India polls: Uttar Pradesh Muslims pick 'best of a bad deal'

Displaced riot victims being escorted by policemen to cast their votes in their village of Hasanpur in Muzaffarnagar on April 10.
Displaced riot victims being escorted by policemen to cast their votes in their village of Hasanpur in Muzaffarnagar on April 10.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Minority voters in riot-hit Uttar Pradesh prefer Socialists to Congress

SEATED on the floor of his living room with a few from his flock scattered around, Maulana Mohammed Ershad, mufti of the main mosque in the village of Kawal, waits for the prayer hall to fill up for his Friday sermon.

A hundred metres from the mosque is the site of the killing of a Muslim youth last August that was the start of three weeks of communal rioting that left 62 people dead, including 42 Muslims, and displaced some 50,000 in his district of Muzaffarnagar and nearby Shamli. The violence caused the army to be deployed for the first time in two decades in vote-rich Uttar Pradesh (UP), which sends 80 MPs to the 543-seat Parliament.

"It started as a village-to-village issue," says the 52-year-old mufti, ignoring a solitary mouse that scurries around him. "Then it became a communal issue as the Hindu militants of the RSS organisation fanned the flames. The administration sided with the Jats. Even the mosque was attacked." He was referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu group.

One version of the Muzaffarnagar events suggests that the Muslim lad, Shahnawaz, hit upon a Hindu girl from the Jat community, an outrage of village honour that was "avenged" by her brothers. When Muslims retaliated and killed the girl's brothers, the Jats rolled out 200 tractor-trailers of kinsmen for the cremation. In no time, they had turned on each other and the killings began, spreading to nearby areas as well.

Since then, Kawal has lived an uneasy existence although you would not know it at first sight. The burly, turbaned Jats go about their business amid their mango orchards and sugarcane fields. Muslim men, easily identified by their hennaed beards, cycle past or tend to their small shops.

A check, however, reveals that many Muslims have not dared to return to their homes after so many months.

Some did though and they came with a purpose - to cast their votes in the staggered national elections, now entering their final phase, before returning to the shelter of relief camps or homes of relatives. From 55 per cent in the 2009 polls, the voter turnout this year was over 68 per cent.

In an ironic twist, most of them voted for the Samajwadi or Socialist Party (SP) that governs UP despite the way it handled the riots. The SP, which represents India's teeming lower castes gathered under the category of OBCs, or Other Backward Classes, they figured, was their best bet against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which appeals to Hindu nationalism.

Events such as the Muzaffarnagar violence polarise the vote and play to broader Hindu sentiments, benefiting BJP.

"I voted for SaPa in the last election," says Dr Girish Yadav, a medical doctor from the district of Etah, referring to the SP. "But this time I switched support to BJP. I think they have stronger leadership."

Why would Muslims not back the broadly secular Congress, which has presided at the national level over a decade of relative communal peace?

The Congress grassroots organisation has been so decimated in the key states of UP and Bihar after a quarter century of rule by caste-based parties like SP that it carries little credibility.

Says Mr Mohammed Ershad, 27, a tractor driver for hire: "We have good feelings for Congress but, somehow, when it comes to voting, the hand does not move."

In UP, only the SP has the muscle to take on the BJP, explains political scientist Aftab Alam of Aligarh Muslim University. "Congress is very shaky in UP and would be lucky to get five of the 80 seats here. So, Muslims vote for the best of a bad deal."

As India contemplates the rise of BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Mr Narendra Modi, who is blamed for not controlling communal riots in 2002 that left hundreds of Muslims and a fewer number of Hindus dead, communal tensions are rising.

Indian Home Ministry figures indicate a 25 per cent increase in incidents of communal violence in 2013 from the previous year. UP was the worst affected, with 247 incidents, compared with 118 in 2012. Gujarat, where Mr Modi is chief minister, witnessed 68 incidents, up from 57 previously.

Minority communities are wondering what is to come. And no segment is more concerned than the country's Muslims, who constitute some 14 per cent of the 1.25 billion population.

While communal ties have improved in Gujarat, it has not helped that Mr Modi has never been apologetic about the 2002 riots. He also has steadfastly declined to be photographed with a Muslim skull cap, even as he has worn Sikh turbans and hats of other minorities.

Besides, his campaign manager in UP is Mr Amit Shah, a former home minister in Mr Modi's Cabinet under Supreme Court orders to not enter his home state, Gujarat. This is because he is facing charges that he ordered extrajudicial killings of Muslims suspected of plotting to assassinate Mr Modi.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that the militant Hindu outfit RSS is active as never before, trying to rally the Hindu vote. It was an RSS man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, angered over his preaching of Hindu-Muslim unity.

"The RSS has jumped into the election with an energy and determination unseen in any previous election," says Professor C.P. Bhambhri, doyen of India's political scientists.

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He notes that the BJP gave parliamentary tickets to three state legislators accused under the National Security Act of inciting the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.

"Is this not a clear signal to Muslims that they do not matter in BJP's India?"

At the mosque in Kawal, odd-job man Md Sadiq sits reading Urdu newspaper Azizul Hind. Several pages of the newspaper are devoted to pictures of those dead and missing from the Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar/Shamli riots.

"Every election, the politicians come seeking Muslim votes with all sorts of promises," he says, acknowledging he had voted for SP with some reluctance. "But what do we get at the end of the day? Little power and very few of our people are in authority."

velloor@sph.com.sg