NEHA DABHADEThe Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) won with a thumping majority in the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections on 11th March 2017. It got over three-fourths majority in India’s most populous state. The win is attributed to the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the BJP leaders along with its policy of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ as one heard in PM Modi’s speech in Varanasi. Though development for all was their stated position for the campaign, this win is attributed to other factors as well according to political pundits and election analysis. BJP was able to mobilize the votes of the non Yadavs, non Jatavs and non Muslims since it set out with an assumption that that the Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims traditionally vote for other parties. Thus the BJP concentrated on the other communities for its votes (Jha & Poonam, 2017). In order to mobilize these communities, the party resorted to identity politics where religion was widely referred to. ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ though was the official motto, through the statements made by BJP leaders it can be discerned that its campaign rode heavily on the Hindu card.
The communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in the year 2013 paid rich electoral dividends for the BJP in 2014. The communal polarization enabled BJP to bag 73 out of 80 seats in UP in the General Elections. While there was no large scale violence in the last one year, small incidences took place in Bijnor and some other places. The run up to the election in UP witnessed rampant references and hate mongering where the political parties resorted to communal polarization of votes. Hate speech was one tool available to polarize the electorate.
The classification of the hate speeches in the following article also provides for a framework of analysis of the BJP Party’s strategy vis a vis the Muslims. The first set of statements relate to the stated position of the Party as also reflecting in its official manifesto which includes construction of Ram Mandir, triple talaq, ban of slaughterhouses. The second set of statements is a response to the perceived policies of the then Samajwadi Party. BJP accused the Samajwadi Party of Muslim appeasement and Muslims voting for the Party en block. The Muslims in turn, BJP perceives as making demands to the Samajwadi Party and thus even the community is to be blamed. This leads to the third set of statements which indicates to the process of demonization of Muslims as a community by spreading Islamophobia through various issues. Here too there is a varying degree of result to be achieved. The demonization at one level is in order to exclude the Muslims and make the other communities grudgingly and with suspicion tolerate coexistence with them. On another level eventually it wants to extern the Muslims completely.
Manifesto of BJP and the statements
The official manifesto of the BJP had two items which were based entirely on religion again and figures in highly provocative speeches. One was the issue of Ram Mandir and the other of triple talaq (The Hindu, 2017). The BJP Yuva wing state general secretary and party’s candidate from Maat constituency of Mathura, Kunwar Singh Nishad said, “”Maa ka doodh piya hai to ek eent masjid ke naam par laga ke dikhao, phir hum tumhe tumahri aukat dikhayenge” (if you are really your mother’s son, put one brick for the Masjid at the Ram Mandir site and then we will show you your real worth)” (Jaiswal, 2017). This also led to charges against Nishad for spreading communal hatred. Lord Ram and Ram Mandir issue has been pivotal to Hindutva politics and never fails to rouse passions. This long standing ruse was used again in the build up to the elections with a promise that BJP will facilitate the building of the temple if voted into power.
The BJP promised to push for a ban of triple talaq in the Supreme Court after seeking the ‘opinion’ of Muslim women. Triple talaq also happens to their beating stick for the Muslims. The Muslim community is tainted as primitive due to the practice of triple talaq amongst other things. Sakshi Maharaj, BJP leader was in news for his controversial statement where hinting at the Muslims he said, “This population rise is not because of the Hindus. Population has risen due to those who support the concept of four wives and 40 children (The Indian Express, 2017).”
This statement resulted in the Election Commission sending a show cause notice to Sakshi Maharaj. This was also a part of stereotyping the Muslims claiming that they are polygamous and producing more children. Not surprisingly, earlier on, he had appealed to all Hindu women to give birth to at least 4 children each to increase the Hindu population in the country. The implicit and explicit threat he points out is that the Muslim population will overtake the Hindu population which will be outnumbered and intimidated. He went on to add, “Hindu ghataa aur desh bataa, which means that decreased Hindu population would divide the country. He expressed the need to have the uniform civil code and ban of triple talaq.
The manifesto also included issues of Kairana and cow. These issues were also raked up to spread hatred against the Muslims. What is perhaps most glaring is the impunity enjoyed by certain politicians. Muzaffarnagar riot accused Sanjay Baliyan who is the now Union Minister for instance stepped up the communal rhetoric by emphasizing on the need of closing of slaughterhouses in UP. He claimed slaughterhouses are affecting communal harmony (Sharma, 2017). Cow still remains a symbol of nationalism despite the protests that followed the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri and Una protests in Gujarat. There has been a country wide debate on the actions of “Gau Rakshaks” who are violating laws and are essentially vigilant groups which the State is turning a blind eye to.
Attack on the policies of Samajwadi Party
Part of the strategy of the BJP had been to target the then ruling Samajwadi Party by accusing it of appeasement of Muslims thereby discrediting the SP government and its policies. What was perhaps the most controversial statement indicating a new low in UP electoral landscape was the statement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The statement is significant on two counts. Firstly coming from the Prime Minister who holds a high constitutional post and secondly the issue it raked up.
He said, “Gaon mein agar kabristan banta hai, to gaon mein shamshaan bhi banana chahiye. Agar Ramzan mein bijli milti hai, to Diwali mein bhi milni chahiye. Agar Holi mein bijli milti hai, to Eid par bhi bijli milni chahiye. Bhedbhav nahin hona chahiye (If a village gets a graveyard, it should get a cremation ground too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, there should be electricity during Diwali too. If there is electricity during Holi, there should be electricity during Eid too. There should not be any discrimination). (The Indian Express, 2017)” The intention was to split communities along the lines of religion by citing the issue of alleged discrimination in the government spending on construction walls around graveyards against alleged low spending on construction of cremation grounds. The statement rattled other political parties and also sharply brought religion in the public discourse in the backdrop of elections.
