By Seema Mustafa
Ten years in jail has transformed him. He now firmly believes in secularism and has addressed at least 200 meetings in Kerala, campaigning for the Left Democratic Front. Maulana Abdul Nasser Madani, with his controversial past and flowing beard, does not seem to be the right bedfellow for the comrades and laughs, “No no, do not call me Comrade Madani. I am a believer, but I did some thinking in the ten years I was in jail, and I thought of my life. And I took a decision that if I get relief I will work not just for Muslims but for all communities. I realised that all our problems can be solved only through secularism.”
He sounds sincere as do the other Muslims who have floated political parties similar to Madani’s People’s Democratic Party in other parts of the country. They are not in touch, have only heard about each other, but they all take care to talk of secularism as the mainstay of democratic India. They do not mince words when it comes to problems facing the minorities and other marginalised sections of society and share a penchant for straight-from-the-hip talk. They are not willing to compromise on issues, most of them are well regarded in their areas of influence, they are all openly against the BJP and the Congress, particularly the latter for “pretending to be secular and doing nothing for the minorities”.
It is for the first time in the history of independent India that several political parties started by Muslim clerics and businessmen are in the fray, contesting elections to the Lok Sabha from different States. Eclipsing the politics of old outfits such as the Muslim League in Kerala and the Majlis-e-Ittihad Muslimin [MIM] in Hyderabad that are now seen as “establishment”, these new parties have visible appeal as they talk straight, and their no nonsense approach places key issues of security, justice and development firmly on the table.
It is also for the first time that Muslims are being attracted to such parties, post-Independence, with organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami unable to open their accounts in State and Parliamentary elections over the years. Madani, whose initial Islamic Sevak Sangh was banned in 1993 in Kerala, who lost a leg in a bomb blast, and who was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Coimbatore blasts in 1998 spending ten long years in prison before being acquitted of all charges, is emerging as a major force in Kerala. “My position is that the Muslim community cannot go as a separate group, that is not good. We have to go with secular forces, that alone will be good for the community,” he said. To prove his change of heart he has emerged as a major campaigner for the LDF, with the CPI[M] joining issue with ally Janata Dal[S] to get Madani’s candidate the Ponnani seat in Kerala. Dr Hussein is contesting as an Independent, but Madani’s campaign has consolidated the sizeable Muslim vote in the constituency. He has also campaigned amongst Muslims for the LDF, taking up the nuclear deal and the strategic alliance with the US, defence relations with Israel as some of the key issues. He is positive that the LDF will get between 10-13 seats in Kerala, and the Muslim League “will lose heavily”. Madani’s PDP is all set to replace the Muslim League in Kerala as an LDF, and not UDF, ally.
IN ASSAM, MUMBAI-BASED businessman Badruddin Ajmal has returned to his native State. His is a far more ambitious party than the Kerala PDP, in that it has already contested nine Assembly seats in the Assam election, as well as two in Maharashtra and one in West Bengal. It did not win a single seat, but that has not stopped Ajmal’s Assam United Democratic Front from contesting eight Lok Sabha constituencies from Assam in these polls. Badruddin Ajmal himself is contesting from Silchar and Dhubri, with the AUDF having fielded two non Muslim candidates — Rajesh Mallah and Deba [Laxmi] Orang from Karimganj [SC] and Tezpur respectively. In keeping with Ajmal’s declared objective to work for the poorest and the oppressed, AUDF has given a ticket to Laxmi, the young adivasi girl who made the headlines when she was stripped naked and assaulted by a violent mob in Guwahati. She had travelled 258 km to the State capital to participate in a demonstration for Scheduled Tribe status for adivasis, organised by the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam. The 25-year-old, who had declined job offers from the Government after the attack, is a daily wage labourer and is now contesting the Lok Sabha elections as an AUDF candidate.
Ajmal’s campaign pitches him against both the Congress and the BJP. He told Covert that he had moved to Assam from a comfortable life in Mumbai and realised very soon that the poor of all communities were “living worse than animals, and that 50 years of Congress rule in Assam has brought them no relief”. His basic belief is that all the problems facing the poor in Assam arise from floods. This raises the issue of displaced persons, and the politicisation of related issues. He said that AASU had only one issue, that of Bangladeshi migrants, to which “we say, identify them, catch them and throw them out. But they can do that only if they exist. Till now they have not even been able to identify even 1,000 persons”. Ajmal regrets, “Topi, beard and burqa become Bangladeshi, and innocent people are humiliated, robbed, attacked. This is not acceptable. This does not apply just to the Muslims, but to all communities. We should all stand up and take action.”
