In the fourth part of our series revisiting places from Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign, Scroll.in travels to Bareilly in western Uttar Pradesh to look at his government’s impact on Muslims.
In a two-storey building under a flyover in Bareilly, above namkeen shops, past a policeman posted in the stairwell, lives a 24-year-old woman with her parents, brother, two parrots and five Persian cats.
The oldest of the cats, Simba, with her furry golden coat, sauntered around the living room, while black-haired Mikey scampered. Mother and child, I asked. “No, no, partners, just like Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas,” the young woman giggled, her eyes sparkling, her long straight hair bouncing in a ponytail.
She might not have the international fame of film actor Chopra, who also grew up in Bareilly, but in this part of western Uttar Pradesh, everyone seems to know Nida Khan.
The young woman was catapulted to fame in 2016 when she filed a case against her husband, Sheeran Raza Khan, accusing him of beating her after she failed to meet his family’s demands for dowry.
Sheeran Khan is no ordinary man: he is the scion of a powerful family of Islamic scholars who trace their lineage to Ahmed Raza Khan, the founder of the influential Barelvi school of Islam, which is followed by most Indian Muslims. They are the custodians of the Dargah-e-Ala Hazrat, the tomb of Ahmed Raza Khan. Sheeran Khan’s uncle Tauqeer Raza Khan, a prominent cleric, also leads a political party called the Ittehad-e-Millat Council, and was a minister in the Samajwadi Party government.
When a rishta (marriage offer) came from the illustrious dargah family, Nida’s mother was tempted. But her father, an officer in a public sector company, was clear: Nida had just passed out of St Francis High School, he wanted her to complete her graduation. Sheeran Khan’s family had to wait.
The engagement took place in the summer of 2014, two months after Nida Khan finished a degree in commerce.
India had just witnessed a tumultuous election. Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat led the Bharatiya Janata Party to a thumping victory. Under his watch, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, had been killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots. This triggered deep anxieties among Muslims, who found their representation in the Lok Sabha plummet to an all time low.
As a woman on the path to marriage, Nida Khan was caught in her own maelstrom – she had just started to wear a burqa. All she remembers of the election is that she cast her vote for the first time. She voted in favour of the Congress candidate, not as a rejection of Modi, but because she was impressed with the strength of Indira Gandhi, India’s only woman prime minister.
“I too was a leader in school,” Khan said. “First, as class monitor, then as school prefect.”
But when it came to marriage, Nida Khan followed tradition. In February 2015, when her nikah was solemnised to Sheeran Khan, she had not even seen his photograph.
Months later, in July, she was back at her parents home – with injuries serious enough to have caused a miscarriage.
“Our mentality did not match,” she explained. “Everyone assumed he is from the dargah family, he must be a hafiz, aalim [erudite person], but it turned out he was a Class 5 passout.” She got a taste of his anger in March, when he stormed into an examination hall where she was writing her first-year masters of commerce exams. Holding her by the arm, he pulled her out – a story dramatic enough for the local newspapers to publish, but after carefully excising all the names.
Such was the power of the dargah family that when Nida Khan decided to file a police complaint in 2016, she was initially turned away. She had to seek the intervention of the courts.
Even then the police hastily filed a final report exonerating Sheeran Khan, citing lack of evidence. On his part, he claimed the marriage itself was infructuous – he had dissolved it by saying “talaq” three times.
At this crucial juncture, Nida Khan’s crusade caught the attention of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which, by then, had decided to raise the pitch against triple talaq. Launching the party’s campaign for the 2017 assembly elections, Modi spoke of saving “Muslim sisters” from injustice. But many in the Muslim community saw this as an encroachment in their personal laws and another act of majoritarian assertion.
Already, western Uttar Pradesh had witnessed attacks on Muslims. In September 2015, a middle-aged man, Mohammed Akhlaq, was dragged out of his house and killed by a mob which claimed that he had slaughtered a calf for meat. The murder took place just 50 km away from Ghaziabad where Modi, during the 2014 election campaign, had thundered against India’s rising beef exports, deriding them as “gulabi kranti” or a pink revolution.
