Three days ago, Fasahat Ali Khan Shanu, a close aide of Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Azam Khan, switched to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the bypoll in Rampur. Mr. Shanu gave three reasons for his decision: one, the role of Abduls (common Muslims) in the SP and other secular parties, he alleged, was just to lay the carpet for the leadership; two, the BJP government did not discriminate against Muslims in the implementation of its schemes; and three, the BJP promised him honour. Mr. Shanu echoed what the Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister, Brajesh Pathak, said while addressing a rally for Pasmanda Muslims in Rampur: “Ab Pasmanda Muslim bade miyan ka hukka nahin bharega.” By this, Mr. Pathak meant backward Muslims will no longer serve the interests of upper-class Muslims like Mr. Khan.
But Mr. Shanu, who faces multiple criminal cases, is no Pasmanda. Recent events including the switch of SP leaders Imran Masood and Ali Yusuf Ali to the Bahujan Samaj Party and BJP respectively, the support of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to the madrasa survey, and the meeting of a section of the Muslim intelligentsia with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) show that the BJP and the Muslims are taking steps gingerly towards each other. Such overtures are a response to the global outcry following (now expelled) BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s controversial comments on the Prophet. Also, with the Lok Sabha election just over a year away, the BJP is keen to make its mark in the pockets of influence of leaders such as Mr. Khan, Mukhtar Ansari and Nahid Hasan. It hopes that these will either shift to the BJP or coalesce behind the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), the only party that is vocal on Muslim issues and that could impact the poll results in favour of the BJP. Curiously, in his rallies before the Assembly polls in U.P., AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi would also ask, “Abdul kab tak Samajwadi Party ke liye dari bichhayega (How long will common Muslims lay the carpet for the SP)?”
U.P. voted for 34 Muslim candidates in the last Assembly polls: 32 from the SP and two from the Rashtriya Lok Dal. But it seems as though the Muslim political worker wanted nothing less than a change in regime. Some miss the perks of power, some are miffed with the SP for the leadership’s silence on the vilification of the community by the Sangh Parivar, and some feel that strengthening the SP only results in polarisation, which helps the BJP. Many say that Mr. Masood and others switched parties to buy peace with the BJP and stay relevant in their constituencies as the ruling party is busy displacing the strongmen of SP through administrative and judicial processes. Observers say the shift of Mr. Shanu and Mr. Masood to other parties is not very different from the recent bonhomie between some Muslim intellectuals and the RSS. A proverb often heard among the clerics of Deoband or the self-proclaimed vote managers of the Muslim community in Rampur and Aligarh goes: “Pani main rehkar magarmachch se bair nahin ki jati (You can’t live in the water and fight the crocodile).”
Despite the rhetoric around the lack of discrimination in the implementation of government schemes, many Muslims believe that the BJP-led government is trying to reinforce their religious identity by surveying madrasas and enemy properties. Cases of hate speech are being assiduously followed against Opposition leaders while the BJP gives its own rabble-rousers a long rope. Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati’s comments against Islam have become so common as to be treated as mundane.
A section of Muslims, who realise that Hindutva politics and competitive communalism are here to stay, suggest indifference to politics could minimise the friction. They wonder why Muslims should take the sole responsibility for defeating the BJP. But they are equally worried by the BJP’s ability to consistently find issues to target the community. They worry not so much about the Gyanvapi mosque or the Uniform Civil Code as they do about the vicious social media messaging around the government’s attempts to streamline records of Waqf property and remove encroachments of enemy properties. Observers say the right-wing ecosystem is generating a sense in rural areas that Muslims are sitting on swathes of illegally occupied property. Is the BJP, the perceived oppressor, being seen as a saviour? Or are the two sides only trying to safeguard their interests till 2024?