A bunch of youngsters are playing cards under a majestic tree outside the impressive Irshad Hussain mosque in Rudauli town, that roughly lies between Ayodhya and Lucknow.
It had first come to the limelight when terrified Muslims had shifted their families from communally charged Ayodhya in the early 1990’s when the temple movement was at its peak.
Historically, Rudauli has been home to several sufi saints. Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah has often spoken of this town, his birth place with great pride.
It is also a town where Muslims and Hindus share the crowded space; where they have lived in harmony, untouched by the cataclysmic fault line that zig zagged its way through UP and other parts of the country after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.
On Friday, August 22, 2013, there are few signs of tension.
On the surface, life is near normal even as trucks carrying paramilitary troops are moving on the highway to fortify Ayodhya and the six surrounding districts barely three days ahead of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s 84-kosi parikrama, aimed at resurrecting the emotive temple issue before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Engrossed in their card game, the group of boys initially ignore queries on the VHP’s yatra. But their sarcasm is in full display the moment Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s name is mentioned.
“Kaisa dar, kaun sa dar, jab dacoit ke haath mein hi chabi ho to kaun chori karega. Let him also rule this country and test his prowess. “Ask them for their names and the reply is both acerbic and swift, “I am a Muslim’ and ‘I am also a Muslim.’
Life is not near normal. Scratch the surface and you’ll find a new political reality taking birth.
There are no visible signs of Narendra Modi. He hasn’t made a trip to UP since the June announcement anointing him head of the BJP’s campaign committee.
Posters too have not been put up but Modi is a subject of heated discussion across the state. It’s almost as if he is omnipresent. In UP’s Muslim-dominated areas Modi is giving cause to as much fear as there is excitement amongst the BJP’s followers.
The fear and the fervour are playing out in ground zero in multiple ways and a strong undercurrent between communities is taking root. The Muslims are talking more about the riots that gripped Gujarat in 2002 than they are about the demolition.
And in an ultimate irony, BJP stalwart LK Advani — seen as the author of the Masjid’s demolition — has suddenly become a moderate in comparison to Modi, viewed as a man who allowed communal fires to rage under his stewardship in 2002.
Maulana Mohammad Khalid who runs a garment store in Kaiserganj sums it up saying, “In Islam one killing is a bigger sin than demolishing mosque. Muslims can never forget 2002.”
Muslim bodies have started holding meetings to discuss the Modi factor and in shared constituencies; especially villages, where Hindus and Muslims live together, tension has started to brew on a slow fire.
The VHP’s attempt to lead the yatra hasn’t helped and already in the last four weeks, five instances of communal flare-ups have been reported from villages not far from Ayodhya.
Mirazapur is one such village where members of both communities have broken bread for years but are now caught in a nerve-wracking ‘us’ versus ‘you’.
A temple and mosque lie side by side in the village but an innocuous attempt at renovating the temple led to a flare up.
BJP supporters are on adrenaline high and the party cadre, which has been in political wilderness for over a decade, is slowly waking from slumber.
As Ashish Verma said, “If Modi had not been in the fray, I would not have voted for the BJP.’’ Some relief for a party which was near decimated in the last Lok Sabha election.
The statistics tell the story — as many as 33 of the 71 candidates fielded failed to win even a sixth of the votes cast. But this time around, Brahmins —who formed part of Mayawati’s invincible Muslim-Brahmin combine — are veering towards the Modi-fied BJP.
Some amongst Mayawati’s supporters say, ‘Modi, who is Modi?’ but such voices are a slim minority.
But, drive through large parts of this caste-ridden state, where voters are assessed on the basis of communities and sub-communities and it is hard to miss the new emerging reality: the election could end up becoming Hindus versus Muslims.
The sensitivities of communities are visible and UP is witnessing heated exchanges. At Kaiserganj market, Sharad Pathak sums up the scene, “When Muslim are allergic to the BJP, where is the question of their support to Modi bhai. He alone can protect our Hindu identity.”
Two shops away is the garment store run by Maulana Mohammad Khalid and his son Mushahid Khan. Both are unanimous that their vote will go to the candidate who can ensure the defeat of ‘Modi’s BJP’.
Ask Mushahid why and he admits, “Modi ka khauf heh.’’ The 2002 riots taint, which Modi has not apologised for, has travelled far and taken root in the hearts of UP’s Muslims.
Sushil Kumar Srivastava overhearing the discussion at the shop quips, “ Amongst those killed in Gujarat riots 34 per cent were Hindus and 33 per cent Muslims.”
The writing is on the wall: a resurgent BJP is rewriting political and community equations. In Muslim dominated towns like Rudauli, in Faizabad and Kaiserganj in Bahraich the community is trying to find comfort in Advani’s invocation of Jinnah and term Modi a ‘terrorist’.
The Gujarat chief minister’s refusal to accept a skull cap while he sat on a three day ‘sadbhavna’ fast, has also become part of everyday discussion. So is the UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who has started wearing a cap (even though it is red in colour) and his Samajwadi Party, their antidote to Modi?
The answer by no means is an overwhelming yes. Despite the open appeasement of the minorities by the ruling SP, Muslims are showing signs of disaffection.
If young bureaucrat Durga Nagpal Shakti was suspended over the controversial razing of a mosque wall as a goodwill gesture, then not many from the community have bought into it. Others still are getting increasingly despondent with the worsening law and order situation in UP and the blame is being laid squarely at the SP’s door.
Muslims do speak in terms of voting for the Congress if that is the only strategy to stall Modi’s political rise. As Maulana Khalid put it, “We will walk to the polling booth cursing the Congress but stamp the hand if that is the only way out.”
Clearly, UP’s electorate has started making its mental and social calculations. Mushahid Khan, the garment seller knows he has to. One of his best friends for many years has been a Hindu but in recent conversations, he has been told, “Be scared, Modi is coming.’’
Travel in any direction of UP, east or west, and many will tell you that a weakened BJP had helped improve relations between Hindus and Muslims after the madness that followed the Babri Masjid demolition had died down.
Peace had returned slowly but once again, after a long gap, neighbours are taunting each other. “Wait, Modi will come and fix you,’’ is the common refrain.
The same sentiment is echoed 60 kilometres away in Ayodhya. The unsavoury taunts are recreating the sharp divide that time had blurred. It has resurfaced also in the home of 92-year-old Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the litigant in the Ayodhya title suit is defiant.
Despite acute differences over the mandir-masjid issue, Hashmi spent shared evenings with the late Ramchand Paramhans, the torchbearer of the temple movement. But he admits, today is different.
Ask him why and he says, “Gujarat became a kabaristan for Muslims, do you want the same to happen in Ayodhya?” Listening in to the conversation is Asim Ansari, Hashmi’s grandson who joins in saying he is despondent too. Because his friends are now telling him, “The 1992 demolition was only a trailer.”
Life is not near normal. A new political reality is taking root.