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The Muslims of Uttar Pradesh

Despite extreme provocation from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, under the guidance of a new and enlightened leadership, held their peace in the recent assembly elections. While their first choice remained the Samajwadi Party, they contributed to the Bahujan Samaj Party's success as well; the UP vidhan sabha will also now have the largest ever number of Muslim legislators since independence.

The Muslims of Uttar Pradesh

Despite extreme provocation from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, under the guidance of a new and enlightened leadership, held their peace in the recent assembly elections. While their first choice remained the Samajwadi Party, they contributed to the Bahujan Samaj Party’s success as well; the UP vidhan sabha will also now have the largest ever number of Muslim legislators since independence.


or the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, the recently concluded assembly elections proved to be a test of their tolerance and political acumen: despite grave – and repeated – provocation by the Sangh parivar, especially over the last two years in the run-up to the polls, the community – which constitutes 18 per cent of the state’s population – remained calm through the elections. It was all the more remarkable as Muslims had to confront a far more potent campaign issue than that of the Ram temple, which no longer has any resonance even among its proponents – that of the ugly Muslim, predator, terrorist and traitor.

Instead of exploding on the streets, without fanfare, they resorted to tactical voting to maximise the use of their votes. Indeed, the Muslims played a critical role in preventing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from creating the sort of communal polarisation it needed so desperately to retain the 89 seats it had won in 2002: the result was that the party was relegated to a poor third, winning just 51 seats, its lowest score in the last 18 years.

And this was despite the fact that the BJP had pulled out every weapon in its armoury

– after its electoral debacle in the parliamentary elections of 2004 – to regain its position in the state.1 It not only permitted its saffron storm troopers in eastern UP to foment communal violence, it erected billboards with communal messages, distributed compact discs (CDs) with savage anti-Muslim propaganda and its leaders described Muslims in language that should have invited immediate arrest. Indeed, the fact that apart from one minor communal clash in Kanpur a few days before the first day of polling, nothing happened to vitiate the polls is as much credit to the Central Election Commission (CEC)-controlled administration as it is to the restraint shown by the Muslims.

Communal Run-up to UP Polls

A year after the BJP lost power at the centre, the Sangh parivar gave renewed notice of its intentions: on October 13, 2005, as Mau in eastern UP celebrated Dussehra, the traditional Bharat Milap – in which a scene from the Ramayan is enacted – procession, which stops at the Shahi Katra Mosque and moves on after hitting its iron gates three times,2 coincided with Ramzan, and the peaceful ritual turned violent. About six people were killed and many were injured as the two communities clashed. The media blamed Mau MLA and local strongman Mukthar Ansari for fuelling the violence. But a Saajhi Duniya team, led by former Lucknow University vice-chancellor Roop Rekha Verma and Nasiruddin Haider Khan, which visited the area in the immediate afterwards, pointed out that the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and its leader, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath, had played an equally key role in the riots.3

For Adityanath, this was just the first foray. Subsequently, he played an even larger role, with the help of his HYV cadres, in the communal violence at the end of January 2007 which began in Gorakhpur,4 spread further east to Padrauna, and even resulted in the burning of trains and buses in the vicinity, with reports of arson also reported from Mau, Basti, Kushinagar, Deoria and Maharajganj. The HYV’s slogan was ‘UP Gujarat banega/Padrauna shuruat karega’ (UP will become Gujarat, with Padrauna making a start.) Both these incidents – the first in Mau in 2005 and the second in Gorakhpur, Padrauna and its neighbouring districts in early 2007 – did, in great measure, create a rift between

Economic and Political Weekly June 9, 2007

Hindus and Muslims in this region. Indeed, while travelling during the first phase of the assembly elections in the stretch between Varanasi and Gorakhpur, this writer noticed strong anti-Muslim sentiments among large sections of the Hindu population, including the yadavs.

