LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh – Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad Naqvi is one of the most influential leaders of Shia Muslims in India today. From his seat in Lucknow, he makes proclamations that influence and sway the Shia community who constitute around 25 percent of the Muslim population in the country.
During election time, Jawad's directives on which party to choose carries much weight. The cleric has advised his community against voting for the alliance between the Samajwadi and Congress parties in the ongoing U.P. Assembly polls. The Shias had backed the SP in the 2012 Assembly elections. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Shias were with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Jawad has recently announced his support for the Bahujan Samaj Party. A week earlier, while speaking to HuffPost India at his home in old Lucknow, Jawad said, "The people must choose between the BSP and the BJP."
The question that stood out was why a Shia cleric should be open-minded about the BJP. This was a political party, not only rooted in the ideology of Hindutva, but which had not fielded even a single Muslim candidate in the ongoing polls. Jawad told this reporter that the Muslims were safe under the Modi government. He was dismissive of "gharwapsi," "Love Jihad" and "Anti-Romeo Squads" as the talk of some "crackpots" in the party.
Referring to Modi, Jawad said, "When his government came to power, people thought there would be communal riots everywhere. Nothing like that happened. Where has there been the most communal strife? Here in UP, more than 500 episodes in five years."
Where has there been the most communal strife? Here in UP, more than 500 episodes in five years.
Apart from "gharwapsi," Love Jihad" and the "anti-Romeo squads", there were the self-appointed Gau Rakshaks who had created an atmosphere that, many believe, led to the lynching of a Muslim over rumours of cow slaughter.
Was Jawad forgetting about the Muzaffarnagar riots that had claimed the lives of at least 60 people and displaced over 50,000 Some local BJP leaders in western UP were booked for inciting communal passions at the time. "Are you forgetting the role of Azam Khan," responded Jawad, referring to the veteran SP leader of whom he is routinely critical. This was in context of the sting-operation by a news channel which suggested that Khan had exerted political pressure on the police to go slow on the rioters, allowing the violence to fan out.
"Are you forgetting the role of Azam Khan."
On the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Jawad said that it was the responsibility of the state government to maintain order and deliver justice. "Is it the BJP or the SP government that made a case against Akhlaq's family members for cow slaughter. Just because some BJP leaders come and raise slogans, does that mean the government has to act on it. Are they working together?" he asked.
Modi, he said, "is the one who shut down all the Gau Rakshaks."
Is it the BJP or the SP government that made a case against Akhlaq's family members for cow slaughter.
Jawad's angst against the SP comes from a host of issues ranging from the "broken promises" over employment for Muslims to alleged corruption in the management of waqf property.
While Jawad spoke, his aide brought out an album filled with photographs of the police crackdown on a protest staged by Shia Muslims against alleged corruption in the management of waqf property.
The Shia cleric spoke about the case of the six Muslims who, after spending nine years in prison, were absolved of terror charges by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court in October 2015. It came as a shock to the Muslims when their acquittal was challenged by the Samajwadi Party government in the Supreme Court. "They had promised to protect innocent Muslims from going to jail on false charges. But it was not honored," said Jawad.
"Under Mulayam Singh Yadav, we were given some attention but under Akhilesh, we are totally neglected," he said. "His own father says that he is against the minorities."
The Muslims in UP, whether Shia or Sunni, find themselves in a conundrum in these Assembly polls. On the one hand, they are angry with the ruling Samajwadi Party for failing to prevent the Muzaffarnagar riots and then failing to deliver justice. Amnesty International recently reported that not a single person has been convicted in seven cases of gang-rape during the riots.
The Muslims are also angry about the hundreds of instances of communal strife in the past five years of the SP government, all the way from Saharanpur in the west to Azamgarh in the east. Official figures record 450 instances from 2013 to 2016, the highest of any state. Close to 500 people were injured with 29 people losing their lives in 2016 alone.
The Muslims are also angry about Mulayam Singh Yadav's promise of reserving jobs for the community. The SP government could not deliver on because the Constitution does not provide for religion-based reservation.
On the other hand, the Muslims feel compelled to vote together to stop the BJP from coming to power in Uttar Pradesh. Those who are hardcore SP loyalists will swallow their anger, but those who sit on the fence could also opt for the other "secular" option of Mayawati's BSP which has fielded the highest number of Muslim candidates while making a pitch for Dalit-Muslim solidarity.
The Muslims in UP, whether Shia or Sunni, find themselves in a conundrum in these Assembly polls.
To add to their confusion is the SP's alliance with the Congress Party aimed to mobilize the Muslim vote. Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi have made their campaign about development. They both represent a break from the old guard who banked on communal polarisation.
