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Centre's Taliban Response Puts UP BJP in A Fix

By Radhika Ramaseshan
September 14, 2021 08:18 IST
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The pressure on Delhi mellowed Lucknow's ruling dispensation's initial enthusiasm to try and draw electoral mileage from the developments in Afghanistan.
Radhika Ramaseshan reports.

IMAGE: Talibs at Kabul airport, September 2, 2021. Photograph: Reuters

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was just the issue that the Bharatiya Janata Party's Uttar Pradesh unit wanted to reenergise its agenda to polarise the polity along communal lines.

The new Kabul regime's excesses against its opponents, dissidents, ethnic groupings, and women were central to crank up the propaganda against Muslim 'fundamentalism' in the state and reinforce the divide.

When a handful of Muslim clerics and a Samajwadi Party parliamentarian welcomed the regime change, their statements served the BJP's purpose.

However, three weeks down the line, India's official response travelled the course from silence and circumspection to a reprogrammed realisation that the central government might have to do business with the Taliban dispensation.

These compulsions have had an impact on shaping the BJP's political narrative in UP, as well.

If anything, the pressure on Delhi mellowed down Lucknow's ruling dispensation's initial enthusiasm to try and draw electoral mileage from the developments in Afghanistan.

On August 17, coinciding with the Taliban's appropriation of Kabul, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced that a new centre of the stat's anti-terrorist squad would be set up in Deoband, near Saharanpur.

Home to the 155-year-old Darul Uloom, an Islamic seminary, the decision was loaded with symbolic and political significance, although in 2018, the UP government had earmarked land in the town for the ATS.

Shalabh Mani Tripathi, Adityanath's media advisor, tweeted in Hindi and insinuated the objective -- 'Amid the Taliban’s savagery, here is a piece of news from UP. Yogiji has decided to open a commando training centre in Deoband.'

The decision, he added, would 'cause pain' to 'those protecting terrorists'.

Sanjay Rai, who heads the UP BJP's IT cell, said: 'It's high time we learnt from history. Seeing the Taliban's brutality, Yogiji decided to open an ATS commando centre in Deoband. Only he can have such a vision.'

Since 1952, the BJP has won the Deoband assembly seat only thrice: In 1993, 1996, and 2017.

The last election was a runaway success because the otherwise decisive Muslim votes were split, while those of the Hindus got consolidated behind the BJP.

The Darul Uloom's representatives did not react to the announcement.

Ashraf Usmani, a spokesperson, was quoted saying: 'It is not an issue for us to speak on. We have always stood by the country and will continue to stand by it.'

As Deoband's Muslims refused to speak on the Taliban, there were reverberations elsewhere.

Shafiqur Rehman Barq, the SP's MP from Sambhal, endorsed the Taliban takeover and said the Afghans wanted to run the country the way they wanted.

Ostensibly picking up the cue, two members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board praised the Taliban.

Barq was charged with sedition with two SP workers who made similar comments.

The AIMPLB dissociated itself from its members' statements, but Barq's Taliban endorsement was grist to the BJP's political mill because the UP battle in February-March 2022 could see a straight fight between the BJP and the SP.

On the floor of the assembly, Adityanath said some persons 'shamelessly' backed the Taliban despite the 'cruelty they inflicted upon women and children' and stressed that their 'faces' must be exposed.

The SP realised the combustible effect that its MP's remarks could have on its electoral prospects and prodded Barq to backtrack, which he did, maintaining his statements were 'misinterpreted'.

An SP source said: "We are walking on eggshells. One error can upset our Hindu voters. That is why Akhilesh Yadav (the SP president) is only focused on development and welfare. We are not stepping on the Hindutva terrain."

Despite the UP BJP's repeated dare to explain Barq's conduct, Akhilesh's only response was: 'The Indian government should immediately arrange to evacuate stranded Indians and bring them home safely.'

However, more than the SP's guarded rejoinder, India's first official contact with the Taliban through its Qatar ambassador's meeting with the head of Taliban's political office at Doha, hours after the last US military aircraft flew out of Kabul, apparently put the state BJP unit on the back foot.

Vijay Bahadur Pathak, state party vice-president, said: "We've had no discussions on the Afghanistan developments. We are preoccupied with other programmes. Our election campaign will centre on vikas."

A UP BJP source's explanation was: "It's prudent not to touch a matter that is fraught with international and national ramifications. It involves our neighbours, and it impinges on our security and terrorism. In any case, a state election is fought on micro local issues. We have the message of our good governance to take to the people."

A former MP from eastern UP said: "At the end, (Narendra) Modi's image and good work will trump everything else. If the Samajwadis persist in raising the Taliban, our people will respond in kind."

An SP source admitted: "While 80 per cent Muslims seem indifferent to what’s happening in Afghanistan because they have their own security here in UP to think about, there is a 20 per cent section which speaks approvingly of the Taliban. Our Muslim leaders have to control this lot and see their speeches don't go out of hand."

Asked about the mood on the ground, a BJP MP from western UP said: "Our workers asked me what our line on the Taliban was after the chief minister's initial statements. I asked them to wait for a line from the central government because Afghanistan is out of our jurisdiction."

"Then they asked why did the CM speak so much? I had no answers to that and advised them to concentrate on development and our government's good work."

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Radhika Ramaseshan in New Delhi
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