The Muslims of Lalganj and Azamgarh have had their chance to vote against the “secular” parties on April 16 even if it amounted to cutting their nose to spite their face. Over 150km away, in Sant Kabir Nagar and Basti, the minorities seem to be in a similar mood to teach the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party a lesson when the two seats vote on April 23. Across eastern Uttar Pradesh, the mood among the Muslims is veering from indifference, helplessness and sullenness to a near-rejection of the political process. The underpinning for the mood swings is summed up in one line: “We have not got justice from any of the so-called mainline parties.”
The decision to give a thumbs-down to Samajwadi leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and chief minister Mayavati has been spurred by the emergence of two new parties: the Ulema Council and the Peace Party.
The Ulema Council is an outcome of the Batla House “encounter” that took place in September last year in Delhi. Acting on a reported tip-off, police allegedly went to hunt down suspected “terrorist masterminds” in the Jamianagar building and ended up killing two, Atif alias Bashir and Fakhruddin alias Sajid, and arresting Saif Ahmed. The boys from Azamgarh were students at Jamia Millia Islamia University.
The “encounter” had unleashed a reign of terror in the Azamgarh region as special police task forces began rounding up “suspects”, mainly youths.
The Peace Party appears to be a response to the burgeoning of caste-based outfits such as the Apna Dal, Bharatiya Samaj Party and the National Loktantrik Party in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Both parties were founded by doctors — the Ulema Council by Dr Javed, an orthopaedic surgeon who is contesting from Azamgarh, and the Peace Party by Dr Mohammad Ayub, a surgeon who has a hospital at Barhalganj, 50km from Gorakhpur.
The similarities don’t end there. These parties have fielded an equal number of Hindus and Muslims in the seats they are contesting, principally to shake off the perception that they are pandering to sectarian interests. Apparently, the Muslims have taken to them with more alacrity than Hindus.
In Sarai Meer, 20km west of Azamgarh, the Samajwadi Party is worried about retaining the Lalganj seat under which the town falls.
The BSP, hoping to wrest it, looks dispirited. “Our votes have got disturbed by the Ulema Council,” admitted Obaidur Rehman, the BSP chairman of the town panchayat. “If the trend continues, we will be pushed to fourth place.”
Another BSP Muslim activist confessed that it was becoming impossible for the party candidate to go into villages. “We are asked, ‘why didn’t your Mayavati take a stand on the encounter? Why did she allow the special task forces to raid our places?’” he said.
That isn’t the only provocation. The Muslims also took umbrage at Mayavati’s initial denial of tickets to Akbar Ahmed “Dumpy”, the sitting MP from Azamgarh.
Once she was told how upset the Muslims were, she fielded him. “But now we feel that, out of self-respect, he should not have accepted it,” said Maulana Amir Rasheed of the Masjid Jamiat-ur-Rasheed.
Dumpy campaigned, hoping that as in the past, the Muslims would vote “tactically” for the candidate best poised to defeat the BJP.
Shaheed Pradhan of the Samajwadi Party didn’t have it easy either. “I am badgered with questions on why Mulayam Singh Yadav could not force the Centre to order a judicial probe into the encounter. He was supporting the UPA government. He went out of his way to get the Indo-US nuclear deal through but gave the impression he couldn’t care less about the Batla House incident,” he said.
Muslims are also worked up over Mulayam’s “pact” with Kalyan Singh and his “indifference” to the subsequent desertion of important Muslim functionaries from the party.
Asked if a vote for the Ulema Council might help the BJP, there was a chorus of protest. Rizwan-ur Rehman, a madarsa teacher in Sanjarpur village, said: “The heavens will not fall if there’s a BJP government. For 60 years, we have been bullied and intimidated with the BJP-RSS bogey, first by the Congress and then Mulayam and Mayavati.
“Let another Gujarat happen because we live in a Gujarat-like ambience all the time. At least the BJP openly propagates Hindutva. The others promote it while wearing burqas.”
In Sant Kabir Nagar, where the Peace Party has put up a Thakur, Rajesh Singh, campaign manager Amit Verma insists that the idea is to carry the “message of peace” to Hindus and Muslims and stress the need to carve out a political space for “neglected” communities such as Thakurs and Muslims.
For Cheddi Khan, a retired bank employee, the rationale is more straight. “The other castes display their strength in an election. When Muslims pool their votes into the Samajwadi or the BSP, their votes get lost along with those of the others. These leaders have no idea what we are worth. We will show our real value to them. Our 1 lakh or 2 lakh votes can make all the difference. If we prove that, the next time Mulayam and Mayavati will come to us with begging bowls.”
As tempers run high in Sant Kabir Nagar’s Pathan-ka-Tola in a debate over the Peace Party versus the others, voices like those of Qurissa Khatoon and Khursheed Ahmed counsel a rethink: “I am a woman and, in a riot, we suffer the most. I don’t think we should waste our votes just to prove a point to someone.”
Azamgarh and Lalganj voted on April 16 and Sant Kabir Nagar will vote on April 23
RADHIKA RAMASESHAN IN EASTERN UTTAR PRADESH, The Telegraph, April 19, 2009