Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sun, 5 Feb 2012

Myth of the Muslim bloc

Seema Chishti : Sun Feb 05 2012, 02:51 hrs

From being wrapped around shoulders in the Arab world, the kaffiyeh (Arab scarf) has gone on to make appearances on European fashion ramps and sent out fashion and political statements all over the world. It also keeps the looms of Tanda, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, spinning. Says 40-year old businessman Shakeel Akhtar alias ‘Tiger’, “Tanda is the only one to stand up to the invasion of cheap Chinese fabric. We are still holding on to our share of world supplies of kaffiyehs.”

Here in Tanda in Akbarpur district in UP, which goes to the polls in the first phase on February 8, weaving is the mainstay of many families. Despite a daily load shedding of 10-12 hours, weaving is the prime occupation in Tanda which has approximately 50,000 power looms.
In this small town, upper caste well-off Muslims who control the trade rub shoulders with thread suppliers and Momin Ansaris—one of the 67 Muslim backward castes in UP that are now eligible for reservations for minorities.

As Tanda’s residents talk about weaving and reservations, unending lines of girls from the Bunkar (handloom weavers) community of backward Muslims make their way back home from school. Girls in headscarves returning from school may be a common sight in Malappuram in Kerala or Warangal in Andhra, but in UP, it’s a new sight.

With weaving no longer considered profitable, not many in the trade want to continue in it. In this media saturated market, Tanda no longer stands in isolation. It has got a whiff of the outside world and it wants more. In fact, it’s not Tanda alone. The promise of scholarships, mid-day meals at schools and the assiduous wooing of Muslims for the past 15 years and a sense that there is “no immediate threat” to their lives are all factors that are increasingly making Muslims in the state embrace education.

Shabina Bano, 27, one of five daughters in a Bunkar family, teaches at the government-run Shamsuddin Primary School in Tanda. “I have an MA and LLB as well as a B.Ed degree and even in my in-laws’ home, everyone is opting for jobs.”

Her colleague, Nishat Rafi, talks proudly of being the first in her family to be educated. “I have cleared NET (National Eligibility Test) and I can teach anywhere,” she says.

Both Bano and Rafi talk about how their brothers and other relatives have gone off to Dubai and other countries in the Middle-East in search of better prospects.

Change and the vote

So, will changing aspirations impact the way the Muslim voter votes this time?

In UP, where Muslims make up about 18.5 per cent of the population and are influential in about one-fourth of the constituencies, a monolithic Muslim vote is a myth. But communal polarisation since the mid-90s did mean that in their eagerness to “keep out the BJP”, there was tactical voting.

Defeating the BJP remains an objective but who is to be voted in is a decision that’s acquired a complex tone. The variables taken into account make the Muslim voter a much more demanding candidate than ever before. Recognising that their vote matters, Muslims want to see real improvement in their lives—mere promises or assurances from politicians that they will “protect” them, won’t work any longer. In a state obsessed with politics and political representation, this time, material concerns, opportunities and a desire to get ahead dominated election talk.

A few hundred kilometres off Tanda, in Basti, retired commercial tax officer Niaz Ahmed says, “With the BJP now having taken the backseat, the Hindu vote and the Muslim vote is no longer so polarised. Muslims in the state are very keen to be on a par with other communities and fight backwardness. Have you heard the slogan given by Dr Syed Amin, head of Urdu department at AMU? ‘Aadhi roti khaayenge, bacchon ko padhaayenge’.”

Muslim voters in Basti too are looking beyond the community. Says Basti-based writer Mazhar Azad, “Everyone is tired of this community-based system. We want to know who is actually going to help us improve our lives. So now the voter is using different parameters to assess that.”

The ‘4.5’ factor

Reservations could well be one of those parameters. In December-end, the government announced a sub-quota of 4.5 per cent for minorities within the existing 27 per cent quota for OBCs in Central jobs and admission to Central educational institutions.

The Congress expected this announcement to work as a magic wand. But though it has doused some anger over the Babri Masjid issue, there are some questions and concerns being raised over the 4.5 factor as well. Haji Mohammed Sarvar, a trader in Tanda, says, “This is being pushed as Muslim reservation but it’s for all minorities. Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists, who are also eligible and are better off than us, will get it and all we will be left with is the propaganda that it is for Muslims only.”

Muslims are also uneasy that the quota has been carved out of the OBC share. They are wary of upsetting their equation with the Yadavs, a relationship that has existed ever since Mulayam Singh Yadav forged the MY (Muslim-Yadav) combine that took on the formidable BJP wave in the state in the 90s. Khursheed Ahmed, a businessman in Khaleelabad, says, “Why take it away from the OBCs? Could they not have somehow ensured that we get a fair chance without taking away from the share of OBCs?”

