LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — Shamil Shamsi, who runs a restaurant in Lucknow, has never paid much attention to tags like “anti-Muslim”. He is also unapologetic about his support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh.
The 44-year-old, who heads an organization of Shia Muslim youth called Hussaini Tigers, is matter-of-fact about his politics. The “so-called” secular parties in the country, he claimed, have supported the Wahhabi fundamentalist factions of Sunni Muslims, driving the Shia Muslims, “a minority within a minority”, to seek the protection and patronage of the BJP.
Shamsi is a more committed BJP supporter than many actual party workers.
In 2010, Hussaini Tigers donated Rs 15 lakh for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
In the 2017 UP Assembly election, the youth leader claims that his organization was instrumental in getting BJP leaders elected in 70 constituencies where the Shia Muslim population was around 20,000 each.
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In April last year, he launched the Shia Gau Raksha Dal, pledging to end cow slaughter in India.
But now, less than two years after Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath took charge of Uttar Pradesh, Shamsi says he is reluctant to campaign for the BJP in the 2019 general election.
He’s not alone.
The notoriously fractured Shia leadership in Lucknow is beginning to speak with one voice when it comes to condemning Adityanath. The aggressively Muslim-baiting chief minister, they say, has been damaging all the efforts made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reach out to the Shia community.
A rhyme and its consequences
Two factors are behind Shamsi’s reluctance to champion the BJP’s agenda: Adityanath’s failure to crack down on the alleged corruption by the Shia Central Waqf Board, the body which looks after Shia properties in UP, and his persistent hate speech against Muslims.
Referring to the Hussaini Tigers, Shamsi said, “Honestly, we are in no position today to go into any Shia Muslim neighborhood and say ‘vote for the BJP’.”
“The degree to which the BJP has angered the Shias, there is nothing left after Yogi ji’s remark on Ali and Bajrang Bali,” he said. “You are chief minister of such a big state. How can you say this?”
Honestly, we are in no position today to go into any Shia Muslim neighborhood and say ‘vote for the BJP’.
Shamsi was referring to Adityanath’s remark, “Keep your Ali, Bajrang Bali is enough for us,” which he made while campaigning for the BJP ahead of assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh.
Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammad, is revered by Shia Muslims as the first Imam.
Maulana Yasoob Abbas, the spokesperson of the Shia Personal Law Board, which his father founded in 2005, said, “Yogi ji is the star campaigner for the BJP. Why is he making remarks about Ali and Bajrang Bali?”
While community leaders say there are between 40 to 70 million Shia Muslims in India, a Pew Survey from 2009 has them at 16 to 24 million, around 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim population in India.
The high concentration of Shia Muslims in UP’s capital has been a fixture in the political calculations of BJP lawmakers, who have won from the Lucknow constituency for almost three decades.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the Lok Sabha seat five times consecutively since 1991. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is the current Lok Sabha lawmaker from the constituency.
Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad Naqvi, the most powerful Shia cleric in India, was also critical of Adityanath’s “Ali” remark as well as his penchant for changing the names of ‘Muslim’ cities in UP.
“The Shia rulers named Faizabad. What right do you have to change it? Establish your own city and then change its name if you have to,” Jawad said.
“A hungry person comes to you for food, and you say that instead of Abdul Rehman, I will call you Abdul Ram. Will his stomach be full? This strategy of changing names is pointless. You must provide basic necessities,” he said.
The Shia rulers named Faizabad. What right do you have to change it?
Shamsi, who is Jawad’s cousin, claims that Adityanath’s “Ali” remark undid the goodwill that Prime Minister Modi had generated in September by attending an event organized by the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, a sect within Shia Muslims, in Madhya Pradesh.
Modi, who had cultivated a close relationship with the Bohra Muslims in Gujarat, became the first prime minister to address an event organized by the Shia sect at the Saifee mosque in Indore.
This was just the second event hosted by a Muslim community that Modi attended as prime minister. The first was the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi, two years ago.
