Delhi Poll: Can Local Muslim Leaders Tap Into Anti-CAA Resistance?

Muslims decisively shifted from Congress to Janata Dal in 1993. Will that happen again in 2020 Delhi Assembly polls?

Updated09 Jan 2020, 02:02 PM IST
6 min read

New Friends’ Colony police station in South East Delhi proved to be a rather unlikely place for three of Delhi’s most prominent Muslim politicians to land up at the same time, on the night of 16 December 2019.

The three leaders – Okhla MLA Amanatullah Khan of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and former MLAs Chaudhary Mateen Ahmed and Shoaib Iqbal of the Congress – had all converged to secure the release of Jamia Milia Islamia students detained in connection with the violence that followed protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Less than a month later, elections have been announced in Delhi and the three leaders are likely to seek re-election from their respective constituencies.

Meanwhile, protests against the CAA and a possible National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise are continuing in different parts of Delhi, particularly localities with a high concentration of Muslims such as Shaheen Bagh, Seelampur, Jafrabad and Jama Masjid.

The question is, will the CAA protests unleash political churn among Delhi’s Muslims the way the Babri Masjid’s demolition did in 1993?

What Happened In 1993?

The 1993 Assembly election in Delhi was a landmark one, as it was the first election after Delhi got partial statehood.

But for Muslims, the elections were held in the shadow of a deeply traumatic event: the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

The community was at its most vulnerable and it also felt let down by the Congress, which it saw as having colluded with the BJP in the demolition.

Many Muslims in North India gave Congress the tag “Khooni Panja” and it led to a shift of Muslims from the Congress to the Janata Dal and its offshoots in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and even Delhi.

This period also saw the emergence of assertive, locally-rooted Muslim leaders who had the ability to take on both the BJP and the Congress.

The 1993 Assembly election in Delhi saw the victory of three such strong local Muslim leaders from the Janata Dal:

Shoaib Iqbal in Old Delhi’s Matia Mahal,
Chaudhary Mateen Ahmed in Seelampur in North East Delhi, and
Parvez Hashmi in Okhla in South East Delhi.

All three won on Janata Dal tickets.

They emerged not just in reaction to the rise of Hindu communalism, but also the Congress’ feudal and elite-dominated approach towards Muslims.

For instance, in Matia Mahal, Shoaib Iqbal defeated two candidates from political families – Begum Khursheed of the BJP and Mehmood Pracha of the Congress.

Also, the seat includes the entire Jama Masjid area and Iqbal has been winning despite being at loggerheads with the Jama Masjid’s Shahi Imam. His success represents the rejection of the stereotype that Muslims vote based on the directions of religious leaders.

The victories in Okhla, particularity and also Seelampur, both on the Uttar Pradesh border, were also the result of another factor: internal migration.

The 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and the increasing communal tensions across India created fear among Delhi’s Muslims. Anti-Muslim discrimination also increased. These developments forced Muslims into enclaves, pejoratively labelled “ghettoes”. Many of the new Muslim migrants who arrived from states like UP and Bihar also ended up here.

The demographic and political transformation of Okhla is a case in point. For the first few decades after Independence, this area was sparsely populated and mainly comprised of a few agricultural pockets interspersed with industrial units like Modi Mill.

However, a major landmark in the area was Jamia Millia Islamia, an institution that symbolised Indian Muslims’ involvement in the freedom struggle.

Due to its history and Muslim-dominated character, the area adjoining Jamia became a natural choice for Muslims moving away from other parts of the city as well as from other states, particularly UP and Bihar.

As a result, a seat where a Muslim candidate had never secured over 10 percent of the votes, let alone won it, suddenly turned into a constituency where the competition is mainly between Muslims.

From ‘Congress vs Janata Dal’ to ‘AAP vs Congress’

A churn similar to 1993 is underway in Delhi following the CAA protests.

Right now, the competition in Muslim-dominated seats is between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress.

Interestingly, Congress is where the Janata Dal was in 1993. With Congress under Sonia Gandhi distancing the party from its ‘communal’ taint of the 1980s and 1990s and the nationwide decline of Janata Dal, it provided space for the absorption of the Janata Muslim leaders into the Congress. Parvez Hashmi and Chaudhary Mateen joined the grand old party in the 1990s. Asif Mohammad Khan – who, as an RJD candidate in 2009, wrested Okhla from the Congress – joined it in 2013.

The last one to join was Shoaib Iqbal, in 2014.

A parallel process has been the shift of Hindu votes away from the Congress to AAP and BJP. It is because of this shift that AAP is being forced to go soft of CAA and the Congress can afford to take a more pro-active position.

