LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — "There is bhagwa on my coat," said Mohsin Raza, the Muslim face of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh, as he patted the orange handkerchief peeking out from the breast pocket of his pinstriped suit.
In the conversation that followed, Raza, the Minister of Minority Affairs, made an impassioned case for the virtues of the saffron color of Hinduism, which is now the calling card of the Hindu right. The state minister, who is Shia Muslim, brooked no criticism of his boss, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath: a hindutva hardliner with a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, who has been accused of inciting communal violence in eastern UP in 2007.
The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2017 Assembly election, so Raza, a former state-level cricketer and a television actor who joined the BJP in 2013, was picked by Adityanath to be the sole Muslim in his cabinet.
Raza spoke to HuffPost India shortly after announcing that government-aided madrassas in UP would have to do away with kurta pyjamas and introduce uniforms. Last year, the Adityanath government introduced NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) books in madrassas.
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Why does the UP government want to introduce uniforms in madrassas?
They [Muslim students] have been wearing kurta-pyjamas since 1947, but it is not the dress for madrassas. It is not an Islamic dress. Modi ji is talking about having the Koran in one hand and a laptop in another. If we want to make them part of the mainstream then we have to give them a mainstream education alongside religious education. They should think of becoming doctors and engineers.
The past governments, for the sake of votes, had given recognition to alim, fazil and munshi degrees in order to give them government jobs. Let's talk about the Congress, which has failed to provide modern education to Muslims since independence. Should they not have introduced the NCERT curriculum in madrassas? What right do they have to express sympathy for Muslims?
Do you believe wearing a uniform can empower Muslims?
By wearing a uniform, they will feel part of the mainstream, not isolated from society. The past government kept them isolated for the sake of vote bank. Maulana Azad was the first education minister but the Muslim community remained without education. The uniforms will boost the confidence of the students. It will inspire them to think of going to IIT and IIM, become an IAS or IPS officer, not just munshis. You will see how this step will bring about massive change.
If the BJP genuinely believes in empowering Muslims, why did it not field a single Muslim candidate from UP in the 2017 state election?
Is it the case that fielding a Muslim candidate makes one secular? Is it better if they pick a Muslim like Mohsin Raza to represent Muslims or field a Muslim who had no chance of winning when one party had given 100 tickets and the other party had given 80 tickets to Muslims. The votes were already divided and you have convinced Muslims that BJP is an anti-Muslim party. When the BJP fielded Shahnawaz Hussain in Bihar, the Muslim leaders told the community to vote against him, against the BJP.
The chief minister says that he is a Hindu and has no reason to celebrate Eid, he runs down the Mughal emperor Akbar, and he refused to cover his head when he visited in the Kabir mazar. Do none of those things bother you?
No, it does not. This issue started from Gujarat when Modi ji refused to wear a topi by Muslim religious leaders, but did he not wear the shawl that was given to him? Islam mein daadi hai, daadi mein Islam nahin hai (there is a beard in Islam, not Islam in a beard). Modi ji keeps a daadi, but no one appreciates it. If he was anti-Muslim or anti-Islam, as the so called secular parties make him out to be, he would have shaved off the daadi.
Why did you take a topi for Yogi ji, you should have taken a taj (crown). It would be a way of saying,'you have come here, we welcome you with a mukut.' Muslim badshahs have worn crowns. They could have taken a nice crown for him. We would have thought, they have opened their hearts and taken a crown for Yogi ji as an appreciation for his good work. Why did they take a topi?
The CM, in a state with a significant Muslim population, says that he is a proud Hindu who does not celebrate Eid.
Yogi ji is also a priest, a dharmic guru. The way we (Muslims) have dharmic gurus, and we respect them, he is a guru, he is a maharaj. He said that as a Hindu, he doesn't celebrate Eid, but as a chief minister, he respects those who do and gives them protection. All the ministers and the administration came to my house for Eid. Yogi ji sent a letter because he was not in town. I can give you a copy.
Why this talk of Akbar not being great?
