“The people here are disappointed with Modi but the Congress has not done anything to capture the public and create enthusiasm to vote for it,” grumbled Unani doctor and social activist Ashfaq Alam. He was sitting in his clinic-cum-home in the town of Firozpur Jhirka, about an hour away from the glittering suburb of Gurgaon, in the sleepy southern Haryanvi district of Nuh.

Despite being part of the National Capital Region and located in one of the most prosperous states in the country, Nuh is the most under-developed district in India.

In the last decade, Nuh has also been the focus of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s effort to introducecommunal polarisation into the politics of Haryana. About 80% of the district’s population is Muslim. In the ten years of BJP rule at the Centre and the state, there have been numerous incidents of Muslim men being lynched by cow protection gangs in Nuh. This culminated in communal rioting in the district in July, leaving at least seven people dead.

With Haryana set to vote in the Lok Sabha election on May 25, voters in Nuh are presented with a two-horse race for the Gurgaon Lok Sabha constituency, of which Nuh is a part. In one corner is the BJP’s three-time MP Rao Inderjit Singh, the scion of a royal Yadav family from the adjoining district of Rewari. In the other is the Indian National Congress’ Raj Babbar, an actor who has little connection with Haryana.

Rao Inderjit Singh. Credit: @Rao_InderjitS via Twitter

Voters in Nuh that Scroll spoke with said that while Muslim residents of the district are alarmed by the BJP’s communal politics, the Congress has not been able to fully channel this discontent into electoral gains. This is due to a recent surge in Inderjit Singh’s personal popularity among Muslim voters in Nuh after he stood against communal politics after last year’s riots. It is compounded by Babbar’s lack of a connection with voters and the absence of voter outreach in the district by the Congress.

Failed by both Congress and BJP

Residents across the district that Scroll spoke with admitted that neither the Congress nor the BJP had done anything substantial for the development of Nuh over the years.

Almost everyone listed the same problems: a lack of irrigation facilities and access to clean drinking water, scanty staffing in schools and colleges and the absence of a university and a railway station in the district. They also complained that National Highway 248A that traverses Rajasthan and Haryana is unsafe and too narrow.

Former sarpanch of the Sakras gram panchayat in Firozpur Jhirka tehsil, Nuh, Fajrudin Besar is in his mid-60s. He admits to being an associate of Rao Inderjit Singh. But he is not affiliated with the BJP. | Vineet Bhalla

“The BJP, Congress and other parties’ governments have all done some work but not enough that you could pick one over the others,” Fajrudin Besar, former four-term sarpanch of the Sakras gram panchayat in Firozpur Jhirka tehsil, told Scroll. He gave all governments “below pass marks”.

Alam from Firozpur Jhirka had a more uncharitable appraisal of the BJP. “Several educational institutions were built here during the Congress years,” he said. “The BJP government has not done anything noteworthy similar to that.”

On the other hand, in Nuh city, advocate, social activist and politician Ramzan Chaudhary told Scroll that after enlisting Nuh in the Aspirational Districts Programme, the Modi government had done some development work in the district.

“Roads, hospitals and schools have slightly improved,” he said. “Corruption has reduced. Bribery for jobs has gone down.”

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh member Narender Sharma, also a resident of Nuh city, agreed. “The BJP has built new roads that have made Nuh better connected with other districts,” he said. “Now we are able to access schools and hospitals in the rest of the state”.

Medical practitioner and social activist Ashfaq Alam, 51, in front of his clinic-cum-residence in Firozpur Jhirka town in Nuh district. Alam moved to Nuh from Bihar when he was 26 to work with the Mewat Development Agency. He claims to have visited nearly every village in Nuh district. | Vineet Bhalla

BJP’s communal polarisation

Most Muslim residents flagged the atmosphere of communalisation created by the BJP. They listed harassment and even cases of lynching by Hindutva cow vigilante groups and police high-handedness and deference to these criminals as problems that did not exist before 2014.

“Hatred has increased and social fabrics are being frayed,” said Chaudhary.

According to him, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal members routinely barge into Muslim homes to check what meat is being used in food being eaten.

“Muslims here are afraid,” said Alam “They think that the government is with the cow vigilantes. Due to fear, families are not allowing their children to work or study in other parts of Haryana.”