These incidents, of course, occurred before the elections: but in the early days of the campaign, in Muslim-dominated Aligarh in western UP, provocative billboards sprang up. One read, “Kya inka irada pak hai?” (Is their intention pure?) The pun on the word “Pak” was a giveaway

– it was clearly questioning the loyalties of the Muslims. Initially, the BJP dismissed it as a coincidence, but the party’s chief minister-designate Kalyan Singh, told CNN-IBN, “Whatever we have stated in the advertisement is the truth. There is nothing objectionable in it.” As for BJP president Rajnath Singh, he was vicious in his condemnation of those advocating quotas for Muslims: had the time come, he asked, that “the son of Dawood” should be considered for reservation? The communal propaganda was not emanating merely from some fringe elements but from its top leadership.5

Then came the controversial CDs6 released by the party’s UP unit during the elections on April 2, along with its manifesto. The CD’s fictional content revolves around a group of characters who include Masterji, a BJP campaigner, and an unnamed social worker, and its object was to propagate all the RSS’ favourite myths about Muslims – their loyalty to Pakistan, their propensity to procreate, to kill cows, to proselytise, to abduct Hindu girls and to take to terrorism.7 Timely action by the CEC prevented these CDs from being too widely disseminated but, in the first few days, copies were available – and what is more, the message went out. Top BJP leaders disclaimed authorship of these CDs, but the BJP’s L K Advani told journalists that his party intended to take full advantage of the CD’s fallout: “Tell me, if someone commits blunders and stupidities, are we, as a political party, expected not to take advantage?”8

In the midst of all this on April 5, justice S N Srivastava of the Allahabad High Court declared that UP’s Muslims could no longer be considered a minority. Although the ruling was stayed by a two-member bench of the same court the next day, it “raised crucial questions that pertained to minority rights, secularism and democracy and the impartiality of the judiciary”.9

It also created a heightened sense of insecurity in the community – as this writer noticed while talking to ordinary Muslims in Allahabad, Soraon and Varanasi – already anxious because of increasing VHP activity: on the eve of the polls, top VHP leaders such as Ashok Singhal had visited Varanasi to whip up Hindu sentiments; on February 11, 12 and 13, 2007, a VHP conference in Allahabad announced the decision to install an idol of Ram in every village in the state; and the VHP launched state-wide yatras to drum up support for candidates who would “accept its agenda”.

But if all this was being enacted in front of the arc lights, communal skulduggery was afoot behind the scenes as well: Just before the elections, pro-VHP/BJP elements in the administration tried to create friction between the two communities in Varanasi. A petty government official, Jugalkishore Tiwari, used his position to persuade several Hindus, including shopkeepers in the Vishwanath Gali which leads to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, to contribute money for a new door for the Gyanvapi mosque to replace one that had rotted. Most of those who gave money did so in good faith, believing it to be a gesture of communal harmony. But, in fact, the installation of the new door was to help the VHP gain a foothold in the disputed mosque10and eventually destroy the city’s sadbhavna committee.11 When the mosque’s management realised the implications of accepting the door, it refused to install it, leading to tension between the two communities. Fortunately, the district administration was tipped off and the matter was resolved eventually.

Indeed, across UP, the Sangh parivar’s anti-Muslim propaganda, together with former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s promotion of criminal elements

– some of whom are high-profile Muslims like Mukthar Ansari or Allahabad’s Atiq Ahmed, both described by local police officers as “secular” criminals – helped the BJP whip up communal passions. And over the last few years, as ex-Congress MP from Faizabad Nirmal Khatri12 pointed out, Mulayam Singh’s sponsoring of protest rallies by Muslims, condemning, for instance, the American treatment of Saddam Hussein, further vitiated the situation.13

Role of Muslims

It was against this backdrop of simmering communal tension in many parts of the state that the recent assembly elections in UP were held: And yet, the remarkable thing was that the Muslim leadership, religious, social or otherwise, acutely aware that a polarised election would benefit the BJP, advocated restraint from all possible forums and through word of mouth in the community. So, whether it was the once fiery advocate and core member of the Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Muslim Personal Law Board Zafaryab Jilani in Lucknow, Abdul Batin Nomani,



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Economic and Political Weekly June 9, 2007 the young Mufti of Varanasi, or the sophisticated Adnan Farrukh Shah, known popularly as the Mia Saheb of Gorakhpur, the sixth generation mutwali of the waqf properties in the area, the message was the same across the state: keep calm.

