Elections

In The Name Of Ram: How Communal Polarisation Affects Jharkhand Lok Sabha Election

For the people of Hazaribagh, famous for its Ram Navami, life is a tussle between peace, processions and politics

Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
Cityscape: Indirapuri Masjid in Hazaribagh where people allegedly pelted stones during Ram Navami procession last year Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
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Around 90 km from Ranchi, as you enter Hazaribagh town, a sense of festivity captivates you for a while. Though the colour of the saffron flag and festoons has faded in the harsh sunlight, the life-size cut-outs of Ram are compensatory. It’s election time and in Hazaribagh, a city known for the Ram Navami celebration, how can Ram not make an appearance in the electoral discourse? As the campaign tableau of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha candidate Manish Jaiswal moves around the town, with the song ‘jo Ram ko laye hai, hum unko layenge’ being played on loudspeaker, both the mood and the mudda get established.

A few km from Jhanda Chowk—that finds a mention every time a Ram Navami procession turns violent— the Rajput samaj (Kshatriyas) is gearing up to welcome Jaiswal. Wearing a saffron robe and sporting a saffron tika, Giridhar Singh, one of the members of the community, says: “We are followers of Ram and we will support Modi who has given Ram his home.”

As hundreds continue to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’, Jaiswal enters the scene. Earlier, he was wearing a robe embossed with the BJP lotus but he changed it at the entry point. “This is a rally organised by our samaj. We are supporting the BJP on the grounds of Ram and nationalism. You won’t find any BJP flags here,” says Tuntun Singh, one of the organisers.

The contest in Hazaribagh constituency became interesting after the BJP decided to field Jaiswal, the current MLA and the son of former Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) leader B K Jaiswal, instead of the current MP Jayant Sinha, the son of former BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. Just a few days ago, Sinha’s son Aashir joined the Congress. Sources say that Sinhas are not happy with the decision of the BJP to deny the ticket to Jayant.

BJP candidate Manish Jaiswal in Hazaribagh
BJP candidate Manish Jaiswal in Hazaribagh Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
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The Congress has fielded sitting MLA J P Bhai Patel who has recently come back from the BJP citing ‘ideological differences.’ Patel started his career as a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MLA and later joined the BJP in 2019. Though there is discontent within the Congress as well regarding the nomination of Patel, known as “palturam”, they say there is ‘no option left.’

However, in this electoral battle, one thing remains constant—the evocation of the Ram temple. While addressing the rally of the Kshatirya samaj, Jaiswal asks: “Have you found a single INDIA bloc leader who visited the Ram temple after the consecration ceremony? Acharya Pramod Krishnan, the only person from the bloc who visited the temple, by the grace of Ram, left the party immediately.”

With much enthusiasm, he continues: “The demography of Jharkhand is changing. Soon, people from a particular community will reduce you to a minority.” Citing a recent report on population growth in the last few decades, he adds: “Since Indira Gandhi’s proposal of ‘Hum do hamare do’, people of our community stopped bearing more than two children but the other community continues producing a cricket team.” The BJP leader also questioned the foundation of India and asked why the country embraced secularism when the partition was done based on religion.

His presence at the gathering of the Kshatriya Samaj holds significance as the Kshatriya community is opposing the BJP in different parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. However, Abhay Singh, the Kshatriya Samaj leader in Jharkhand, criticises the moves and says: “The community should understand that we can’t stand with those who betrayed Ram. During Babar’s time, pundits, kings and others begged Babar to not demolish the birthplace of Ram. They even went to Jahangir and Akbar. But nobody listened to our ancestors. And the “great’ Akbar did the first love Jihad.”

Rajendra Pratap Singh, another member of the Samaj, who is a government school teacher, says: “Unemployment and price rise are not issues for us. This election, we stand with nationalism.” The references to ‘love jihad’, ‘land jihad’ and ‘vote jihad’ come repeatedly in Jaiswal’s statements as well. “Muslim youths are taking up Hindu names and are marrying our daughters. Only when an Abdul is born out of this marriage, they get to know the real intention,” he says.

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It has been more than a month since Ram Navami was celebrated with much gusto in Hazaribagh, but one can still feel the festive spirit in the air. In fact, the preparations for the next Ram Navami have already begun, notably at the shop of Ghulam Jilani, who has been stitching Ram Navami flags for more than 35 years.

