From Kishanganj to Kashi, it is Muslim Votes That Hold the Key to Victory in UP and Bihar

The Acute Encephalitis Syndrome outbreak in Bihar has the potential to turn into a major and much messier political dispute between the JDU and BJP in the days to come.

Patna: ‘Pallendari topi-Suryapuri Pirhan ek ho’ is the war cry this time in the three Muslim-dominated Lok Sabha constituencies of Seemanchal, the eastern region of Bihar bordering Nepal, Bangladesh and West Bengal.

The catchphrase signifies the efforts by local Muslim leadership to unite the four major sub groups of Muslim community under one umbrella to ensure that the BJP-led NDA candidates are defeated by those of the secular alliance led by RJD-Congress in Katihar, Purnia and Kishanganj constituencies, which go to polls on April 18.

While the Kulhaiyas, one of the major sub-groups of Muslims in the region, are often identified by their distinctive skull caps called Pallendari topi, the Suryapuris, numerically preponderant in Kishanganj, are distinguished by their long kurta called Pirhan and their distinctive dialect which goes by the name of the community.

The Shershahbadis or Bhatias are migrants from neighbouring West Bengal and the Paschimas are settlers from the Bihar’s western districts such as Champaran, Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga.

The Seemanchal region is at the centre stage of Muslim politics this time because five out of the total nine Muslim candidates chosen by different political parties are contesting from three constituencies in this region. In 2014, there were altogether 16 Muslim candidates in the fray in different constituencies in Bihar from mainline political parties.

Of the five Muslim candidates, Congress nominee in Katihar Tariq Anwar and RJD nominee in Araria Sarfaraz Ahmad are facing challenges from Hindu candidates, whereas three Muslim candidates -- Mohammad Javed from Congress, Mahmood Ashraf from Janata Dal (U) and Akhtarul Iman from All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) -- are locked in a fierce electoral battle in the Kishanganj constituency.

In fact, Muslims hold the key in Seemanchal and the geographical arc extending from Kishanganj in eastern Bihar to Kashi (Varanasi) in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting the elections once again.

The entire stretch between Kashi and Kishanganj along the Indo-Nepal border has over 20 constituencies, with high concentration of Muslim population varying between 18 per cent and 70 per cent. This stretch has become a laboratory of Muslim politics and a number of terror modules have also come up along the international border with the involvement of disgruntled youth.

Since the Muslim community, by and large, is opposed to the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, efforts are being made once again to prevent the split of Muslim votes. In 2014, the then JDU candidate Akhtarul Iman had pulled out of the fray soon after Mukhtar Ansari had withdrawn his candidature from Varanasi in favour of AAP contestant Arvind Kejriwal. The move was aimed at consolidating minority votes to stop Modi from coming to power.

The anathema towards the BJP among Muslim electorate is more pronounced this time than 2014 but they appear to be confused with multiple candidates in Kishanganj constituency. The AIMIM candidate Iman is standing firm this time, posing a serious challenge to the JDU and Congress nominees. The firebrand AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi had held several meetings in support of Iman, mocking Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar for garnering the minority votes in 2015 state assembly elections as an ally of RJD and then falling in the lap of the BJP.

Kishanganj is the only Lok Sabha constituency in the country where Muslims account for nearly 70 per cent of the total population. No Hindu candidate has ever won from this constituency except Lakhan Lal Kapoor, who won as Praja Socialist Party nominee in 1967.

“If the three Muslim candidates remain in the fray in Kishanganj, the secular votes will divide, giving an edge to the JDU nominee who will have support of nearly 30 per cent Hindu voters. The decision to extend en bloc support either to Congress or AIMIM candidate will be taken by Muslim leaders a day before the polling,” said Rustam Rahi, a teacher and local journalist.

Even though unity efforts are on, the Muslims in Seemanchal at present are at crossroads in the absence of patriarchs like Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi and Muhammad Taslimuddin, who belonged to Suryapuri and Kulhaiya communities respectively. Both Qasmi and Taslimuddin passed away last year, leaving the Muslim politics in disarray. The young politicians lack experience and are guided more by their respective parties’ leaders than evolving on their own.

In the absence of two tall leaders of the region, the AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi, known for his oratory skills, is trying hard to take up the mantle and lead the Muslim politics in Seemanchal. He has been nourishing this region for over a decade now and fielded candidates from different assembly constituencies in Bihar.

“Owaisi has all the potential to fill the vacuum in the absence of two towering leaders – Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi and Muhammad Taslimuddin. He has been nurturing the constituency and wants to lead the Muslims of Seemanchal and North Dinajpur district of West Bengal,” said Mohammad Mudassir Alam of Kishanganj.

The monolithic Muslim politics has always veered around two things - sops offered by the political parties and ‘emotive issues’ like protection from communal riots and sense of security. Both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar claim to have served the interests of the Muslims. But with Nitish’s wavering stand due to his association with the BJP and Lalu Prasad Yadav serving the jail term, the Seemanchal is awaiting a towering leader.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)