Inside the Mind of the Indian Muslim Voter

KHALEED RASHEED FARANGI MAHLI, one of Lucknow’s prominent clerics, has a message for the people of his community this election: go out and vote in large numbers. Self-confessedly averse to interfering in politics, Farangi Mahli, a religious scholar of Farangi Mahal, an area near Chowk in Uttar Pradesh’s capital city that had in the past hosted Mahatma Gandhi multiple times and was once home to many freedom fighters, avers that Islamophobia is on the rise in the country. His message to his comrades is loud and clear: just vote.

Farangi Mahal, also known as Firangi Mahal, has earned a place in history thanks to its contribution to Islamic learning in India and for its aggressive anti-British stance. Many of its resident scholars faced death for issuing fatwas against Englishmen. The old buildings here are slowly losing their grandeur due to poor maintenance, but its ulemas take pride in the fact that it still houses one of the best centres of Islamic learning, Islamic Centre of India. Its syllabus, the Dars-i Nizami system created by an 18th century cleric named Mulla Nizamuddin Muhammad Sihaalvi, is the gold standard for madrassa education across India and many parts of the world.

Muhammad Sihaalvi had spent 50 years of his life in Farangi Mahal. “We are proud of that heritage,” declares Khaleed Rasheed Farangi Mahli, who regrets that some forces are out there to curtail the freedom of religious practice in secular India. “Which is why voting in this election is very important,” he says without elaborating.

A few miles away, seated in a seminar room, Professor Qamar Iqbal of Lucknow University symbolises western education and adaptability, in stark contrast to the back alleys of Farangi Mahal that seem caught in a time warp. On his way to an academic meeting, this professor of Arabic shakes hands vigorously with a university colleague, introducing him as an RSS volunteer.

“That’s the beauty of India,” he states without the sense of foreboding that Muslims elsewhere in the country feel ever since Narendra Modi has come to power. Following Modi’s 2014 victory at the Centre, the loony Hindu fringe and even Sangh outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal felt emboldened into thrusting Hindu dietary habits on others and even targeted minorities for fatal attacks using a variety of reasons—for allegedly storing beef in a refrigerator (which later turned out to be mutton), for fictitious cases involving transporting cows for slaughter, and simply whims of mob fury. The fact that many of the attackers of Muslims and Dalits were allowed to walk away with impunity has added to the feeling of helplessness among those considered the ‘other’.

Professor Iqbal is concerned but has not lost hope. “This country will overcome all such odds,” he asserts, emphasising that in politics, since the days of the freedom movement, the heroes of the Muslims were not essentially from their community. “Maulana Azad was not the first leader of the Muslims even back then. Muslims always looked up to non-Muslims such as Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru for leadership,” the professor says and adds after a pause, “Even now, the trend isn’t different. They are finding leadership in non-Muslims.”

Scholars such as him, clerics like Khaleed Rasheed Farangi Mahli and others agree that the trust that the Muslims had in the Congress party has dissipated over the decades, especially due to a feeling that they are being used as mere vote banks and have gained neither socially or economically from the long political association. “This time, the grand alliance of BSP-SP is the first choice for a majority of UP’s Muslims,” says Iqbal. “Which means they are ready to give up their first choice [which may be to vote for one of their own] to keep the BJP out,” he notes.

The trend that Professor Iqbal points out is evident among voters of the community across the country that Open spoke to, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) combine has joined hands with the Jats-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) to offer a formidable grand coalition against the BJP that had won by a landslide in the general elections five years ago and in the 2017 Assembly election when both SP and BSP were rivals.

Mohammed Yaseen, a burly dhaba owner from the Mohanlalganj Lok Sabha seat of Uttar Pradesh, says repeatedly that the businesses of most traders irrespective of religion and caste are badly hit thanks to demonetisation, a 2016 decision by the Centre to make high-value denomination notes illegal. Seated on a charpoy, Yassen asserts vehemently, “I will look at the party, not the community of the candidate, and I will vote for the most winnable anti-BJP entity this time.”