Sitting in front of his sewing machine and taking stock of the ‘new order’, Jilani says: “My father, late Abdul Sukur, used to stitch flags and I learnt from him. Now my son has also joined the trade.” The saffron flag embossed with an image of Hanuman represents Ram Navami. “We have already started working to meet next year’s demand. We lose count of the number of flags we sell every year,” adds the tailor, who is in his early 50s. A few months ago, during the consecration of the Ram temple, Jilani made a 43-foot-long flag and sent it to Ayodhya. With sparkling pride in his eyes, he says: “It took me long to make it. But I am happy.”

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People Matter: Ghulam Jilani has been making Ram Navami flags for the past 35 years
People Matter: Ghulam Jilani has been making Ram Navami flags for the past 35 years Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
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Though Jilani’s religious identity never came in the way of his trade, a few metres away, at Jama Masjid Road, this very flag holds a different meaning. For some, it is the reminder of that time of the year when they feel like they are ‘imprisoned in their own homes’. The narrow lane near Jhanda Chowk has been the space of contention for more than three decades.

“In Hazaribagh, Ram Navami is celebrated for three days. During this time, several rallies converge near the Jhanda Chowk and pass through this road. The administration places barricades. We can’t go out,” says Tamim Faizi who, like the other residents of this mohalla, has been a witness to these rallies since his childhood. Not only are the shops closed, but on ekadashi, the administration also cuts the power supply, apparently to avoid any untoward incidents, he adds.

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Mohd Shakeel, a veteran resident, intervenes and says: “This was not the case before 1989. It used to be communally harmonious.” As the incidents of violence were sporadic, civil society members from both communities clinched a deal. “It was decided that Muslims would not take their Moharram rallies through Panch Mandir and the Ram Navami processions would not be taken through the Jama Masjid Road,” he says. However, although the Muslims kept their word, the majority community did not pay any heed, he adds.

Soon after, one Yadunath Pandey appeared on the scene and organised a movement, saying, “In Independent India, we have the right to take our processions through any road”, informs Faizi. Then they took their rally through this road, leading to the first large-scale communal riots in the city in 1989. Since then, Hazaribagh has witnessed frequent communal tensions—sometimes leading to riot-like situations as well.

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Just as the people of Jama Masjid Road have their version of Ram Navami, the residents of Panch Mandir have their stories. Vijay Keshari, a veteran associate and organiser of Ram Navami rallies, says: “The administration is responsible for the chaos. Our Muslim brothers had no issues with us passing through the Jama Masjid Road. Since 1918, when the first rally was organised by Guru Sahay Thakur, the subsequent rallies have passed through this lane.” According to Keshari, Ram appeared in Thakur’s dream and asked him to arrange a rally on his birthday. Thakur shared his dream with his friends and five of them took out a rally. “Muslims of Hazaribagh always supported and welcomed the rallies. But then the administration started imposing some prohibitions,” he says.

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It was then that Yadunath Pandey became a leader and fought the administration to allow the rally through the contentious road, he notes. “He, along with several VHP-RSS members, went to jail to ensure our rights,” Keshari adds.

However, for the Muslims, Pandey was an outsider. “We call him danga Pandey as he was behind the 1989 riots. Otherwise, we always had a friendly relationship with each other,” says Shakeel. The same year in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP fielded Pandey and he won with a formidable margin. “It’s all politics. Nothing more, nothing less,” laments Shakeel.

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What started as a conflict over the route of the Ram Navami procession ended up determining the political future of Hazaribagh.

During his campaign trail, BJP candidate Jaiswal had been attending public meetings arranged by different communities like the Kayasthas, the Kshatriyas and the Prajapatis, but had not visited any Muslim localities to seek votes, says Zafranullah Sadiq, who is currently the president of the Indrapuri Masjid committee. Last year, this mosque had been allegedly attacked by some hooligans during the Ram Navami procession. Though the police filed an FIR against 18 people, only two had been arrested. However, both are now out on bail, says Sadiq. Talking about the prevalent political currents in the state, he says: “The communal tension in Hazaribagh increases only during Ram Navami. Otherwise, the two communities cohabit peacefully. Last year, some elements provoked violence as they wanted to reap political benefit out of it. But this year, they were shocked to see Muslims garlanding and welcoming the procession on the Jama Masjid Road.”

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The only hand pump in Islamnagar from where at least 1,000 people fill water daily
The only hand pump in Islamnagar from where at least 1,000 people fill water daily Photo: Suresh K. Pandey
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However, despite this cordial gesture, there are some anti-social elements who try to vitiate communal harmony, says Shakeel, who was part of the team that welcomed the procession. “If you observe closely, you will see that people get charged up whenever they reach Jama Masjid. They play common Bollywood songs in other parts of the city, but as they enter this mohalla, they start playing provocative songs,” adds Faizi.

