Uttar Pradesh: Muslim anxiety vs Hindu anger in barometer of divide

At a brass factory in Moradabad; Muslim workers, usually Hindu owners. (IE Photo: Ravi Kanojia) At a brass factory in Moradabad; Muslim workers, usually Hindu owners. (IE Photo: Ravi Kanojia)

In this Samajwadi Party stronghold, where the BJP last won in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi’s party is being seen as the one to win or lose against.

Moradabad doesn’t only mirror the seeming upswing in the BJP’s chances in Uttar Pradesh, propelled by Modi. It is also an apt vantage point to pick out the tangled skeins of a political matrix rearranged by his forceful candidature for prime minister in a belt that is home to a Muslim population several times the state average — nearly 50 per cent as against 18 per cent. Together, Moradabad and Rampur are seen as the barometer of UP’s “Muslim vote”.

At least four factors count in this election in this region and they’re all on show in Moradabad. One, there is a heightened Muslim anxiety over a possible division of the community’s vote handing over the advantage to the Modi-led BJP. Two, the gainer of Muslim nervousness seems to be the BSP, even in an SP bastion, because it is seen as the only party with a fixed and transferable core vote — even though there are stories of a section of the Jatavs voting as “Hindus” and therefore for the BJP, especially in riot-affected Muzaffarnagar.

Three, even as Modi’s candidature for prime minister has sharpened the Muslim sense of siege, it has also bared the extent of Hindu resentment that has built up in UP because of the apparently careless and crude ways in which the SP government has defined and projected its “secularism”. Four, there is an unmistakable yearning for change, because of the deep unpopularity of the UPA due to price rise and corruption scandals. This is combined with admiration and aspiration for the “Gujarat model” of decisive development among Hindus, even as Muslims dismiss it as hype.

In Moradabad, hostility to the Congress is sharpened by the wave of anger against sitting Congress MP Azharuddin who, both Hindus and Muslims agree, did not care to look back at his constituents after his victory.

While Muslims in UP are traditionally reputed to wait until the last day or hour before deciding in favour of the candidate apparently best placed to defeat the BJP, this sense of guarded watchfulness is especially acute in Moradabad this time. There is a reason: as many as four Muslim candidates (Congress, SP, BSP and Peace Party) are pitted against the lone Hindu candidate of the BJP. “A pudiya will be unleashed on election eve,” chuckles Aslam Shamsi, brass exporter and founder of the Muslima Girls Degree College, “so that the Muslim vote is not divided.” It’s like “a prescription, but for election, not illness,” he says, only half-jokingly.

The overwhelmingly Muslim old city area is filled with unverifiable stories of an efficient and magical last-minute coordination of the Muslim vote. “A team on motorcycles will drive through the roads the day before voting. We don’t know who sends them out,” says Nazim Mansoori, who writes for a local Urdu daily. “A committee of notables sits down to decide,” says Salim Babri, president of the Moradabad chapter of the Babri Masjid Action Committee, “and then handbills are distributed.” Now, word and rumour are also spread speedily through SMS and videos. In the final reckoning, many agree, Muslims will decide on the basis of the relative strength of candidates, not parties.

If the sense of Muslim tentativeness is sharp in Moradabad — it may have been given an edge by Congress candidate Imran Masood’s arrest for a hate speech against Modi in Saharanpur, even as, Salim Babri points out, “the riots accused campaign freely in Muzaffarnagar” — the boiling over of Hindu grievance translating into a surge for Modi is also palpable.

In Majhaula market in the predominantly Hindu-dominated Line Paar area of the city, a group of shopkeepers discuss the Gujarat governance model and the conversation turns to the many ways in which the UP government allegedly discriminates. Many give the example of the Kanya Vidya Dhan, a scholarship programme for girls of the minority community after class X.

“Why should needy Hindu girls not get the same benefit,” asks Guddu Verma. “Even the laptops that are meant to be distributed to all girls, across communities, only reach the minority community.” For Rajesh Kumar, it is a case of Moradabad versus Rampur — the bastion of Azam Khan and shorthand here for the SP government’s alleged pro-Muslim bias. “Why is it that Rampur gets more beautified roads than Moradabad? Why was the entire police force activated to search for Azam Khan’s buffaloes?” The most commonly heard complaint is of calls being made by senior SP leaders to let off alleged criminals from police stations if they happen to be Muslims.

But the trend to track may be this: the stories of both development and discrimination that seem to work in favour of the BJP are also being echoed in SC bastis, even in Jatav clusters famed for their unwavering allegiance to the BSP.

In the Jatav basti of village Binjahedi, about 100 km from Moradabad town, a group of youth say they will not vote for the BSP. “This time a lot of the haathi vote will go to the BJP,” says Bhishma. “There is Modi ki charcha this time,” agrees Ravi. Another group in a Jatav basti in the heart of the town called Bunglagaon, too, is discussing Modi. “Only he can take them on,” says Bhagat Ram, without specifying who he means by “them”. “Price rise has gone out of control, there is so much corruption and we need to try out someone new to fix things at the Centre. Of course, in assembly elections we will still vote for Mayawati,” says Rakesh Kumar.

Closer to election day, the new fragility of Mayawati’s vote bank may yet prove reversible. In Binjahedi, Ravi Kumar explains: “Whoever we vote for, others think we only vote BSP. What is the point of giving our vote to another party, if our support will not even be counted?”

At the local BSP office, candidate Haji Yaqub’s son Imran sits among supporters and appears unruffled by rumours of a splintering in Mayawati’s core vote. “This election is our fight with the BJP,” he says. “After all, Muslims will finally weigh in with a party that has a solid plus vote.”

Amid the hectic calculations, uncertainties and arguments, Moradabad’s besieged brass industry — the site of the intertwining of Hindus and Muslims as an everyday, unsentimental imperative — soldiers on. Electricity is scarce, raw material has become prohibitively expensive and there is no government help or subsidy. “The artisans are all Muslim, while the large factory owners and exporters are mostly Hindu,” says Z H Mansoori, an artisan and president of the Peetal Basti Dastkar Association. “Elections come and go, but relationships between communities, their interdependence, and their shared problems will go on.”

As inflammatory SMSes and mobile videos begin to poison the air, the brass industry could well be Moradabad’s anchor and reality check. Because, as Mansoori says, “Bagair aapke main zinda nahin, aur bagair mere aap nahin.”