The Bangladeshi migrant issue which has been used by the right-wing parties in Assam to campaign against the minorities is, of course, a key reason behind the emergence of the AUDF. Upset with the Congress silence and inability to counter the propaganda that has taken a communal shape, Ajmal and his colleagues started the AUDF to protect the minorities and the marginalised. They are getting an “excellent” response, while taking care that the campaign remains secular and impersonal.
The AUDF and the PDP have taken care to emphasise words like “democratic” and “people” in their titles, but while working for the downtrodden make it clear that unlike other political parties, “We will not fight shy of demanding development and justice and security for the Muslims as well.” Ajmal is clear, “No party can work as a religious party in India. It has to be secular.” He is categorical that AUDF will not go with either the Congress or the NDA. “If there is a third front, we will join them,” he said.
This is the basic hallmark of the Muslim-led political parties that have entered the fray where issues like Babri Masjid have been left behind in the search for empowerment and justice. Madani, who had started his Islamic Sevak Sangh as a counter to the RSS, admits now that it was not a good move, and that the issues facing the minorities were too complex and too real for political parties to reduce to such polarised levels. It is for the first time that the Muslims, as a vote-bank, have drawn closer to the LDF in Kerala, even though in West Bengal the CPI[M] is having a tough time in getting them out of the Nandigram-Singur hangover. The urban Muslim vote, CPI[M] leader Mohammad Salim said, was now drifting back to the CPI[M], although the workers still see resistance in the rural Muslim vote. In all States the Muslim vote is moving away from the Congress and looking at alternatives wherever these have arisen.
IN UTTAR PRADESH POLITICS is at its most complex. As along with two non-Congress non-BJP parties, the BSP and the SP, the choice has been widened and complicated by the emergence of the Ulema Council and the Peace Party of India. PPI has been floated by a respected surgeon of Gorakhpur, Dr Ayub, and has fielded 30 candidates. It has emerged largely as a spoiler, particularly as in some constituencies like Domariaganj Muslims are being attracted to it in droves. In one Muslim dominated Assembly segment of the Domariaganj Lok Sabha constituency, 70% Muslims are believed to have voted for the PPI candidate. This has given sleepless nights to the BSP candidate — who otherwise had a good chance of winning — and a decisive edge to the BJP.
The Ulema Council, formed in response to the shootout killing two boys from Azamagarh at Jamia Nagar in Delhi, is doing fairly well, although it is unlikely to win this seat despite getting over 65% Muslim support. BSP candidate from Azamgarh, Akbar Ahmed claims he is not worried as he has a fair section of the Muslim vote as well as the Dalits. But the contest seems to have brightened the BJP’s prospects, particularly as the secular vote is being sought by the Samajwadi Party, Congress and even a CPI[M] candidate. Ahmed insists that initially 18 ulemas had joined the Council and now “only three remain”. Maulana Aamir Rasadi Madani, chief of Ulema Council retorts, “Now we have 18,000 ulemas with us from all over Azamgarh.”
Madani is optimistic, however, of winning Azamgarh as well as “at least five of the ten” seats they are contesting in UP. Maulana Madani has one slogan: insaaf [justice]. “There is no other issue. If we get insaaf all problems will take care of themselves,” he told Covert. He admits that while his organisation had been working in Azamgarh and the eastern belt for several years, “It is only after the Batla House incident that the Muslims have realised we were right and have started supporting us.” He insists that despite its name, Ulema Council is a secular outfit and has fielded non-Muslim candidates in other constituencies. He is not worried about the charge of polarising votes: “For how long are we supposed to remain silent? What can the BJP do? We are in a position to fight them. As for the Congress, it has done several Gujarats.” He said that several young men had been picked up by anti-terrorism squads but that “we are determined that those who break the law, we will not tolerate them”.
This talk excites the youth who are very angry and perturbed. Reports that young and even old men have disappeared while travelling in trains are making the rounds in Azamgarh, leading to heightened insecurity and anger. Ulema Council’s clearly-stated stand appeals to the Muslim youth who are campaigning for the organisation on cycles and motorbikes. Muslim leaders and even candidates from other parties point out that there is “deep anger” amongst the minorities because of the large scale arrests in the wake of terror attacks, and the “systematic targeting of minorities as fundamentalists and terrorists”.
