UP polls: Consolidation of Muslim, Hindu votes in focus in Saharanpur

Updated on Jan 30, 2022 11:47 PM IST

Uttar Pradesh assembly elections 2022: In 2012, with a population that has 41.95% Muslims, and 21% Dalits, of its seven seats, four were won by the Bahujan Samaj Party, one by the BJP, one by the Congress, and one by the SP. In 2017, aided by a fierce Hindu polarisation, the BJP won four seats, including Deoband, with two going to the Congress, and one to the SP.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath addressing a public rally, at Deoband, in Saharanpur on Tuesday. (ANI)
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath addressing a public rally, at Deoband, in Saharanpur on Tuesday. (ANI)

Deoband: “Ab bas (that’s enough).”

Mohammad Ilyas (57), considered a learned man in his neighbourhood, is exasperated. Everyday in the morning around 9 am, a group of local residents gather at his single-room tuition centre for tea and conversation. The talk has been much the same this past month, leading to his annoyance.

Ilyas, a lifelong Congress voter, has been advocating a shift of support to the Samajwadi Party. His decision is being dissected threadbare, the men around him playing the devil’s advocate. What has Akhilesh Yadav ever done for Muslims, one asks. Another argues that it is only the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen that truly represents Muslims. And Ilyas has had enough.

Waving his hands for them to leave so that he can attend to his students, he has one last word. “I am not saying any of this is incorrect. But think of the government when you vote. There is only one party’s MLA (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s MLA and candidate Brijesh Singh) who has said they will rename Deoband to Devvrand. Only another government will prevent that from happening.”

Similar conversations are playing out in Muslim neighbourhoods across western Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls across the first two phases of the assembly elections. None more so than in Saharanpur district, home of Deoband and the Darul Uloom Deoband, one of India’s most influential Islamic seminaries.

In 2012, with a population that has 41.95% Muslims, and 21% Dalits, of its seven seats, four were won by the Bahujan Samaj Party, one by the BJP, one by the Congress, and one by the SP. In 2017, aided by a fierce Hindu polarisation, the BJP won four seats, including Deoband, with two going to the Congress, and one to the SP.

The Deoband numbers tell the story. The city has a 71% population of Muslims, but overall, the constituency has 40% Muslim population. In the 2017 elections, Singh garnered 102,244 votes, aided by a near down the middle split of votes between the SP and the BSP, both of which had fielded Muslim candidates. Majid Ali of the BSP managed 72,844 votes, and Maviya Ali of the SP 55,385 votes.

“The BJP says that we polarise, we only look at our religion and vote. But look at Deoband. This is what they are doing, by constantly vitiating the atmosphere,” Ilyas said. “They want to erase us, erase every institution we have, by renaming this place. And only a change in government can stop that.”

Much of the SP’s strategy has understandably revolved around consolidating Muslim votes, and breaking the BJP’s attempts at Hindu consolidation. In Nakur, 26 km from Saharanpur, their candidate is Dharam Singh Saini, who was a BJP minister and sitting MLA, and one of the most prominent other backward class (OBC) leaders who crossed over to the SP with Swami Prasad Maurya.

When Saini filed his nomination, posing smilingly in the same frame was his once nemesis and controversial Saharanpur leader Imran Masood, who he beat in the 2017 elections. Between them, in Nakur, they had over 70% of the vote. Masood, who was once arrested in 2014 for an alleged hate speech against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, jumped ship to the SP from the Congress, of which he was a general secretary.

While these moves are encouraging for the opposition, there are still issues to iron out. Even as Masood has said he will stay with the SP, and has been making rounds with SP candidates, there are still murmurs that he is unhappy at not getting a ticket.

From Deoband, two candidates, Kartikeya Rana, the son of former Deoband MLA Rajendra Singh Rana, and Maviya Ali have both filled their candidature for the SP, with the party clarifying that Rana is their candidate. But Ali has not withdrawn thus far. In Saharanpur, while sitting Congress MLA Masood Akhtar joined the SP with Masood, he has not been given a ticket.

The opposition must also deal with a BJP campaign that has a clearly focused on Hindu consolidation, led thus far by chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Union home minister Amit Shah. In a campaign in Deoband and Saharanpur on Saturday, Shah asked the crowd if they had forgotten about the Muzaffarnagar riots, and if the SP were to return to power, those days would return.

In Banderjudda village, 10 km from Deoband, Ravinder Singh Rajput said that this time, too, Hindus in his village would vote for the BJP. “We are not entirely happy with the work this government has done. Our young boys are all unemployed,” he said. “But if we vote for anyone else, the Muslims will become powerful again.”

Except, even as Shah talks of the Muzaffarnagar riots, there is another violent conflagration that may stymie attempts at a broad Hindu umbrella. Some 30 km from Banderjudda on the outskirts of Saharanpur is the village of Shabbirpur. Two months after the BJP stormed to power in Uttar Pradesh, it was the epicentre of massive Dalit-Rajput riots that erupted in May 2017, that left one Rajput dead, 25 Dalit homes set on fire, and days of unrest.

In Shabbirpur, Lakshmi Devi says those wounds have not healed, and the two communities have not come together. “Even then, they kept saying the government and the police was theirs, not ours. To this day, anytime something small happens, it is this taunt we get thrown at us,” she said.

In 2017, like elsewhere, while most Jatavs had backed the BSP, a section broke away towards the BJP, including Devi, impressed as she was with Modi. Non Jatav Dalits backed the BJP even more.

“Not this time. We now know what they think of us. The politicians can say anything in their speeches. On the ground, they do not believe we are equals,” Devi said. “The BJP is a party of Thakurs, and they do not stand with us.”

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