A signal from Bihar about changing Muslim politics

The Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM’s win from the Kishanganj Assembly seat shows Muslims are open to embracing identity politics like caste groups in north India

Kishanganj shows that the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM, originally a Hyderabad-based party, could be gradually turning into a national phenomenon. Photo/Twitter (@asadowaisi)

It’s unlikely that many in Kishanganj would have heard of the American singer, TV host and businessman Jimmy Dean. But they seem to have instinctively followed a life principle of his. Dean had famously said: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” The people of Kishanganj town have done exactly that in the Assembly by-elections that took place recently.

The sleepy Kishanganj town of Bihar is the headquarters of a district by the same name, and it has earned maximum importance only as the gateway to north Bengal and northeast India. The district in the northeastern corner of Bihar, bordered by Nepal in the north and Uttar Dinajpur district of Bengal in the east, is the only Muslim dominated district (68 per cent) of the state.

So far, the secular parties have considered the district a bastion of theirs. No wonder the Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency has never elected a Jan Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate. As far the Kishangang Assembly seat is concerned, it has returned various ‘secular’ candidates since 1952, and the list consists of the Congress (8 times), the Socialists (3 times), Janata Dal (once) and RJD (3 times), and an Independent (once).

But the long tradition was finally broken a few days ago, when a by-election took place in Kishanganj town after its incumbent MLA, Mohammad Jawed of Congress, got elected to the Lok Sabha from Kishanganj. It was the only seat of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha constituencies that the RJD-led secular alliance could win. So, when Congress nominated Jawed’s mother, Sayeeda Banu, for the seat, she was, of course, the favourite. But on October 24, when the nation's attention was focussed on the outcome of Maharashtra and Haryana polls, the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) candidate Kamarul Hoda made history by winning the seat. He secured 70,469 votes and defeated BJP's Sweety Singh by 10,204 votes. Sayeeda Banu of the Congress came a distant third by securing 25,285 votes.

It is the first time that the AIMIM has won a seat in north India. This is the first concrete example to show that the Muslims of Eastern India too are seeing identity politics (like the OBCs, Dalits, Jats) as an option. But why the sudden shift?

There is growing unrest among the Muslims about being used by the ‘secular’ parties as a vote bank. They are beginning to see that when push comes to shove, the secular parties will take a pro-Hindu stand to woo voters from the majority community. Indian Muslims cannot change the direction of the wind, so they are adjusting the sails.

By being a part of identity politics, Indian Muslims (half of whom reside in Bengal, Bihar, UP and Assam) may try to assert their rights and influence the polity through their own party, as has been done by the Yadavs, the Dalits and the Jats. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan are icons of identity politics.

Kishanganj shows that the AIMIM, originally a Hyderabad-based party, could be gradually turning into a national phenomenon. Owaisi is a pragmatic leader who, for expanding his party’s reach, has entered into alliances with parties led by Chandrashekhar Rao in Telangana and Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra. As far as Bihar is concerned, a probable ally could be Jitanram Manjhi, a Dalit leader and former chief minister, who now leads a small outfit called Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM). He welcomed the AIMIM victory as something necessary to fight ‘the NRC targeted at Muslims and Dalits’.

The development is definitely bad news for the beleaguered secular brigade of Bihar. In the north-eastern region of Bihar, there are about 20 seats in the districts of Kishanganj (68 per cent Muslim), Katihar (44.5 per cent) Araria (43 per cent) and Purnia (38.5 per cent) which can be won by a Muslim party. In an assembly of 243, it can be quite a haul for a party like the AIMIM. More importantly, by forming an alliance with HAM and other small parties, it can dent the prospect of the ‘secular’ formations in at least 40 seats. Though it is too early to speculate about the rate of success of AIMIM in the Assembly elections to be held in Bihar exactly a year later, it is now established that since the AIMIM withdrew support from the Manmohan Singh government in 2012, it is hurting the Congress and its allies in some way or the other.

As far as Bihar is concerned it may also hurt Nitish Kumar, who despite his alliance with the BJP is trying to keep a separate identity for his party by playing the pro-Muslim card. His party JD(U) has opposed NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill (giving citizenship to all ‘refugees’ from neighbouring countries) in the past. He may create problems for the BJP when they introduce the Citizenship Bill next time in the Parliament. But, the NDA partner’s position is now further weakened as its Muslim votes are slipping out of its hand. Again, the aggressive Hindutvawadis of BJP will try to achieve further polarisation of Hindu votes in Bihar by overplaying the rise of AIMIM. Giriraj Singh, for example, has commented that ‘Bihar’s social harmony’ now ‘faces a threat’, and urged the Biharis to think about their future. This too will add to the woes of Nitish Kumar.

But, will Muslim identity politics become strong in Bihar, or will it spill over from Kishanganj-Purnia-Katihar to the neighbouring Muslim-dominated districts of Malda-Murshidabad of Bengal? As far Bengal is concerned, identity politics of any sort has failed to gain currency in the state. It is the first time since the ‘60s that the BJP’s Hindu identity-based appeal is becoming popular. Bengali Muslims will now like to see a broad alliance of the Left, Congress and Trinamool Congress rather than depending on a Muslim party. But in Bihar, the secular brigade has been tried, tested and now failed. It has made the ground fertile for Muslim identity politics.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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