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Lok Sabha 2024: An Eerie Silence in UP and Uttarakhand

Haldwani was convulsed by communal violence about three days before the author started this leg of his journey.

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(This is the fourth in a series of insightful reports from the ground, titled The Race From India to Bharat. The author travels all across India as 960 million voters get ready to celebrate the largest festival of democracy in the world: the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. What do ordinary Indians think and feel about the past, present, and future of India? Are they convinced that the old fault lines are healing?)

(Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.)

On a lark, the author decided to make a small detour while crossing Rampur (Uttar Pradesh) on the highway. Google Maps showed 15 kilometres. When I reached, I saw a security guard making futile attempts to stop students without helmets riding inside a university campus on their two-wheelers. Professor Swati Singh appeared more successful as the students did stop and sheepishly said sorry to her.

I was at the gate of Mohammed Ali Jauhar University, an institution nursed and launched by Azam Khan, the 75-year-old Samajwadi Party co-founder who once lorded over Rampur and the region around it as a “Sultanate” chieftain. Life has not been easy for the aging warhorse in recent times. He has been in and out of jail and is disqualified from contesting elections because of a conviction. There are 80 cases or so against him. Soon after Yogi Adityanath won a second term as chief minister, life became even more difficult for him.  

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Both the Lok Sabha seat and the assembly seat in Rampur have been pocketed by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) during by-elections in 2022. A majority of voters in the Lok Sabha seat and a huge majority in the assembly segment are Muslims who had sent Dr Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad to Parliament during India's first general elections in 1952.

Very gingerly, I try to tiptoe around the Azam Khan issue with Professor Swati Singh. I nod when she says she teaches mathematics at the university. She has a warm and infectious smile. But that freezes instantly when I ask about the “founder” of the university without even taking any name. “ I don’t know anything about that, please excuse me”, says Professor Singh as she walks away to stop more students without helmets.

The security guard and his colleague who has since arrived refuse to talk. There isn’t much by way of a neighbourhood or a market near Muhammed Ali Jauhar University. But I get stiff stares from the few I ask about Azam Khan and his bad times. Just one fruit seller, when I am moving back towards the highway, responds. The gist of his lament is that the treatment being meted out to Azam Khan is a deliberate humiliation of the Muslim community. “Ab to Yogi ji hain. Aage Aage dekhiye…”, he shrugs as he declines to share his name.

The original plan of the author was to drive straight to Bhimtal and find out what ordinary Indians in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand are thinking of contemporary issues. Along the way falls the town of Haldwani which was convulsed by communal violence on 8 February, about three days before the author started this leg of the India To Bharat journey.

After the courts refused to pass a stay order, the administration demolished an allegedly illegal Madrasa and mosque belonging to Abdul Malik, who is a sort of hero in the Muslim-dominated Banbhoolpura area. An angry mob allegedly pelted stones and petrol bombs and attempted to burn down a police station. Six people (mostly Muslims) were killed due to bullet injuries and dozens were badly injured, including many policewomen.

I tried my best to talk to some Muslims in the limited time that I had before moving on to Bhimtal. But no luck. No one wanted to talk. In any case, entry to Banbhoolpura was completely bared by the police as the curfew was still in place.  

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The author then took the help of some Muslim friends in Delhi to get connected with local Muslim leaders in nearby Bareilly. The town had just become notorious because a Muslim leader Taqueer Raja had delivered some provocative remarks against the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. My objective was to try and understand why Muslims are feeling dispossessed and powerless, and what are their grievances. But the author failed.

One very articulate person did have a long conversation with the author over the phone. According to him, he was talking only because my Muslim friends had vouched that I am not an anti—Muslim person. Otherwise, he would not even talk to me over the phone. He said he tried persuading some local Muslim leaders to talk. But everyone refused. “What’s the point? We will say something and then the cops will come and arrest us.”

According to him, there is not much of a bright future for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. “You see, discrimination against us is now in the open. You keep talking about Ram coming back after 500 years. You broke a place where we worshipped Allah. Allah is always there. So is Ram. When did Ram go anywhere? And now, you are discouraging us from Namaz too”, he adds with a tinge of bitterness. 

All the author could do was thank the person for the phone conversation and hope for better times. As an Indian, these few conversations do have me worried. It looks like the fault lines are not healing.

I belong to the class of Indians who want both Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati and Taqueer Raja behind bars. I belong to a class that still wants the Bilkis Bano rapists to be given a death sentence, just as the six Muslim youngsters should get a life term for gang-raping a Muslim lady because she was being friendly with a Hindu man in Karnataka. But then, in these polarised times, it is only shrill and divisive voices that dominate the narrative.  

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  2024 elections 

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