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Muslims in Uttar Pradesh

Caste, Class and Electoral Politics

Hilal Ahmed (ahmed.hilal@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. 

The political parties need to redefine their engagement with Muslim communities in Uttar Pradesh and go beyond the imaginary phenomenon of “Muslim vote bank”. Instead of just limiting themselves to issues regarding their safety and security, the political parties need to take cognizance of the existing diversity within Muslims based on caste and class and address their socio-economic concerns.

The election campaign for mobilising Muslim voters in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is substantially different from other parts of the country in two ways. Unlike other states, secularism as a political agenda has made a significant comeback in UP elections. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, and subsequent debates on the efficacy of administration in dealing with the rehabilitation of riot-victims, which had already become serious political issues even before the elections, are re-conceptualised as a threat to secularism. The Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Congress and even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to evoke the communal/secular binary to approach Muslims of the states as voters.

Secondly, the presence of Narendra Modi as a BJP candidate in Banaras makes the election process in the state quite distinctive. The so-called development-centric Modi campaign has almost remained silent on “Muslim empowerment” (though Rajnath Singh has been actively trying to bring in the Muslim factor). On the other hand, the BJP’s manifesto, which tries to create a favourable equilibrium between Hindutva and development, is being politically interpreted either in relation to the history of anti-Muslim communal violence in the country, especially by the Congress and the SP, or as “Hindu determination and heroism” by local BJP leaders.

The outcome of this distinctive election canvassing is quite obvious. The Muslim voters of the state are again addressed in a conventional political language, which forces the Muslims to respond merely to the issues of “protection” and “security”. We also observe a revival of an old political strategy for reaching out to Muslim electorates. Almost all political parties (including the BJP) approach Muslims religious-political leaders or influential personalities to get some kind of political legitimacy. Imam Ahmad Bukhari’s appeal to Muslims to vote for Congress or the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushwarat’s suggestion that Muslim must support “secular” candidates or even Rajnath Singh’s meeting with a few Muslim ulemas of Lucknow are relevant examples in this regard.

These pre-poll political developments pose two very basic questions: (a) Is there any relationship between security concerns of Muslims of UP and common issues such as price rise, corruption and infrastructure development? (b) Is it legitimate to treat Muslims as an identifiable political community? Do factors like caste and class play any role in political mobilisation of Muslims in election process?

Security and/or Development

It is important to note that security and development are related terms for most of the Muslim electorate in the state. Issues such as the urbanisation of Muslim concentrated Qasbas  and small town, protection and state-support for Muslim artisan communities for survival in an already globalised market, and better health and education services are contingent upon a secured riot-free political environment. The findings of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti pre-poll survey 2014 in UP are very relevant to elaborate this point. All the respondents, (including Muslims) in UP were asked a rather direct question:  What will be the single most important issue for you when you vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election?

The response was quite interesting. Almost all the voters, who participated in the survey, overwhelmingly argued that existential issues such as economic development, price rise and employment actually determined their political choices (Table 1).

 

Table 1: Top five key issues in UP

 

Key voting issues in Uttar Pradesh

%

Development

20

Price rise

17

Corruption

17

Unemployment

8

Condition of roads

5

 *The rest of the respondents gave other answers. (NES-CSDS-Lokniti March 2014)

This does not mean that the Muzaffarnagar riot is insignificant. The riot, especially the handling of post-riot situation by the SP government, seems to emerge as one of the most decisive factors for Muslims voters. However, the Muslim responses at the constituency level are highly diversified which simply go against the dominant perception that there is only one “Muslim opinion” on the question of security.

For instance, 45% Muslims said that they were satisfied with the administrative mechanism set up by the SP government to deal with the post-riots situation. On the contrary, 39% Muslims found that Akhilesh Yadav’s government actually failed to provide security to Muslims in the riots affected areas.

 

Table 2 Muslims, Muzaffarnagar riots and SP 

Handling of aftermath of

Muzaffarnagar riots by State govt.

All

 

Muslims

 

Satisfied with way SP government  has handled aftermath of riots

37

45

Dissatisfied with way SP government has handled aftermath of riots

50

39

Can’t say

13

16

*(NES-CSDS-Lokniti March 2014)                                 

This virtually divided “Muslim opinion” on one of the most serious communal riots in the state since 1990 is inextricably linked to the volatile nature of electoral politics in the state. We must remember that the state-specific politics in UP, has not entirely been polarised on any particular issue in the past. Even during the heydays of BJP’s Ram temple movement in late 1980s, electoral politics in the state continued to respond to caste and class factors in a very substantial way.

