Nestled around three lakes — Chinnakulam, Periyakulam and Valankulam – the locality of Ukkadam in Coimbatore was bustling with activity on a recent Sunday.
The crowd swelled by the hour at the fish market overlooking Periyakulam. Near the bus stand, in a 500-metre radius, there’s the Vimalnath Jain Temple, the Lakshmi Narayana Swamy Temple, the Bethel City Cathedral, and the Kerala Muslim Jamath. The area has a considerable Muslim population.
Ukkadam falls under the Coimbatore South Assembly Constituency, which will see a four-way battle between the BJP’s Vanathi Srinivasan, Makkal Needhi Mayyam’s (MNM) Kamal Haasan, Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AMMK) R Doraiswamy (former MLA), and Congress candidate Mayura S Jayakumar.
Sitting outside a shop near the mosque, Farith Askar, 23, and his friend are watching YouTube videos. Askar has a home interiors business. Although he claims to be apolitical, Askar slowly opens up and talks about the alleged atrocities on Muslims and how the community is looked down on in the region.
He talks about Hindu men luring Muslim women into marriage and later cheating on them, in order to shame them, the unnecessary raids in the name of terrorism, the crackdown on anti-CAA protestors. Askar’s ideas are shaped by social media; he sees the mainstream media ignoring Muslim voices.
Ideologically Askar is opposed to the BJP, but accepts that its ally, the ruling AIADMK, did a good job – but only during the past one year.
“Had the AIADMK done well in the four years preceding the COVID crisis, they would have fared better. And now that the party has formed an alliance with the BJP, its chances have been dented,” he says.
Askar does not believe the DMK-Congress alliance is an option. He sees Kamal Haasan as a better choice – even though he believes the MNM, which is contesting from only 43 seats, will not be able to make a big impact on issues relating to minorities.
A street away, Sirajuddin (52), an auto driver, is waiting for customers. He is parked outside the office of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political outfit of the Popular Front of India (PFI), which claims to represent the interests of the marginalised and minorities. Sirajuddin believes the ruling government has not done anything for people like him. “We suffered a lot during the lockdown and subsequent months. Our life and livelihood were threatened. This government could have helped us economically had they wished to, but they did not,” he says. “They are contesting the election thinking they do not want the minority votes.”
Sirajuddin says the government’s recent promise to pay ₹1,500 to women every month is an eyewash, that it is making promises it cannot keep.
“The AIADMK promises to make the Centre rethink its stand on CAA. That’s not possible. The AIADMK was in favour of CAA. They betrayed the community,” he says.
Unlike the late J Jayalalithaa, who opposed certain policies of the Centre, the current government led by Edappadi Palaniswami succumbed to pressure from the BJP’s leadership, he says.
Mohammed Khasim, 34, also wants to see the AIADMK-BJP alliance booted out, but the Kottaimedu resident is not sure who he will support.
“We see Congress leaders in Pondicherry and other places selling themselves… We are sceptical of Congress candidates,” Khasim says.
The SDPI reached out to the Muslim community during the COVID crisis and helped them, he says.
Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, TTV Dhinakaran’s AMMK and the SDPI are fighting the election together.
“Dhinakaran spoke against the BJP, and the SDPI has the ground support. So the voter will be divided.”
Communal violence is not new to Coimbatore. Eighteen people were killed in riots and police firing in November-December 1997. Serial explosions in 1998, coinciding with the visit of BJP leader and then party president LK Advani, killed 58 people. The tragedies boosted the fortunes of the BJP in the Lok Sabha election the same year; the National Democratic Alliance swept the polls in the state.
In 2018, 20 years after the blasts, the authorities finally arrested one of the key accused. Since then security agencies are keeping a close watch. Locals say it took several years after the blasts for various communities to come together again. But Muslims are once again being targeted, and called terrorists and Islamic State ‘sympathisers’.
“This election is an ideological battle for us. We want a non-BJP-AIADMK candidate. But which of the other three we will support remains a question,” Khasim adds.