With such a bench strength of local Muslim leaders, the Congress is accusing AAP of not supporting the anti-CAA protests strongly enough. Except for Amanatullah Khan, no AAP leader has openly come out in support of the protestors.

It is possible that in a few Muslim-dominated seats, the Congress could gain because of AAP’s lukewarm approach towards the anti-CAA protests.

However, the resentment against AAP among Muslims is nowhere near the anger against Congress in 1993.

The CAA sword cuts both ways. While it could help Congress in the few places it has strong candidates, it may help AAP consolidate Muslim votes in rest of the state by virtue of being the main anti-BJP party. Also, the BJP hopes that the issue will lead to the consolidation of Hindu votes behind itself.

Where Are Muslims Concentrated in Delhi?

Muslims form 12.8 percent of the population in Delhi according to the 2011 census, but there are major variations across areas. In terms of districts, the percentage share of Muslims ranges from 33.4 percent of the population in Central Delhi and 29.3 percent in North East Delhi, to less than 5 percent in South West Delhi.

These tehsils have a comparatively higher concentration of Muslims:

  • Daryaganj (Central): 64.7 percent
  • Sadar Bazar (North): 46.8 percent
  • Kotwali (North) 34.8 percent
  • Seelampur (North-East): 33.6 percent
  • Shahdara (North East): 30.7 percent
  • Defence Colony (South): 29.7 percent

Four Assembly constituencies in Delhi are said to be Muslim-majority and have elected only Muslim MLAs since 1993: Matia Mahal, Ballimaran, Seelampur and Okhla.

There are two other seats where Muslims form close to 40 percent of the population: Mustafabad and Babarpur, both in North East Delhi. But their electoral trajectory has been slightly different.

A new constituency, Mustafabad, elected a Muslim MLA in 2008 and 2013 – Hasan Ahmed of the Congress. But he lost to BJP’s Jagdish Pradhan in 2015, mainly because anti-BJP votes split between AAP and Congress.

Babarpur has a similar demography but it has never elected a Muslim MLA. It is currently represented by senior AAP leader Gopal Rai.

There are several other seats with a sizable population of Muslims, such as Shahdara, Seemapuri, Rithala, Chandni Chowk, Sadar Bazar, Jangpura, Kalkaji and Trilokpuri.

Will Votes Split?

When AAP emerged on Delhi’s political scene in 2012, Muslims were initially apprehensive of its capacity to defeat the BJP. Therefore, even when AAP won 28 seats in the 2013 Assembly polls, most of the Muslim-dominated seats went to the Congress.

However, in 2014, Muslims moved towards AAP.

Since then, most Muslim-dominated seats have witnessed a decisive consolidation of anti-BJP votes behind one party. In the 2015 Assembly polls, it was AAP, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it was the Congress.

For instance, in Matia Mahal, the consolidation of anti-BJP votes behind one party increased from 39 percent in 2013 and 52 percent in 2014 to 66 percent in 2015 and 87 percent in 2019.

Then, in neighbouring Ballimaran, it increased from 49 percent in 2013 and 2014 to 78 percent in 2015 and 83 percent in 2019.

This trend can be seen across the state among Muslim voters. According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey, 53 percent of Muslims voted for the Congress in the 2013 Assembly polls. Similarly, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 56 percent are said to have voted for AAP. This indicates a reasonably equal split between the two parties.

But this changed in 2015, when 77 percent of Muslims are said to have voted for AAP, according to the CSDS survey. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it was reasonably decisive – 66 percent in favour of the Congress.

With elections underway in Delhi, it remains to be seen if Muslims consolidate decisively behind AAP due to the work done by Arvind Kejriwal’s government, as well as the fact that it is best-placed to defeat the BJP.

Or will the Congress use the CAA to woo Muslims away from AAP, the way Janata Dal did to the Congress in 1993?

A lot would depend on candidate selection. It is possible that leaders who have taken a strong stand on CAA – like Shoaib Iqbal, Amanatullah Khan and Chaudhary Mateen – are rewarded, while those who were weak on the issue, like Seelampur MLA Haji Ishraque are punished. Already, AAP has won over Shoaib Iqbal from the Congress into its fold. So this means he is certain to get the party’s ticket from Matia Mahal. Congress on the other hand could field either Mirza Javed or Mehmood Pracha, both of whom came out in support of the anti-CAA protests.

In either case, what is clear is that with their newfound political voice, Muslims are unlikely to be any party’s captive vote bank and neither AAP nor Congress can take them for granted.

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Published: 09 Jan 2020, 03:39 AM IST
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