Demonization of Muslims
BJP MP Yogi Adityanath maintained consistently that the “exodus” in Kairana of Hindus due to a “particular community” if not arrested will turn the region into Kashmir. The attempt here is to create a fear psychosis amongst the Hindus that the Muslim community is posing a threat to them in Western UP. This is despite the various fact findings by civil society organizations (Dabhade, 2016) and also the then government of UP, all pointing out that list of the names drawn up by Hukum Singh, BJP MLA in UP, was not foolproof. Most of the people listed had migrated to neighbouring areas in search of better livelihood opportunities while their families still continued to reside in Kairana, some were dead and others still resided in the area. The underlining message was that criminal elements came from Muslim community and thus to ensure the safety of Hindus, BJP must be voted in. A phobia was spread against the Muslims which kept tensions simmering in the region. In fact Yogi Adityanath claimed that the issue of the alleged exodus in Kairana is an important issue for BJP (The Indian Express, 2017).
A long standing campaign on the lines of hatred and Islamophobia is the campaign on “love jihad”. In order to demonize the Muslim youth, a myth is spread that Muslim youth mislead Hindu girls and marry them in order to convert them forcefully to Islam. In this twisted propaganda, gender has taken a centre stage in the electorate politics of UP. In order to deal with what BJP terms as a “social evil” it has come up with a strategy to form “anti-Romeo” squads. BJP chief Amit Shah explained the purpose of such vigilant squads was to prevent “harassment of young women students”. This is notwithstanding the charges against BJP’s national co-convenor Sunil Bharala, for his provocative speeches. He says, “Love jihad targets innocent girls and lure them. The Muzaffarnagar riots took place because of this love jihad”. Ironically the former SP government claimed that Dial 1090 helpline has been a success (Purkayastha, 2017). Yet BJP persists that if voted to power they will form such squads. Appeal was made in the name of ‘honour’ and ‘chastity’ of Hindu women against Muslim men (The Indian Express, 2017). This narrative not only stereotypes Muslim youth but has gone a long way in undermining agency of women and their freedom to choice.
While the issues of Kairana and ‘Love jihad’ were used to spread Islamophobia, other issues were used to decitizenize Muslims to an extent of suggesting their exclusion and eventual externment. BJP MLA in UP, Suresh Rana, said, “if I emerge as the winner (in UP polls), curfew will be imposed in Kairana, Deoband and Moradabad,” he said (The Indian Express, 2017). This led to charges against him for inciting hatred and promoting enmity under IPC sections 505 and 125. This clearly indicates that citizenship rights of the Muslims were threatened to be impinged upon the basis of religious identity in the name of electoral politics. The Islamophobia that is gripping the global scenario also reverberated in UP Yogi Adityanath has supported US President Donald Trump’s executive order of banning the entry of citizens in US from seven Muslim countries. Not only supporting this ban which is dubbed as ‘extreme vetting’, Yogi Adityanath believes that similar measures must be taken in India in order to arrest terrorist activities (Abraham, 2017).
Polarizing attempts from other political parties
Not to be left too far behind, politicians from other parties too used the rhetoric of religion. Former Uttar Pradesh minister and Samajwadi Party leader, Azam Khan in a speech indirectly compared Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Ravana. He said, “The king who rules over 130 crore Indians goes to Lucknow to burn the effigy of Ravana, but he forgets that the biggest Ravana is not in Lucknow but lives in Delhi (Times of India, 2017).” MIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi in his campaign before Maharashtra Municipal elections but also with an eye on the elections in UP said, “Muslims comprise 21% population in the Mumbai metropolitan region. In the Rs 37,000 crores BMC budget, the share of Muslims should be Rs 7,770 crore. Elect at least 20 to 25 members of MIM in the BMC and we will get the fair share for Muslim wards. (Wajihuddin, 2017)”
Is election a secular activity?
Earlier on in this year, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment stated that electoral candidates cannot seek votes in the name of religion or caste while interpreting section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. “An appeal in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language is impermissible under the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and would constitute a corrupt practice sufficient to annul the election in which such an appeal was made regardless whether the appeal was in the name of the candidate’s religion or the religion of the election agent or that of the opponent or that of the voter’s,” the majority judges ruled (Anand, 2017). This judgment came in the wake up of State Assembly elections in several states to be held in 2017. The judgment is significant because the electoral politics in India is often replete with appeals and innuendoes to religion and religion becomes central to mobilization of votes.
Looking at the issues used by politicians and their statements, one is compelled to think again about the above significant judgment. The judgment reiterates that elections in an institutional democracy like India must be a secular activity. But all the above statements if deconstructed will tell a different tale. Direct references are made to religion in order to garner votes. Are elections in India truly a secular activity? This point has grave import on Indian democracy. The underlining character of Indian democracy is secularism, pluralism and equality. When representatives of people who hold constitutional positions build electoral campaigns on religions which seek to polarize communities, religion is used to split communities coexisting harmoniously together.
Electoral politics which essentialize religion further entrench religious identities and obscures the discussion of rights in the framework of citizenship and Constitution. Elections and voting is a political right for the citizens to have their civic, political, social and economic rights protected and re-enforced. However elections tainted by identity politics and religion are a hurdle for the fundamental rights and a secular democracy. Elections conducted in a polarized and hate filled atmosphere will hardly result in strengthening of electoral process or ensuring that a truly representative candidate wins the election and enjoys the mandate. Therefore there is a need to visit the Act and the recent judgment to act on violations and polarization of communities for electoral success by dividing communities along the lines of religion.
Neha Dabhade is associated with the Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. This appeared in the Center’s publication Secular Perspective March 16-31, 2017