Similar is the response of Bazaruddhin, a farmer from Bada Gaon of Dhaurahra constituency. He is frustrated that crops are being eaten away by cows on the rampage. For fear of mob lynching, several Muslims are staying away from the meat business, and cow shelters can no longer accommodate the cattle that roam free and cause destruction in the farms. Bazaruddhin, who has a sling on his arm and leg following an accident, confides that he has not enquired whether any Muslim is in the fray from his Lok Sabha seat. “My only aim is to keep the BJP out and my vote is for the Gathbandhan (grand alliance),” he says.

PROFESSOR IQBAL’S ASSESSMENTS find echo in far away Aligarh as well. In the bustling Muslim-dominated locality of Shahenshabad Chouraha, politics is on everyone’s mind. “Look at this place. There’s no proper road to reach here. The shortest route is by crossing the railway track,” laments Hassan, who runs a ration shop facing the railway track here.

According to him, most Muslims in Aligarh, where the community constitutes nearly 43 per cent of the population, are backing the SP-BSP-RLD alliance’s candidate Ajit Balyan, the subtext being voting for a candidate who has a better prospect of defeating BJP. Hassan says hopes of the people of Aligarh were high when the Modi Government identified it as one of the places to be developed as a Smart City, and then dashed when they saw no change in the years that followed. A post graduate with a BEd degree, he says lack of opportunities has pushed him to run a ration shop. “Private jobs here don’t pay well. Yes, national security is important but so is development,” he says.

Nearby, a group of locals, who gather around a cart selling spices, say they have never seen BJP MP Satish Gautam, renominated by the party to fight polls. But they do not agree on who is a better alternative—Balyan or Congress’ Bijendra Singh, both of whom are Jats. “The Congress is the best but to defeat Gautam people will vote for BSP’s candidate,” says Maulana Zaheed, an old man who describes himself as a social worker.

Not being able to vote for their first choice, but for the candidate with higher winnability against the BJP opponent makes even traditional voters of the Congress sit up and think.

Syeda Hameed, academic, women’s rights activist and Padma Shri recipient, invites Open to join scholars such as Azra Kidwai and Tazeen Mahmood who are concerned about the changes buffeting our society, including hate speech and the rise of anti- Muslim majoritarian nationalism. They are worried about the future of their grandchildren—and this time around they would like to see the Aam Admi Party (AAP) win the polls in the national capital.

“Insecurity to life and livelihood of whoever is opposed to the Hindu nationalist political project is in danger, and that includes Muslims,” notes Hameed, former member of the now- defunct Planning Commission. The others talk about how life has changed even for intellectuals who choose to speak truth to power. “It is a life and death situation for us,” Hameed adds. She and her friends are organising campaigns for AAP candidate Atishi who is contesting the polls from East Delhi.

The worry among Muslims, especially the well-off and intellectuals, is compounded by the decline in representation of Muslims in Parliament, as well as the timidity of mainstream parties to field Muslim candidates for fear of being branded pro-Muslim. Leaders of SP and BSP admit privately that pitching a large number of Muslim candidates—as they did in recent polls—has gone against them electorally.

Over the past few years, the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi has embarked on electoral campaigns that have made Muslims ‘invisible’, especially those in western and northern India. Senior Muslim leaders of the Congress even complain that nobody invites them for rallies and public appearances any longer. Paradoxically, the Rajinder Sachar panel that probed into the status of Muslims held a mirror to the economic suppression, social insecurity and alienation of Indian Muslims since Independence.

The assumption that Muslims of the country stood to gain from ‘appeasement’ by various political parties was laid to rest by that report in 2006—and later in the 2015 Action Taken Report by the Amitabh Kundu Committee, which observed that ‘available financial resources and physical targets have been meagre in relation to the deprivation of the minorities, especially Muslims, and for some of the schemes this meagre amount has not been fully utilised and this requires that allocation of resources to the Ministry of Minority Affairs be increased’.

