In Bihar’s Naxal pocket, why Muslims are searching for BJP as an option

In Gaya’s Imamganj, on the Jharkhand border, this decision is not about Nitish Kumar or Narendra Modi, and clearly not about Hindutva over secularism.

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An unusual story is taking shape in the Naxal heartland of South Bihar, where a number of Muslim political activists are joining the BJP and canvassing for the saffron party this time.

In Gaya’s Imamganj, on the Jharkhand border, this decision is not about Nitish Kumar or Narendra Modi, and clearly not about Hindutva over secularism. It’s a vote against JD (U) leader and Bihar Assembly Speaker, Uday Narayan Choudhary, who has been the MLA here five times since 1990.

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“I joined the BJP as soon as Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar formed an alliance. I was with the RJD before that,’’ says Izhar Karim Khan (55). “There was no choice because we can’t support Choudhary. And we know he will be the candidate of the Maha Gathbandhan (Grand Coalition),” he adds.

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“What Choudhary has done is known to every Muslim here. We haven’t read it in history books, we have witnessed it. How can we forget the massacre of our people?” asks Khan.

Another recent BJP recruit, Ahmad Alam Khan, from Rabda village, explains that the reference is to the alleged “Naxal attacks on Muslims in the villages of Badri deh, Ramdohar, Simri and Bijua in Dumaria block where scores were reportedly killed and property destroyed soon after Choudhary was elected for the first time”.

“For ten years, this tyranny continued. We are not saying he (Choudhary) was party to what the Naxals did but we have no doubt that he has affection for them. He was openly supporting the Naxals. He never helped minorities,’’ says Ahmad Alam Khan.

”He thinks the Muslims will still vote for him because of their fear of the BJP. But we will try our best to defeat him, we will see what happens if BJP comes to power,” he says.

Crumbling havelis, unkempt gardens

To understand this anger, you need to walk down a narrow lane from the main road at Dumria. On one side are the old run-down havelis of the one-time zamindars, or the “Khan sahibs”. On the other are the small mud-covered hutments of the Musahars.

”Once upon a time, our elders told us, we were well-to-do farmers. We have around seven acres of land. I do farming for a living now but it is hand-to-mouth these days,’’ says Izhar Karim Khan, as he leans back on a wooden chair in the verandah of the house with a large, unkempt garden.

”We live in the ruins of what was built decades ago,” he says, adding that he shares this house with his elder brothers, one of whom is a retired bank manager.

”At one point, I left the village to work as a mechanic at thermal plants in Delhi and Punjab. Many people from the villages here go for menial jobs in these plants. I returned after six years,’’ he says.

Izhar Karim Khan says Muslims constitute around 13 per cent of the Imamganj constituency. “This is a reserved constituency and we are hoping that Jitan Ram Manjhi (ex-CM and Mahadalit leader) contests from here. That will make our job easier. In any case, the other possible candidate is Roshan Manjhi (who was Lalu’s candidate here in 2010 but later crossed over to the BJP),” he says.

Shabir Ahmad Khan, of Madarpur village, echoes this anger, saying that many among the Pathan community are not only joining the BJP but roping in others as well. He adds that some of the “backward” Ansari Muslims, too, have gone with the BJP.

One of them, Muzaffar Ansari from Aadar Chak village, told The Indian Express that the BJP has got “several new recruits” from villages such as Shamsabad and Kothi.

”I was in JD(U) and decided to join BJP. We will go with a party that gives us respect. It has been a difficult job to convince Muslims to join the BJP but we are trying. We have managed to convince most of the men in our village,” he says.

‘Old landlords, old thinking’

Uday Narayan Choudhary won the 2010 election with a margin of 1,211 votes, polling 44,126 votes to beat the RJD candidate — only 47.58 per cent of an electorate of 2,29,249 cast their votes. But the man at the centre of this debate dismisses the Muslim families who have joined the BJP this time as “old landlords with old houses and old thinking”.

”I am the MLA from there since 1990 and whatever you see, roads, electricity, hospital… has happened during my time,” Patna-based Choudhary (63) told The Indian Express (report on page X).

Choudhary, who has lost only once, in 1995, by a margin of 120 votes, denies allegations that he supported the Naxals but admits they are “fighting the same fight”.

’I have fought for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. They (the Naxals) are fighting the same fight. The only difference is they do so violently while we do it through non-violent means,” he says.

Chaudhary’s confident line that he has little to fear from the BJP is not completely misplaced. In Imamganj constituency, the Muslims who have joined the BJP and are canvassing for it are still fewer than those who say: “We will vote for an electricity pole, if needed, to prevent the victory of a BJP candidate”.

Says JD (U) worker Mohammad Siraj-ud-din Ansari from Lutua village: “The Muslim vote in the constituency is in the thousands. How many can they transfer to the BJP? The majority stands firmly with Nitish Kumar. Nobody can deny the work he has done in the last 10 years, and our community has benefitted from it. You should have seen the condition of roads. We had forgotten what electricity meant.”

Asked about the Naxal issue, he says, “The problem can’t be rooted out but it is a lot more secure than it was earlier”.

Sikandar Khan, a Congressman from Kothi village, insists that only a few Muslims have joined the BJP. “It is not such a big problem. Most of us are with the ‘Maha Gathbandhan’. We don’t look at Choudhary, we look at Nitish. These people are just pawns for the BJP which needs a few Muslim votes to win,” he says, adding that supporters of the ‘grand alliance’ are planning to hold a meeting of Muslims to shore up the consensus.

Then again, the anger against Choudhary doesn’t seem to have transformed into support for the BJP among the poorest of Muslims who appear more at the ease with the other group at the bottom rung of the social ladder, the Musahars.

”We are all very poor. We have never had any tensions between us,’’ says Sahjida, adding that she enjoys a good rapport with the Musahar women.

Sahjida’s husband Jalil is working as a farm labourer, earning “Rs 100 on a good day”, while her neighbour Shabeena Khatoon’s husband Nizam is out selling vegetables on a cart in Dumaria.

Among the women, Choudhary’s name crops up only when the conversation veers towards the small hospital that the JD(U) legislator built nearby — the Naxals don’t figure even once.