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Lying low in fear

People living in the Muslim clusters prefer to stay mum about politics. Very few indulge in debates or disclose their political inclinations

Batla House, Zakir Nagar and Shaheen Bagh are the neighbouring clusters of Muslim ghettos in South East Delhi, that are primarily ‘unauthorised’ and have been on the news for all the wrong reasons. Batla House, of course, was the venue of police encounters with purported terrorists many times in the past.

Located in and around Jamia Milia Islamia, the Magenta Line of Delhi Metro cuts across these localities. The biggest mosque in Shaheen Bagh, on the banks of the Yamuna, forms the eastern periphery. Parts of the mosque are still under construction and renovation and it has become a big dumpyard. “Lately, the pile of garbage has been growing and the local authorities seem to be encouraging this,” says Raul, who lives near the mosque.

Many of the MNC food chains don’t deliver food in these areas, claiming they have difficulty getting payments. Yet the clusters over the years have only grown denser. Recently the AAP government has initiated the laying of sewage lines. An earth- moving machine is seen digging a trench in the middle of one of the many narrow lanes criss-crossing through these congested localities like veins on a leaf.

This year, Ramzan has coincided with the election season. Vendors line the narrow streets selling clothes, fruits, sweets and dates. Electioneering is fairly subdued, but not only because of the Delhi heat. The neglect by authorities also extends to electioneering.

The party symbol of BJP that has an overwhelming presence in the other parts of the city, is conspicuous by its absence. Congress candidate Arvinder Singh Lovely has been here a few times. Atishi and Arvind Kejriwal have done a road show here.

In fact, AAP has a local office in a shop in Zakir Nagar owned by Rais Ahmad, a gregarious man in his late 50s. He starts by saying that he doesn’t support any political party but has volunteered to let out his shop — which looks like a warehouse—to be used as AAP’s local office.

He adds apologetically, “I like Arvind Kejriwal.” He is wary — like any other common Muslim in the locality — thinking that anything he says might be misconstrued. The survival tactic is to lie low.

There are some 1,000 empty boxes of sweets lying there. On being asked if AAP is distributing sweets on Ramzan, he says, “No, not at all. I am a supplier of cardboard boxes”.

In the passage that leads to Batla House from the Metro station, some 30 members of the Mazdoor Kirayedar Vikas Party (Labourers and Tenants Development Party) are seen distributing cold drinking water and pamphlets to passersby.

Volunteers wearing skull caps in their party colours are seeking votes. As 70% of the people residing in East Delhi hail from other parts of the country and are living here in rented accommodation.

Irrespective of their caste, creed or religion, the greatest aspiration of a lower middle-class family is to have a house of their own in Delhi. “We should join hands. All the tenants, and if we do that, our victory is sealed and so is the better future in our own homes,” Mahender Paswan was addressing people animatedly in Hindi with the aid of a portable loudspeaker.

Then there are a few independent candidates who are moving around in small groups, seeking support. Each has his own political narrative, which is fairly radical,  socially transformative and a shade impractical. They are aware that they stand no chance against the bigger national parties.

Take the case of Rehmuddin, 50, a local real estate agent. He has three simple messages. “I am fighting elections on the issues of eradication of hunger; total ban on the sale of alcohol; end of caste and communal politics.”

During Ramzan, when Muslims refrain from consuming alcohol, Rehmuddin may find many supporters. When asked whether his candidature would divide Muslim votes against BJP? “I’m not concerned. I’m just looking at the three objectives I have in mind, which are for the good of all,” he is fairly focused.

There’s palpable anger in the way Muslims are being treated — they have to prove their loyalty to the nation, are suspected to be a terrorist in their own motherland and are targeted  in the name of cow protection. It’s a silent anger as people go about their business avoiding any political conversation.

“Arvind Kejriwal is a hot favourite,” says a visually impaired teacher of English, Ejaz Ahmad, 54. He walks briskly on the busy street, unshaven with neatly trimmed grey hair. He looks like Mr Bean, and proactively discusses issues in English with the accent of a Londoner.

“The West considers Indians wild and tribal — a country of snake charmers. They are not entirely wrong. The country is going to the dogs,” he says without mincing words. He goes on for a considerable time in this vein with an air of frustration. “Why don’t you contest elections?” he is asked. “Because a poor Muslim cannot fight an election,” he says in a matter-of-fact way.

He disappears in the crowd when requested to pose for a photograph. In this locality, very few want to be identified with their political views. They fear retaliation, even someone who is well-educated and has strong opinions like Ahmad.

The most outspoken person to be found in the area is SAR Geelani, professor of Arabic in Delhi University and one of the accused in the Parliament attack case till he was acquitted by both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court.

After his release, he was shot at when visiting his lawyer Nandita Haksar, after which the Supreme Court provided him with ‘Z’ category security cover, which is still in place some 18 years after the murderous assault.

Three years ago, Geelani was suspended for lending support to the cause of Afzal Guru and was charged with sedition. Seated on a sofa in his fourth floor apartment in Zakir Nagar, he doesn’t mince words. “(Narendra) Modi has destroyed all the institutions — the CBI, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission,” he says, adding that there have been several politicised army operations. He calls the media pliant — “godi media” is an expression that he has coined.

Since a terror accused out on bail, Pragya Singh Thakur, is contesting the Bhopal seat, perhaps SAR Geelani, a terror accused who was acquitted by the highest court, should try his luck in elections? He laughs at the suggestion. He will not contest elections for he dislikes “vote bank politics.”

“Freedom of speech and expression has been sacrificed at the altar of nationalism. Nazis and fascists also claimed to be nationalists. And I don’t blame only the BJP for it, the Congress and the Left parties have done little to challenge the BJP/RSS narrative of nationalism that’s communal and against all minorities, not just Muslims. They are afraid of losing votes,” he says.

Votes are, therefore, the cause of all their problems, he concludes. As a result, he laments that to be liberal and secular is considered wrong in this country — such people are dubbed ‘Urban Naxals’ and anyone who opposes the establishment has to be anti-national.