Historian Amaresh Mishra is Ulema Council’s Lok Sabha candidate from Lucknow. He is a bit out of his depth, but is running a secular campaign where issues are being tackled head on. Mishra explains the Azamgarh support, pointing out that Muslim youth were being targeted, 55 of them are still missing, and “no one was willing to speak out, it was a political vacuum, no voice was raised against Muslim persecution under the excuse of tackling terrorism”. The Ulema Council, he said, filled the void, and he joined because, “I was fed up with this armchair liberalism and secularism.” He said that the anti-terror squad of UP had “run amok” and the confrontation is “between the Muslims and the police, not the Muslims and Hindus”. He said that Muslims were rallying around the Council in Azamgarh as “they have felt the need for a radical aggressive voice against the violence that the State has unleashed”. Mishra took care to explain that the radicalism he was referring to was “not of the Naxal kind, but of the masses”. He pointed out that Maulana Rasadi Madani was seen as the “son of the soil”, and even today “the cleric at the village level was largely honest and radical”. One of the main slogans of the Ulema Council pasted across walls is: Ekta ka raj chalega, Hindu Muslim saath chalega. And to highlight this Mishra has brought in anti-RSS sadhus from Ayodhya for his campaign.
JUSTICE HAS EMERGED as a major issue along with security, in the wake of the mass arrests following terror blasts. A senior judge, who did not want to be quoted, said that after the 1989 communal violence in Bhagalpur, there was clamour for the removal of the district magistrate. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was even told by his partymen from the State that the DM should be removed. Nothing was done, and it is only now, 20 years later, that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has arrested those involved in the violence, with some having already been convicted. The Muslims are voting for him and the JD[U] in large numbers, to a point where the “secular mafia” represented by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are visibly rattled and in danger of losing their own seats. Retired Justice Rajinder Sachar, when asked about the mushrooming of Muslim parties in these polls, said, “This can be beneficial only if they come together with the Janata and socialist parties. Muslims have to get involved with radical parties, otherwise they will not be able to do anything.” He was particularly critical of the “thekedars of secularism”, saying he did not want “Muslims to go begging to them”.
Zaheer Ali Khan, editor of Urdu daily Siyasat, which has carried out a valiant fight against Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S.R. Reddy on corruption and communalism, told Covert that discrimination and injustice were two major issues that were agitating minorities across the country. In Andhra Pradesh itself, he said that the 12% Muslims were represented by just 11 MLAs in the State Assembly, while the Reddy community that was just 4% of the State population had 98 MLAs. He said this was the first elections where 30 MLA seats were being contested by Muslim candidates from different parties. Incidentally, Khan’s uncle, who heads the Siyasat group, Zahid Ali Khan is contesting the elections from Hyderabad on a Telugu Desam ticket. He is in direct conflict with MIM candidate Owaisi who had always considered the old city to be his family turf, and has vent his frustration by allegedly organising several attacks on Zahid Khan.
Zaheer Khan was as categorical as Muslim intellectuals and politicians from other parts of the country: “Muslim parties will have a future only if they align with secular forces. Otherwise, they could polarise opinion and this will not work to anyone’s advantage.” He was particularly happy that these elections in Andhra Pradesh were being fought on development and real issues concerning the minorities for the first time. “Earlier it was always Babri Masjid, or Taslima Nasreen or other such issues. This indicates a change in the Muslim mindset, they are just fed up of emotional issues,” Khan pointed out. Not a single Muslim party in the fray is even wasting time on these matters, promising instead safety from illegal arrests, and a life of respect and dignity. “This is what matters,” a young teacher, Safia Qadeer said.
THIS WAS THE MESSAGE from all spoken to: in Assam, UP, Bihar, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra. The Muslims have made it clear that they are now looking not just for hard talk, but hard action. They are fed up with the status quo and the same promises by the so-called secular parties. The five years of NDA rule made them optimistic of change when “secular” UPA came to power. The last five years have convinced them that the secular parties are no different on the ground, and except for rhetoric, have little to offer. The issues taken up by the Muslim parties and candidates range from domestic issues of arrests, harassment, discrimination to foreign policy concerns about the strategic alliance with the US and the growing friendship with Israel. Secularism is recognised as the bedrock of politics, and as Amaresh Mishra said, “We might not win, but at least we will have to spread the word that we are all together in the fight for justice and equality. And that there are alternatives when the so-called organised parties fail the citizens of India” [¼]
Courtesy Covert fortnightly magazine, New Delhi