Consolidating its 2014 victory, BJP swept the Uttar Pradesh elections in March 2017. For Muslims, the political marginalisation was now complete – not a single Muslim MLA in the ruling party and a rabble-rousing Hindu monk, Adityanath, in the chief minister’s seat. One of his first orders was to clamp down on unauthorised slaughterhouses and meat shops, which mostly employ Muslims. While the shops reopened after complying with the new rules, meat became a bad word, leaving people in the business vulnerable.
Mohammad Salim Qureshi ran a meat shop in the narrow lanes of the old city of Bareilly. In June 2018, he was beaten to death in his own neighbourhood, allegedly by the henchmen of the police, after he failed to pay them bribes. “They threatened to fix my brother in a cow slaughter case,” said his brother Nayeem Qureshi.
Scroll.in spoke to a dozen Muslims living in and around Bareilly. Surrounded by other Muslims, they said they felt secure in their neighbourhoods, but travelling outside was a source of anxiety. A young rice miller said he had stopped taking trains to Delhi and now only journeyed by car: “Because my wife wears a hijab,” he explained. Others spoke of avoiding meat – in school tiffins, on journeys. “No kebabs on the train,” said a crafts merchant.
In this worsening social climate, the BJP has found one trump card: the triple talaq crusaders among Muslim women. Ishrat Jahan, a petitioner in the Supreme Court case that led to a ban on the practice, joined the party this year in West Bengal. So did Sofia Ahmed from Kanpur, who was rewarded with a post in the Uttar Pradesh minorities commission.
But Nida Khan is yet to join.
Her story offers glimpses of the complex fabric of life in western Uttar Pradesh, which is now under strain.
Bareilly district lies in northwestern Uttar Pradesh in a region called Rohilkhand, named after the Afghan Rohillas who ruled in the 17th century. The large Muslim population here – 34.54% in Bareilly and 50.57% in neighbouring Rampur – is often the subject of the feverish imaginations of Hindutva supporters.
For all the menace attributed to them, most Muslims here barely scrape through a living. The traditional occupations they follow are in a state of decline.
“Bareilly is famous for four things,” a young man explained, “baans, surma, manjha, zari” – bamboo furniture, eye kohl, kite string and embroidery work.
All of them are losing out to cheaper, factory-made versions.
In 2014, while campaigning in Bareilly, Modi invoked the special connection he shared with the city as a Gujarati who loved flying kites. “If your kite flies high, then the manjha must be from Bareilly,” he said, sending the audience in raptures.
Referring to the downturn caused in the industry by cheaper nylon substitutes called Chinese manjha, he promised to turn around its fortunes, in the same way that he claimed his government had done with the kite industry in Gujarat. “Brothers and sisters, in Gujarat, the kite industry is in the hands of the poor, 90% of whom are Muslims,” he said. “We did research and started schemes. The industry barely touched Rs 35 crore, we took it to Rs 500 crore.”
Among the audience was Arshad Hussain, the president of the Manjha Mazdoor Kalyan Samiti, which represents 30,000 workers in Bareilly district. Impressed with Modi’s speech, he voted for the BJP in 2014, he recalled with nervous laughter one morning in December, sitting in a field in impoverished Bakarganj, where hundreds of men ran around poles in luminous winter light.
To make the kite-slaying manjha, the workers must injure their hands, coating the cotton thread strung on poles with a rice paste mixed with glass. The daily wages are a pittance – just Rs 150-Rs 200.
Far from seeing a revival under Modi government, this marginal industry has been pushed further against the wall. First, demonetisation in November 2016 caused an upheaval, then seven months later, the introduction of Goods and Services Tax came as a blow.
GST, which replaced a welter of other taxes, was supposed to make things easier. But not only are the costs of filing GST returns prohibitive, navigating paper work is a steep challenge for those who lack a formal education, said Hussain. “About 200 people run majha-making units here,” he said. “Only 50 have a GST registration.” Others either sell their products by borrowing GST numbers [from other units], for which they pay a commission, or they sell them cheap to whoever is willing to buy.
A sales representative of a leading yarn-making company who was visiting Hussain in Bakarganj said he saw a downturn in every industry he did business with: shoe-making, textiles, mattresses. “Cash flow has stopped in the economy,” he said. As firms waited for refunds, GST had locked up private funds with the government, and banks were not lending. The result was a liquidity squeeze. “The big players are benefitting, the smaller businesses are getting wiped out,” he said.
