Arif Masood: a ‘Muslim neta’ riding against all odds in MP

By Mohd. Ismail Khan,,

Bhopal: On 17th July 2001, Sunny Deol’s box office hit ‘Gadar’ was attacked in Bhopal; Lilly Theater which was screening the movie was shelled with petrol bombs by an armed mob allegedly led by then youth Congress leader Arif Masood. Their contention was that the movie has hurt the sentiments of Muslims. Immediately after the attack Arif Masood was rusticated from Congress by then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh.

Fate has it for Masood, after 13 years he is back again behind the same Lilly Theater, giving furious speeches, but this time for a political fight to win down Bhopal Central on the same party ticket, for whom he was a pariah a decade back.

Arif Masood is Congress party candidate from Bhopal Central or Madhya, a Muslim dominated constituency crafted after delimitations of 2009. He started his political career as student leader from Benazir College. As student leader Masood closely worked with Rasool Ahmed Siddiqui former MLA and minister, under his wings Masood nurtured his political career. He later became NSUI national general secretary and subsequently district youth congress president.

After getting suspended from the party for the ‘Gadar’ attack, Arif Masood became an ultimate ‘hero’ of the community. He joined hands with JD (U) and started ferociously getting involved in everything ‘Muslim’ in Bhopal. From agitations demanding implementation of Sachar committee recommendations to protests against trespass by holy roaming cows in graveyards, Arif Masood didn’t leave any issue unheard.

He went through many political up downs but managed steadfastly to survive his image in Muslim community of Bhopal. In the meantime he joined All India Milli Council and All India Muslim Personal Law Board and became its executive member. With his growing populism especially among local youth, he was brought back in Congress and made its spokesperson.

Bhopal Central with 45% Muslim voters saw stiff brawl for ticket. District Congress President P.C. Sharma and many other local Muslim leaders were in fray to claim it. But Arif Masood’s local popularity and his proximity with senior Congress leader Suresh Pachouri gave him the edge over the entire contender list.

Congress leader Naser Islam earlier contested from the same constituency in 2008, but lost with margin of 2,514 votes against Dhruv Narayn Singh of BJP. Two factors played damaging role for Naser, first he was not a local and four other Muslim candidates contested on small party tickets, divided his community votes.

Naser Islam this time too demanded ticket protesting outside PCC office, which ended as lathi charge on his supporters. Sitting BJP MLA Dhruv Narayan Singh was also denied ticket by his party, after his name was brought up in RTI activist Shehla Masood murder case.

This time BJP has fielded its district president Surendranath Singh to win back Muslim concentrated seat for the party. Local Muslims doesn’t seem to have any such issues with new BJP candidate.

Moahmmed Saddiq a fruit seller at Jahangirabad market just had a hand-shake with Surendranath Singh at his ‘Jan Sampark’. Even though his cart was decorated with Congress flags Siddiq said, “Surendraji seems to be a good man, last year he was present at Eidgah wishing and hugging Muslims.”

Locals suggest Surendranath has kept his Muslim supporters close to him. It was quite evident at his Jan Samapark where he was surrounded by some of his Muslim supporters.

Arif Masood addressing his supporters.

Arif Masood on the other hand doesn’t enjoy same kind of advantage, ‘Mushkil hai (it’s difficult)’ said Aaijaz Khan Auto rickshaw driver who move mostly around Bhopal central. While commenting on the chances of Masood, he said, ‘Arif Masood ki chhavi ek sampradayak neta(Arif Masood has a communal image),” pointing that it will be difficult for him to get Hindu votes.

Aamir Alvi is a BJP youth leader from Shahjahanbad, who work closely with Surendranath Singh. He claims that tough Bhopal Central has good Muslim voter percentage but one alone cannot win on particular community votes. Giving details about voting turnout, polling percentage of different communities, he stresses that one who has good image among all communities can only will win Bhopal Madhya. “General public of other communities feel that if Arif wins this seat he will again create ‘Gadar’ over religious issues,” Alvi proclaims.

The Gadar incident didn’t stop haunting Masood, in September 2010 just before Babri Masjid verdict was to be announced he was ordered by police to leave Bhopal for six months. The bold politician immediately shifted to Nagpur, surprising the whole state machinery.

But witnessing support getting generated over his public meetings, it’s difficult to suggest that Arif Masood has slim chances. Over the inauguration of his campaign office at backside of Lilly Theater, facing Chicken market opposite of a Jain Mandir, crowd has thronged jam packing the whole lane.

Various Congress leaders, who were contenders for ticket, came with processions waving party flags to announce their support for Arif Masood. The crowd was on brisk; majority of them consisted of Muslims, especially youths.

As a young face of Muslim politics in Bhopal, Arif Masood enjoys immense youth support. “He got army of youngsters and committed cadre who can monitor poll booths and charged up his campaign,” said Mushahid Khan a senior journalist with Nadeem urdu daily.

When inquired about Masood being tagged as ‘Muslim Neta’ for rising community issues, pointing to the huge crowd Masood has been successful in drawing, Nadeem Khan says, “The large turnout you see is the result of that same emotional fervour,” adding, “Muslim community here has full trust on him. Especially youngsters here believe that if Masood wins then he will definitely do something for the community.”

But rise of Arif Masood as young Muslim politician doesn’t go down well with old horses. It has been alleged that Arif Aqeel the lone Muslim MLA from the state who represents Bhopal North holds a grudge with Masood, as the latter is evolving himself as alternative to the former.

“I have risen from scratch, from student politics to now fighting assembly election. It obviously feels great on your achievement, but this all will be useless if you can’t win this electoral fight,” Arif Masood said sitting in a under construction house turned campaign Karayala.

Arif Masood concedes that biggest challenge he faces is communal polarization, “BJP formed Government basing on divide and rule policy. And obviously they are applying it in Bhopal Central. It is a challenge for us, but delight is when we defeat BJP on their turf.”

He said winning trust of the local public is the essence of his campaign, “I am going to public with one message. Congress has trusted me and given a chance; you also give me a chance then see my worth.”

Arif Masood said if he becomes MLA he will work for the uplifting of all the communities, “I will try to provide employment opportunities to all youngsters”. He believes that today’s generation doesn't incline towards communalism, “This generation wants fair opportunities, if you can provide them than, the ‘communal politics’ can’t do anything.”

Local political observers believe that Bhopal Central will not be a cake walk for Arif Masood. P.C. Sharma who was denied the ticket is enraged and could play damaging role in getting Congress traditional Hindu votes. On the other hand Arif Aqeel can’t tolerate rise of a new Muslim face in Madhya Pradesh politics, so he could use his influence on voting pattern in his neighbouring constituency.

And then there is Sangh Parivar who has already started their propaganda machinery. Local Hindus are being scared by claims that if Bhopal Madhya (Central) is won by a Muslim, then it will always be a Muslim constituency.

Challenges are many but for Arif Masood winning the confidence of the public is key to overcome all, and he claims of having good support from all quarters. Will Arif Masood be able to tussle down and conquer all the challenges can only be known as Madhya goes to polling on 25th November?