Muslim votes will be split among many parties. But why does that come as a surprise?

By Rajan Pandey,

What is the most clichéd question being asked in the upcoming UP elections? Of course, there are more than a couple of choices, but “where the Muslim voters are going?” certainly takes the cake. In an election which is marred by a confusion so intense that there is still no clear winner even 11 days before the first phase polls, and when surveys-polls keep adding to this confusion declaring almost every major party a clear winner, scholars-journalists-experts are trying to unriddle the mystery called UP election by a single factor- the Muslim votes.

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Their hypothesis: if the Muslim votes unite behind a non-BJP party, it will win, otherwise the BJP will win. Intentionally or otherwise, such understanding tends to treat Muslims as a homogenous community, nullifying its internal divisions based on class and caste (yes, you heard it right, caste). For all such people, touring through the Muslim-dominated areas of phase one and two could be quite a learning experience, making them understand the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh. It certainly has been one for me.

The many kinds of Muslims

The most talked about the attempt to woo the Muslim community in these elections is the BSP’s decision to field 97 Muslim candidates. General understanding tells us that since Muslims vote prioritising to “elect one of their own”, or by the “pahle bhai” rule, BSP candidates must be their first choice in those seats where other major parties have not fielded Muslims.

But what will happen on seats where both SP-INC alliance and BSP has fielded Muslim candidates? At the Bhojipura seat of Bareilly, BSP has fielded Suleman Baig and the SP candidate is Sharjeel Islam, I asked Muslim respondents whom do they think will win? “Sahrjeel jitega”, most of them said. But why, given the fact that Suleman’s brother Sultan Baig is also a sitting MLA and a dabang leader. Most of the respondents tell me the caste arithmetic in response- “see, Sharjeel is an Ansari, and there are around 50,000 Ansaris here, who will vote for him. The rest he will get from all other sections so he has the lead”.

While SP supporters tell this with enthusiasm, those willing to go with BSP accept this with disdain, blaming Ansaris for their “casteism”. It is this casteism of OBC Muslim communities (known as Pasmanda in mainstream circles) like Ansaris or the weavers, which helped Peace Party of Dr. Ayub, which relied primarily on the Ansari votes, gain 4 seats and 2.35% of votes in 2012 assembly elections. The reason lies in the acute neglect and backwardness of the OBC Muslims, as the majority of the benefits meant for the Muslims were cornered by the Ashraf or upper castes, leaving them untouched.

And worse is the state of the Arzal or low-caste Muslims like Dhobis, Nats, Mehtars etc, coming from the same occupational background as Dalits but not allowed to avail SC status and reservation benefits. While the OBC Muslims have benefitted from the rise of political consciousness, the Arzal Muslims are still without leadership. The caste divides within the community do not remain confined to the Ansaris, and Muslim respondents on a number of seats tell me that since so and so the candidate is a Saifi (carpenter), most of the Saifi votes will go there. But it is in Rampur, the district with the highest Muslim Population in UP according to the 2011 Census, that I encounter another divide.

The Melting Pot called India

The beautiful city of Rampur is further beautified by the efforts of Azam Khan, the most prominent Muslim face of Samajwadi Party and Urban Development minister, who contests from Rampur sadar seat. As I travel the roads and lanes of Rampur, adored by a number of newly built gardens or tall gates, parks and markets, people tell me that Azam is going to win again. “Kaam karaya hai bahut” is the most often repeated line. However, his lieutenant and right-hand man, and SP candidate Nasir Ahmed Khan is not in such a comfortable situation at the Chamraua seat, where he is pitched against BSP’s sitting MLA Ali Yusuf Ali. Reason: Ali is the lone Turk MLA in the Pathan-dominated Rampur politics. Let’s take a quick history lesson to understand this.

The modern-day Turks claim to be the descendants of Turk Muslims who came to India before the beginning of the Sultanate from central Asia, with armies of Mohammed Ghori and settled in the country.

In regions of Amroha, Sambhal, and parts of Rampur-Moradabad, Turks form a sizable voting bloc. The Pathans or Rohella Pathans came from the region of Roh mountains near Peshawar during later Mughal years and established the kingdom of Rampur in the 18th century after a long history of bloody wars, which included the Third battle of Panipat. Locals claim that after the establishment of Rampur Kingdom, Pathans ordered the Turks to vacate the city of Rampur, and the latter left for nearby villages, where they are still dominant. The Turk-Pathan rivalry is no more a bloody affair, but it gets reflected in elections and Ali Yusuf Ali being the lone Turk MLA of the district gets the benefit of it by polarisation of Turk votes in his favour.

But such histories of migrations are not limited to Muslims alone. Take, for instance, the Chaubey Brahmins of Mathura. In Mathura, the mythological birthplace of Lord Krishna, Chaubeys are like any other Brahmin sub-caste except one fact. The other Brahmins don’t prefer inter-marriage with them. Why? “Because they are Mag Brahmins who came to India from Iran”, replied some of the local Brahmins in Mathura city. While mythological accounts claim that it was lord Krishna who brought them here, the likely migration of the Chaubeys is said to have taken place during the reign of Kanishka, a Kushan ruler whose empire during the second century AD extended from Central Asia to Patna, with Peshawar and Mathura being the western and eastern capitals, respectively. With its fertile grounds and favourable climate, India has been a point of attraction for people from central to East Asia, and centuries of migration, inter-mixing, and mutual existence has led to the creation of what we call “Indian culture”.

So where is the Muslim vote going?

Coming back to the original question, I only have this to say: the Muslim votes are going to get divided in this election, unlike the Yadav and Jatav votes, which are solidly behind SP and BSP respectively. The projection of a pro-development image by Akhilesh, and the benefits of his welfare schemes, from laptops to scholarships, pensions etc have helped him win the hearts of the Muslim voters who talk favourably of him, forgetting the fact that his tenure is marked by the record number of communal riots in the history of Uttar Pradesh. Hence, a majority of them are inclined to vote for the SP-INC alliance, even on seats like Kundarki in Moradabad and Sheikhupur in Badayun, where the BSP candidate is the lone Muslim while SP candidate is a Yadav. Hence, fielding a Muslim candidate is not a guarantee of getting Muslim votes, puncturing the “pahle bhai” rule. However, in terms of the seat to seat math, BSP is strong, and getting a sizable percentage ( the majority at some places) of Muslim votes.

For example, despite the problems being faced by his brother at Bhojipura, Sultan Baig is getting a majority of Muslim votes as told by respondents in Meerganj, Bareilly while Haji Bittan and his brother Haji Arshad, both BSP candidates are also the first choice of Muslim respondents at Bilsi and Sahaswan seats of Badayun respectively. Even strong non-Muslim candidates of non-SP parties like Rishi Pal Singh of BSP at Bilari, Moradabad are likely to get a substantial chunk of Muslim votes as told by Muslim respondents.

In districts like Bijnor, a majority of Muslim voters said they are inclined towards BSP which has fielded Muslim candidates on all six general seats of the district. And in districts like Sambhal and Saharanpur, where a couple of Muslim leaders like Shafiq ur Rehman Birk, Imran Masood etc have personal support base among the community, significant percentage of Muslim votes are likely to shift as per their directives. But overall, the Muslim votes are very likely to be divided on lines of party, leader, candidate and equations, despite a greater and visible inclination towards the SP. One such seat is Koel in Aligarh, where Muslim votes are likely to be divided among the official Congress and SP candidates (both parties are having candidates here despite the alliance), along with an SP rebel candidate; the other such constituency is Baheri in Bareilly. It goes without saying that the BJP is the only beneficiary in all such situations.