Worried about the “Muslim party” tag, Congress ignores Meo Muslims in Rajasthan polls

As Rajasthan goes to polls on 7 December, Meo Muslims say they don't want the Congress to take them for granted. Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto / Getty Images
06 December, 2018

On 25 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in Alwar, marking the start of his campaign for the 2018 Rajasthan assembly elections. On the stage with him was Gyandev Ahuja, a controversial Bharatiya Janata Party member of legislative assembly from Ramgarh.

Ahuja has supported cow vigilante groups, and has also claimed to fund them. “If you smuggle and slaughter cows, then you will be killed,” he said after a man was assaulted for smuggling cows in December 2017. He recently resigned from the BJP after being denied a ticket for the assembly elections, filed a nomination to contest as an independent, withdrew it and rejoined the BJP as its state vice-president. Dressed in a saffron kurta and a colourful safa—Rajasthani headgear—Ahuja approached the prime minister after the speech. Modi held his hand, patted him on the shoulder and addressed him, before leaving the stage. The mustachioed legislator smiled and flashed victory signs toward the crowd. Standing next to me, Rajveer Dudi, a BJP supporter, described Ahuja as the “pride” of Alwar’s Hindu community. “Ramgarh ka babbar sher hai”—He is the lion of Ramgarh.

“Gyandev Ahuja is the main person in Alwar, not Vasundhara [Raje],” said Dashrath Kumar, a Rajasthan-based farmers’ rights activist and political observer, referring to Rajasthan’s chief minister. “By inviting him on stage, Modi has sent a message that he is okay with a person who has played a role in the polarisation of Hindus and Muslims. In Alwar, voting will be on the issues of cows and lynchings.” Rajasthan goes to polls on 7 December.

Located over 150 kilometres from Delhi, Alwar district in northeastern Rajasthan is home to many Meos, a Muslim community traditionally based in Mewat—a region that includes parts of Alwar and Bharatpur districts in Rajasthan and the adjoining Nuh district of Haryana. Muslims constitute 14.9 percent of Alwar’s population according to the 2011 census, higher than the state average of 9 percent.

According to data compiled by the data-journalism website IndiaSpend, in the last five years, there have been at least six deaths in Mewat due to lynching by cow vigilantes or shooting by the police over rumours of beef consumption and cattle smuggling. The region has witnessed one of the highest concentrations of cow-related violence in India.

In the 2013 state elections, the BJP won nine of 11 assembly constituencies in Alwar, and in the 2014 general election it won the Alwar Lok Sabha seat. But the BJP lost the seat to the Congress in the by-elections held earlier this year, suggesting disenchantment with the Hindu-nationalist party. The BJP’s election manifesto for Rajasthan, released on 27 November by Raje and the union finance minister, Arun Jaitley, does not mention a single welfare scheme for Muslims, in contrast to the 2013 manifesto that contained 12 promises for the community. Moreover, the party has fielded just one Muslim candidate, Yunus Khan, from Tonk. That the BJP is apathetic to issues impacting Muslims is well accepted by the Meos. In my travels through Alwar and Bharatpur, many from the community told me they will not vote for the party. However, the Congress’s silence on issues impacting the security and livelihoods of Meos has puzzled and upset the community. Though many of the Meo community members I spoke to said they will vote for the Congress, they also did not want the party to assume their support.

On 1 April 2017, Pehlu Khan, a Meo from Haryana, was returning home in a truck with cows he had purchased in Jaipur when the vehicle was stopped at Behror, on National Highway 8 by a mob. He tried to show the vigilantes the purchase receipts for the cattle, but was instead punched, kicked and beaten with rods, sticks and belts. Before succumbing to his injuries, Khan named six people. The lynching made national headlines. Then, on 6 December 2017, Talim Khan, another Meo, was shot dead by the police in Alwar city, for allegedly smuggling cows. In July this year, Rakbar Khan was lynched to death by suspected cow-vigilantes in Alwar district’s Lalawandi village, while transporting cattle. Despite this, the Congress has not raised these deaths or cow-related violence in its election campaigning.

Muhammad Hanif was the imam of Alwar’s Jama Masjid for 24 years. Alongside his clerical duties he has been a member of Alwar’s civil society and has played an active role in tracking lynchings in the district. “We fought against Alauddin Khilji, the Mughals and the British,” he said. “When India won independence we felt that this was our country and government. The recent spate of lynchings and polarisation has left us sad and confused. There is a lot of anger in the community, but we don’t want to take the law into our hands. We will work for justice through peaceful and legal means.”

