reena explains.

College student Mohammad Talib says the BJP’s Muslim outreach and expressions of affection for underprivileged Muslims are limited to speeches or conferences. Contrary to its claims, the party follows the “Sangh playbook” and disempowers Muslims by assaulting their education system.

The Narendra Modi government scrapped the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF), which was significant for the higher education of six notified minority communities, including Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs. The majority of beneficiaries of MANF were Muslims. Not only this, the attack is also on primary education, as visible in the persistent crackdown on madrasas in BJP-ruled states.

But it is not lost on Talib that parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, which claim to be the flag-bearers of secularism, have no senior Muslim office-bearers in their organisations in Uttar Pradesh. 

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal. 

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