With political parties treading cautiously to woo the majority vote, the dilemma of the Muslim voter seems to have only deepened. Former Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party’s leader Akhilesh Yadav, in the party’s vision document, has promised the creation of Ahir Armoured and Gujarat Infantry regiments in the army if it came to power, in an apparent bid to reach out to his Yadav support base. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, 27 per cent of Yadavs, the SP’s support base, had voted for BJP, according to a sample study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) . The survey also shows that 58 per cent of the Muslim vote had gone to SP, with Congress getting just 11 per cent.

With the Congress being seen as a party too debilitated to take on the BJP in UP, the choice has narrowed down to the Gathbandhan for Muslims who have decided to vote against the saffron party. Yet, there are those who have pledged their alliance to Congress. Mohammad Ayub, an unemployed middle-aged man, and Bahadur, a ward attendant, vouch for Congress’s Bijendra Singh, who had won the Aligarh seat in 2004. Across the road, in Jamalpur, a chemist Afzal Ahmed says the target of the Muslims in the area is largely to defeat BJP, but the Congress may also draw some of their votes.

True, political affinities tend to vary among Muslims, as Opendiscovered from various constituencies in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.

Friends Haseem Ahmed, a milk vendor, and Akbar Ali, a tailor, are residents of Begum Bagh, which falls in the Sitapur Lok Sabha seat where the Congress has fielded a Muslim candidate, Kaiser Jahan, who was formerly with the BSP, against BSP-SP’s Nakul Dubey. The duo are not worried about the split in Muslim votes, though. “We will vote for Jahan because she seems to be able to do something for us,” both say in unison.

Irfan Khan, who runs a dairy shop at Lohar Bagh of Sitapur Lok Sabha constituency and had last time voted for the BJP because he was carried away by the calls for change, is still confused. “This time I haven’t yet decided whom to vote for, but my vote is not for the BJP after all that they have done against Muslims,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sarvesh, a Muslim voter from Nivada village which falls in the Dhaurahra constituency, says that he doesn’t know who his candidates are. He would vote for the candidate his village elders choose. Lately, the village had voted overwhelmingly for BJP candidates.

Rizwan, a butcher from Kheri constituency, vows to vote for Congress’ Zafar Ali Naqvi, and not the Gathbandhan’s Poorvi Verma. “I am not looking at any split in Muslim votes. Why should I? I will vote for the candidate of my choice. Of course, Muslim votes may get split,” he says. Meanwhile, Mohammed Haroon, who runs an automotive workshop in Lakhimpur area of Kheri constituency, states that most Muslims in the area will vote tactically this time. “Gathbandhan is the choice for most of us because the BJP has not met any of its promises and is making lives miserable for us,” he claims.

IN MOHAMMADABAD VILLAGE of Kheri, there is still some camaraderie between Muslims and Yadavs. While some of the Muslim voters say they will vote for the Congress, others like Muneer Yadav and Isthakar Khan argue that they will vote against the BJP because there are no signs of development anywhere in sight. “The BJP has done nothing for us here,” says Isthakar Khan.

In Rasoolpur village of Bulandshahr, some Muslims sitting in a dhaba say the community had backed SP last time and this time it will vote for its candidate Yogesh Verma. The Jatavs and Muslims allege BJP MP Bhola Singh has never been seen around. An argument ensues. Pro-BJP voters Somvir and Babulal Kashyap talk about Modi’s policies of health insurance, free LPG cylinders, electrification of villages, and the benefits of GST and demonetisation.

The anti-Modi voters — Mohammad Shabir, Asgar and Ratiram Dinkar — say GST and demonetisation have hurt people, LPG cylinders have become more expensive and electricity bills have gone up. The election has turned into a Modi versus anti- Modi battle, brushing aside the micro dynamics of a constituency, credibility of candidates and basic issues. The Muslim vote falls almost entirely in the anti-Modi bandwagon.

