Forced to choose between communalists and criminals as their netas, Bihar voters get played by cunning secularists
The choice of Bihar Mahagathbandhan candidates for Darbhanga, Madhubani and Siwan Lok Sabha seats raises questions about the ‘secularism’ practised by non-BJP parties and the responses to it by Muslim voters
In the Bihar mahagathbndhan, only Congress, RJD have picked Muslim candidates while RLSP, HAM and VIP have not nominated a single Muslim candidate
While RJD kept CPI out of mahagathbandhan to field Tanvir Hasan from Begusarai, unlike CPI's Kanhaiya Kumar, Hasan has been a complacent leader
In Siwan, the RJD preferred jailed ganster Sahabuddin's wife Hin Shahab over CPI-ML even though the Left party has support of Dalit and marginalised voters
The RJD-led mahagathbandhan in Bihar (having a total of 40 Lok Sabha seats) stitched an alliance with the Congress (nine seats), CPI-ML (one seat of Arrah), Jitan Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha or HAM (three seats), and Mukesh Sahni-led Vikassheel Insan Party or VIP (three seats) and Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party or RLSP (five seats).
The last three formations/leaders have been in alliance with the BJP, not long ago, and respectively represent Musahar (Mahadalit), Mallah (fishermen or Ati Pichhrha), and Koeri (Upper OBC) castes. The RJD seems to have firmed up a cross-caste alliance, broad-basing it beyond the Yadavs, but the alliance appears to have taken its captive electorate, Muslims, for granted.
Muslim candidates have received nominations only from Congress, RJD. The RLSP, HAM and VIP (part of the RJD-led mahagathbandhan) have not nominated even a single Muslim candidate just as the BJP. In fact, the RLSP expelled its Muslim face for raising voice for a ticket. And though the JD(U) and Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) are part of the NDA led by BJP, each have fielded a Muslim candidate.
Muslim representation in mahagathbandhan
The RJD preferred to leave the Owaisi-led AIMIM which has got a significant presence in Kishanganj — one of the poorest districts of India with around 66 percent of Muslim votes.
The RJD’s argument of leaving the AIMIM out of the alliance was the latter being an "exclusionary and identitarian formation". But that fails to impress since the RJD has endorsed an RSS cadre as mahagathbandhan member VIP’s nominee for the Madhubani Lok Sabha seat and that too at the cost of its own Muslim nominee Abdul Bari Siddiqui, Lalu’s confidante and one of the tallests leaders in RJD.
Siddiqui has been shifted to Darbhanga, thus almost decimating another tall RJD leader, MAA Fatmi. A former Union minister of state for HRD, Fatmi is supposed to have developed his clientele and patronage networks in the Darbhanga-Madhubani region. Hence, he could have been a formidable candidate for the Darbhanga seat.
Madhubani used to elect CPI, and then the seat moved to Congress, before it was taken over by BJP's Hukumdeo Yadav. In the 2019 polls, Hukumdeo's son Ashok Yadav, is contesting as BJP candidate. RJD had lost the seat in the last two Lok Sabha polls with narrow margins.
The RJD has also ignored the share of non-Ashraf leaders in Bihar, such as Ali Anwar Ansari and Dr Ejaz Ali — the Muslim faces of social justice.
Ansari, along with Sharad Yadav, had resigned from the Rajya Sabha and left the JDU after the Nitish Kumar-led party rejoined the NDA in 2017. Sharad was offered to contest two seats by the RJD. He kept one (Madhepura) to himself and handed out another to someone else, ignoring Ansari.
The RJD also left the CPI out of the Bihar mahagathbandhan because the Left party wanted the Begusarai seat. Let it be noted that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the RJD’s Muslim candidate Tanvir Hasan had lost the Begusarai to the BJP with four times greater margin than his counterpart in Madhubani. Despite that, the RJD refused to concede the Begusarai seat to CPI-ML, a member of the Bihar mahagathbandhan.
The RJD also refused to concede the Siwan Lok Sabha seat to CPI-ML, despite the latter having a significant presence and a high probability of the poor from backward castes and Dalits shifting towards CPI-ML. Instead, the RJD has fielded Hina Shahab, wife of the convicted gangster-legislator Shahabuddin, against JD(U)’s Rajput candidate Kavita Singh, wife of a strongman Ajay Singh of Hindu Yuva Vahini. Though Shahab supposedly has significant Muslim support, she lost the last two elections in Siwan.
