It’s been more than 25 years since Bhagalpur’s deadly communal riots left more than 1,000 people dead. But a sense of insecurity still hangs over the congested lanes of Tikiatoli town in Bhagalpur.
A new face evokes suspicion and Muslims tend to live in little ghettos in the small town that was once the capital of legendary Mahabharata warrior Karna’s mythical kingdom.
“The fear, somehow stays,” says Mohammad Taslim, a 56-year-old rickshawpuller who witnessed the 1989 riots. “There is no Muslim leadership. It’s a fear that has always driven the community. It will be so for quite some time.”
Bihar’s assembly elections have only added to the fears of the state’s marginalised Pasmanda Muslims with the BJP looking set to give the secular grand alliance between Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal a serious run for its money.
“Ghar wapasi, gau raksha, Ram Temple and love jihad slogans keep them on tenterhooks. It’s the reason why Muslim Dalits have come together to back grand alliance,” says Ali Anwar, a JD-U Rajya Sabha MP.
Social scientists say Muslims, who account for 17% of the vote in Bihar, are pinning their hopes on the grand alliance.
“While the grand alliance is aggressively secular, promising more to Muslims, the BJP’s secularism is limited to equal treatment of all with no privilege to any group,” says Mohammad Sajjad, a scholar on Muslim issues.
“Also, Muslims feel the 2014 results have not made BJP more accommodative of them and its present stance may be to keep options open for the Assam, West Bengal and UP polls, where minorities could swing elections.”
Bihar has 28 seats where Muslims account for between 20-30% of the voter base, 10 seats where they account for 30-40% and 12 seats where their number is above 40%. Kishanganj, which has elected Syed Shahabuddin and MJ Akbar of the Congress and Shahnawaz Hussein of the BJP to parliament, has 79% Muslim voters.
However, in 2010, with the RJD and Lok Janshakti Party on one side, Congress fighting alone and the JD-U and BJP on the other, the BJP won 26 of 50 seats due to the fragmentation of Muslim votes. It had fielded 29 candidates with just one Muslim candidate.
Together with the JD-U, which fielded 21 candidates to win 11 seats, the NDA had dominated 37 Muslim seats, with the RJD-LJP alliance bagging just six, the Congress three and the LJP four of the Muslim seats.
“Such a result was due to division of votes on seats where Muslims constituted between 20 -30% , with all 16 BJP candidates winning,” says Prof Abhay Kumar, a political scientist who analysed the 2010 results.
However, in 2014, 69% of Muslim voters opted for the Congress-RJD combine with 21% voting for the JD-U, though in 2010, when the Modi factor was not there, Muslim OBCs had overwhelmingly gone with the Congress.
What would trouble the NDA and the grand alliance, however, is the entry of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Asasduddin Owaisi.
The JD-U’s Prof Buland Akhtar Hashmi believes the confusion could help leaders like Owaisi split the secular groups to allow the BJP a window. Araria MP Mohammad Taslimuddin agreed, saying Owaisi’s essays into Kishanganj to cash in on a Muslim-dominant electorate would polarise the Hindu electorate and subvert the secular domain to the NDA’s advantage.
But BJP leader Sushil Modi does not believe Muslims are fearful of the BJP.
“The Muslim outlook is not aggressive against the BJP in Bihar for the simple reason that the momentum to minority welfare works came only during our stint in NDA,” he said. “We never allowed them to feel uncomfortable of us.”