Political analysts aver that the Muslim vote should not be looked at as a homogenous one, saying constituency level complexities, caste and class can sway voting pattern. According to Hilal Ahmed of CSDS, tactical voting first came into existence in 1967, when the All India Muslim-Majlis-e-Mushawarat consolidated the Muslim vote against Congress. “But, studies since 1971 show there has been no tactical voting. In the era of coalition politics, it became difficult. This, however, does not mean people don’t vote en bloc. It happens at the constituency level,” says Ahmed.

Arshi Khan of the Department of Political Science at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) says Muslim votes get divided just like those of Scheduled Castes, Backward Classes or upper castes. “Muslims will not like to vote for BJP or parties aligned with it as it is seen to be hurting their political, economic and cultural interests,” he says. “On the other hand, Congress has lost its legitimacy among people of the state, and if the SP-BSP-RLD alliance makes the same mistakes they too will lose legitimacy,” he adds.

Faisal Devji, professor of Indian History at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, comes up with compelling arguments. He says that given the disparities of class and caste among Muslims in different parts of India, and their equally disparate exposure to violence, it is not easy to gauge the community’s sense of vulnerability as a whole. While the press, especially social media, both magnify and generalise such a sense of vulnerability, more important for its existence might be the fact that Muslims have no political project of their own, and cannot possess one at a national level, he argues.

Apart from those represented by AIMIM in Telengana or the IUML in Kerala, after all, Muslims are not in charge of their own political destiny, minor as this control may be, and are either excluded from the political arena altogether or serve as camp-followers living on crumbs from some party’s table, he notes. “Without regional political projects of inclusion and representation, fear, anxiety and quietist forms of religious identity take over as people turn inwards,” he adds.

Delhi-based rights activist Fawaz Shaheen of Quill Foundation can’t agree more with the assertion that there are no uniform Muslim votes and the fact that the community has no national political project of its own. “It is very apparent that Muslims will see the winnability of an anti-BJP candidate and vote for him or her,” he says, emphasising that there is a “poverty of option” lately for the Muslims.

He is disappointed that no major political party is keen on a public debate on the challenges facing Muslims, including their insecurities, freedoms and social conditions. He feels a sense of political “exclusion”. Shaheen adds that lower- rung leaders of Hindutva parties don’t understand the nuances of Islam. For instance, Shia Muslims have traditionally voted for the BJP, especially in Lucknow and other parts of UP, but for the foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar, such classifications make no sense.

Shamil Shamsie, a Lucknow-based Shia leader and cousin of top Shia spiritual leader Kalbe Jawad, says members of his community had voted for Hindutva forces since the time of the Jana Sangh. But he is crestfallen about the comments by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, who the Shias consider as their first Imam. “I can no longer go around canvassing votes for the BJP. We had earlier raised funds for the Ram temples and set up anti-cow slaughter committees,” says Shamsie, who is also a renowned restaurateur in Lucknow.

Explains Devji, “The Shias of Lucknow have historically voted for the BJP, not for ideological reasons or even because of any material advantages they receive from the party, but because they think the Congress relies too heavily on Sunni Muslims for its views on minority issues, which they see as being potentially discriminatory.” More than this, the formerly Shia ruling class tends to be better-off than its Sunni equivalent, and so has a different economic profile and needs than the more numerous Sunnis, quite apart from any conflict or ill-will between the sects.

“They are simply not part of the same sociological category, despite both being Muslim, and so there is no democratic reason why they should vote together. But rising anti-Muslim feeling may well change this established pattern,” he prophesies.

Devji also notes that if Muslims in UP are voting for Muslim candidates, whatever their party, it surely suggests their lack of any political project. “This is easy to understand, given the eviction of Muslims as political actors in the last elections, where the ruling party decided to do without them. At most, elected Muslim representatives might be able to bestow some minor favours, or provide some personal help to his or her coreligionists. But that is not politics. The ‘Muslim community’ enjoys only a negative existence as an object of prejudice and can have no unified religious or political identity. Its various caste and sect-defined segments in places like UP should organise and make their voices heard in the political parties most suited to them.”