After Pehlu Khan’s lynching, Hanif petitioned the government, demanding justice for Pehlu’s family, and organised protest marches in Alwar, Jaipur and Delhi. The day Rakbar Khan was killed, Hanif visited Rakbar’s village to commiserate with the family. “So many Meos have been killed in the name of the cow under the BJP government,” Hanif said. “We will definitely not vote for the BJP, but the Congress should not take our votes for granted.”

For the upcoming assembly elections, the Congress has given tickets to 15 Muslim candidates across Rajasthan, including in two of the 11 assembly constituencies that make up the Alwar Lok Sabha seat. Safia Zubair Khan has got the ticket from Ramgarh and Aimamuddin Ahmad Khan is contesting from Tijara. The party’s manifesto, released on 29 November, has a section for minorities. It states that if voted into power the Congress will provide computers and internet connections to madrassas.

I travelled on to Ghasoli, a truck-stop village on the Alwar-Tijara highway, part of the Kishangarh-Bas assembly constituency. Hindus make up 61.4 percent of the population of around two lakh residents, while Muslims constitute 33.41 percent, according to the 2011 census. Villagers estimate that there are 45,000 Meo Muslims in the constituency. The BJP’s Ramhet Singh won the assembly seat in 2013.

The sites of two lynchings—Rakbar Khan’s at Lalawandi village and Ummar Muhammad’s at Govindgarh—were not very far from where I met a mixed group of Hindu and Muslim voters. When I asked what issues they had faced in the past five years, they spoke about the lack of water, increasing electricity bills and diesel prices. The Muslims in the group seemed reluctant to speak openly about lynchings. Danish Khan, a Ghasoli resident who had been vocal earlier, clammed up when I asked what he thought of cow vigilantism and lynchings. Other villagers spoke up. “We are upset with the BJP and hope all the seats in Alwar go to the Congress,” Ayub Khan said. “The BJP tries to manipulate emotions,” Islam-ul-haq, another resident of Ghasoli, added. “They know that the Congress has a solid vote bank in Alwar.”

Yet, several Muslim residents complained that the party was ignoring their key issues and concerns. “The BJP practices hard Hindutva while the Congress practices soft Hindutva,” Shahrukh Noor, a young man who helps to manage a local school, said. When I asked why Muslims in general and Meos in particular did not seem to figure in electioneering, Noor said that while the BJP was aiming to please its hardcore voters by ignoring Muslims, the Congress also did not want to be seen as too “pro-Muslim.”

Qasim Khan, an advocate practicing at the district and sessions court in Alwar, echoed the same sentiment. Khan has been trying to transfer the Pehlu Khan case from Behror, a smaller town in Alwar district to the capital Alwar city, where he feels witnesses will not be intimidated. He noted that the Congress leader Bhanwar Jitendra Singh only visited Rakbar’s family and that neither he nor Congress stalwarts Ashok Gehlot or Sachin Pilot visited Pehlu Khan or Ummar Muhummad’s families. “The main issues that the Congress is harping about are GST, demonetisation and corruption,” Qasim said. “They are not talking about lynchings, cow-vigilantism or security and livelihoods at all because for them these are not issues worth talking about.” Qasim predicted that the voting percentage among Meos would be lower than average because there was not much enthusiasm. “Meos have to choose between two evils and we will vote for the lesser evil,” he said.

Noor Mohammad, a social activist who works with the NGO Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development, said that Meos have decided to slip under the radar to avoid calling attention upon themselves. “Mewati Muslims are not going campaigning and have decided to quietly support the Congress,” he said. He explained that when the BJP came to power in 2013, the government machinery started siding with cow vigilantes and three things took place: the prestige of the cow vigilantes increased, Muslims were terrorised and extortion rackets sprung up. “This is why Muslims are silent,” Noor Mohammad told me in his office on the outskirts of Alwar city.

To see how the election campaign was playing out in other parts of Mewat, I travelled to Sikri in Bharatpur district, part of the Nagar assembly constituency. On 23 November, I arrived in the dusty, single-street village just in time for the afternoon prayer. Muslims from the neighbouring villages had gathered at the local mosque and after praying had broken up into smaller groups. The village was celebrating Guru Nanak Jayanti—the birth anniversary of the Sikh guru—that day, and Sikri’s Sikh community had taken out processions marking the occasion. I was told that Wajib Ali, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate for the Nagar constituency, was out campaigning and would come to the village later in the afternoon for celebrations at the local gurudwara.

