On November 30, Aslam Cyclewala, a Congress member of Surat Municipal Corporation, filed a complaint with the Returning Officer of the city’s Limbayat assembly seat, alleging that an “active worker” of Bharatiya Janata Party was trying to pay poor Muslims in his locality to part with their voter-ID cards – an attempt to make them stay away from voting. Within hours, the watchdog body sent a team of officials for on-the-spot enquiry. But none of the Muslim voters who were said to have been offered money for depositing their voter-IDs till the day of polling on December 9 came forward to confirm the allegation.
“The outcome of the investigation was on predictable lines,” said Cyclewala. “Despite filing a written complaint on the basis of what these poor Muslims told me, I never expected them to stand up against the BJP at the time of enquiry.” That’s not possible in Gujarat, he claimed.
“Yet I was not disappointed because the enquiry had done the miracle – it instantly halted all such efforts to minimise the participation of Muslims in the election,” Cyclewala said.
Cyclewala’s complaint mentioned local resident Raees Plasticwala as the BJP’s “active worker” who allegedly tried to pay some Muslim slum-dwellers of Dumbhal locality in Limbayat to part with their voter-IDs until the day of polling. While Plasticwala refused to talk to Scroll.in, two of the Muslim slum-dwellers of the locality confirmed the allegation on the condition of total anonymity.
“The issue of security at polling booth is a major debating point among Muslims during elections,” said Mujahid Nafees, a social activist working for the minority rights in Gujarat. “Parting with the voter-ID often makes it a great deal harder for a Muslim voter to exercise his voting right even as the Election Commission has allowed a wide range of documents – and voter-ID is only one of them – to establish the identity of the voter at polling booths.”
No role for minorities
The great majority of Muslim voters to whom this reporter spoke while travelling through the cities of Ahmedabad, Surat and Bharuch complained that Gujarat has developed a form of electoral politics in which there is hardly any role left for the minorities, most of whom are unlikely to vote for the BJP.
Though the phenomenon is not so visible during local body polls, it takes prominent shape at the time of Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, ensuring low Muslim participation in the voting process and virtually disenfranchising a good section of these voters, they claimed.
“Forcing Muslims to stay away from polling booths by making them part with their voter-ID cards or sending them out in luxury busses to Ajmer Sharif on the day of polling is only one way of ensuring their low participation in election,” said Kalim Siddiqui, another social activist based in Ahmadabad.
He added: “Every time there is an election, rumours are spread about possible communal flare up on the day of polling. Elections are, therefore, often watched with deep anxiety by Muslim voters who, fearing uncertainty, pray for peace in their homes. This adversely affects their ability to cast a ballot and exercise the electoral franchise.”
There is enough evidence to suggest that many of Gujarat’s Muslims, who account for nearly 10% of the total population, have become numb after the state’s worst-ever communal carnage of 2002. As participating in the struggle for political space has appeared potentially dangerous, with the state showing no signs of standing with them, many Muslim voters have painfully refrained from exercising their right to vote.
“To make the Muslim vote even more redundant, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates have followed since 2002 a three-pronged strategy of making Muslims feel tiraskrit (unwanted), bahishkrit (boycotted) and puraskrit (awarded for showing loyalty to ruling dispensation),” said a Bharuch-based journalist and a keen observer of local politics, Idris Ahmad.
The three-pronged strategy of the RSS, together with the constant fear of communal riots, has taken a toll on the ability of Muslims to cast their vote.
“The first two parts of the strategy have made a large number of Muslims feel that their votes do not matter at all, and the third one has turned many of them loyal to the BJP as this ensures not just material gains but also security,” Idris said, adding: “While some of these loyalists contest as independent candidates only to split the Muslim vote and help the BJP win the election, others fan out in minority localities and try to discourage voters from exercising their electoral franchise.”
The decline of the Congress and absence of another secular alternative have further frustrated Muslim voters of Gujarat.
“No matter what the Congress says, it is the BJP which will ultimately win the election,” said Ahmedabad-based auto-driver Ghulam Mohammad, who admitted that he has not visited the polling booth after the anti-Muslim carnage of 2002. “No one can defeat [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi. It is pointless to have an election in Gujarat.”
Dr Hanif Lakdawala, who runs a trust that works extensively in the health and education sector in localities of the minority community, said, “Muslims of Gujarat prioritise issues slightly differently than those in other parts of the country. After 2002, the community has turned inwards. Instead of fighting for political space, they are focusing on education and trying to build businesses. ”
Peaceful irrelevance may not always be good. It is definitely not so if it is produced because the minorities of the area agree, for the sake of peace, to submit their right to vote to majority triumphalism.