When HuffPost Indiafirst spoke with Sofia Ahmed some weeks ago, she was full of praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government's stand against triple talaq — the right to unilateral oral divorce granted to Muslim men by Islamic law.
Having gone through triple talaq herself, Ahmed joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because of its promise to combat the practice if it came to power in Uttar Pradesh. So, to the astonishment of her friends and family, the 23-year-old Muslim woman from Kanpur campaigned for the BJP in the recently concluded UP assembly elections.
During that first conversation, parts of which were published last month, Ahmed had dismissed Hindutva firebrands such as Yogi Adityanath and Sangeet Som as fringe elements. For her, Modi and his promise of "sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas" (inclusive governance) represented the true face of the BJP. If he occasionally tugged at communal chords, she said, it was because some measure of polarisation was sadly unavoidable in Indian politics.
Now, with Adityanath being chosen as the chief minister, the fringe seems to have morphed into the mainstream.
The BJP leader has, for several years, been accused of polarizing Hindus in order to stay in power. He has championed "ghar wapsi", a political campaign of reconversion back to Hinduism, and founded a right-wing group called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which is accused of inciting communal tensions in eastern UP.
He has also made several derogatory remarks about the minority community. Sample these: "If they take one Hindu girl, then Hindus will take at least 100 Muslim girls" and "if they kill one Hindu, then we will kill 100...." During the election campaign, Adityanath, who is also an immensely popular leader, said, "If the SP (Samajwadi Party) wins, there will be Karbala and Kabristan," implying Muslims were a threat to society.
In light of these developments, HuffPost India contacted Ahmed to find out whether she still supported the BJP and if she would continue to work for the party under Adityanath's leadership. It turned out she does and she will.
Ahmed admitted she was "shocked and a little disappointed" to see a "kattar" (hardliner) proponent of Hindutva being appointed the CM. But she recalled that similar fears were expressed over Modi when he became the prime minister in 2014.
"They said things would be similar to the 2002 riots, that Muslims would be killed, but they were wrong," Ahmed said. "Modi is now remembered for things other than the riots of 2002. The past few years have mostly been peaceful. I'm positive the same will happen under Yogi Adityanath," she added.
Modi is now remembered for things other than the riots of 2002.
It is true there have been no recent communal riots comparable to the scale of Gujarat 2002, although the one in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 comes to mind. Moreover, the outgoing Samajwadi Party government, and not the BJP, was criticized by both Hindus and Muslims in UP for failing to control communal flare-ups over the past five years in the state.
But what did Ahmed think of the rise of the gau rakshaks, the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri for allegedly possessing beef, and the hue and cry over the banning of actors and movies from Pakistan after a deadly terror attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir last year?
First of all, Ahmed said, it was Modi who had swatted down the gau rakshaks. Second, many Muslims also believe that Pakistani actors should not work in India unless cross-border terrorism comes to an end.
After the initial shock of Adityanath becoming the CM had waned, Ahmed said she started reading up on the 44-year-old, a five-time Lok Sabha member from the eastern district of Gorakhpur and the head priest of the Gorakhnath temple. Ahmed was impressed by how regular he had been in Parliament and by some of his speeches.
But what did she make of his remark, "If they take one Hindu girl, then Hindus will take at least 100 Muslim girls"?
"When did he say that?" she asked. "I'm sure he won't say it as the chief minister. As chief minister, you have the responsibility to work for the development of all communities. So let's give him a chance? I'm very positive."
As chief minister, you have the responsibility to work for the development of all communities.
Adityanath's elevation as chief minister is widely regarded as an early move to consolidate the Hindu vote for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A unified Hindu front would help the BJP, if the "secular" parties were to form an alliance to combat it.
In the week since the BJP has come to power in UP, posters have appeared in a village in Bareilly district, asking its Muslim residents to "leave immediately"; there was an attempt to hoist a BJP flag atop a mosque in a village in Bulandshahr district; and a mob set fire to three meat shops in Hathras.
Reacting to these incidents, Ahmed said, "I'm not saying nothing bad will ever happen. But I believe the law and order situation under the CM is going to improve a lot. You can already hear the difference in the things he is saying and doing. It's a good start."
"I believe that the law and order situation under the CM is going to improve a lot."
But can the BJP stake claim to genuinely improving law and order when one community disempowered and is almost always too frightened to react in the face of provocation?
When pressed on the fact that the BJP had not fielded a single Muslim candidate, and that there was only one Muslim face in Adityanath's cabinet, Ahmed said, "Look, even I had hesitated to go with the BJP. But one has to look at the big picture. And that shows only Modi can deliver big changes. I think we all need to start thinking as Indians, not just as Hindus or Muslims," she said.
If that is the case, how did Ahmed rationalise working for a party that had already made it so clear that Hindu consolidation would be central to its 2019 Lok Sabha campaign? "If there is more Hinduism then it will be in a positive way, not in a way that divides Hindus and Muslims," she said.
"If there more Hinduism then it will be in a positive way not in away that divides Hindus and Muslims."
Ahmed said she doesn't have all the answers but her gut tells her she is doing the right thing. The B.Com graduate said she wants a bigger role in the BJP and eventually carve a niche for herself in politics.
On the one hand, her decision to stick with the BJP continues to shock many in the Muslim community. On the other hand, Ahmed said she gets dozens of calls from other Muslim women, who are at the receiving end of the triple talaq, seeking her help and advice.
On its promise to combat the triple talaq, Ahmed intends to hold the new BJP government accountable. "Now is the time to take action. I will not leave this issue. I'm going to fight," she said.
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