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Muslims have never been a herd

May 12, 2014 13:08 IST

Voters in Muzaffarnagar

'What of Modi? They are willing to take their chances. Maharashtra's Muslims recall how the Congress scared them with the Bal Thackeray bogey for decades, yet, when it came to using all the might of the State to protect them from Shiv Sena goons, be it in 1970, 1984 or 1992-1993, it did nothing. For them, the Congress's secularism is a cruel joke.'

'This argument that we ('seculars') must vote for the 'winning secular candidate' has one more implication: Those who are against Hindutva must forever be stuck with the same corrupt, cynical and tired old parties, who are not even secular,' says Jyoti Punwani.

We first heard it in 2004. Ten years later, exactly the same advice has been given throughout the election.

In 2004, the prospect of another five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party rule at the Centre had sent 'People Like Us' into a tizzy. The same 'tactical voting' tip was being given -- vote only for the one who can defeat the 'fascists'. Don't divide the secular vote. Congress misdeeds? That wasn't the time to talk about them.

Well, we've had ten glorious years of secular governance now -- and it shows. A report from Sanjarpur village, Azamgarh, describes how Muslim mothers wait for their sons to come back, sons who left home to study but were either shot dead, or picked up and continue to rot in jail as terrorists.

'Azamgarh is a terrorist hub,' declared Amit Shah. 'The accused in the Gujarat bomb blasts are from Azamgarh. Being the home minister there, I have got the accused arrested. Since then not a single terrorist act has taken place in Gujarat.'

The sub-text of Shah's appeal was clear: He was actually telling the Hindus of Azamgarh to vote for Narendra Modi so that Azamgarh's 'terrorists' -- their Muslim neighbours -- would be set straight.

Expectedly, Shah's speech caused an uproar. But who gave Azamgarh the 'terrorist' tag? Under whose watch have Azamgarhi Muslims been picked up again and again? Is that an irrelevant question now, with Narendra Modi knocking at the door?

'Vote to defeat Modi' has been the clarion call in this election, never mind who the candidate is. A group called 'NOMOre wasted votes' even drew up a list of 'winnable secular' candidates, so that those who dislike Modi didn't 'waste' their votes on losers.

In Mumbai, one such recommended candidate was Congressman Eknath Gaikwad. During the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots in Mumbai, this worthy, along with Shiv Sena luminaries (one of whom is in the Congress now), led a 4,000-strong morcha to a police station demanding the release of Shiv Sainiks detained, not for rioting, but for burning alive three Muslims in their car.

One of the three burnt to death that day was 32-year-old Khursheed, the only graduate in his family, a Muslim who, his father Yusuf Khan recalled proudly, spoke Marathi better than any Marathi manoos.

I used to meet Khan, a garage owner who'd grown old before his time, at the trial of the Shiv Sainiks accused of killing his eldest son. They were acquitted of course, thanks to a third-rate police investigation and a worse public prosecutor, neither of them accountable to anyone.

The Srikrishna Commission had recommended strict action against the five cops who stood, doing nothing, 150 feet away from the burning car and its occupants, but the 'secular' Congress-NCP government, like its cops, did nothing.

January 2013 saw a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Mumbai riots. The city must never forget what happened in 1992-1993, it was said then, we owe it to the victims (never mind if the victims' families didn't want to be reminded of that nightmare).

A year later, we were being told to vote for active players in that violence, and forget what they did then, because let us not fudge the big issue -- could they defeat Modi?

Would we have the guts to tell Yusuf Khan: 'Hey, vote for Eknath Gaikwad. Never mind if he marched in favour of your son's killers, he's saving you from fascism.'

Javed Ansari was 18 when his father's farmhouse was burnt down by a Hindu mob in Bhiwandi in 1984. 31 Muslims and one Hindu sheltering there perished. Javed still remembers how those who tried to run, were cleaved with axes, he remembers their insides spilling out, he can still picture the charred bodies.

His father Ibrahim Ansari, then head of the Bhiwandi Chamber of Commerce, had spent the morning calling the police for help. Sounds familiar? Gujarat 2002 wasn't so unique after all.

Years later, despite Ibrahim Ansari sitting through the trial alone and identifying the accused in court, all 40 were acquitted. No one even knew -- there was no 24/7 media then.

