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'Muslims have retreated into themselves'

Last updated on: March 22, 2022 12:01 IST
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'It's like the BJP is mocking people: Do what you want, we'll still win.'

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party supporters at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi celebrate the party's victories in assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and others states, March 10, 2022. Photograph: Rahul Singh/ANI Photo

For the second election in a row, the Bharatiya Janata Party won a majority in the Uttar Pradesh assembly with more than a two thirds margin, with its vote share having gone up from 39.6% to 42.3%.

What does this mean for those who have been openly targeted during Yogi Adityanath's first term in office: Muslims and secular activists? Senior Contributor Jyoti Punwani spoke to UP residents and found despair, resignation as well as a determination to fight.

The second of a series:


Saurabh Singh, 45, works with the Inner Voice Foundation in Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi's Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi, on the issue of arsenic contamination of groundwater and on public health. His work on arsenic contamination has taken hm to China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam. Singh has little hope of things improving in the next five years.

Did you expect this result?

We thought people would vote for change, because the pandemic and its fallout brought misery and hardship.

But the BJP is expert in dividing people and winning elections. The Hindutva card and moneybags helped them win the elections.

The PM camped in Varanasi for three days. Was it a difficult fight?

Everyone knew that the BJP was facing trouble here. Hence, the vigorous campaign by the PM and other leaders here. We heard they met panchayat heads for support. The district administration was very supportive and helped the party openly.

What difference have these five years made to Varanasi?

Projects worth over 2 lakh crore were sanctioned from the Centre and the state government since the BJP came to power in 2014. Most of these were taken up under the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model, but were presented as developmental projects by the government. Some were routed via the tourism ministry.

But in the field of livelihood, education and health, there's been hardly any progress. Projects such as the Ganga waterway, the ghat re-modelling are not for the people, but help corporates. Varanasi airport also went into private hands.

Has your work on clean drinking water been encouraged by the government, specially since the PM is your MP?

In the last two years, UP got over Rs one lakh crore under the Centre's Jal Jeevan Mission (which aims to provide tapped water to every rural household by 2024). But there's hardly any work on the ground, as we saw when we toured the state before the elections.

There's also little coordination between the JJM and the state implementing agency, the UP Jal Nigam. We found the same situation in Bihar last year, and reported it to the JJM.

When Modi became MP from Varanasi and then the PM, we reported our findings first to him in 2014 through his secretary and then in 2019, through Bharat Lal, the JJM director. They were very polite and took all our reports and promised action. They sanctioned huge funds, but nothing was done.

What will be the implication for the people of Varanasi of this poll outcome?

People will suffer more on the livelihood front, because of lack of jobs, price rise, and poor health and education facilities. Not only is the state machinery highly polarised, but there's a rift in the party itself about the CM.

'This government has created a crack even in friendships'

IMAGE: Hindu Yuva Vahini supporters welcome Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at UP Sadan in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

Dr Muniza Khan, 59, has been an activist since her college days in Varanasi.

A PhD from the Banaras Hindu University, she is currently registrar and researcher at the Jayaprakash Narayan-founded Gandhian Institute of Studies, where she fought and won a long and bitter battle against the takeover of the institute by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

She also works on Khoj, a Citizens for Justice and Peace educational project, with school children in Varanasi.

What's been the impact of the election result on Muslims in Varanasi?

The common Muslim, daily wagers who live in Muslim areas, are using one word: 'Sabr' (patience).

After the results were declared, BJP supporters went around shouting 'Jai Sri Ram' and every time they saw a Muslim wearing a topi and kurta pyjama, they taunted him. So Muslims are saying: We have to be patient.

Was this result expected?

No. We don't know what happened. Not only Muslims, so many non-Muslims also voted for the SP. We thought if not SP, at least a coalition would come through with enough seats. In Varanasi, the Congress's Ajay Rai was expected to win.

Something seems to have gone wrong. People are blaming EVMs. Or maybe we couldn't judge the people's mood.

You see this time, even BJP supporters didn't seem too happy. They were talking more about unemployment, inflation, Covid. The urban middle class showed no enthusiasm for the elections. They didn't even know Prime Minister Modi's programme in Varanasi. Normally, they would know all his engagements; this time they seemed indifferent.

How has Varanasi been affected by BJP rule in the last five years?

Well, the impact of BJP domination has been felt here the same way as it has all over the country. There is an atmosphere of fear and Muslims particularly, stay confined to their own mohallas. To give just one example of the fear: During Navratri, no non-vegetarian food is eaten even deep inside Muslim mohallas.

Muslims have retreated into themselves; they have turned silent in the face of the hate-filled atmosphere.

Do ordinary Hindus also voice this hate? And have Hindu-Muslim friendships been affected?

Friendships remain, but there's an element of caution on both sides. I've found that even among weavers, where the two communities are dependent on each other, both sides weigh their words now.

This government has created a crack even in friendships. They've planted the seed of hatred in Hindus. I've heard a few people openly talk about eliminating Muslims.

But the ordinary Hindu is not that vocal. Yet, they seem to be happy with the BJP government, they feel this is their government. Maybe they always supported Hindutva, maybe the BJP has aroused this feeling in them, we don't know.

Look at the extent of support for the BJP. Women vote for the BJP, even Gandhians do so.

Of course, we have to take into account the contribution made by free rations, the various welfare schemes. In Varanasi, ghats have been refashioned and in the process, livelihoods destroyed, but still, they are happy that they got money directly into their accounts through the Direct Benefit Transfer schemes.

I also feel that many people make a last-minute decision when they go to vote: Let's give the government another chance.

Whatever the reason, one conclusion emerges: Neither the farmers' movement, nor the anger against the mowing down of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri or against the Hathras rape and forced cremation, made any difference.

It's like the BJP is mocking people: Do what you want, we'll still win.

However, this time I see a new trend: After the results, Hindus I know are telling me they didn't vote for the BJP. I've not asked them; on their own they tell me. It's as if they are feeling guilty.

For activists like you, carrying on with your work must be a huge challenge.

Since 2014, we've been facing this challenge. The good thing is that our work among schoolchildren is much appreciated both by the children and the teachers. Even when the exams were on, we were being asked to continue with our sessions; the children are waiting for you, principals told us.

We hold seminars with adults too, but we've found they are too set in their ways, they don't change. But children are open to new ideas.

So you are not pessimistic after the result?

Pessimistic? We were more shocked by the 2014 Lok Sabha results; by the Ayodhya judgement. This poll result is nothing in comparison.

We've fought the RSS when Murli Manohar Joshi was minister. We stay on the campus of the Gandhian Institute and our electricity was cut. I received threats and an FIR was filed against me and my colleagues, including the eminent Gandhian Usha Mehta. My effigy was burnt.

There is no place for pessimism in our work. We know we have to keep working.

But the Opposition should also reflect. We'll go on working, but the Opposition parties must also do their work. They need to work out alliances, strategies.

We brought out a report on Covid and how deaths had increased by 60% over 2019, between January 2020 to August 2021 in Purvanchal, which includes the PM's constituency. We used official data to draw our conclusions.

The Opposition parties could easily have done the same. But neither do they do such things, nor do they use our reports.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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