In fact, Devji’s pronouncements make profound sense even in Assam, a state where Muslims are expected to be a cohesive entity thanks to the myriad challenges of existence that they face. Muslims are a major electoral force in Assam’s politics. While they have a significant presence in almost all districts of the state, in Lower Assam— Dhubri, Goalpara and Barpeta districts—they are in a majority.

It is a myth that Muslims in the state are of a single ethnic stock. Having arrived in different waves in Assam over many centuries, they belong to different stocks. Ethnic Assamese Muslims have greater political inclination for the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) as they view themselves as “sons of the soil.”

In contrast, Muslims of Bengali origin—from Sylhet and Mymensingh districts of Bangladesh— are known to be closer to the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). There are other classifications as well: for example, Ujani Muslims of local extraction. All this makes for complex political behaviour on the part of Muslims in the state. It is a misnomer to call them a minority and their politics certainly does not betray that.

Devji goes on, “Since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s, Muslims have gravitated increasingly to the private and more specifically the informal sector, mostly as petty businessmen or employees. This signals a disengagement with the state and political life, seen as being too discriminatory and violent. At most, politicians and bureaucrats need to be approached to guarantee permissions and security, often for a price, as is true of most Indians in this sector.”

He forecasts this trend will continue, but not always in the same place, as anecdotal evidence suggests significant Muslim emigration from north India to other parts of the country, especially the south, for employment and business opportunities. “But this again is not an unfamiliar situation for Indians of different religious backgrounds, the difference being that Muslims are exiting politics altogether, at least in north India,” he points out.

THOUGH NONE OF THE 15 Muslim-dominated seats in the country fall in UP, the community’s voting pattern has an influential role in elections here, with its population over 30 per cent in around half a dozen of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha constituencies. In Badaun, where the Muslim population is nearly 22 per cent, the Congress, like in Sitapur, Kheri and elsewhere, has put up a Muslim candidate, Salim Shervani, hoping to reach out to the community. The strategy, if it works, could dent the vote share of the constituency’s two-time MP and SP leader Dharmendra Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav’s cousin, who is contesting for a third time.

Kasim, a poor farmer in Janeta village, claims that nearly half the 500 voters there favour the Congress party. “Other parties have not given tickets to Muslims.” He admits that some of the 150 village households, including his own, have got toilets. Some others have got LPG cylinders and some farmers’ loans have been waived off. But he complains of price rise and says the Congress has promised to waive off all farmers’ loans.

His wife Gulshan, who has studied only the Quran, has not heard about the Modi Government’s promise to ban Triple Talaq. “Literate people will know. We have neither television nor mobile phones,” she says. Her neighbor Riyaz Bano is also clueless. The men, however, say it doesn’t matter what the Government says, they will go by their “books”.

Syed Badar Ali, the Sajjada Nashin (chief priest) at the Chote Sarkar Dargah in Badaun, says people of the constituency know Shervani did no work in the past, while on the other hand, Yadav has brought about major changes in the place in the past ten years. According to him there has been no wave in favour of BJP’s candidate Sanghmitra Maurya, the daughter of a minister in the Yogi government, Swami Prasad Maurya.

Waseem, a carpenter from Rampur, says his family has been traditionally a Congress supporter, but this time the Muslims are backing SP’s Azam Khan. In Rampur, where the Muslim population is 50 per cent, the Congress has fielded a Hindu, a strategy that could dent the votes of the BJP, which has fielded actress and former SP MP Jaya Prada. In 2014, the Congress, SP and BSP had fielded Muslims, giving BJP the edge to pull in Hindu votes.

Overall, the Mahagathbandhan, representing three communities in UP, is being seen as the “moral and political alternative” for the Muslims, says Arshi Khan. “The problem of Muslims in India is inclusion, participation in decision-making, representation and dignity. The BJP does not give confidence on any of these.”

