LUCKNOW: Most Shia Muslim voters who talked to The Citizen, asked for one good reason why any Muslim should vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general election, to be held in Lucknow in May.

“I don’t know about others but I will certainly not vote for the BJP after having experienced its governance the last five years. Today I see the BJP as a threat to democracy, a threat to secular India and a grave threat to the Constitution of the country,” Tahira Hasan, a feminist and leading social activist told The Citizen.

That Shia Muslims support the BJP in Lucknow is a myth. It is validated by people like Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad, a fairly influential leader of Shia Muslims who seems close to the BJP today. In the past Jawad has tried to get voters to support the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party on occasion.

However, the truth is that people listen to clerics but in the end make up their own mind when it comes to casting their vote.

Jawad is approached by all political parties. He has even flirted with different politicians. Today he is miffed with the SP because he doesn’t get along with Azam Khan, a Sunni Muslim and one of the founders of the SP. Nor does he support the BSP as the party is contesting the 2019 general election in alliance with the SP.

And Jawad has no time for the Congress party as the Shia Muslim cleric feels it has exploited Shia voters most.

The fact is that all kinds of politicians lie to voters who have been exploited by different political parties for long. The Shia/Sunni rivalry is nearly as old as the beginnings of Islam in Mecca, and its rapid spread to other parts of the world including to Persian lands.

Between 1775 and 1856, the rulers of Lucknow were of Persian origin, and followed the Shia interpretation of Islam. Although fewer in number, Shia Muslims enjoyed absolute power and immense wealth during this period. After the end of the monarchy in 1856, Sunni Muslims began to assert their way of life that saw a series of agitations between the two communities in defence of their religious rights.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Shia irritation at the ascending political profile of influential Sunni clerics reached boiling point. The British exploited this growing tension. Later the Congress party and the Muslim League would do the same, and now so is the Hindutva BJP.

Since the number of Sunni Muslims is larger it makes better electoral sense for most politicians to cosy up to Sunnis, to the great irritation of the Shia Muslim leadership.

A Shia Muslim based in Lucknow, Hasan doubts that Muslims will vote for the BJP this election, despite a directive from Jawad. Not after the kind of hatemongering that the country has witnessed in recent times, while BJP officials were caught looking the other way.

The targets are largely Muslims and Dalits and the perpetrators have links to various outfits of the Hindutva brigade.

The continuing incidents of mob lynching by self-proclaimed cow protectors have shocked the world. Most horrific is the fact that law enforcement agencies have not stepped in enough to stop these attacks on civilians. It almost seems that impunity has been granted to goons and to vigilante gangs, to kill at will.

In states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana executions by police in the garb of ‘encounters’ with criminals also anger voters. The list of assassinations around the country, of rationalists and progressive voices, and attempts to silence and to intimidate scholars, writers and mediapersons is long.

And there seems no end to hate crimes, hatemongering speeches, communal profiling, the misuse of laws or the use of draconian laws that are antithetical to the very idea of democracy.

The current offensive on the country and its Constitution is seen as part of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh agenda to turn India’s secular democracy into a Hindu Rashtra (nation or state).

Now the question before voters is, will they allow that to happen?

The toxicity spread by fascist forces has resulted in massive discontent against the present government on the eve of the general election. The wounds left on society by goons let loose by those in power are deep and will require a healing touch, and justice.

“Shia women like myself celebrate the unity in diversity nature of our society. India is the land of Kabir, Buddha and Sufis and we believe in living together in harmony and not in hate. Incidents like love jihad, lynching over beef, ghar wapsi and the criminalisation of triple talaq are disturbing. The incidents have only aggravated our existing problems of poverty, illiteracy and ill health,” says Hasan.

Shia Muslims are a minority within the community of Muslims who are 14 percent of the Indian population, of which the Shia total about 25 percent. In Lucknow, the strength of Shia Muslims is about 20 percent of the city’s population of three million people.

“Some Shia Muslims may give their vote to the BJP for personal gains but I will not. The BJP is not democracy-friendly, it is anti secularism and anti minorities,” adds Professor Nadeem Hasnain, former head of the anthropology department in Lucknow University.

On behalf of the organisation United Against Hate, Professor Hasnain shares a manifesto that demands proper investigation of existing cases of mob-lynching.

There have been at least 122 such instances since 2014 and almost 60 percent of the victims were Muslims. Some 73 incidents occurred in states governed by the BJP.

It is appalling that often cases have been filed against the victim’s family while the perpetrators were let off, and even felicitated by members of the BJP.

United Against Hate is a people’s movement of conscientious citizens, academics, entrepreneurs and student activists who continue to campaign against hate crimes, attacks on minorities, mob lynchings and communal violence. Professor Hasnain says that apart from a small group of followers in the old part of Lucknow, most citizens listen respectfully to what clerics tell them but in the end they do as they want.

Syed Mohammad Haider, a senior advocate says that Shia Muslims never vote en masse as different clerics give a different call. The Shia leadership in Lucknow that supports the BJP today does so mostly to further its own personal interest.

Haider believes that 60 percent of Muslims today favour the mahagathbandhan, the great alliance formed between the SP and the BSP in an effort to electorally defeat the BJP.

“There is no confusion now. Muslims must unite and vote only for the gathbandhan else they are doomed,” Haider says.

According to Haider, the Congress Party is not an important player in this election. Muslims are determined to vote wisely now and in such a way that the BJP does not benefit. The will of Muslim voters to unite, and to vote for any candidate or party that will defeat the BJP, is strong this time.

Yet like other voters, Shia Muslims are also a diverse lot. Young Faraz in Old Lucknow says he will vote for the Congress, while his uncle Masood’s vote will like always go only to Akhilesh Yadav, youthful leader of the SP.