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Rethinking Muslim Politics: The Rampuri Experience

Reflections on politics in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, which, according to the national English media, witnessed a campaign of scandal and communal polarisation during the recent Lok Sabha elections.

COMMENTARY

Rethinking Muslim Politics: The Rampuri Experience

Razak Khan

Reflections on politics in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, which, according to the national English media, witnessed a campaign of scandal and communal polarisation during the recent Lok Sabha elections.

I am grateful to Amar Farooqui and Biswamoy Pati for comments and support.

Razak Khan (razak2006@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the Department of History, Delhi University.

T
he small city of Rampur, with a m ajority Sunni population and a substantial number of Hindus, was the last princely state in the United Provinces ruled by Shia Nawabs, to merge into the Indian Union in 1949. It has a rich h istory as a centre of culture and art. Rampur served as the “Oasis in Sehra” for many in the post-1857 dislocation under colonial rule.

I have been researching on the history of political culture of colonial Rampur, f ocusing on how Muslim rulers tried to define the language of governance and how it was received, debated and critiqued in the public domain by their subjects, more specifically Muslim subjects. In focusing on the local rather than the national or the regional, my attempt has been to move beyond the dominant historio graphy on Muslim politics that seeks to explain the rise of political consciousness among Muslims as a narrative of Muslim separatism or alternatively a more inward looking trend of Islamic revivalism. These narratives do not adequately reveal the different experiences of Muslims and their negotiations with religious concerns and political choices they make.

The election campaign in Rampur constituency during the recent Lok Sabha polls provided an interesting opportunity to examine the contemporary aspects of popular political norms of the city. Rampur was frequently in the news, alas, mostly for the wrong reasons. The discussion on Rampur during the election campaign, generated by demands of sensational journalism that thrives on saleable quotes, events and rumours, is largely superficial. Much has been written and talked about “Dirty Politics” in Rampur in both the print and electronic media with blogs also commenting on “Rampur Ka Circus”. This seemingly “informed” critique increasingly stereotypes Rampuri publics – especially Muslims – as “uncivilised”, “violent” (ironically, the famous

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Rampuri Knife that is a distinct local artisanal product becomes a symbol of the v iolent in this narrative) and Rampuris become those who do not respect women in the public domain.

The distribution of objectionable posters and CDs of the sitting MP, Jayaprada,

who has been re-elected, are pointed out as proof of this decadence. However, this apparent political decadence emanates not so much from an “uncivilised electorate” but from the carriers of democracy, i e, political parties, which bring more closures than political choices and indulge in such malpractices.

Within this context, one needs to examine how the common people (my emphasis will be on Muslims in the town of Rampur) make their political choices, i e, the common voters and how they make their own sense of politics. Jurgen Habermas mentioned the role that coffee houses and literary salons played in shaping the bourgeois public sphere in European history. In the north Indian experience the sites to examine this popular sense of the public and political are not just offices of political parties nor the literary gatherings, but better still the busy chai stall, not to forget the many rounds of political discussions that happen over a plate of biryani in the busy bylanes in Rampur, continuing the post-dinner conversations at street corner paan shops. These are important sites of popular public discussion that need to be taken into consideration to understand the public culture of the area.

Apart from these indigenous public a renas, there are, of course, other more formalised structures that shape politics: masjids and Sufi shrines with their muftis and sajjda nashins being frequently visited by political candidates to seek blessings for the profane rather than sacred ends. Mohalla meetings also emerge as critical sites with mohalla leaders and buzurgs sharing political podiums at the post- dinner takrirs or speech sessions where oratory, poetry, wit and humour are as i mportant as one’s political manifesto. Leaders, cutting across secular and communal party labels, utilise these sites of legitimacy to create their vote banks.

Uttar Pradesh is a region that has been a centre of political mobilisation under c olonial rule as well as in post-colonial

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I ndia, especially in the last two decades when vote bank politics of caste and r eligion has become important. This has r esulted in the deep penetration of politics in this region as a whole and especially in the region of Rohilkhand, now referred to in political vocabulary as a Muslim belt. The post-Babri Masjid political scenario witnessed the ever increasing spread of politics from party headquarters to the mohallas. The Samajwadi Party (SP) reached out to the ground-level leader or the mohalla-based leaders to spread their roots in this region, and attracted many who, in turn, helped to propel the party to power. These grass root leaders turned against the SP for joining hands with K alyan Singh, the chief minister during whose tenure the Babri masjid was d estroyed. The anger or rather frustration over what is widely perceived as betrayal by the SP explains the shifts of Muslim votes to the Congress Party.