The representation of Muslims, a section constituting around 14 per cent of the Indian population, was the highest in 1980 at 49 Lok Sabha members, 10 per cent of the total. It dropped to 4 per cent in 2014. Of its 428 candidates, BJP fielded seven Muslims, while the Congress put up 27 in its list of 467. In UP, of the BJP’s 71 MPs there is not a single Muslim. There were six in the previous Lok Sabha and ten in 2004.

Asked if the BJP could garner support of Muslim women on the Triple Talaq issue, Khan says, “Educated women also watch television and read newspapers and see the big picture, so it will not have a significant impact when it comes to votes.”

The BJP Government at the Centre, however, rubbishes the argument that the Muslim vote is targeted at defeating BJP, which has been accused by historians such as Professor Sugata Bose and various others of polarising communities for political gains, especially in new turfs like West Bengal and others, like in the pre-Partition time when religion-based animosities ran deep. “In Modi Government’s five years of government, there has been development without discrimination on basis of community or caste. Whether it’s Shias or Sunnis, all have benefited from the schemes and policies,” says Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. He says the BJP will get at least 10 per cent more minority votes than it got across the country in 2014.

For his part, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi asks why the BJP had denied electoral representation to Muslims, if the Modi Government really was doing “sabka saath sabka vikas”. In UP, what happened in 2014 has left a bitter taste. “In every election, either Parliament or Assembly, wherever there are over 10 per cent Muslims, the community’s vote gets talked about, more than any other vote. You are creating a myth that there is a Muslim vote bank. There is only a Hindu vote bank which reflects in the continued lower representation of Muslims,” says Owaisi.

Reinforcing the point made by analysts, he says a Muslim in one part of the country will be very different from one in another. In Telangana, where the Muslim population is 12.7 per cent, of which 43.5 per cent is in Hyderabad district, the Muslims see K Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti as an alternative to the Congress. The state government has come out with schemes like overseas scholarships, residential schools for minorities and “shaadi mubarak”.

“We are saying don’t vote out of fear, but out of hope,” says Owaisi. Meanwhile, Delhi-based Congress leader, municipal councillor and filmmaker Yasmin Kidwai states that Muslims are not a separate group in this election. “They are part of the larger constellation of groups zealously targeted by the Modi-led BJP government since it came to power five years ago. And that includes women, Dalits, the poor,  university students, historians, cultural figures and dissenters, small traders and various others wrongly branded as anti-national because they spoke truth to power,” she points out.

Muslim scholars and community leaders that Open spoke to from across the country, from Mohammed Saad Belgami, member Majlis-e-Shoora Halqa-e-Karnataka, to Mohammed Manzoor Alam of Delhi’s Institute of Objective Studies, and Mumbai-based reformist and educator Zeenat Shaukat Ali note that this is a crucial election and secular-minded people opposed to what they call “the authoritarian” Government at the Centre should come together to safeguard Constitutional rights.

Ironically, among the Left parties, there is still a debate on whether the ruling dispensation that has exhibited Hindutva credentials with gusto is either authoritarian or fascist by nature. Devji notes philosophically, “Just as the Left has historically been unable to grapple with caste, often dismissing it as a transitional or even unreal category, so, too, has it been unwilling to take Hindutva seriously. By analysing it in the inherited terms of fascism or authoritarianism, the Left loses more than it gains in intellectual and political clarity. This generally involves measuring how groups like the RSS compare to historically fascist organisations in Europe, without focusing on what might be innovative about them. It tends to be a polemical and at most genealogical or structural analysis of a very general kind that disallows learning from the success of these groups.”

Professor Iqbal is right about the choices that Muslims have before them: the second best, for lack of their own national political project. Whether or not they find a valiant spokesperson for their cause in this election is anyone’s guess; what’s sure is the sense of insecurity that the community will have to live with till then.

First published in Open

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s