Over 15 per cent of the Muslim population spread all over Bihar has been pushed to the fringes of politics. Such is the outcome of the just-concluded Assembly polls. The reason is that none of the 125 newly elected MLAs from the winning side belongs to the Muslim community. Though 19 Muslim contestants romped home on tickets given by non-National Democratic Alliance parties, none of them can be expected to be sworn in as a minister.
This includes five Muslims elected from Asaduddin Owaisi’s party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, or AIMIM. The party has been smarting over its unexpected success in Bihar — unexpected because Bihar is quite a bit far off from the party’s main bastion spread over parts of Hyderabad in south. Yet, its five MLAs like the 14 from other parties are going to remain confined to Opposition benches in the new House.
Thus, at best, now Muslims of Bihar can only hope that a Muslim member from the Legislative Council is invited by the NDA, or rather Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) to be more precise, to take oath in the new dispensation; and this, too, could be just to fulfil the need to look after minority-related matters like Waqf (a society trust meant for public good) and Hajj pilgrimage.
This scenario lays bare the advent of virtual isolation, severely deficient representation and consequent marginalisation of the largest minority group in Bihar’s politics and society. It is going to be so despite the fact that 11 Muslim candidates were fielded by the JD (U) in the polls. Its rival Opposition alliance, or Mahagathbandhan, had put forth thrice as many minority community candidates. Yet, over half of them lost the polls as also did happen to the larger alliance that had pitted them in the polls. So much so that the Opposition alliance missed the halfway mark, though not widely, in the 243-member Vidhan Sabha.
Overall, the numbers of minority community legislators in the Bihar Assembly have come down from 24 after the 2015 polls to 19 in 2020. Owaisi’s party had put 20 candidates in all, including five non-Muslim candidates from poorer sections of Hindus. He refuted the charge of being a spoiler to the show that the Opposition alliance perceived as secular, as opposed to the NDA led by ultra-nationalist BJP. Yet, in the Muslim stronghold of Kishanganj, the Congress candidate Izaharul Husain barely scraped through with just 1,000 votes more than the BJP’s Sweety Singh since AIMIM candidate Qamarul Hoda cornered over 41,900 votes in the triangular contest.
As the Bihar poll results were only trickling in through the intervening night of November 10 and 11, Owaisi in a TV interview, rubbished the idea that inability to join the government could be a handicap in ensuring the development of the generally neglected minority dominated pockets of Bihar.
“In Telangana, we have never been part of any government whether in the state or at the central level. Yet, the elected representatives of our party have always fought the neglect of their constituencies. Seemanchal, the area where we fought polls, is underdeveloped. I have personally moved a private member’s bill in Parliament for the formation of a regional development council for Seemanchal under Article 371 (E) of the Constitution,” said Owaisi.
He argued that he has been treated as the “biggest untouchable” by peers in other political parties. “Our Bihar chief (Akhtarul Iman) personally met with each and every leader of political parties. No one was ready to touch us. Big parties treated me like an untouchable… Our party president met every important Muslim leader as well. But nothing worked out. I cannot tell you why it didn’t happen,” Owaisi told his interviewer.
The AIMIM leader often asserts his party’s right to contest polls. This as per him and his supporters should not be resented by other, or mostly secular, parties that are bigger than the outfit run by him and, thus, are suitably posited to look after their interests. The point offered by bigger parties is that AIMIM has every right to contest, but what is equally important is that it should not end up helping the BJP by dividing voters into separate electorates on communal lines as was the case during the British era. The critics of the Hyderabad-based party say that the BJP never shies away from blowing up points of Hindu resentment and the AIMIM should not provide them any excuse to do so during any of the polls.
Pariahs in politics
Somehow, Owaisi’s “untouchable” remark brings a sense of déjà vu since it was the BJP that used to claim way back in the 1990s that it was treated like a virtual pariah and untouchable in politics by its contemporaries. And this was particularly so in the context of objections raised by its opponents to the party’s bid to tie up with the George Fernandes-led Samata Party. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was closely associated with Fernandes during those days and it is the Samata Party that eventually transformed into today’s JD (U). The point is that not just the AIMIM but also the BJP has been complaining at one point of time or the other of being unjustifiably ostracised by the politicos of other parties.
