Not long ago, Muslims were a major votebank in India. In the poll-bound states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, however, there is no talk of a Muslim card or the usual “appeasement” rhetoric. The ruling BJP is accused by its opponents of whipping up issues that reinforce a binary narrative of the country’s demography, which muffles the political substance of Muslims. Referring to illegal immigrants as “termites” to be thrown out, BJP president Amit Shah has been talking of an Assam-like National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in states such as Rajasthan too, while RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has spoken on up, but these remarks do portend the issues the BJP will be harping on, probably right up to the 2019 general elections.the need for a law to build a Ram Mandir on the disputed site in Ayodhya. Campaigning in the poll-bound states is yet to pick
Not far behind, Congress president Rahul Gandhi is making the rounds of temples, even as senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad recently lamented that he isn’t called for campaigning as the Congress fears it would cause the loss of Hindu votes. While his party members have contradicted his statement, Azad has surely managed to highlight the feeling of alienation among Muslims in an increasingly polarised political scenario.
In Rajasthan, Muslims have never had much political significance, perhaps because of their share in the state’s population—nine per cent, according to the 2011 census—quite less than their share in Uttar Pradesh (19.2%) and Bihar (16.8%). No wonder the first palpable assertion of the “Modi wave” was in Rajasthan, when the BJP won 163 seats out of 200 in the 2013 assembly polls. The representation of Muslims in the assembly plummeted to a measly two—both from the BJP. And Muslim morale was dealt a body blow by a spate of hate crimes and mob lynchings.
Three Muslim men were killed by cow vigilantes in Alwar district alone—the first was Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer whose lynching in April 2017 sparked nationwide outrage. Five months later, in Jaisalmer district, a Muslim folk singer was beaten to death, allegedly because a substandard performance had “displeased a goddess”. Then, in December 2017, a Muslim man was axed to death and burnt in Rajsamand district. The assailant got the act filmed and released it on social media, followed by more videos invoking Hindu pride and inciting hatred against Muslims.
What the Muslims of Rajasthan seem to rue the most is that the Congress, the main opposition party, has been largely indifferent to their concerns. Pointing out that it was usual for negotiations between the Congress and the Muslims to begin two-three months before every assembly election, Shifat Khan, a retired bank manager from Alwar, says it’s different this time. “There have been no dialogues and I don’t think there will be any in future as the Congress is eager to tell people, ‘See, we have no truck with Muslims’,” says Shifat, who contested the unsuccessfully from the Kishangarh Bas assembly constituency in Alwar on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket in 2013.
At the Ghous-e-Azam madrasa in Piproli village of Alwar, a group of kids, no more than 10 in age, are performing ablutions for the evening prayer. Mohammed Faizan, one of their teachers at the bare and dusty seminary with the Aravallis in the backdrop, says the rising prices of diesel and petrol have caused great distress to the people. “The farmer is in despair. Demonetisation has pushed the country 50 years back. People are tired of this government and yearn for change,” he adds. Asked about the communal rhetoric by local politicians, he says, “Yeh Hindostaan hai. Shiddatpasandi yahaan ke logon ke khoon mein nahin. (This is India. The DNA of its people doesn’t have extremism).”
At a press conference in Jaipur on October 22, former Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot of the Congress attacked the Vasundhararaje government on a number of issues—from the agrarian crisis and unemployment to the law and order situation—but did not mention the lynchings of Muslims. But state Congress spokesperson Archana Sharma tells Outlook that her party has always spoken up whenever such cases happened. “If people from any human rights organisation can go to these places and fight for the victims, it is because they know the Congress has got their back,” says Sharma.
In Jaipur’s Muslim-dominated Ramganj area, the dominant feeling is one of disinterest towards politics. “All that a person wants is to be happy with two square meals. This government robbed us of that,” says Mohammed Sameer, 24, who is engaged in the gemstone business. “It’s a slump. If you put your notebook aside and try to find work, you won’t get any. The government has introduced 10 different kinds of bills. We spent these five years filling bills and forms, getting Xeroxes done, and standing in queues.”
A few Muslim organisations held a joint press conference earlier this month and urged the community to vote for a secular party. “We gave a clear message to the Congress that we need tickets in proportion to our population. If Muslims are not treated with respect, we might as well go for a third front,” says Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s Rajasthan media secretary Iqbal Siddiqui. However, a Muslim member of the Congress requesting anonymity says that the community is so anguished with the BJP that many will vote Congress even if the party does not field a single Muslim candidate. “There are five pillars of Islam, shahada (faith), namaz (prayer), zakat (charity), roza (fast) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Today, in Rajasthan, there is a sixth pillar—the Congress,” he says.
In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Muslims are an even smaller percentage (6.57) of the population. There has been only one Muslim MLA in the 230-seat assembly in the past 15 years, not a single Muslim among the 29 Lok Sabha members from the state, and only one among the 11 Rajya Sabha members—that too someone not from the state. With assembly elections weeks away, the Congress is visibly aboard the Hindu plank and ardently wearing the Hindu identity on the sleeve.
An elderly shopkeeper prays outside his shop in Alwar, Rajasthan
“Muslims have become a liability for the Congress,” says hockey Olympian Aslam Sher Khan, also a former Congress MP. “For the first time, the Congress is trying to project itself as a “better Hindu” by sidelining Muslims. And this is indeed benefitting them to an extent. In doing away with its pro-Muslim image, the party is expecting a rise of 5-10 per cent in its votes.”
Curiously, Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan is not known for taking strident Hindutva positions. He has no problems in donning the skull cap and can be seen greeting Muslims at Bhopal’s Idgah on Eid. He makes it a point to host iftar during Ramzan. “This is one of the reasons the party has increased its Muslim votebank to 20 per cent, registering a four-fold increase over two decades,” claims a local BJP leader.
Arif Aqueel, the lone Muslim MLA in the Madhya Pradesh assembly, feels Muslims are being ignored and given a stepmotherly treatment. “They even come to see what is being cooked in the kitchens of Muslims and on the slightest pretext they lynch Muslims. The community is living under constant fear,” says Aqueel, who represents the Congress. “Muslims today would be satisfied if they are just allowed to live in peace. Getting their due share in power is not on the list of their current priorities.”
Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai says the bargaining power of Muslims is at its lowest. “While a section of the community is despondent, others think they should maintain a low profile when there is a duststorm. Seeking political representation at this time would be counterproductive and benefit only the BJP as it would lead to a division of the non-BJP votes,” says Kidwai.
There are 23 Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha. All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) president Asaduddin Owaisi, three-time MP for Hyderabad, a constituency with over 60 per cent Muslim voters, believes most of them have been elected because of Muslim votes. “There is hardly any Muslim representation left in most states and the Lok Sabha,” says Owaisi, one of the most vocal political voices from the community. “The community has been systematically marginalised and alienated, and the alienation is growing with every assembly election. The number of seats given to Muslim candidates is coming down and an even lesser number are being elected.”
Owaisi believes Muslims will not vote for the Congress and its allies in the Telangana assembly polls. “The community will vote for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the regional party in power. There have been no communal riots. The government has started several schemes for the welfare of Muslims, including residential schools, scholarships to study overseas and Shaadi Mubarak,” he says. “For its part, the Congress has done nothing for the Muslims. It was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that brought in the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Maharashtra under the Congress saw the most communal riots. Muslims should stop voting for the Congress. The leaders are arrogant, while their politics reeks of hypocrisy and a sense of entitlement.”
By Salik Ahmed in Jaipur and K.S. Shaini in Bhopal