From the larger dynamic of “Muslim politics” in the Rohilkhand region let us explore the local. After all, what explains “Muslim politics” is not just national or regional politics, but the local dynamics within Rampur. Ultimately, it is the local that explains why even during the socalled Congress wave in the recently concluded general elections, the Rampuri public chose to elect Jayaprada and not the Congress candidate.

However, before the campaign ended, the newspapers stated that Jayaprada had landed in a troubled and difficult constituency with its religious, almost f anatic, Rohilla Muslim population. This rhetoric of metropolitan coverage bears a close resemblance to the colonial perception of Rampuri Muslims as bigots, driven by religious passion and irrational behaviour. Both emphasise religiosity and the violent nature of Muslims. However, if one were to bring in here the news and voices reflected in the local Urdu newpapers, the gaze is reversed. The newspapers lament the decline of the Rampuri – the civilised and secular Ganga Jamuni Tehzib that is being eroded due to the intrusion by outsiders. Incidentally, it is the “outsider” Muslim leaders who are “Otherised” in this process of externalising the problem and not the Hindus of Rampur who form part of what is perceived to be a shared, Rampuri identity. Alongside, the newspapers feel a strong anger against Kalyan Singh and his inclusion in the SP. How ever, the political parties sensationalise this issue by repeated reminders about masjid ko saheed karnewale through visuals and passionate language aimed at generating the polarisation of Muslim votes.

While the “disputed site” in the urban middle class discourse has become synonymous with the annual 6 December protests, it remains forgotten for most part of the year. The shadow of 6 December 1992 in fact looms large in the political domain. The issue continues to be one of the most emotionally charged ones for the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. These memories are kept alive by advertisements reminding Muslims of the killers and culprits of Babri Masjid. At the same time, as can be e xpected, Muslims here as elsewhere also struggle with their everyday existence. The increasing economic and social marginalisation of erstwhile Muslim elites has pushed them into the ranks of the new subaltern classes. They cling to the last e lement of their identity. The only reassuring aspect in their “dark life” is to lead the life of a “pious” Muslim. The small, narrow and overcrowded by-lanes of Rampur reveal a lively marketplace scenario. N evertheless, behind all such hustle and bustle lies the stark reality of acute u nemployment, lack of education and the failure of the Indian state to really attempt to tackle the minority issue.

While the ordinary people in the old city struggle for everyday existence there are many who have found politics as a quick way to make money and wield p ower. And this includes the lumpen elements who form the political cadre, which is increasingly employed by the p olitical parties. These men can be seen in hordes on bicycles or on motorcycles, with the more “successful” ones in jeeps and cars going around with passionate s logans. They refer to the sitting MP as a “Nachania” for her glamorous roles as a dancer in Bollywood movies of the 1980s. This seemingly pervasive rhetoric was “fed” to the middle class audience by the English press, though it was far from being blindly accepted by the common people in R ampur. No one indulged in such mudslinging in course of my conversation with the Rampuri Muslims including the so-called “fanatic maulanas”. These voices overwhelmingly referred to Jayaprada as a z ahin khatoon (a learned, respectable lady) who has reached out to people on the streets rather than staying in an i vory tower.

Jayaprada’s appeal among women was particularly strong. In spite of the strict

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COMMENTARY

purdah system women are not secluded, nor are they relegated to separate spheres, and many Muslim women are active in l ocal municipal and panchayat politics. In fact, some of them campaigned actively for her. Interestingly, the common womenfolk also supported her for bringing employment-oriented training centres for them. Consequently, though an outsider Jayaprada has clearly won over people by her development plank – something that the “insider” Muslim MPs have never really bothered about.

However, even Jayaprada did not stay firm on the development plank and incorporated religious rhetoric to consolidate and increase her Hindu vote share. Thus, she resorted to rituals like yagnas and d onating cows on the eve of polling. I ronically, these are perhaps the contradictions of what is now hailed as “modern secular development politics”, which is served with the mandatory shots of r eligious appeal.

Nevertheless, one has to accept that in the end the Rampuri public paid more

-a ttention to secular issues rather than their own so-called secular leaders and they voted for development. Interestingly, the fact that the Muslim voters continued to extend support to Jayaprada – even in a context that witnessed all possible attempts to create a religious polarisation – shows that the ordinary Muslims in Rampur respond to positive politics that delivers, and not just promises. After all, like any other place in our diverse country, the real world has more meaning for the R ampuris than the politics of empty s logan-mongering.

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june 20, 2009 vol xliv no 25

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