In Shahmat Ganj in the old city, Asad Khan, 42, who makes and sells hand-embroidered salwar kameez fabrics pointed to a pile of products lying around. “These have come back from Punjab,” he said. He had sold them on credit – the buyer made no upfront payment – but when they remained unsold, the buyer sent them back. “Now the trouble is I have already paid GST on them, which I won’t get back,” Khan said. The new tax system does not account for a traditional economy based on credit and trust.
It is easy to discuss the economic crisis in these neighbourhoods. But broaching the subject of the worsening social climate and the anxiety of being Muslim is not.
“I have stopped watching TV,” is all that Asad Khan was willing to say.
Hammad Nabi, a youth leader of the Samajwadi Party, said it was counterproductive to dwell on the fears of Muslims: it pushes them to hardline leaders like the Owaisis, he claimed. “This government is bad not just for Muslims, we say it is bad for everyone,” he said.
But in the villages of Bareilly, there is disquiet. Zarar Ahmed, 60, the pradhan of Jojkharpur village in Bahedi block, and the head of the association of village chiefs, alleged that Muslim-majority villages were being denied development funds under the BJP. “They have not sanctioned a single awaas [house] in my village,” he said, referring to the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, which subsidises the construction of low cost houses.
In another Muslim-majority village, Rurki, in the same block, a younger pradhan, Akram Khan, 43, disagreed. “There might be verbal discrimination,” he said, hinting at the sparring between BJP MLAs and pradhans owing allegiance to the Samajwadi Party, “but there is no discrimination in funds.”
In his own village, however, stands a monument to the government’s malice towards Muslims.
It is a two-storey building which lies incomplete. Funded through the previous government’s multisectoral development programme, the building was meant to house an industrial training institute. The programme, which was launched in 2008, aimed at building infrastructure to “address the development deficits of minority concentration areas”. The Centre contributed 75% of the funds, while 25% came from the state.
But, since the Modi government came to power, Uttar Pradesh officials say not only has the sanction of new projects stopped, even ongoing projects have come to a standstill because central funds have dried up. All that the Modi government has done is rename the programme as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram.
For instance, of the Rs 3.65 crore allotted to the industrial training institute in Bahedi, Rs 2.65 was released by the previous government, all of which was spent. About 75% of the construction is complete. But the second instalment never came. Now, weeds have taken over the unfinished building.
In Bareilly district alone, as many as 24 projects are lying incomplete. The original sanction for them was Rs 52.73 crore but the delay has pushed up costs to Rs 77.56. To complete them, Uttar Pradesh would have to dip into its own funds, which, officials say, is unlikely to happen.
“Don’t do anything for minorities, no issue,” said a senior official. “But this government wants to show it is not doing anything for them.”
Another example of Modi government’s ill-will towards Muslims, said state officials, was the unprecedented delay in the salaries of teachers appointed under the madrassa modernisation scheme. Launched by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government in 2003, the scheme aimed to supplement privately funded deeni talim (religious education) with government-funded duniyawi taleem (secular education) through the appointment of maths, science and other subject teachers.
While delays occurred even under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, never before had the Centre completely stopped releasing salaries. “It’s been 33 months since we were paid,” said Mohammad Shakeel, who has been in service since 2003. “We have agitated in Jantar Mantar [in Delhi], to no avail.”
“Modi ji says he wants Muslims to have ek haath mein computer, ek haath mein Koran [a computer in one hand, Koran in the other],” he continued. “Computer to mila nahi, ab Koran bhi chooth jayegi.” We did not get a computer, and now we stand to lose the Koran.
Funds are not the ony instrument by which governments signal their priorities.
Months after it came to power, in August 2017, the Adityanath government ordered all districts to enforce the singing of the national anthem in madrassas on Independence Day. The proceedings were to be recorded and the footage sent to Lucknow.
The decision created palpable tension in parts of Bareilly, said an official, leading to orders being imposed under Section 144 to prohibit more than four people from assembling at a spot.
Assigned the task of enforcing the order in one madrassa, he recalled how he got around it. “I told them I will sing, you please join only if you want to,” he said. “Literally, no one sang. But I had positioned the camera in a way where only I was visible. So the work was done.”