“In and around Indore, there are around 4 lakh members of the Bohra community. They were happy that a prime minister came to their majlis for the first time. They were planning to vote for the BJP,” Shamsi said. “But after Yogi ji’s remark, the Bohra members either voted for the Congress or did not vote.”
Adityanath, Shamsi says, is aware of the blunder he made by mocking “Ali”.
In a recent meeting with Shia Muslim leaders, Shamsi claims that Adityanath told them that he had picked a generic-sounding Muslim name, and he never meant to disrespect Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet.
In fact, Shamsi claims that Adityanath, in recent meetings with Shia Muslim leaders, has discussed how he can make amends without invoking the wrath of the Hindu right.
BJP spokesperson Chandra Mohan said that Adityanath regularly met with leaders from all communities, but he was not aware of any discussion on making amends for the “Ali” remark. The remark, Mohan added, was made in response to Congress leader Kamal Nath’s plea for Muslims to vote for his party.
“The BJP does not believe in vote bank politics. What Yogi ji said was in the context of the election,” he said. “BJP is working for everyone. If a road is being built, both Hindus and Muslims are walking on the road. If houses are being constructed, Hindus and Muslims are getting houses. Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas.”
But even if the chief minister ends up apologizing, Shamsi sees the cracks prised open by his aggressive genre of Hindutva deepening in the run up to the general election.
Shamsi recalled the hue and cry over the water cooler installed at the Raipur railway station by an international NGO, Who is Hussain, named after the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, whose martyrdom Shia Muslims celebrate on Muharram.
Local BJP leaders and supporters were apoplectic over the signage “Drink water, think Hussain” on the water cooler and forced its removal over the summer, Shamsi said.
It was only after the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) intervened in favor of the NGO, Shamsi said, that the water cooler was reinstalled.
“BJP workers neither understand nor care about who we are, how we are different from Sunni Muslims and what we want,” he said.
BJP workers neither understand nor care about who we are, how we are different from Sunni Muslims and what we want.
In 2017, Jawad had called on Shia Muslims to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). At the time, the Shia cleric praised Mayawati’s party for fielding the highest number of Muslim candidates in the Assembly election. But Shamsi says his cousin’s call ended up hurting the Samajwadi Party (SP), BJP’s main opponent in the state poll. “We told Shia Muslims to vote for BSP, effectively cutting votes for the SP,” he said.
We told Shia Muslims to vote for BSP, effectively cutting votes for the SP.
Shamsi, who is married to a Sunni Muslim and has four daughters, formed the Hussaini Tigers in 1997 after three young men immolated themselves to protest a 20-year-long ban in Uttar Pradesh on the Shia community’s street processions during Muharram.
Lakhs more took to the streets against the ban, which was imposed by the Janata Party government in UP in 1977, following a deadly spate of Shia-Sunni clashes in Lucknow.
Eventually, it was the BJP government, with Kalyan Singh at the helm, which lifted the ban on the processions in 1998.
Haider Abbas Rizvi, Information Commissioner in UP State Information Commission, said that with the exception of the years when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was gaining ground, Shia Muslim leaders have always supported the BJP.
“Practically every Shia leader today is with the BJP. I believe ideology plays a part. They are very myopic in their vision,” he said.
Practically every Shia leader today is with the BJP. I believe ideology plays a part. They are very myopic in their vision.
While the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in UP in the assembly election last year, after coming to power, Adityanath chose Mohsin Raza, a Shia Muslim, to be a part of his cabinet.
In May 2017, the Modi government chose another Shia, Syed Ghayorul Hasan Rizvi, to head the National Commission for Minorities in New Delhi.
Then, there is Bukkal Nawab, who gave up his position as a member of UP’s Legislative Council (MLC) for a newly appointed BJP minister to become a legislator within the stipulated six months. He was later given a ticket to the state upper house by the BJP.
Nawab, who lives in a saffron-painted house and prays to Hindu god Hanuman, has declared that all Shia Muslims will support Modi in the 2019 election. Last week, he said, “Lord Hanuman belongs to all, and as far as I think, Hanumanji was actually Muslim.”