Kunal Yadav, the former president of Ramnavami Mahasamiti—that organises the procession—agrees with Sadiq, Faizi and Shakeel. He says: “As the samiti president, I condemn violence. I believe politics and religion are two different things and they shouldn’t be mixed.” When asked about polarisation, he says: “Sometimes, they polarise people on the basis of caste and sometimes they divide based on religion. Ideally, there should only be politics of development. But leaders hardly talk about that.”

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While Jaiswal evokes Ram and jihad in his speeches, Patel, the Congress candidate, avoids saying anything controversial. “I want to work for the development of the people. I don’t want to comment on what the BJP is saying. They have become a washing machine which cleans corrupt leaders,” he says. Some Congress workers, however, are not happy with the decision of the party to nominate a turncoat. On the condition of anonymity, one of them says: “He will not take any stand in favour of the minorities as he may end up joining the BJP again.” Minorities don’t have any option; we will have to vote for the INDIA bloc, says Sadiq.

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The same sentiment was seen among Muslims of Ranchi as well. Notably, the INDIA bloc has not given a ticket to a single Muslim candidate in the 14 Lok Sabha seats of Jharkhand. While a few social workers and Muslim activists think that it would not give the Right Wing parties a chance to polarise people on the basis of religion, a few others think that the Muslim leadership has failed to build up a formidable voter base.

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Emphasising how Muslims have debunked efforts of alleged ‘communalisation’ of politics, social worker Tanweer Ahmed says: “During the consecration ceremony, Right Wing leaders like Bhairon Singh wanted to arrange a public gathering at the daily market taxi stand—a Muslim-dominated area. He expected resistance that would have helped him create some discord. But the Muslims participated in the consecration ceremony instead and spoiled their plan.” In this context, he thinks that the decision of the INDIA bloc to not nominate a single Muslim candidate would pre-empt the BJP from communally poalrising the voters.

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However, Babbar, another Muslim activist and social worker, thinks that the Muslim leadership in the state has failed to foment formidable ground connections. “And this is the reason why they could not become indispensable,” he adds. But the people are not very happy with the JMM-Congress government as well. They have not forgotten what happened on June 10, 2022, when two teenagers were killed allegedly by the police during a protest against a controversial comment made by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma. “The deceased haven’t got justice yet and Muslims are living in fear as the police has filed FIR against 10,000 unidentified persons. We asked the government to withdraw it, but nothing happened,” says a resident of Doranda, a Muslim-dominated locality in Ranchi.

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Naseem Gaddi, one of the Muslim councillors of Ranchi municipality, points out that the administration is not listening to the government due to their ‘own political alignments’. “But this time, we have put a lid on all the issues as there is no other option. If we form the government, we will bring up our issues,” says Gaddi.

In central Ranchi, in Muslim-dominated Islamnagar, people don’t have any hope left. In 2011, during an eviction drive, at least 1,500 Muslims had lost their homes. Despite the high court order instructing that they be rehabilitated within 13 months, they didn’t get anything in 13 years. “Nobody stood for us—neither the Congress nor the BJP,” says Rafiq Khan, in his late 60s, who now stays in a jhuggi made of torn flex and bamboo. “I made my own jhopdi at the same place where they demolished my home. Half of my life I spent in hope but now I can’t even expect anything from anybody,” he adds. Mohd. Shakeel, a resident of Islamnagar and an activist who fought for the people of this area, intervenes: “But what will we do? Marta kya nahi karta.  We have to vote for INDIA.”

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In Ranchi, the Congress has fielded Yashaswini Sahay, who is the daughter of veteran party leader Subodh Kant Sahay. The BJP, on the other hand, has nominated its sitting MP Sanjay Seth.

For ordinary men and women in Ranchi and Hazaribagh, life is a tussle between peace and politics. Standing at his tea stall near Ratan Talkies, a Muslim locality in Ranchi, Shaqib Ahmed, 80, says after a long pause: “They have vitiated the environment in the last 10 years. It was never like that.” Keshari from Hazaribagh had similar views. “We always had communal harmony. Religion is not politics.”

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Abhik Bhattacharya in Hazaribagh and Ranchi

(This appeared in print as In The Name Of Ram)

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