For instance, after the Allahabad High Court pronounced that the minority status of Muslims would end, Jilani stressed it was “a legal matter and not a political one. Nobody should exploit it politically. We’ll send this message out through every important Muslim forum.” In Varanasi, the mufti in his Friday prayers on April 6, a day after the same judgment, counselled restraint, as he did all through the election period: indeed, even before the administration took a decisive step to resolve the issue of the door of the Gyanvapi mosque (mentioned earlier), he ensured that the disquiet in the community over the issue did not get out of hand. And in Gorakhpur, when there were riots in the city and in nearby Padrauna at the end of January 2007, it was the Mia Saheb’s influence over his community that helped check the violence, the senior superintendent of police of Gorakhpur acknowledged to this writer. Indeed, when Yogi Adityanath’s HYV cadres went on the rampage burning the tazias of the Muslims, even the holy Koransharif, they did not react, thanks to the Mia Saheb’s intervention. As the latter said, “We just want peace in the city. It’s best to stay calm and not get provoked – it only helps the BJP”.14

Commenting on the peace that reigned through the elections, Mohammad Hamza Hasani, secretary of Lucknow’s well known Nadwatul Ulama, said, “Increasingly, we are telling members of our community – educate your children – it will be easier to get jobs. Forget about politics. Work towards creating a sense of brotherhood with the Hindus; don’t allow extremist elements to create hatred among the communities because you will be the biggest losers. And as Gujarat has shown, it is our Hindu brothers and sisters who have come forward to protest”.15 Evidently, there is a sense that neither the promises of leaders like Mulayam Singh nor government reports like the one prepared by justice Rajinder Sachar16will improve their condition unless the community itself is pro-active about promoting its own interests within the framework of a democratic polity.17

Equally interesting is the fact that the Uttar Pradesh United Democratic Front (UPUDF), a band of Muslim parties – who are trying to replicate the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) experiment for the Muslims18

  • had very few takers in the community. When it was formed, about three years ago, it was because, Jilani19 says, sections of the Muslim intelligentsia felt there was a need to float a Muslim party to represent the interests of the community as it appeared that there was no other way to secure justice – social, educational or indeed, at the hands of the administration
  • even from a chief minister like Mulayam Singh.20 But the UPUDF failed to create any confidence in the community.
  • And so, as in the past, the Muslims chose to go with the mainstream – both for reasons of safety as well as their desire to be one with the rest. Or as Jilani pointed out: “Muslims are not interested in just any Muslim candidate – it is better to have a

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    Economic and Political Weekly June 9, 2007

    non-Muslim candidate who has genuine concern for the community”.21 After the elections, Khalid Rashid Firangimahal, the Naib Imam of the Idgah Mosque in Lucknow, explained, “We opposed the UDF because we believe India is a secular country and strongly feel that there should be no religion in politics. If we allow it, with what face will we criticise the Sangh parivar and the BJP? Muslims are the most secular section of the population in this state”.22

    Muslims, therefore, voted in what they saw was the best interests of their community. So, despite some of disillusionment with Mulayam Singh, he remained their first choice – a major reason why despite the strong anti-incumbency that he was facing, he came second and increased his vote share by one percentage point. As S M Yasin, joint secretary of the Anjuman Intazamia Masjid which manages the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, put it, “Most of us will have to vote SP despite the goondagardi, because it is a question of life and death. The second choice will be the BSP, because it can take on the BJP”.23 In the end, since the BSP was seen as stronger than the SP and also fielded more Muslim candidates, it managed to get more Muslim MLAs into the UP assembly. The Congress, the third choice of the Muslims, was not able to benefit much as most of its candidates were perceived as losers.

    Many would argue that there is nothing new in Muslims resorting to tactical voting

  • it is something they have been doing ever since the BJP became a strong presence on the political landscape. But the results demonstrate that hardly any Muslim votes were “wasted”. It is also a fact that the BJP
  • despite its best efforts to raise the communal pitch – was widely seen as a loser, as a party that was neither able to keep its promises (as in the case of the Ram temple), hold the peace nor was it seen among its upper caste supporters as representing their interests, even though many have caught the anti-Muslim infection.24 But equally true is the fact that the dalit-upper caste consolidation in favour of the BSP would not have held had riots broken out in the state – and in ensuring there was no communal violence there is no doubt the Muslims and their leaders played a stellar role.
  • And for this, the community has been rewarded: For a little known statistic of this election is that the Muslims scored a historic new high25 of their own – the electorate sent the highest number of Muslim MLAs to the state assembly since independence – 56, almost 14 per cent in the 403-strong assembly: 29 won on a BSP ticket, 21 on a SP ticket, three on a Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) ticket, one on a UPUDF ticket and two are independents. What’s more, nine of these seats had been held by the BJP. And the UPUDF winner, Haji Yakub Quereshi, won because of his own following, not the party label.


