Are Shia-Sunni Muslims going to vote differently in India?

Last Updated: Fri, Apr 18, 2014 17:48 hrs

Is Shia and Sunni divide in the country increasing and the two segments of Muslims are going to vote differently? If some recent announcements by a few religious-political leaders are any indication, someone may infer there may be some truth into it.

While the imam of Delhi’s Shahjahani Jama Masjid has endorsed Congress party after meeting the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Lucknow based Shia cleric Kalbe Jawwad seems to have tilted towards the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). He met the saffron party’s president Rajnath Singh who is also the BJP’s candidate for the local Lok Sabha seat.

After meeting Rajnath Singh, though Kalbe Jawwad didn’t say directly that he will support BJP or not, he seemed to be open to supporting the party after wide consultations with his coterie.

Both the BJP and the Congress, besides all other political parties are trying to court Muslims of all hues. Last year when a poster showing a young graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband with Gujarat chief Minister Narendra Modi appeared across Delhi, many people were shocked. The unknown deobandi alim Suhaib Qasmi is now known for his proximity to BJP, despite having no impact on either Muslims in this part of the country or among influential Deobandi ulama who are still staunchly opposed to Sangh Parivar and the BJP.

But now they don’t need to rely on this young man with flowing beard and a skullcap alone. There are a large number of people both known and little-known who have come to join it in the last more than a year when BJP actually started its preparation for Lok Sabha elections. MJ Khan, one of the co-founders of Muslim party in Uttar Pradesh, Peace Party, that was able to bag four seats in last assembly elections in the state joined the saffron party with many of his loyalists.

Since then a large number of Muslims have joined the party and this include besides other one of the top editors MJ Akbar and Bihar based politician Sabir Ali just to name a few.

But the party has been desperately trying to attract Muslims clerics to show to the world that it has become acceptable to Muslims. Its insistence on being backed by Muslim clerics is also due to the fact that it is generally believed that clerics enjoy complete support of Muslim community. At one time it seemed that the party had succeeded in netting its biggest catch, but the impression turned out to be wrong and Maulana Mahmood Madani of Jamiate Ulama refused to endorse him. Though he has been making scathing attacks against Congress Party but he has not spoken a word that may give any indication that the cleric was even remotely inclined to support the BJP.

In the meantime Maulana Ahmad Bukhari who has been supporting one party or the other for decades has once again made an announcement to support the Congress party. He was desperately trying to go with former UP chief minister Mayawati’s BSP as it is expected to do well in the elections, but as she refused to give tickets to his candidates, he finally went Congress way.

BJP was also trying to find backers among the Barelwi Muslims and there was an appeal for the party from Ulama and Mashaikh Board’s Bihar unit. But Bareilly based this organization has refused to endorse the BJP and has disbanded its Bihar unit ever since.

There is a sort of impression being created in the media that while Sunni Muslims are with the Congress party, Shia Muslims may come out to support the BJP. Some people based their argument over the fact that former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee used to get solid support of Shia Muslims in Lucknow from where he won several times. But this is not so simple. Vajpayee would have won from many other constituencies and both Shia and Sunni Muslims would have voted him like other communities in those places as he had a clean image.

When it comes to India, Muslims, both Shia and Sunnis are on the same page here. Their issues and grievances are same and they understand it completely. Another aspect that should be kept in mind is the fact that Muslims don’t follow their religious leaders and clergy blindly. It might have been true a couple of decades ago, but not anymore.

Education has brought much needed change among the community across the country. There is no denying the fact that in the last one decade the Muslim community has changed a lot. Illiteracy that was visible across the nation, more so in the north Indian states of Bihar, UP, West Bengal and Assam seems to have changed for the good.

Rampur district in Uttar Pradesh where Muslims make more than fifty percent of the population was among the most illiterate districts in the country with merely 30 percent literates. Now it boasts of 66 percent literacy. It was very visible in the city also, but a recent survey by a local NGO found to its surprise that there were very few or no kids who do not go to school. This welcome change is visible almost everywhere in North India.

The fact that Muslim don’t really follow the clergy is evident from the fact that Ahmad Bukhari’s nemesis Shoaib Iqbal has been winning the MLA seat in old Delhi. Jama Masjid comes under the same assembly constituency. People may display Ahmad Bukhari’s pictures in their shops, but when it comes to casting their votes they go by mind and not what the maulana says. The same is true of Shia Muslims. They don’t follow what the Shia clergy says in the city. They vote whoever they believe will be able to serve them the best and not the one who is supported by Kalbe Jawwad or other clerics.

There is no denying the fact that there have been some efforts on the part of a few political parties to create not just Shia-Sunni divide, but also Barelvi-Deobandi and Deobandi-Ahle Hadith divide too. But such efforts have utterly failed. Muslims are not a homogenous community in India and their issues in different parts of the country may be different, but they are not going to play in the hands of people who want to create differences among them and make them fight with each other.

They may be voting for different parties in different parts of the country, but they know that their unity will help them prosper, while division will make them weaker and deprived in the days to come. They stand united across the nation.
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Syed Ubaidur Rahman is a New Delhi based writer and commentator. He has written several books on Muslims and Islam in India including Understanding Muslim Leadership in India.

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