However, there are many Muslims with long memories. They have not forgotten that it was Rajiv Gandhi, who, on the counsel of his advisor Arun Nehru, had the locks of the Babri Masjid opened in 1986, allowing the entry of Hindus into the disputed site.
Months earlier, caving under the pressure of orthodox Muslims, Gandhi neutralized the Supreme Court's decision regarding the payment of maintenance by the ex-husband of Shah Bano, a mother of five children, from Indore.
Rajiv Gandhi had faced criticism for appeasing Muslim orthodoxy. The unlocking of the Babri Masjid was widely regarded as a move to restore the balance. Unfortunately for the Congress, it backfired and the party has been out of power in UP for almost thirty years.
"No party has played with the Muslims more than the Congress. No party has been worse for the Muslims," said Jawad. Referring to the SP-Congress alliance, he said, "I would say that voting for the BJP is better than voting for these two parties."
No party has played with the Muslims more than the Congress. No party has been worse for the Muslims.
A few days after speaking to HuffPost India, when Jawad endorsed the BSP, the Shia leader appeared to be on the same page as his Sunni counterpart Imam Bukhari of Delhi's Jama Masjid, who also backed Mayawati's party.
In fact, a number of influential clerics have endorsed the BSP, giving impetus to Mayawati's attempt to win of votes Muslims and Dalits. She also has the backing of The All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board, a body of Sunni Muslims.
While there are many Muslims still concerned by the fact that BSP had once formed an alliance with the BJP, Jawad is not one of them. "Here is the main difference. Under the SP, there will be hundreds of communals tensions, but under Mayawati, there will only be one or two," he said.
Under the SP, there will be hundreds of communal tensions, but under Mayawati, there will only be one or two.
Shias And The BJP
The comfort level of the Shia Muslims for the BJP is by no means novel. Jawad claimed that it was the support of his community which had resulted in the victory of BJP's Rajnath Singh.
The Shia Muslims while fewer in numbers are more affluent and educated than their more numerous Sunni brethren. Many of them traders and businessmen. They have a history of being on the side of reigning power of the time. The Nawabs of Awadh, who ruled over what is central U.P. and Lucknow from 1722 to 1856, were mainly Shia Muslims who left behind a rich legacy of tolerance, art, culture and the famous Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb.
The Shia rulers were also quick to make peace with the East India Company, but the room they made for the foreign power eventually left them powerless. In Gujarat, the Dawoodi Bohras and the Khojas, both Shia sects, have supported the BJP despite the 2002 Godhra riots.
The BJP's development agenda is a key reason behind the support of the Shia Muslims, said Jawad, while knocking down Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's record. "The Expressway is only half finished, the metro still has two years to go. He had promised government jobs for the Muslims, but those eventually went to the Yadavs. Not all Yadavs, but to those from their family stronghold of Kannauj, Etawah and Mainpuri," he said.
He had promised government jobs for the Muslims, but those eventually went to the Yadavs.
It is never said aloud, but the smaller and more vulnerable of the two Muslim sects has often backed the BJP because of its perceived ability to keep the more numerous Sunnis in check. Jawad, too, shrugged and said, "There is no place where Shia Muslims are safe except Iran and India."
Jawad's house near Victoria Street in Old Lucknow is close to the locality of Patanala, famous for its Idris biryani, and infamous for some of the worst bloodshed between Shias and Sunnis in Lucknow. The spark for this violence was the elaborate mourning practiced by the Shia Muslims of Lucknow in memory of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was slain in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
The practice of Azadari (mourning) was banned in 1977 only to be restored three decades later by the Mayawati government following a nine-month long agitation involving marches, hunger strikes and the self-immolation of three Shia youths.
"There is no place where Shia Muslims are safe except Iran and India."
Jawad, who was twice arrested during the protests, is seen as calming influence on the once volatile relations between the Shia and Sunnis. He has led several prayer meetings where the two sects pray together. In 2015, the Shia community in Lucknow invited Sunni clerics to speak at their "majlis," for the first time during Muharram.
On whether he believed that the peace between the Shia and Sunni was more than skin deep, "I don't believe those kind of problems with Sunnis exist anymore. There maybe a few incidents now and then. But what we are cautious against is the growing Wahabi influence from Saudi Arabia."
On the surgical strikes against Pakistan, Jawad gave Modi a thumbs up, but expressed his distress at the prime minister's visits to Saudi Arabia and the United States and his planned trip to Israel. "These are countries that make Muslims fight other Muslims," he said.
What we are cautious against is the growing Wahabi influence from Saudi Arabia.
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