This was mainly been because of the identity-based politics of the two parties that moves along communal lines. The BJP tied up with myriad parties across the political spectrum since the days of the late Atal Behari Vajpayee. But to retain and justify its majoritarian slant, the party did not mind inviting Muslim reaction and at times looked for it.
Most Muslims shunned the identity-centric and, thus, parochial and reactionary politics. So Owaisi’s influence remained confined for a long time to Hyderabad alone. Even in today’s hotbeds of communal politics like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims mostly sided initially with the Congress and later with socialist and non-communal leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Lalu Prasad Yadav. These leaders tried to counter the BJP’s ‘mandir’ movement since it has been pulled out to override the job reservations that were offered to the poorer castes among Hindus as per the Mandal Commission report in the year 1990 by the VP Singh government.
Only fringe Muslim outfits like All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and AIMIM besides a few Muslim individuals joined issues with the BJP since the mid 1980s. They opposed a Supreme Court judgement granting alimony to be paid to a divorced Muslim woman Shah Bano by her lawyer husband. Conservative though not yet so significant sections among Muslims, who became highly vocal, forced the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to reverse the apex court verdict through a law passed by Parliament.
The move by the Congress Prime Minister was lapped up by the BJP and Hindu communalists who put forth the demand for a law to allow the building of temple at Ayodhya whose locks were opened around the time the Shah Bano case was decided uoon by the top court.
The AIMIM was led in those days by Asaduddin’s father Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi who joined all these contentious issues alongside AIMPLB with the BJP and its cohorts even as majority of Muslims remained oblivious of the possible fallout of these controversial issues. The BJP was not in power in those times and yet engaging with a Muslim leader suited the protagonists of the Hindutva movement more than the common Muslims. It is this fact that has constantly been ignored by leaders like Owaisi amid what looks like to be competitive communalism that has catapulted Hindutva leaders to power not only at the Centre but also in several States.
War of word and yet…
The recurring verbal spats that intermittently break out between Owaisi and his Hindutva rivals have, indeed, been fierce. It has been fiercer in the case of Owaisi’s younger brother Akbaruddin who faced a few cases for alleged hate speech. The war of words was also witnessed during the Bihar poll campaign where Asaduddin said that he spent 15 days and addressed 65 public meetings. Yet, there has been no or little love lost between him and the BJP.
Bihar has a history of what is called as “political vendetta” starting with Lalu Yadav and going down to his progenies. The government agencies have been blamed by the Yadavs of framing them at the behest of the BJP. Elsewhere, too, the political opponents of the BJP often chide the ruling party for unjustified raids and slapping of “politically motivated” cases but there has never been any raid worth taking note of in Hyderabad to target Owaisi or the AIMIM, say his critics.
They point out that this is how a tacit understanding goes on between him and the BJP as both help each other in keeping them in the consequential zone with their sharp rhetoric targeting each other where the two are able to keep their respective gallery of supporters deeply engaged.
Muslims relegated to the cold
The communal temperature thus rising has put Muslims at the receiving end. Soon after they had voted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to power in Delhi, there were riots in the northeastern parts of the city. About 60 people were killed and many lost their hearths and homes to arsonists’ wrath. No party or leader came forward to help the victims after the riots. Instead, the violence was linked to anti-citizenship law protests resorted to by Muslims with the support of civil society members. The political class, including those from the secular parties, kept a distance from the protestors and was cold to their cause.
So no wonder that once elections took place in Bihar, a sizeable section of hapless Muslim voters turned towards Owaisi and found some solace and warmth in his words and assurances. These are obviously difficult to be met. But as a strange coincidence, the results of Bihar polls came on the 132nd birth anniversary (November 11) of one of the foremost Muslim leaders of the Indian freedom movement Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. And he must have ended up turning in his grave due to the kind of communal politics played out much against his wishes and hope for independent India.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He can be reached via Twitter @abidshahjourno)