The community is now focussed mainly on the core concerns of education and employment
The 2007 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh were held against a backdrop of simmering communal tension as the Sangh Parivar worked overtime to provoke Muslims, portraying them as terrorists and traitors. But the community leadership — religious, social and political — acutely aware that a polarised election would benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), advocated restraint from all possible forums. The Muslims held their peace and were rewarded: the BJP’s tally dipped from 89 to 51 seats, while the number of Muslims elected to the UP Assembly was the highest since Independence — 56, almost 14 per cent in the 403-strong assembly, close to its real strength of 18 per cent in the state.
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As political parties seek their votes for the impending elections in the state, Muslims remain focused on increasing their numbers in the assembly while vigorously demanding reservation in education and employment.
Indeed, when this writer travelled through the state in November (before the Centre announced a 4.5 per cent reservation for minorities within the 27.5 per cent OBC quota), community leaders in the Muslim-dominated western districts were already stressing that education and employment took precedence over issues of security and justice for them.
In Rampur, for instance, the change in the community's priorities was apparent even in Mohammad Azam Khan, the controversial star of the Babri Masjid movement in the early 1990s.
Just back in the Samajwadi Party (SP), he admitted, “Muslims no longer react physically to issues that upset them. They now respond politically.” His own efforts to reinvent himself as a modern-day Nawab of Rampur, while being a minister in the SP government in UP in 2007, may not have been entirely successful. But his building spree, even constructing a university to rival the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), is a pointer to the community’s current concerns.
Indeed, Muslim leaders I met on my trip — from Abdul Qayoom, a physics professor at AMU, to Shabbu Mian, a Sufi leader in Bareilly, to Sayeed Masoom Ali Azad, the Imam of Moradabad city — all flagged education and employment as the top issues, criticising the Congress for failing to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Report. Belatedly, the Centre acted on the reservation issue last month: now, of course, following the controversy over Union law minister Salman Khurshid's promise of nine per cent reservation for OBC Muslims in UP, the Election Commission has stayed the Cabinet decision of 4.5 per cent quota for them.
Little wonder, all political parties are rushing to either rubbish the Congress' promise or top it: Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP has promised 18 per cent to the community, outside the OBC quota, to protect the interests of non-Muslim OBCs; chief minister Mayawati had also stressed that she had written to the Centre to pressure it on the reservation issue.
If Muslims in UP are now focused on improving their lot, Delhi’s Batla House encounter and the Malegaon case, where Muslim young men were wrongly arrested and only belatedly released, and the Gopalgarh riots in neighbouring Rajasthan also frequently creep into their conversations, indicating a continuing concern with security and justice for the community.
Meanwhile, the Congress, SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are battling it out for Muslim support, with approximately a fifth of their candidates hailing from the community. Mr Yadav has apologised to the community for having tied up with Hindutva icon Kalyan Singh in the 2009 polls and is the frontrunner for the community's vote.
The Congress, which won 22 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, thanks to massive Muslim support, has now slipped to number two, despite the Centre’s financial package for weavers, largely Muslims: its star campaigner Rahul Gandhi was recently heckled in Azamgarh on the Batla House encounter, while Mr Khurshid was shown black flags at AMU last year to protest against the Congress’ support to a corrupt VC. And the BSP has issued a booklet, listing all that it has done for the community.
Adding drama is an appeal by the All India Ulema Mashaikh Board, a body of Barelwi-Sunni Muslims, asking people to vote against Deobandi candidates (this is the first time a sectarian appeal has been made), the presence of “Muslim” parties such as the Peace Party and Welfare Party that could act as spoilers for the mainstream outfits; and a fatwa from Deoband against allowing Salman Rushdie to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival.
With Muslims constituting 20 to 45 per cent of the population in over a 100 seats, lobbying for the community’s support is bound to get even more frenzied as the elections draw near.