Before the dominance of the BJP, Siwan strongman Shahabuddin was supposed to be a mercenary of the upper caste landlords against the CPI-ML. In March 1997, a JNU student leader named Chandrashekhar and Shyam Yadav of CPI-ML were killed, allegedly by the gunmen of Shahabuddin.
The choice of candidates for the Darbhanga, Madhubani and Siwan Lok Sabha seats in Bihar raise questions about first, the ‘secularism’ practised by non-BJP forces and second, responses to it by the Muslim communities.
The "secular cunning" and silenced Muslims
Does RJD (and other self-professedly ‘secular’ forces) need a Muslim leader, whose religious identity could be exploited politically for window-dressing, but who must not be vocal, assertive and have his/her independent mass-base? Does Tejaswi want to use Siddiqui to outsmart Fatmi and by doing so, push Siddiqui out of the regional politics, and thus relieving him off the plum ministries in the state cabinet?
In 2015, there was a grudge among Muslims that Siddiqui, by virtue of his seniority in the RJD, deserved more for giving up the post of deputy chief minister to a novice like Tejaswi. Why did the RJD display its strong favour to a meek, submissive, Tanvir Hasan (of Begusarai), and pushed out Fatmi, who has won Darbhanga Lok Sabha more than once?
RJD, even parachuted down alleged BJP man Syed Faisal Ali from to Sheohar in north Bihar. Many see it all as RJD’s systematic attempt at decimating vocal and assertive leadership, of its captive voters, Muslims.
CPI’s Begusarai candidate Kanhaiya Kumar has been campaigning in the constituency since 2016-17, and it had become a thing of common knowledge that RJD's Hasan might have to compete with Kanhaiya in Begusarai. RJD's choice of Hasan as Begusarai candidate raises several questions.
Why did not Hasan display his leadership and mobilisational capabilities in the face of Kanhaiya’s strident campaigning?
Hasan did not even visit and speak on the Sitamarhi lynching in October 2018. Why did he stay complacent? Was it because, he had recently managed to get elected to the state Legislative Council merely on the basis of his religious identity? And if so, why must Muslims have leaders who are rubber-stamps of their respective parties and imposed from above, rather than emerging out of agitational processes from the below?
Why do Muslims turn up in huge numbers when they are called to protest against misogynistic and emotive issues like triple talaq, as they did on 15 April, 2018, when Wali Rahmani of the Muslim Personal Law Board gave a call to that effect, but, they won’t speak up as enthusiastically on issues of livelihood? Muslims didn't bring out any rallies against series of hate-crimes perpetrated by both the majoritarian right as well as by the men in uniform?
Also, why do the civil society groups working for Muslim victims face more problems than those working in the name of religion and piety?
Understanding the Owaisi politics in Bihar
One of the explanations for the resurgence of AIMIM in Hyderabad in the 1980s was its politics of meaningful interventions in the domains of education, trade, and local bodies. It extended substantial benefits to the Muslims, and stitched alliances with the Dalits in urban local bodies elections. However, one wonders, why the AIMIM didn’t take similar approach in Seemanchal (four districts of eastern Bihar with very high Muslim concentration, such as Purnea, Araria, Kishanganj and Katihar)? The region is adjacent to the four northern districts of West Bengal with even higher Muslim concentration, for example, North and South Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad).
Intriguingly, the AIMIM has not attempted at experimenting with Dalit-Muslim alliance in the local bodies elections in these districts of Bihar and West Bengal. In October 2018, AIMIM struck an alliance with Prakash Ambedkar in Aurangabad, but that was all.
Muslim voters seem to rationalise that AIMIM, their ‘own’ party, will bargain for the commmunity in the legislative arena. However, they should recall history. In 1937, the Congress governments in Uttar Pradesh and in other Muslim minority provinces such as Bihar, Bombay, Madras and the Central Provinces, took office with nearly all the Muslim legislators sitting in the opposition.
The lesson to the exclusivist Muslims was: the 'safeguards' designed to protect the interests of Muslim minorities, such as reserved seats, separate electorates and weightage (more seats than their percentage of the population) did not guarantee Muslim parties or politicians a share of political power. If the Congress won enough non-Muslim seats, it could shut them out of office and rule as if "they didn't exist”.
This is something Asaduddin Owaisi may never like to let his followers know.
Kishanganj has got many longstanding genuine grievances: its historical backwardness and poverty has not been taken care of by the state and the politicians representing it. Many times high profile outsiders represented it, including journalist MJ Akbar and Syed Shahabuddin (1935-2017), the diplomat turned politician, and BJP’s Shahnawaz Husain.