In August, Nida Khan received a call from Rekha Arya, the women and child development minister of neighbouring Uttarakhand. Arya said she wanted to discuss women’s issues but Khan was smart enough to know this was a cover. In July, a cleric in Bareilly had passed a fatwa against her, which had prompted the police to assign her a full-time security detail, but it had also raised her public profile. Aware that other triple talaq crusaders had joined the BJP, she anticipated an offer from the party.
When she consulted her parents, her father said “no netagiri”, but her mother asked her to make up her own mind. Khan reminded herself that it was only after the BJP had come to power in Uttar Pradesh that the investigation in her case had been reopened. The police had taken one year to file the chargesheet. “There was delay, but no injustice,” she reasoned. “I am safe as long as the BJP is in power. If the SP comes back, I am finished.”
But driving from Bareilly to Dehradun, via Haridwar, was a challenge.
It was the season for the Kanwar Yatra, in which young male devotees of Shiva walk long distances to fetch the water of Ganga from Haridwar. The road was jammed. “My brother told the driver, be extra careful, if you even touch the bhole people, you will get killed,” Khan recalled. A video had surfaced, showing Kanwariyas vandalising a car in the full public view, with the police watching helplessly.
In 2012, communal clashes had erupted in Bareilly district after Kanwariyas were stopped by Muslims from playing loud music in the town of Aonla. This year, in many villages of Bareilly, Muslims complained that Kanwariyas deliberately strayed from the official routes, marched in front of mosques, resorted to provocative slogans. “Musalman khamosh raha (Muslims stayed silent),” said Abdul Waheed, a leader allied to the Samajwadi Party. “We counselled them to stay silent. If you speak up, you only will get beaten up. The government is theirs.”
But Nida Khan scoffed at the simplistic binaries. “Our people too take out jaloos [processions] which are nothing but shakti pradarshan [displays of strength],” she noted. The competitive displays clashed in 2010, when a procession to mark the Prophet’s birthday ran into a Holi celebration in Bareilly. This triggered riots that led to a month-long curfew in the city.
Voicing a commonly held belief, Nida Khan claimed the riots were not spontaneous: the clash was orchestrated. Less than a year ago, in 2009, Santosh Gangwar of the BJP, after six successive wins, was defeated by the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party was in power in the state. Both the Samajwadi Party and the BJP were politically marginalised. Nida Khan claims they got together to engineer the riots and polarise the electorate. “Tauqeer Mian [of the dargah family] and Santosh Gangwar are after all good friends,” she said.
This year, in the thick of speculation over whether Khan would join the BJP, local newspapers reported that Gangwar had scuttled her chances – at the behest of the dargah family. While Arya had made an offer on behalf of BJP’s Uttarakhand unit, Nida Khan had turned it down, saying she would also consider an offer from the central leadership. Days later, Gangwar called her for a meeting, but nothing came of it.
Nida Khan remains ambivalent about joining the BJP.
In September, she had travelled to Lucknow to collect an award. Adityanath was the chief guest at the event. On stage, the moderator asked him about the mob lynchings in the state – as recently as June, a Muslim man had been killed over cow slaughter rumours in Hapur.
Khan recalled his answer: “Mob lynching? No, that’s not taking place in UP”.
“I was like how much is he lying,” she said. “But the anchor did not even cross-question him.”
In the Bareilly college, where Nida Khan studied, colonial-era red brick buildings are set against green expansive lawns. Like many campuses, in recent years, it has seen a rise of the Hindutva student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In October, a bus carrying Urdu books sponsored by the National Council For Promotion of Urdu Language, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, had to be sent back after ABVP objected, shouting slogans against it.
Even without paying much attention to politics, two young women in the second-year BSc course had concluded that Modi government was anti-Muslim. “Everything is being renamed,” said Rashmi Singh, 19. Her friend, Alqama Zaidi, 17, chipped in: “Did you see the WhatsApp joke about Hajmola?” – referring to a brand of candy. “The government has renamed it, because it has Haj and Moula. Its new name is Deen Dayal Upadhyay.”
All photos by Supriya Sharma
Read the other stories in the series here.