Reflecting on BJP’s recent losses in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Nawab told HuffPost India, “People are angry. BJP has been taught a lesson, but in the long run, only Modi ji can lead the country.”
Shia leaders say the Modi government has extended the Hajj visa to include Karbala, Najaf and other sites revered by Shia Muslims. From next year, Air India is planning to start a flight service from Lucknow to Najaf.
However, Shia Muslim leaders say that facilitating air travel and elevating Raza from a BJP worker to a cabinet minister is hardly enough.
“Other than Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who is there at the centre?” asked Shamsi. “On the Sunni side, there have been leaders like Farooq Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Azam Kham. Is there anyone with a similar status on the Shia side?”
Others are concerned about the community’s socio-economic and educational status. Abbas, spokesperson of the Shia Personal Law Board, said that successive governments had ignored their longstanding demand for a high-level committee like the Sachar panel to examine the condition of Shia Muslims.
“Our children are uneducated and unemployed. One person gets an e-rickshaw, 25 more will get an e-rickshaw. One person opens up a zardozi shop, 50 more will open a zardozi shop,” he said. “They have no other option. They cannot see the light.”
Our children are uneducated and unemployed.
Shamsi says the BJP government at the centre did agree to the demand for zardozi and chikan workers (the majority hail from the Shia community) to be included in the category of weavers (bunkars), which would make them eligible for several welfare schemes.
Yogi’s broken promise
In addition to the chief minister’s “Ali” remark, which hit him hard, Shamsi says that Adityanath has not kept his promise of cracking down on corruption by the Shia Central Waqf Board and its chairman Syed Waseem Rizvi.
“I have personally met the chief minister 8-9 times and he reassured us that his government would investigate and send the culprits to jail,” said Shamsi.
In June 2017, four months after coming to power, the Adityanath government announced the dissolution of the Shia Central Waqf Board and the Sunni Central Waqf Board, and the chief minister recommended a CBI probe into both the boards. Last month, the UP government announced that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) would probe the workings of the Shia Central Waqf Board in UP.
Both investigations, Shamsi says, are in “cold storage.”
“Our holy properties mean everything to us. If you can’t protect the properties, then we won’t be able to support you,” he said.
If you can’t protect the properties, then we won’t be able to support you.
In 2015, Jawad organized a massive protest against the Samajwadi Party government, demanding the Rizvi be removed as chairman of the Shia Central Waqf Board. At the time, Rizvi was widely regarded as the blue-eyed boy of then cabinet minister Azam Khan.
Jawad and Rizvi, once considered mentor and disciple, are now locked in a public feud. Both men have accused each other of illegally selling Waqf board property.
Jawad says that when SP was in power, it was Khan who protected Rizvi, even though the UP police had issued a warrant for his arrest. Now, with the BJP in power, the Shia cleric believes that Rizvi is being protected by Indresh Kumar, the patron of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Muslim wing.
“There is not much the chief minister can do,” he said.
Rizvi, meanwhile, has been provided Y-category security by the Adityanath government. Last week, when HuffPost India visited his spacious office on the sixth floor of a high-rise building in the heart of the city, two gunmen were sitting outside.
Over the past year, Rizvi has emerged as the loudest proponent of the Ram Temple, not only in the media, but also the Supreme Court.
Rizvi is arguing that the Babri Masjid’s custodian was Shia, not Sunni, and that the Shia Waqf Central Board is willing to give to Hindus the 1/3rd of the land that the Allahabad high court granted the Muslim community in 2010.
“There is no option but to build the Ram Temple. A mosque cannot be built on the spot. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favour of the Sunni party, will they ever be able to construct a mosque at the site? Do you think any Muslim will ever offer namaz at the spot?” he said.
Shamsi, however, refused to entertain any comparison between Rizvi’s advocacy for the Ram Temple and his own.
“I never said the Babri Masjid land was Shia property or that I have the power to give it away,” he said.
Waving aside any more questions about his past, Shamsi said, “All this is just a distraction. The question is whether Yogi ji is going to send the chairman to jail or will he give him more security?”