How can anyone in Bhiwandi consider the Congress secular, asks Javed. That party treats us like toys -- use and throw away.

If it is not about individuals such as Yusuf Khan and Javed Ansari, who is the 'secular vote' about? A faceless, homogenous Muslim herd? How different is that from the RSS way of looking at Muslims?

But here is a flash. Muslims have never been a herd. Like everyone else, whenever there has been an alternative to the Congress, they have grabbed it.

They did this when V P Singh challenged Rajiv Gandhi at the Centre, in UP they went with the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, they did it in West Bengal with the Left and then Mamata Banerjee, they did it in Andhra Pradesh with NTR, they even voted Nitish Kumar in Bihar despite his BJP baggage.

This election too, they have behaved like other Indians. Despite the circulation of Gujarat 2002 videos by the Congress, despite its systematic rumour-mongering that under Modi, neither the Bakri Eid cattle sacrifice nor Muslim Personal Law will remain, despite mass smses from community 'leaders' about Kumar Vishwas Sharma's RSS remarks, many Muslims, like Indians everywhere, continue to be enthralled by the new alternative: The Aam Aadmi Party.

Reasons vary -- for the first time, we feel proud of being Indians, say some youngsters; for the first time, we are not being treated as a separate vote-bank, say older Muslims.

What of Modi? They are willing to take their chances. Maharashtra's Muslims recall how the Congress scared them with the Bal Thackeray bogey for decades, yet, when it came to using all the might of the State to protect them from Shiv Sena goons, be it in 1970, 1984 or 1992-1993, it did nothing. And after the violence, it didn't even punish the cops who helped the Shiv Sainiks against Muslims. For them, the Congress's secularism is a cruel joke.

This argument that we ('seculars') must vote for the 'winning secular candidate' has one more implication: Those who are against Hindutva must forever be stuck with the same corrupt, cynical and tired old parties, who are not even secular.

Forget everything else -- Indira Gandhi playing the Hindu card in the Jammu elections in 1983, before that, her alarm when 200 Dalit families in Meenakshipuram converted to Islam, her cynical communal games in Punjab. Forget Shahbano, the unlocking of the Babri Masjid, the 1992-1993 riots...

Can we forget that Rajiv Gandhi's historical landslide victory in 1984 came on the heels of the massacre of 3,000 Sikhs, and after an election campaign vilifying the entire Sikh community as terrorists and traitors?

What of the other parties we were told to vote for? If the BJP gave the Muzaffarnagar riot accused tickets, so did Mayawati. Her sitting MP from Muzaffarnagar, Qadir Rana, who was booked for hate speech, was renominated. Here's what he reportedly told Muslims before large-scale violence broke out in Muzaffarnagar: 'If the Jat mahapanchayat is allowed, tau Khuda kasam, Muzaffarnagar main ek Hindu baccha bhi zinda nahi bach payega (Not even one Hindu child will be alive in Muzaffarnagar).'

The less said about the Samajwadi Party, the better. Reports from UP have described what Mulayam Singh's 'secularism' has meant on the ground: Scholarships to Muslim girls only, ignoring their equally needy Hindu classmates; and a carte blanche to Muslim offenders.

The result? Here's what two UP-wallahs who have worked in Mumbai for years told this reporter. "No Hindu will vote for Mulayam in Azamgarh," said Ratilal, a bhelpuriwallah. "Their daughters are pulled out of line and given scholarships, while our daughters are left behind. Aren't we poor too?"

For Ratilal, there was just one alternative -- Arvind Kejriwal.

Rafiq, a breadwallah who goes back to UP every alternate year, said this time, his vote would be for Behenji (Maywati). "We regret voting her out. Ever since Netaji (Mulayam Singh Yadav) has come, we can't leave home after dusk. It is too dangerous. Goondas roam around, the police do nothing."

As a true-blue 'secularist', what should I have told Ratilal and Rafiq? Be very afraid, fascism is nigh, vote for the winning secular goonda?

For the first time in years, in this election, we had candidates we could actually respect. "AAP isn't going to form the government, but this election will tell us one thing -- how many people want corruption to end." These words came from a Delhi cab driver. But when did our intellectuals ever listen to people?

Image: Muslim women, who were displaced by deadly religious strife last year, walk back to their relief camp after casting their vote in the general election at a polling station in Palra village in Muzaffarnagar. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

Jyoti Punwani