The quota having been announced so close to the polls may have helped avert a strong backlash from the OBCs, but it has also meant that lower caste Muslims who are the targeted beneficiaries, know little about it.

From the roof of their house, Mohammed Shakir and Mohammed Wahid, both weavers in their twenties, point to a Kanshi Ram Awas home for the poor and laugh. “Do you know that a poor family had to pay a bribe of Rs 5,000 for that house? And they were told they can’t use chulhas in the house as the walls will get dirty and that they should switch to gas instead. Now in such a system, how will we get the ‘4.5’ reservation? Who will let us access our rights? ”

Shakir says, “They should have given the ‘4.5’ slightly earlier, so that the results of that could have been seen. People are suspicious because so many promises have been made and were rarely fulfilled.”

The Rahul edge

Whether Muslims will trust Rahul Gandhi’s promises remains to be seen but his aggressive campaign has given a push to his ‘number chaar’ party. In places where the Congress has fielded high-profile, ‘good’ candidates, his campaign has drawn Muslims in and away from the SP-BSP binary.

In Basti, where a relative of Congress veteran Jagdambika Pal is contesting, the mobilisation and enthusiasm for a ‘strong’ Congress person is palpable. Mazhar Azad, a writer, says, “In the polarised atmosphere of the nineties, Mulayam Singh wore a topi and walked around picking up votes, but he too was eventually mixing religion with politics, which harms communities in the long run. The Congress would never do that.”

Abdul Waheed, a 30-something resident of Basti, says, “Soch badal rahi hai. I have a wife and children and want to secure their future. Congress is a big party.”

Dr A R Khan, an orthopaedic surgeon, says, “To counter the BJP, we tried the SP and the BSP. They just gave us lollipops. We are now looking at the Congress.”

Voters are not the only ones looking for change. Change is also on the lips of all political parties. The Congress is talking of breaking with the politics of the past 23 years. Mulayam Singh is talking of laptops and education. Mayawati claims she has an empowering model “for all” in her bag. Even the BJP’s campaign has lost its shrill, exclusivist tone of the past.

Change in UP means different things to different people. In Varanasi, 60-year old Fareed Ahmed has an aluminum tool-making unit in his house which he installed after his father, a weaver, ran into bad days. But the change in profession has not translated into a change in fortune. He says he is “neither happy nor angry with Mayawati” but suspects “change” would be good as “baaqi sabko mauqa mil chuka hai.”

Varanasi-based writer Kashi Nath Singh, who won the Sahitya Akademi this year, says, “When Rahul Gandhi went to Azamgarh this time, the elderly and enraged maulanas met him with black flags and told him how angry they were. But that did not stop 60 girls from meeting him and shaking his hand. That is change for me.”

And what does change mean to home-maker Reshma who hails from a backward Muslim family, is illiterate, but holds up her one-year-old daughter Aafreen proudly saying she will educate her. “Aapse yahan khade hoke baat kar rahe hain. Yeh badlaav hai (I am standing here and talking to you. This is change).”
Giving Peace a chance

These elections, political parties in UP face a challenge from another front: the Peace Party. With its promise of making Muslims a force to reckon with, Peace Party, launched in 2008 by the controversial Dr Mohammad Ayub, a doctor and a polarising figure in Gorakhpur, is drawing voters from smaller castes and poor areas.

In Chauri Chaura, a town near Gorakhpur, a group of men stands huddled after the evening prayers. A supporter of the Peace Party and former pradhan of Chauri Chaura, Sharifuddin, whose father incidentally played a key role in an anti-British uprising that led to the death of 23 policemen, calls reservations for minorities a jhaansa, a dhokha.

Others in the town too are disenchanted. Akhlaque Ahmed, a shoe trader, says, “We are seeing how young Muslim men, especially those who studied hard and make it, get picked up and are decreed terrorists. All the parties we have tried and tested are responsible for this so why shouldn’t we try the Peace Party as well?”

State Watch

Muslims make up 18.5 per cent of UP’s population.

They make up over 20 per cent of the population in more than 20 of the state's 71 districts. In Rampur, the figure goes up to almost 49 per cent.

Muslims have a decisive vote in several districts of western UP, such as Moradabad, Bijnore, Amroha, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar. Central and eastern UP districts like Sant Kabir Das Nagar, Lucknow, Bahraich, Balrampur, Siddharth Nagar, Barabanki, Shravasti and Bareilly too have Muslims in significant numbers

No comments:

Post a Comment