    Too often in the past, political parties

    – however secular – have shied away from fielding too many Muslims as the presence of a candidate from the community is seen as ending up polarising votes, helping the Hindu candidate in the fray. But this time an increased number of Muslim MLAs – closer to their representation in the population – is proof of growing trust among the communities. Or as the mufti of Varanasi, told this writer a year ago, after bomb explosions destroyed the peace of his city, “The equation between the two communities is like the beautiful Benarasi sari they weave together”.




    1 In 2004, the BJP won just 10 Lok Sabha seats, down from the 22 it won in 1999.

    2 Similarly, the Moharram procession resumes after stopping at the Sanskrit Pathshala and climbing its three steps.

    3 In their report, they wrote,“…the picture presented by most of the media, that the aggressors were mainly Muslims, and mainly Hindus were the sufferers is not correct. Muslims have heavily suffered in terms of life and property. The role of Hindu Yuva Vahini and Hindu Mahasabha has been almost missing in the media whereas they played (a) crucial role in the beginning of the riots and in worsening the situation. The statements of exaggerated and exclusive losses of Hindus, by some BJP leaders and leaders of Hindu Yuva Vahini like Yogi Adityanath have been partial and provocative.”

    4 On May 22, 2007, Gorakhpur was again rocked by a series of bomb blasts in the Golghar area of the city.

    5 See ‘The Fringe and the Mainstream’ by Vidya Subrahmaniam, The Hindu, April 18, 2007. The BJP leaders’ statements during the elections were in line with the tone and tenor of the BJP’s National Council meeting held in December 2006 in Lucknow. There, too, the Rajnath Singh-Kalyan Singh duo were extremely intemperate: If Rajnath Singh warned of a second Partition and justified Muslim-specific anti-terror operations, Kalyan Singh described Hindutva as a volcano that would “kill” and “burn” Muslim appeasement, and characterised all Muslims as “terrorists”.

    The resolutions passed on the occasion maintained the same thematic unity – they were on “The UPA government’s vote bank politics”, “The Muslim appeasement steps of the UPA government”, internal security and the internal threat from terrorism.

    6 These CDs had a precursor – at the BJP’s December 2006 national council meeting, a CD of similar content was distributed.

    7 Indeed, there is nothing oblique in excerpts such as these: “Aurangzeb earlier cut your choti [tuft of hair] and took off your sacred thread. And now these tikas on your forehead will have to go and in their place you will have to grow beards.” Or “Hindus will produce two children and Muslims will marry five times and produce 35 pups and make this country into an Islamic state”. The CD also portrays madrasas as the breeding ground for antinational activities and plays out footage of the destruction of the Babri masjid and the Godhra train tragedy. Not just that, the opening credits lines make the intention of the makers of the CD only too apparent: Today Mother India is screaming aloud, “Oh my sons, save me from being broken into pieces again. I no longer have the strength to be enslaved another time. By using terrorists, spreading fear and dividing us, Pakistan wants to break India into pieces. Hyenas hungry for political power are egging them on. They have forgotten what the consequences of this will be. Now, ordinary people of India have to think, do they want slavery again or Ram Rajya in their independent India.”

    8 See fn 5.

    9 See ‘Judicial Absurdity: Recent Ruling on Muslims in UP’ by Yoginder Sikand and Nigar Ataulla, April 13, 2007, ( sikand130407.htm) In the same article Sikand and Ataulla also point out, “Logically, the ruling, as critics have pointed out, is deeply flawed. Firstly, it is for the government, rather than the courts, to decide which community can be officially considered as a minority. Secondly, the case that Srivastava was hearing did not require him to pass judgment on whether or not Muslims in Uttar Pradesh could be considered a minority (as it only related to a Muslim seminary in Ghazipur concerning grants-in-aid from the state). Thirdly, Srivastava has clearly got his mathematics wrong. Muslims, according to the most recent census, form less than a fifth of Uttar Pradesh’s population. A clear numerical minority in the state, Muslims are also a minority in the sense of being a marginalised community vis-à-vis the dominant caste Hindus, lagging considerably behind them on almost all social indicators. Hence, there is no merit in Srivastava’s ruling that Muslims in Uttar Pradesh can no longer be considered a minority.”