People can take out different issues on which to criticize him, but the reality is that Yogi ji is working honestly in Uttar Pradesh. The way that he is hammering on law and order. Crime is going towards zero tolerance.
The Supreme Court has sent a notice to the UP government over encounter killings in the state. There is also concern that the government has targeted Muslims in these operations.
There is nothing like that. It is simply propaganda because the 2019 election is drawing near. They have no other issue. They cannot accuse us of corruption either in the state government or the central government. They have no agenda of their own. They will resort to communal and caste-ist politics. The Opposition has nothing. The Opposition does not have a single candidate that can run this country. We have formed the government in 21 states. Have we done it on the basis of communalism? No, we have done it on the basis of development, sabka saath, sabka vikas, on trust and on hope.
The BJP campaigned on the issue of Love Jihad in western UP in the Assembly election.
Love Jihad was not an issue for the BJP. We only said that illegal slaughterhouses will not be allowed to operate. We have 11 crore members and if someone says something, then the media and the Opposition makes hell for the party. No one will care what Owaisi (Asaduddin Owaisi) has said or what Azam Khan has said, but what a BJP worker had said that becomes a huge issue.
Why was the Haj house painted saffron by the BJP government?
It was the office of the Haj committee, not the Haj house. No minister gave such an order. The government officials did it. It is not a religious building. We didn't put saffron colours on a mosque. The Haj committee office comes under the government of UP.
To paint a government office saffron...
If you are talking about bhagwa, I'm tired of answering this question since January. Do you see bhagwa only as a colour of Hindutva? People will have to expand their minds. When you wake up in the morning, it is bhagwa that brings the world into light. Have you complained to god about why the colour of the sky is bhagwa? If even for one day our world does not start with bhagwa then there will be chaos in the world. People will go mad. It is the colour of god, it is the gift of god. Who are these people who are after saffron?
You don't believe there is growing intolerance since the BJP has come to power. The murder of Junaid Khan in a train, last year, the hateful messages doing the rounds on social media?
You are talking about intolerance. What about "tukde honge...bharat tere tukde honge." Where were these slogans raised and who are the political leaders that went in support of it. Did Rahul Gandhi ji go or not? Is this the kind of thinking that one should have? Is this not intolerance? Do they really think that they have flown the flag of secularism?
Leaving politics aside, you must be concerned about the religious intolerance, the cow vigilantism?
Have you read about Pakistan....
We are not Pakistan.
Muslims in India live with such freedom that they can burn an effigy of the president and the prime minister on the streets if they want. Can they do it in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia?
Those countries are not the world's largest democracy.
But what do you want in the name of democracy. You have the freedom to say what you want, through the media, on the roads, on a mike. Why are you feeling so nervous? Only because the BJP is a principled party, a nationalist party, and it is thinking about the country as a whole, and not just your selfish agenda?
How do you explain the lynching of Muslims by cow vigilantes, prevalent under the BJP?
This is a political issue. The Opposition cannot find anything against us so they have to find something. Perhaps they have volunteers who are getting it done.
Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri and Qasim in Harpur were lynched by Hindu villagers. Have you seen the video of Qasim...
I have seen the videos. These videos go viral, but I believe that 90 percent are fake.
The police of UP government, your government, has arrested two Hindu villagers in connection with Qasim's lynching.
Things there are divided between political parties. There is a political agenda. Such things are done on purpose. We all know who was behind the Muzaffarnagar riots. What happened in 2013 and what was the result in 2014. Did we do that? Who was exposed?
What has the Adityanath government done for minorities?
Around ₹4,000 crore has been allocated for minority welfare in the budget, this year. It has never happened before. Why have we given an extra 400 crores in education to them? We have to educate them and connect them with the mainstream. Muslims have benefitted from the Ujjwala Yojna (which provides free gas connections to poor families).
[The BJP government allocated ₹2,757 crore for minority welfare in the 2018 budget for UP (the third highest allocation since 2010) and ₹404 crore for the modernization of madrasas. After reducing the allocation by almost 19 percent in 2017-2018, it was increased by 11 percent in 2018-2019, the year leading up to the general election].
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