The emergence of various powerful region-specific political parties such as the SP and  the BSP along with the national level political players in the state underlines the fact that UP politics is highly competitive. In such a multifaceted political environment, events like Muzaffarnagar riots and popular idioms such development and empowerment are translated locally and merged into the state-level political agendas of parties. The opinions of Muslim electorates at the consistency level, in this sense, are shaped by these grassroots-specific configurations and expressed in an equally subtle and precise manner.

Caste/Class and Muslim Political Behavior   

This explanation brings us to the Muslims social-economic stratification and its political manifestations in UP. It is important to note that there are various Muslim communities in UP, which are divided on castes and class lines. In this sense, the SP and the Congress’s so-called imaginary “Muslim vote bank” has always remained a class-caste-driven phenomenon.

Let us look at the political manifestation of Muslim caste/class in UP. The figures given in Table 3 reveal that there is a clear difference between the political preferences of Muslim Other backward Classes (OBCs) and other Muslims. For instance, SP was the first choice for Muslim OBCs followed by Congress and BSP; on the contrary, the oother Muslims overwhelmingly supported the Congress, followed by BSP and SP.

 

Table 3: Muslim caste-based voting behaviour in UP

 

Lok Sabha 2009

 

Congress

BJP

3: BSP

SP

Others

Muslim OBCs

 

 

 

 

 

20.2%

3.1%

19.8%

32.2%

24.8%

Other Muslims

 

 

 

 

 

37.3%

6.0%

23.2%

21.9%

11.6%

Total

 

 

 

 

 

28.4%

4.4%

21.3%

27.4%

18.5%

*CSDS-Lokniti NES 2009

Table 4, which divides Muslims into four identifiable economic classes (that is exclusively based on the background information related to income and assets given to us during the survey by the Muslim respondents), gives us another complex picture. We find that upper class Muslims supported the  SP, while the Congress remains the first choice for lower class Muslims and Muslim poor.

Table 4: Class-based voting behaviour of Muslims in UP

 

Lok Sabha 2009

 

Congress

BJP

   BSP

SP

Others

Upper

 

 

 

 

 

13.8%

2.6%

28.4%

28.4%

26.7%

Middle

 

 

 

 

 

26.7%

4.8%

19.2%

31.5%

17.8%

Lower

 

 

 

 

 

32.9%

8.1%

15.4%

23.5%

20.1%

Poor

 

 

 

 

 

42.5%

2.3%

25.3%

24.1%

5.7%

*CSDS-Lokniti NES 2009

These figures very clearly underline a difference between the caste-based voting pattern and the class-based political responses. This difference is very crucial because it point towards two interesting inferences.  

First, the imaginary picture of Muslim oneness is misleading. We find that the factors like religion belief, caste and class are amalgamated at local and regional level and produce a discursively constituted Muslim identity. The declaration passed by a few Pasmanda Muslim organisations, “Political Agenda of Pasmanda Muslims in Lok Sabha Elections, 2014” is very relevant to understand this multilayered Muslim identity. This declaration not merely addresses the question of Muslim reservation in a nuanced legal-constitutional manner but also establishes a link between Muslim caste question and the other political issues such as globalisation, communalism, internal diversity of social-religious groups, adequate representation of women and corruption.

Secondly, the difference between caste and class based political responses also underlines the conceptual difficulties in evaluating social backwardness of various groups in India. We must note that although the Mandal Commission does recognise different forms of social stratification, the methods by which OBCs are identified among non-Hindus communities does not entirely reflect the social-regional diversity of these communities. This has been reason why the Pasmanda organisations demand that the category of the OBC must also be divided into OBC and EBC (Extremely Backward Castes), and at the same time, Muslim dalits must be included in the scheduled caste (SC) list.

Conclusions

This brief discussion suggests that political responses of Muslim groups somehow correspond to their social location and economic status in UP. Interestingly, however, the political parties are still hesitant to recognise this Muslim plurality. For instance, the Congress’s manifesto is quite unclear on the question of caste-based Muslim reservation; the BJP’s manifesto talks about Muslim backwardness but it does not establish any link between backwardness and affirmative action; although the SP’s manifesto promises that in principle the party supports the inclusion of Muslim dalits in the SC list, the statements and speeches of SP leaders still revolve around the notion of security and secularism.

Is it a reflection of political manipulations for the sake of “Muslim vote”? Or, is it a problem of political frameworks by which Muslim political responses have been interpreted in postcolonial India? In my view, these two conclusions need to be further explored‒partly because there is need to evolve a new intellectual outlook for appreciating the discursive Muslim political identity and partly because we have not yet understood the political vocabulary in which Muslim communities articulate their anxieties, expectations and demands. 

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