Now, there is a strong local sentiment for a Surjapuri (a numerically preponderant linguistic community) candidate in Kishanganj.
The anguished and tiny educated middle class Surjapuris have been articulating Kishanganj's deprivations in education, health, and other developmental issues, on social media. Their disillusionment with the political formations is unmistakable.
With the menacing rise of Hindu right, and the ‘secular’ forces (national and regional) abandoning Muslims to their fate, Owaisi’s articulation (in a measured constitutional language, inside the Parliament and on television news channels) does find a resonance with a section of hopeless, helpless and beleaguered, but aspirational Muslim youth in the constituency.
In public rallies, Owaisi, however, does turn out to be more of a rabble-rouser. He never talks of caste among Muslims. On gender, he is clearly on the side of misogynist mullahs, persisting with the instant triple divorce. In February 2018, he was the host of Muslim Personal Law Board plenary, which did not bring even a model nikahnama, despite its promise to do so.
Its Bihar face, Akhtar-ul-Iman, is articulate in chaste Urdu. He was twice elected MLA from Kochadaman (in Kishanganj — 2005 and 2010). He hopped from RJD, to JDU (to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha unsuccessfully), and then to AIMIM, on whose symbol he lost the Assembly election in 2015.
Since AIMIM is a Muslim-exclusive party, it may happen that the Hindu minority of Kishanganj would vote for (a) either for the JDU candidate Mahmood Ashraf or for the Congress candidate, Javed Azad. Ashraf is is said to be playing his sub-sectarian (maslaki) card. He identifies himself as a Barelwi, a bête noire of Deobandi sect (Barelwis possibly outnumber Deobandis in Kishanganj). Azad on the other hand is the sitting MLA from (Kishanganj). His late father was a minister in Bihar many years ago.
This is in the eastern end of Bihar, where "Muslim-exclusive" AMIM may be a choice of a segment of Muslims.
Towards the western end of Bihar, Arrah seems to offering a somewhat contrasting picture to election-watchers.
This seat is contested by BJP’s Raj Kumar Singh, a Union minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet. CPI-ML’s Raju Yadav (a product of student-youth movements) will be taking him on as the mahagathbandhan candidate. Raj earned fame as India’s home secretary when he busted terror acts of some Hindu extremists. Ironically, he joined the BJP, after retiring from the services.
Majoritarain communalisation has been underway across Bihar, more specifically in Arrah. The saffron outfits are trying to organise 'kalash yatras' (processions in which young girls from Dalit families drape chunris (scarves) and walk carrying kalash (religious urns) on their heads as a pretext for provoking communal tensions between Dalits and Muslims.
'Shiv Charcha' is another such activity indirectly communalising subaltern caste women, not to say of the expansion of Hindu Yuva Vahini in the Rajput dominated villages of Saran, adjacent to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf, Gorakhpur.
On 6 November, 2017, the guard at a ‘Saraswati Shishu Mandir’ (RSS chain of schools) in Bahiyara village, Koilvar Block, attempted to rape a Dalit girl child who had gone for defecation. He shot and injured the girl. Later, the guard also beat up with the butt of his rifle the girl’s uncle and elder sister who reached the spot.
This school is owned by billionaire BJP Rajya Sabha MP Ravindra Kishore Sinha and is allegedly built on forcibly captured government land allotted to Dalits. RK Sinha’s name also appears in the Paradise Papers leak. During his Arrah visit, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief had stayed at Sinha’s house.
A lout from the Rajput caste had also attempted to rape a Dalit girl child at Joga Kharaicha village in Sahar. On 17 January 2018, feudal criminals shot and killed newspaper vendor Yogendra Prasad Tatwan at Karnamepur in Shahpur. His cousin brother had also been murdered in October 2017.
The CPI-ML claims to have been fighting out all such communal and feudal-criminal forces against several odds. In Arrah, it is fighting against Hindu communalism and criminals, and upper caste feudal atrocities against Dalits; in Siwan, CPI-ML (out of the mahagathbandhan) is up against Muslim communalism of safeguarding a convicted gangster’s crumbling empire.
It would be interesting to watch the electoral outcome in the western and eastern flanks of Bihar, the two geographical (as well as ideological) parts of Bihar as much as it would be to watch in the rest of Bihar. What is clear though is that Bihar continues to be grappled with a curious mix of crime, caste and communalism, much like few other parts of India.
The author is a professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University and author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge)
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