The massive mandate that the Bhartiya Janata Party received in the Uttar Pradesh has left many surprised. While a clear majority was predicted by political analysts and exit polls, victory on over 300 seats was just not expected. And more surprising was the saffron party capturing the regions having Muslim dominance. The BJP won all the six constituencies in Muzaffarnagar, worst hit during the 2013 riots, beside bagging Bijnor, Bareilly, Saharanpur and Deoband, all with huge Muslim populations.
BJP’s victory in all these constituencies shows how the party managed to break into the social fabric of the region. For Deoband in fact, BJP’s inroads was striking not just because of its ability to break the social fabric but also because of the firmness with which it could challenge a religious ideology that has been dominating the region since pre-independence.
Deoband is one of the five constituencies in Saharanpur district of North UP. With a population of 65 per cent Muslims, the region is home ground of one of the earliest Islamic revivalist movements in India. The Deobandi movement that was established a decade after the revolt of 1857 was a sharp reaction to British colonialism and the degradation of Mughal power in north India. Founded by Islamic scholar Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, the movement was based upon the rationale that loss of Muslim power was a punishment meted out to the Muslim community for having strayed from the true path of Islam. In order to redirect the Islamic community towards ‘true’ Islam, the scholars of the Deobandi movement made use of education as a tool to facilitate the formation of an ideal Muslim identity. The thorough study of the Hadith and the shift of focus from Western science and philosophy towards a more religion-centred knowledge were some of the steps it took to spread its ideology. The religious seminary created by the founders of the movement, Darul Uloom Deoband, located in Deoband, propagates Islamic science and jurisprudence.
Despite being the stronghold of a strong Islamic ideology, the social fabric of the region had more or less remained intact even during the Babri Masjid demolition incident in the early 1990s when relations between religious communities across vast stretches of north India were severely damaged.
However, the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 had a significant impact on Deoband. After the incidents in the region located 20 kms away from Deoband, the seminary Darul Uloom had severely criticised the ruling Samajwadi Party for the lack of efficient management in the state. The seminary was primarily upset over the attacks on students on their way by train to Deoband, passing through Muzaffarnagar. Shaving off the beards of these students and destroying their skull caps was a direct attack on their Islamic identity that the Deobandi followers protested against.
Since 2002, the Deoband constituency has been the stronghold of either the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party. Before that, the BJP had come to power twice, first in the 1993 elections and then in 1996. Before that, Deoband was an absolute stronghold of the Congress ever since the 1951 elections. Even when the BJP did come to power back in the 1990s its was with practically half the number of votes it won this time on. The only explanation to this massive victory is the division of Muslim votes between the SP and the BSP being a significant factor leading BJP to its victory stand.
A second reason could also be a consolidation of Hindu votes against the strong Islamic ideology established in the region. The Deobandi community has been attacked on several occasions in the past with questions being raised on their nationalist credentials. The allegations of radicalism on the Darul Uloom Deoband apart from the rift created between Hindus and Muslims post the Muzaffarnagar riots seem to have assisted in the polarisation of votes, laying out an easy path for BJP to come out with flying colours.