Bihar Elections Phase 3: Don’t Reduce Muslim Votes To Mere Numbers
CAA is a major issue for Muslims in Bihar but it hardly became part of the conversation in the elections
In the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar, a party ran an informal campaign, placing a set of strange advisories for Muslims such as: “Don’t step out to vote in the first half of the day” or “Avoid going with religious markers like Burqa and prayer caps to polling booths.”
The idea was that the visibility of a large number of Muslims shouldn’t provoke a counter consolidation among Hindu voters.
This approach in many ways highlighted how Muslim voters are viewed by parties as well as observers – as mere numbers, without voice or agency.
This approach is evident in much of the commentary on the third phase of polling in the ongoing Bihar Assembly elections. The 78 seats, spread across 16 districts voting on 7 November, have a higher concentration of Muslim voters than the seats in previous two phases.
Questions like these are seldom asked:
- Why is there a concentration of Muslims in these areas?”
- What is at stake for them in these elections?
- What are the political choices before them?
This article will try to answer some of these questions.
Is There a History to Muslims in Bihar’s Border Districts?
Most of the districts going to the polls on 7 November are bordering Nepal and the proportion of Muslims in these districts is comparatively higher than the rest of Bihar.
There is a theory about why that is the case. It is said that in late medieval times a large number of soldiers were settled in the border districts to keep a check on the attacks from warrior clans from Nepal.
This theory is only partially true.
There are some communities – like the Kulhaiyas of Seemanchal – who were settled in the area for this purpose. Originally Arab mercenaries from Hadhramaut, the Kulhaiyas intermarried with not just locals but also Kurmi and other agrarian settlers from different parts of North India.
Due to their origin from soldiers, they had to suffer a great deal of discrimination during the British period when several communities with a background of warfare, were treated as criminals.
In 10 out of these 16 districts voting on 7 November, the proportion of Muslims is higher than the state average of 16.9 percent. These ten include all the seven border districts – Kishanganj, Araria, Supaul, Madhubani, Sitamarhi, East Champaran and West Champaran.
- Kishanganj: 68 percent
- Purnea: 38.5 percent
- Katihar: 44.5 percent
- Araria: 43 percent
- Madhepura: 12.1 percent
- Supaul: 18.4 percent
- Saharsa: 14 percent
- Madhubani: 18.3 percent
- Darbhanga: 22.4 percent
- Sitamarhi: 21.6 percent
- Sheohar: 15.1 percent
- East Champaran: 19.4 percent
- West Champaran: 22 percent
- Samastipur: 10.6 percent
- Muzaffarpur: 15.5 percent
- Vaishali: 9.6 percent
Several seats in some of these districts have already voted. Broadly the Muslim population is said to be above the state average in around 40-50 constituencies that will be voting in this phase.
However, this in itself doesn't mean anything. Muslim voters in Bihar, like in any other part of India are extremely diverse and their political choices are driven by diverse considerations.
Why CAA Has Raised the Stakes for Muslims
The stakes are extremely high for the Muslim community in these elections and a major reason for this is the Citizenship Amendment Act. The highest number of protests against the CAA took place in Bihar, along with Maharashtra.
The fear of losing citizenship and right to an Assam-like NRC exercise is very palpable among Muslims, especially in the Seemanchal region, home to some of the poorest Muslims.
A large number of Muslims here are of Bengali origin and speak Surjapuri that said to be a mix between Koch Bengali and Maithili.
The area is also very near the border with Bangladesh and even Assam is barely 300 km away. So, the combined effect of language, geographical location, religious discrimination and poverty makes the people extremely fearful of NRC. Hence the protests struck a chord here.
Owaisi Attacks Mahagathbandhan Silence
However, despite the CAA being such a big issue for Muslims here, the main aspirant for Muslim votes – the Mahagathbandhan – remained largely silent on it. No top leader, be it Tejashwi Yadav or Rahul Gandhi gave much importance to the CAA in their speeches.
This despite the fact that several functionaries of RJD and Congress were involved in the anti-CAA protests and its leaders like Meeran Haider and Ishrat Jahan respectively are also in jail for this reason.
This silence is constantly being flagged by Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM that has made inroads among the Muslims of Seemanchal after its victory in the Kishanganj bypoll last year.
"Our citizenship can be taken away but neither the RJD nor the Congress have uttered a word" Owaisi said in a number of his rallies.
Trouble for Nitish Kumar
The CAA issue is likely to cost Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (United) the most. The JD(U) is facing a great deal of flak for voting in favour of the Act and the party's candidates have had to face a great deal of pushback during their outreach towards Muslims.
Despite supporting the Act, Kumar did try to balance it by giving assurances that no one would be harmed and that no NRC will take place in Bihar. His government was also much less hostile towards anti-CAA protesters in comparison with the BJP ruled states.
Even many protest organisers admit that such large scale protests wouldn't have been possible had Nitish Kumar behaved like a BJP CM.
But despite this balancing act Kumar is likely to lose some of his Muslim support to the Mahagathbandhan and in some areas, AIMIM.
Dilemma for Muslims
There are several pulls for Muslims in this election. On one hand, the BJP has become more powerful than ever before. Even if Nitish Kumar comes back to power, he is likely to be much more dependent on the BJP than his earlier terms.
If the JD(U) tally is lower than BJP, there is a very real chance of Nitish losing the home ministry to the BJP. The relatively benign Nitish-led NDA that Muslims had seen in Bihar may give way to a much more adversarial approach due to the BJP.
On the other hand, there is a real chance of the RJD - which has been the traditional choice for a major chunk of Muslim voters for the last 30 years - getting the CM's chair after a gap of 15 years. No doubt, this may be a major factor.
Then there is Owaisi's AIMIM that is articulating the main grievances of the community – be it on CAA, the Ram Mandir issue or the backwardness of Seemanchal.
Owaisi’s party is contesting 19 out of 78 seats that vote in this phase. In seats like Amour, Kochadhaman, Kishanganj, Baisi, Jokihat and Bahadurganj in particular, the AIMIM has made the contest difficult for other parties.
But despite drawing huge crowds and being competitive in a number of seats, the AIMIM doesn’t have a serious chance of coming to power and this is an aspect that the Mahagathbandhan has stressed on.
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