Sometime in the second week of November, Afroz Bano, a resident of Idgah Bhata in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, got a call from an unknown number. “Would she like to go on an all expenses paid trip to Ajmer Sharif?” the caller asked.

“Of course,” Bano replied.

She had been nursing a wish to pay obeisance at Ajmer Sharif, the shrine of the Sufi Moinuddin Chishti in Rajasthan, but could never afford the journey. Now, a kind stranger was offering to fulfil her wish, for free.

Bano asked what she had to do to avail of the opportunity. “The caller said I only had to provide my Aadhaar card and he would take care of the rest,” she said. “When I asked about the dates, he said a large group of Muslim women was leaving for Ajmer Sharif on November 18 and I would be going with them. I agreed and he said he would call me back for my Aadhaar details.”

Barely able to contain her excitement, Bano shared the incident with a few women from her neighbourhood, only to learn some of them had also got such calls. It could not get any better; she would be travelling with women she knew.

In the evening, when Bano’s son returned from work, she told him what had happened. “We were talking about it and he asked me when our constituency was voting,” she recounted the conversation. “I said November 20. He looked at me for a while, then said he thought the trip was a ploy by our BJP legislator to bring down the participation of Muslims in the election.”

In the following days, as the Ajmer trip offer animated discussions in streets and on shopfronts, the Muslims of Idgah Bhata increasingly came to agree with Bano’s son: BJP minister Rajesh Munat, who represents their Raipur West Assembly constituency, was working to suppress the turnout of Muslim voters.

Munat is feeling the heat of anti-incumbency, they contended, so he is trying to keep away those who are unlikely to vote for him.

“Now I understand why they wanted to take only those people who can vote on this trip,” said Almas Bi, a single mother of three. Bi was also called to go on the trip, but she declined when her request to take her 12-year-old daughter along was rejected.

The realisation that their MLA may be trying to keep them from voting seems to have alarmed the Muslims. Most of those offered the Ajmer trip were reluctant to speak to the media. “Most women who gave their names to the callers will not be able to sleep for some days,” Bi said.

Some residents of Idgah Bhata said they had heard about Muslims in the adjoining Raipur South constituency being offered outstation trips during previous elections but it had never happened in their area. Raipur South is represented by Brijmohan Agarwal, a BJP heavyweight who holds several key ministries, including water resources, agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, religious trusts and endowments.

Several Muslim women in Idgah Bhata were offered an all expenses paid trip to Ajmer. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Dummy Muslim candidates’

In Raipur South’s Nehru Nagar area, populated mostly by Muslims, every resident asked about the free trips to Ajmer refused to speak. But several journalists working in Raipur maintained that Agarwal has long been using “every trick in the bag to ensure his victory”. Apart from sending Muslim voters to religious centres such as Ajmer, they added, he puts up “dummy Muslim candidates” to divide the Opposition votes. They pointed out that as many as 27 Muslims are contesting as independents from Raipur South even though the community accounts for just about 15% of the population. No other seat in the state has so many Muslim candidates in the fray. It was the same in 2013. Of the 38 candidates in the fray, 23 were Muslim, 19 of them independents. The majority of them ended up forfeiting their deposits.

“Such candidates are paid Rs 3 lakh,” claimed a middle-aged Muslim man who plans to contest as a “serious independent”, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They spend a miniscule amount on printing pamphlets and keep the rest. I thought about being such a candidate but backed out since I have political ambitions. Had I done this, I would have lost all credibility and any hope of pursuing a career in politics.”

Muslims make up nearly 7% of Chhattisgarh’s population, with the majority concentrated in cities such as Raipur and Durg. In the countryside, Muslims are too few to be an electoral force. attempted to contact Munat and Agarwal to ask about these allegations, only to be told they were busy campaigning. Separately, when contacted over the phone, the secretaries of both ministers promised to call back with their responses, but did not, and further calls to them went unanswered. The story will be updated if they respond.

Rajesh Munat is reportedly 'feeling the heat of anti-incumbency'. Photo credit: YouTube

Fear of losing’

Why Munat, unlike Agarwal, had not felt the need to resort to “dirty tricks” before this election may be because he enjoys much goodwill, even among Muslims. Most of his constituents spoke with acknowledged that he has done “good work”.

“I have not heard about these trips but it is shocking considering Munat has changed the face of Raipur and he could easily win this year as well,” said Mohammad Javed, a resident of Idgah Bhata. “We have an AIIMS, a swimming pool, a world class public library, a hockey stadium, a modern auditorium in Raipur West. He helped us build a fence around our burial ground and spent a lot on its beautification. So to say he has done nothing would be unfair to him. He has worked for this constituency, but there is always fear of losing given how close the fight was the last time around.”

Munat won the 2013 election by a margin of around 6,000 votes. This time, he likely faces an even tougher contest given the anti-incumbency against the BJP, which has been in power for 15 years. “This may have made him insecure,” said Nandlal Dodwani, a shopkeeper in the area.

Anti-incumbency is palpable on the ground. “Unless you try something new, how would you know which is better? I think Munat has done a lot of work but let us try and give Congress’s Vikas Upadhyay at least one chance. He is young and shows a lot of promise,” Dodwani added.

The Congress’s workers are “confident about Vikas Upadhyay’s prospects”, but feel the party has fielded a “weak candidate” against Agarwal, allegedly after “match fixing” between their party’s leadership and the BJP minister.

“Does it make sense that the party has given the ticket to someone who came third even in Chamber of Commerce election?” asked a local Congress leader who refused to be identified. “Even Kanhaiya Agarwal was surprised when he was announced as the candidate. There were protests at the party office, with supporters of some other contenders even pelting stones.”