As night falls in Manjhok, Asaduddin Owaisi narrates how a Muslim woman’s body was removed from a grave in Meerut by men who wanted to violate it. “Tell me, who will raise their voice against this?” The crowd falls silent, and tears trickle down the cheeks of many.
“You have to unite. Then no one can do anything. India is our country. We are not here for 50, 60, 100, 200 years, we are here for ever. This is the country of our forefathers. And to do so, you have to join your own party, make your own people successful,” Owaisi signs off.
Remote Manjhok is a village in the Kochadhaman constituency of Kishanganj which, along with Araria, Purnea and Katihar, makes the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region of Bihar. It is here that Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) is contesting six seats for the first time.
Yet the going is not easy for Owaisi. The fear of a split in votes and a Muslim community divided along strict caste lines are a big hurdle. His party is a serious contender in two constituencies — Kochadhaman and Kishanganj town.
“It is a good introduction. But I don’t think we will go with Owaisi Sahib this time. There is a direct fight between the BJP and Mahagathbandhan. If the votes get divided, the BJP can win,’’ said Farooq Azam, who runs an electronics business in Kishanganj.
Unlike elsewhere, the Muslims in Seemanchal are divided. “The largest population is Surjapuri and we have Sherabadis and Kulhaiya as well. We are making every effort to remain united.” But Azam knows it’s going to be difficult “because parties are trying everything to split this vote”.
Owaisi too realises this. So he brings up Dadri. “Do you know what happened at Dadri? A man called Akhlaq was killed because the killers suspected he had beef at home. He was sleeping at home, they came and killed him with bricks. Who was Akhlaq? Akhlaq’s son is in the Indian Air Force. He was away, helping keep the country’s skies safe…”
And then he brings in the Prime Minister. “You will have to stop these people. You are the Prime Minister of India, not the Prime Minister of the BJP and RSS. You are the Prime Minister of the country where 17 crore Muslims live.”
“I went to Akhlaq’s house… His mother told me, ‘go and fight the killers of my son’. I have come to you with that mother’s words. We have to fight these communalists… We need to vote for our people and send such people to the assembly who will stand before them, look them in the eye and tell them we want our rights,” Owaisi tells the crowd.
But Congress leader and sitting MLA Dr Mohammad Jawaid says “people are wise enough” to vote for the Mahagathbandhan this time. “Efforts are being made to divide the vote. We will have to see how many votes get divided. The BJP vote doesn’t divide. That doesn’t happen.”
JD(U)’s Mohammad Touseef, the Mahagathbandhan candidate from Bahadurganj constituency, disagrees: “There is no such division. The voters will unite.’’ He sees no threat from Owaisi. “Anybody can hold rallies, people come to listen. He is a new face for them. But I don’t think these people will vote for his candidates.’’
He refers to Owaisi’s attempts to make his party an exclusive Muslim party in Bihar: “People who want to make a separate party have other reasons. They are helping someone else.” He is suggesting that Owaisi is helping the BJP by dividing votes.
Owaisi rubbishes the charge. “How will I stop the Mahagathbandhan when we are contesting only in six constituencies? It is ridiculous to think that our entry is going to help the BJP. In fact, it is because of our entry that Lalu and Nitish have shown some respect to Muslim leaders in their parties. They never cared for them. They always thought Muslims have no option,’’ he told The Indian Express.
But at the rallies, he explains it in a different way. “See how different castes and communities have chosen their own leaders. The Yadavs have chosen Lalu, Kurmis have chosen Nitish Kumar, Bhumihars, Brahmins, all the upper castes have gathered behind the BJP, the Manjhi community has declared Manjhi their leader, Paswans have accepted Paswan as their leader. This isn’t considered firqa parasti (sectarianism). But when Assaduddin Owaisi tells you that we can use our votes to make our own candidates and party successful, people immediately point fingers and say look, he is talking communalism.”