Bihar Election: Majority views from a minority area
In Seemanchal, one of the most backward regions in Bihar, it is the Muslim vote that holds the majority and all others follow them
Abeer Kapoor Kishanganj
Kishanganj has always been an outlier. Despite its strategic location, bordering both Bangladesh and Nepal, it remains one of the most backward regions of India. It is also one of the 90 minority districts the Government of India identified all over the country in 2009. Thus, this constituency is important to ascertain how, during elections, the minorities perceive the state of play in Bihar and the rest of the country.
‘Pichda hua’ or ‘left behind’ is how the district is described by those who live there. Kishanganj falls behind in most of the human development indicators. Male and female literacy is quite low in comparison to the national average. Many attribute the low development to the dense concentration of Muslims. This issue means different things to different people. Muslim leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi believe that the interests of the people of Kishanganj should be forcefully articulated to help them get a better deal. Others believe this town’s fortune is abysmal due to the preponderance of the Muslim community.
A young journalist in Kishanganj town said, “The Muslims will vote to keep the BJP out, as they don’t see them as their party.” Would a large minority population mean a cakewalk for the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine?
However, the district is seeing the rise of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). How this plays out in mobilising the Muslim vote and upsetting the calculations of the Grand Alliance will be the highlight of the Bihar Assembly elections.
The Muslim Vote
The Muslims constitute 75 per cent of the district’s population and Owaisi is garnering some support.
“Each community has a leader, the Paswans have one, the Khuswahas have one, the Yadavs and the Kurmis have theirs, why is it that 17% of the population does not have one?” asks Mazhar Hussain, the AIMIM party convener. “We are a backward community, and things have been designed to keep us backward.”
Hassan’s major complaint is that the burden of being secular is largely left on the shoulders of Muslims. The AIMIM says the region has been left underdeveloped on purpose as it is Muslim-dominated. “The Muslim and the Dalit have to experience this underdevelopment. We can never be developed,” he intones.
AIMIM rallies have stoked the curiosity of the locals. Akhtarul Imam is their candidate. Until recently, he was the RJD sitting MLA from Kochadham but quit the party recently. He is considered the best bet to win the seat. The AIMIM has scaled down its plans in the assembly elections and is now contesting six seats only.
Despite the hype, Owaisi’s influence is limited. The voters of the district are prone to stick to party lines. In areas that have Muslim concentrations, the Hindus also vote along
As Muslims don’t vote for the BJP, the party is compelled to fill the gap by garnering support from Hindu caste groups. The narrative of development, which has many takers in Kishanganj, serves the BJP well. Tassirddin, a young Muslim, has joined the BJP; he believes that development has no religion and that PM Modi has the credentials to deliver on his promises.
In Kishanganj town, the Bania community is rooting for the BJP candidate, Sweety Singh, who, they say, is a formidable opponent to the sitting Congress MLA, Mohammad Jawaid.
The district also has a large population of Nepalese descent, who vote together for the BJP. They say that its work in the banking sector, ensuring accounts for everyone, is the reason they will vote for the party.
“We don’t believe in jaat-bhedbav (caste or communal differences), there is no communal tension in this area. The real problem is the river that you see in front of you,” said Mohammad Junaid Alam, who lives in the Muslim part of Baramasia, a village situated on the bank of the Mahananda river. The river routinely floods during the monsoons, bringing misery and causing serious loss
A teacher, Pawan Kumar Yadav, had this to say: “There has been little or no development for us here; we are a backward village and nothing has happened.” This sentiment is heard all around. Absence of jobs and the flooding of the river has pauperised the village. “We have to travel to Punjab, Maharashtra and Delhi to find work,” say the youth. They want the government to make levees on the riverfront; as they don’t want to leave the village.
While the upper caste Hindus such as the Yadavs and Sharmas work as manual labourers, the Muslims are employed in garment factories where they have to work long hours. Due to regular flooding, they have no land to cultivate and resort to migration. “The government doesn’t do anything to prevent the river from flooding and it doesn’t give any remuneration.”
The two major castes of the village vote together. “Where the Yadav vote goes, the Sharma vote goes,” said Naval Kishore Yadav and Bhagal Lal Sharma.
They previously voted for Nitish Kumar, and say he is their man and his alliance with Lalu is also fortuitous. However, there is growing resentment amongst them. There has been no development and their land has been taken by the government for a power grid.
Providing electricity has been one of the major achievements of the Nitish Kumar government. However, in this village this is a bone of contention; land was purchased from Yadavs such as Pawan Kumar to build a grid and adequate remuneration not provided.
“This was land these 300 families here had kept for farming, it is slightly higher than the river, and it was kept for days when the river would make this village unliveable,” said the teacher.
They have tried going to the High Court to demand four times the land price, but have been given only two and a half times the price. In many cases, this has not come through. The dissatisfaction might turn the vote against the JD(U). “Our leader is Nitish, but many castes are seeing the BJP as a viable option.” However, the politics of these regions work contrary to the sentiment.
“We Hindus are a minority in this region and we vote where the Muslim vote goes. We don’t want to unnecessarily go against the grain, our decisions are made for us and this is what has contributed to Hindu poverty in this region,” said a villager quite matter-of-factly. “There is no communal tension in the region, and we like it like this.”