As a consequence, Muslim residents said that the once-burgeoning cattle trade in the district has plummeted. Most of the biryani stalls that used to be visible at every street corner have disappeared.

Mohammad Irshad, Chairman of the Punhana Panchayat Samiti, told Scroll that the BJP contested elections only on the basis of social divisions. “They bring in outsiders to create disorder, break our shrines, harass and provoke Muslims,” he said.

He added: “People are now looking and hoping for a change.”

Mohammad Irshad, 35, popularly known as "Irshad Chairman", in front of his office in Punhana town, Nuh district. Irshad, Chairman of the Punhana Panchayat Samiti, has been canvassing votes for the Indian National Congress. | Vineet Bhalla

Muslim residents told Scroll that Nuh exemplifies communal harmony and brotherhood among its Muslim and Hindu residents. They pointed out that no violence broke out between the two communities in the aftermath of last year’s riots – which, they alleged, had been instigated by people from outside Nuh.

Even further back, there was no violence after the Babri mosque was demolished in 1992 or during the Partition, even though noth these events had precipitated massive communal conflicts in several parts of the country.

Sharma differed slightly on this. He alleged that some political leaders from opposition parties created fear among Hindus living in Muslim-majority villages by not allowing them to move out of their homes and intimidating them.

“Wherever someone is in majority, they will dominate the minority,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that Hindus enjoyed cordial relations with Muslims in most of the district.

“We don’t want the reputation of Mewat to be besmirched,” he said. “Be it Hindu or Muslim, we are all Mewatis first.”

“Mewati” refers to the Meo ethnic group to which most of the residents of Nuh and the larger Mewat region belong. The regions straddles Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Sharma pointed out that it was the BJP state government in March unveiled a statue to honour the celebrated former ruler of Mewat, Hasan Khan Mewati, in March.

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh member Narender Sharma, 50, at his residence in Nuh city. Sharma is involved in the RSS-linked organisation Aarogya Bharati’s operations in Nuh and Gurugram districts.

Advantage: Rao Inderjit Singh?

Residents that Scroll spoke to admitted that Inderjit Singh had not done any significant development work in Nuh in the last 15 years. In contrast, he had initiated several big-ticket projects in Rewari, where he lives.

At the same time, his responsible handling of the aftermath of the communal riot in Nuh last year was praised by several Muslim residents.

He had criticised a Hindutva religious procession for provoking the riots. Subsequently, he had held two communal harmony meetings in which thousands of members of both the religious communities participated.

“During these meetings, he won the hearts of the Muslim community and forbade participants from making hateful statements against any religious community,” Chaudhary told Scroll.

Advocate, social activist and politician Ramzan Chaudhary, 55, sitting in the Alif International School in Nuh city. | Vineet Bhalla

The BJP had also been carrying out outreach work for Inderjit Singh in the district since the beginning of this year, residents said.

Both Sharma and Besar expressed confidence that Inderjit Singh would win a lot more votes from Nuh this time than he did in the previous three elections.

On the other hand, Babbar’s candidature was announced only on April 30, several days after the announcement of all other candidates for other constituencies in Haryana.

He visited Nuh for the first time on May 7. Residents said that the Congress had not made any outreach efforts with the residents of Nuh in the run-up to the elections.

Besar said that the Congress has not made any efforts to campaign here because it takes Muslim votes for granted.

“The ‘culture’ of delay in announcement of its candidates definitely hurts the Congress’ interests,” admitted Irshad. In spite of that Muslim voters would tilt heavily towards the Congress as they traditionally have, he said.

The three incumbent Vidhan Sabha members from the district all belong to the Congress. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election too, nearly 68% of Nuh’s voters had voted for the Congress candidate. Three of the four Mewati Muslims who have become Lok Sabha members – between 1971 and 1988 – won on a Congress ticket.

“Rao sahab’s efforts at maintaining communal harmony here are the minimum we expect from him as our MP,” he said. “However, we won’t be beholden to him for his statements when he has not done anything else for us in 15 years.”

According to Chaudhary, if Prime Minister Narenda Modi and other national BJP leaders had not made Islamophobia their central campaigning plank in the last two weeks, most voters of Nuh would have certainly voted for Inderjit Singh.

“Many of us are dejected now that no matter who we vote for, the BJP will return to power,” he said.