At a chai stall in Sikri, Taiyyab Khan, a former sarpanch of a nearby village was sitting with a group of Meos. He estimated that Meos had 44,000 votes out of a total of 2.22 lakh votes in Nagar. “Despite being the single largest community in Nagar neither the Congress nor the BJP gave a ticket to a Meo,” he said. “We will vote for the BSP to send a message to both parties.”

Taiyyab pointed to Mamraid Khan, a 70-year-old Sikri resident who he said used to have 10–12 milch cows and buffaloes. “His wife used to milk the cattle and she married off 4 daughters with that money,” Taiyyab recalled. “Today the family is down to four cattle because of the fear of transporting cows.” The perception of discrimination was strong. Shahid Khan, another Sikri resident, claimed that after demonetisation, Muslims were not allowed to enter banks.

Shahid took me to the Congress party office. Murari Lal Gujjar, the Congress candidate for Nagar was out campaigning, but Parashuram Gujjar, the block president was there. He told me that the main issues the Congress was campaigning on were provision of drinking water, irrigation and curbing corruption. When asked why the Congress was silent on the problems of the Meos, he replied that this was not true. Pointing to four men sitting in the office he said they were Muslims and that the party had strong support among the Muslim community. Shahid added that the Congress was considered a “Muslim party” in Mewat.

“Its not as if we have not raised the issue of lynchings,” Vibhuti Bhushan Sharma, a member of the Congress’s manifesto committee for Rajasthan, told me. “I think Sachin and Ashok have talked about safety and security of Muslims,” he added, referring to the senior Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot. He continued, “However, there are so many issues like unemployment, Rafale, note ban and Raje’s misgovernance, that we want to highlight too. In our manifesto, we have included a lot of measures for minorities, whereas the BJP’s manifesto is silent on Muslims. It has given just a single ticket to a Muslim. The BJP wants to get us to talk about religious issues so that they can portray us as a ‘Muslim’ party and we are being careful not to fall into that trap.”

When I asked Gyandev Ahuja about the cow vigilantism and the fear it has generated among Meos, he said, “There has not been a single riot [in Mewat]. I have not allowed even a single communal riot even though I speak openly about protecting Hinduism against jihad. There is only one religion in the world and it is Hinduism, that’s why I talk about protecting Hindus and cows.” I asked him about the spate of lynchings. “There was only one lynching, that of Rakbar, in my constituency Ramgarh. Rakbar was beaten up by the public for smuggling cows and handed over to the police and he died in their custody,” he said. “The public didn’t kill Rakbar. Three policemen have been suspended and a judicial enquiry is on.” When I reminded Ahuja about the killing of Ummar, which also happened in Ramgarh, he reluctantly conceded, saying, “That happened a long time ago. Ummar and his friends fired when they were stopped for smuggling cows and were fired upon in self defence.”

Ahuja claimed that “the electoral wind is blowing in BJP’s favour.” He added, “A month ago it looked like Congress was winning, but the wind has turned in Alwar and Rajasthan. I am a campaigner for the party and campaigning in six constituencies. I am talking about development. They only hurl dirty accusations at us like questioning the prime minister’s caste and that’s why people are angry with the Congress. They have no issues other than caste and communal issues.”

Regardless of whether the BJP and Congress address cow-related violence in Rajasthan, lynchings in Alwar have led to political activism among some Meos. Saddam Hussain, a 26-year-old resident of Alwar, is one example. He had just finished a Masters in Business Administration degree from Jaipur and was back home in Alwar when videos of the Pehlu lynching circulated on social media. “When I saw the video, my blood boiled,” he told me. He was motivated to form the Mewat Yuva Sangathan, a youth organisation aiming to raise awareness and organise protests related to lynchings. “We visited Pehlu’s home and petitioned the administration. Nothing happened and we decided to do a silent march in Alwar, a protest in Jaipur and in Delhi.” Hussain said he believed the BJP resorted to the politics of polarisation for electoral gains. “Cow politics, Ram mandir politics and Hindu-Muslim fights, when elections come around this is what the BJP falls back on,” he said. “Make the cow the national animal, we Meos support it.”