In a patronage democracy where resource distribution depends on the discretion of elected officials, it pays to stay close to the power centres in government.
Ahmadbhai Shaikh is a muezzin in a mosque in the Behrampura area of Ahmedabad. If not reciting the ‘azaan,' he is busy helping Bharatiya Janata Party workers in his ward to campaign among members of his community. His reason for shifting from the Congress to the BJP is “the hope that our drainage problems will be solved, after all these years.” As one who was lucky to escape the arson and looting in the city in 2002, he merely calls that a “period of misfortune.”
It was nine years ago that Gujarat's biggest wave of Hindu-Muslim violence was triggered in Godhra. The burning of the Sabarmati Express marked the beginning of an anti-Muslim backlash that continued intermittently for the entire year amid allegations of State complicity. That period reinforced existing residential and symbolic segregation of Muslims in cities like Ahmedabad.
Nine years later, the victims of the violence are embracing their perceived perpetrators.
As has been already discussed extensively, Gujarat's Muslims voting for the BJP is an exceptional case compared to, say, Bihar where the BJP was accepted only on the condition of excluding Hindutva (and Narendra Modi), or even other parts of northern India where Sikhs voted for their perceived oppressors, the Congress, only after a public apology the party made to the community. The reasons for the transformation behind the new ‘all-inclusive' BJP have also been discussed widely.
Yet, what is far more exceptional is the kind of Muslims supporting the BJP in Gujarat.
Take Ahmedabad city, for example. The campaign trail of the BJP in the 2010 civic polls here included a patchwork of busybody Muslim clerics and traders: two groups that we would assume to have different voting preferences. The traders have an understandable, rational logic of voting for a party that has emphasised its economic development policies as never before. The voting preference of two significant trader-Muslim communities of Gujarat, the Dawoodi Bohras and the Khojas — both Shias — has always tended to be biased towards the party in power, be it the British in pre-independent India, the Congress in the 1980s to early-1990s, or the BJP later. “The Syedna or the head priest will always seek a cordial relationship with those in power. It is in his interests, and as he sees it, in the interests of the community,” says scholar-activist J.S. Bandukwala.
However, if one looks at the situation five years ago, it is fascinating and almost implausible why religious Sunni Muslims, including clerics, would come out to support the BJP.
In 2006, this writer spoke with Asma Saiyed, a student at St. Xavier's College in Ahmedabad. Enraged by the events of 2002, she had taken a significant decision: to add the burqa to her wardrobe of western wear. For this eloquent young woman, wearing her religion on her sleeve was a “slap in the face” of the BJP, which she viewed as the architect of violence against Muslims in 2002. “All of us friends felt cowed down by a constant anti-Muslim rhetoric since 2002. And we thought whether it made any sense to be scared. We said, okay so you want to hate us? Here are our burqas so we know that you know we are Muslims. Now come, get us.”
Ms Saiyed belonged to that section of Muslims who developed a collective identity in opposition to the majority, most of whom, they believed, endorsed the BJP's Hindutva rhetoric. This was similar to what John Ogbu's work on ‘oppositional culture' among Black American students in the U.S. tells us — that their identities as minorities were developed as a response to White racism, which then led them to oppose conformism in education and all that which would be “good” (White or majority) behaviour.
Religious symbolism became a shield for these Muslims to protect their identities against the threat of rising, rabid Hindutva. Compromise seemed impossible even in the exchange of economic development. So when Congress workers told this writer recently that Muslims were paid by the BJP to support it in the civic elections, it was paradoxical, even if the claim were true. People generally refuse to involve themselves in cost-benefit calculations and reach a self-serving decision on issues of a sacred nature when given material incentives in exchange. Assuming some Muslims did accept money from the BJP in exchange of support, does it mean they are no longer looking at the 2002 post-Godhra violence as an attack on their religious identity? If the Congress is not a favourable alternative and the BJP a lurking ethnic threat, why vote at all?
The answer perhaps lies in the fact that India's is a patronage democracy wherein resource distribution depends on the discretion of elected officials as a form of market good rather than an entitlement. Staying close to the power centres in government is the key to survival. For the traders, survival is synonymous with their occupation. For the cleric, it could mean assimilation to avoid being labelled anything from anti-social to anti-national — no surprise that most Muslim BJP supporters, including religious Muslims, have patriotic songs as their phone caller tune.
“This terrorism taint is too much for the community. As long as the BJP is in power, we have to be part of the mainstream to shun this tag,” says Imranbhai, a fruit vendor in Ahmedabad. He fits the stereotype of the Congress supporter: white kurta-pyjama, skull cap, untrimmed beard and moustache. Only that he swears by the BJP. “There is no shame for a Muslim today to admit he supports the BJP,” he says. Indeed, the indifference of religious Muslims to saffron flags fluttering in the dense Muslim ghettos of Juhapura and Saudagar ni Pol in Ahmedabad — areas that are alien to the local Hindu except in scary stories — was unthinkable earlier.
Moin Khan, once a CPI(M) worker, soon to sign up with the BJP, explains that the power centre for a religious Muslim is the local cleric; for the cleric, it is the people in governance. “The maulvis can mobilise masses because people listen to them. For the maulvis to establish credibility among the people, they have no choice but to get their hands dirtied in their network of influential politicians.” He recalls how a Sunni Muslim cleric who was close to the BJP helped trace a local slum-dweller's daughter who had disappeared. “Some clerics help the Congress, many now [help] the BJP because there is no alternative.”
Moving back again five years ago, as one section of Muslims in Ahmedabad battled issues of identity using religion as a shield, another section had begun to develop a different kind of collective solutions to the discrimination. They were of the view that survival was possible only for the fittest Muslim — one who conforms to the mainstream majority. Prepping up for an existence war of sorts, they began to set up schools and focus on mainstream education for their children. Almost 70 per cent of Muslim-managed educational institutions, for example, were established in Ahmedabad between 1993 and 2005 — after the two waves of Hindu-Muslim violence.
Qutbuddin Ansari, who became the “face of the Gujarat riots,” his pleading picture making news in national and international media in 2002, refused an interview with this writer in 2007. His request: privacy. “I've moved on. Please let me be.”
The movement to “move on” had already started. The recent civic elections took it to a higher level.
Remember that this remains a discussion about a very small section of Muslims — most of whom relatively (that is, not directly) affected by the violence. Moreover, political attitudes in a civic election are based on ground issues. Slum-dwellers in the old city of Ahmedabad are ready to switch left, right and centre (the CPI (M) to the RSS to the BJP) as long as they get their local corporator to provide their daily quota of drinking water. Whether the BJP will continue to embrace Muslims at the cost of upsetting its majority target voters in Gujarat in the Assembly elections, will be seen in the future.
“The BJP will always be anti-Muslim, that is its identity. But the benefits it has given to Hindus, say in the Sarkhej ward, have indirectly reached Muslims,” says Shahid Ali, a Muslim entrepreneur. A Congress supporter, he is open to the BJP if it continues to welcome Muslim candidates. Speaking of former top cop Al Saiyed, who contested on the BJP ticket, he says, “I would not mind having a Muslim candidate like Saiyed. At least I have someone of my own to hold accountable for any sloppy work.” Mr. Saiyed, who managed to get over 13,000 votes in Sarkhej, himself believes that the recent change in political behaviour is driven by educated Muslims and those who have realised the need to be in the mainstream. “If we do not assimilate with other communities, it's the end of us!” he says.
(Raheel Dhattiwala is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, who is doing field work in Ahmedabad.)