    10 In 1995, the VHP had unsuccessfully tried to become a party to the dispute over the ownership of the Gyanvapi mosque.

    11 The sadbhavna committee was formed in 2005 by Abdul Batin Nomani, Mufti of Varanasi, with Hindu religious leaders like Veerbhadra Mishra, Mahant of the Sankat Mochan Temple, Rajendra Tiwari, Mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Swami Avimukteshwaranand of Kedar Ghat.

    Economic and Political Weekly June 9, 2007

    12 Interview with Nirmal Khatri in Faizabad, April 8, 2007.

    13 Interestingly, Muslim leaders in Lucknow pointed out that the support for the rallies sprang more from an anti-American sentiment than support for Saddam Hussein. And that there were no protests on behalf of Afzal Guru, who awaits the death sentence for his role in the December 2001 attack on parliament house: Muslims in UP apparently had little sympathy for him – and even those who had, these leaders said, felt that the court verdict should be respected.

    14 Interview with Adnan Farrukh Shah in Gorakhpur on April 7, 2007.

    15 Interview with Mohammad Hamza Hasani in Lucknow on May 15, 2007.

    16 The Sachar report was commissioned by the United Progressive Alliance government and is the most comprehensive examination, to date, of the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in India.

    17 A serving police officer (who now focuses on Muslim affairs), commenting on the behaviour of the community through the polls, told this writer, “Sadly, the state is very off the mark when it comes to reading the Muslim mind. A vast majority just want to improve their socio-economic and educational status – those taking to terrorism are very few.”

    18 Create a Muslim vote base with add-ons from other communities, just as the BSP has a dalit vote base to which have been added votes of

    other communities.

    19 Interview with Zafaryab Jilani on April 1, 2007.

    20 Jilani, other Muslim leaders as well as a very senior UP cadre Hindu police officer – who is respected among the Muslims as one who has always kept the interests of the community in mind – all pointed out to this writer that in the middle of his tenure, Mulayam Singh under the influence of Amar Singh began to neglect the community and that it was only as he entered the closing months of his term that he realised his mistake and sought to make amends.

    21 See fn 13.

    22 Interview with Khalid Rashid Firangimahal in Lucknow on May 15, 2007.

    23 Interview with S M Yasin in Varanasi on April 6, 2007.

    24 I’d like to cite an instance from my travels during the recent elections: While travelling in east UP, I stopped in the Saidpur assembly segment on April 6, 2007. There I met Vineet Jaiswal, a bania, who runs a lubricants and spare parts shop there, and who acknowledged that he and his family had, in the wake of the Ram temple campaign, become BJP supporters. But he said, over time, he had realised “The mandir-masjid slogan was a stupid one. It only led to riots. Do people need temples or electricity and water?” He also mentioned a brother-inlaw who had won a local body election in 2001 on a BJP ticket, but had decided in 2006 to stand as an independent as the BJP was, in his view, a “loser”. In the event, he rewon his seat. Curiously, while Vineet Jaiswal’s fascination for the Ram temple had dimmed, he said he agreed that Muslims should not be given minority status as there “are many Muslim landlords in this area” – a reference to Mau’s notorious Mukthar Ansari who has had the backing of the SP. “When there were riots in this region, why was (BJP MP) Yogi Aditynath arrested and not Ansari?” So, what did that make Jaiswal? A BJP supporter? No, he told me that the BSP was a better bet in this election. And on election day, it was the BSP’s Dinanath Pandey who won Saidpur. And Jaiswal was not alone in his views – I heard similar variants of it all through the elections.

    25 Incidentally, while the Muslims were clearly keen – just as members of other groups were

    – to get fellow Muslims elected, they drew the line at those they felt were inimical for the community. So, for instance, one of the major reasons why sitting SP MLA Ashraf Azeem, brother of local hood and SP MP Atiq Ahmed, lost the Allahabad west seat was because it was believed that his goons had kidnapped and gang-raped two female students of the Jamiatus-Salihaat, a madrasa at Kareli, on the outskirts of the city on January 17, this year. The seat was wrested by the BSP.

    Economic and Political Weekly June 9, 2007

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