AMETHI: Setla Prasad is sitting outside his mud house in the scorching heat in Tiloi village, Amethi. He is accompanied by his daughter Champa. The duo talk to The Citizen about a range of issues affecting their village. While Prasad is still not sure who he will vote for, his daughter is fascinated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I saw him walking on foot when he came to Amethi last time. He looks like one of us,” she says. Asked what they think of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, neither father nor daughter have a definite answer. However, at this point two kids Salman and Razi standing behind us, jump in to share that they saw Rahul Gandhi, also walking on foot, near the chauraha (crossroads) by their village.

And do they like Rahul Gandhi? Before Salman and Razi can respond, Setla Prasad asks with a simile, “Why wouldn’t they like him? They are Muslims.”

On hearing this, the smile and excitement of talking to an outsider disappears from the kids’ faces. They probably don’t know how to respond to such a remark. They move away instead. This makes Prasad a little uncomfortable and he calls the boys by their names, and asks them to come back and sit beside him.

“They didn’t like what I said. But that’s the truth no? Muslims like Congress and Rahul Gandhi?”

For a long time leading up to the current dispensation, a myth has been created around the notion of “minority appeasement” carried out by the so-called Muslim political parties. In 2014 Congress leaders up to former president Sonia Gandhi went on record to say that a major reason for their election debacle was that “people think we are a Muslim party”.

The Congress and other parties have been working overtime to rid themselves of this image - this accusation - which they feel alienates Hindu voters. It is quite visible in their leaders’ public posturing and framing of communal ism. The 2019 manifesto of the Congress party does not mention the world Muslim even once, quite in contrast to their earlier manifestos.

To investigate this shift, The Citizen spoke to scores of Muslims in our election coverage from the Awadh region. Barring one or two people, most Muslims we met were of the view that they do not want any party to be identified as a pro-Muslim party, and would like parties to shed this tag, even if it is a myth.

Asked if she was going to vote for the Congress, Shahjahan, who runs a small shop outside her mudhouse in Tiloi responds, “Why should one assume that I will vote for Congress or Samajwadi just because my name is Shahjahan and not Devika? We don’t vote on the basis of our religion. Like others we too vote keeping various factors in mind. Likewise, it is a myth that Muslims don’t vote for the BJP. “

Later in the conversation Shahjahan disclosed that she and many Muslims from the village do not in fact vote for the BJP. Not because the Congress and other publicly secular parties have been great to them, but because of the BJP’s anti-Muslim position, and its othering of the entire community in a bid to polarise society along religious lines.

Shakil Khan in Gauriganj reiterated what Shahjahan had to say. “We were not born to defeat the BJP. It’s not our sacred duty as projected by some people. Nor is it our responsibility alone to make the Congress or the Mahagathbandhan win (the SP-BSP-RLD coalition). If the BJP stops alienating us and targeting us, and works for our welfare, who will stop us from voting for them?”

Khan who runs a medical shop in the town also thinks that if the “Muslim party” tag is attached to secular outfits, it becomes an issue not only for the party but for the Muslim community at large.

“The fact is, since Independence no special privileges have been given to the Muslim community. Whatever we have achieved is based on our own hard work and labour. This tag of being favoured by a political party or outfit takes away the credit that we should get for all our hard work. It also polarises the elections on Hindu-Muslim issues,” Khan remarks.

Tabassum Khatoon, who is a teacher in UP’s Sultanpur district, believes that more than political parties it’s up to Muslims themselves to try and get rid of the appeased-Muslim stereotype.

“We should be very careful while speaking in public forums. For Muslims solely to make an agenda to defeat the BJP in every election contributes to the stereotypes that have been attached to secular outfits. Rather than saying Muslims are all up for defeating the BJP, we should say that as citizens of this country we will defeat the divisive forces along with our countrymen. Not as Muslims or Hindus,” she says.

“If we allow the BJP to create myths that the Congress or any other party is a pro-Muslim party, then we are helping them polarise society. Nevertheless, if someone in a family is left behind and needs special attention for upliftment, the head of the family must pay special attention to him or her for the family to remain prosperous.

“The head of the family in our case is the government. It should realise that India will not remain prosperous unless Muslims are included in the growth story,” she adds.

Most of the people we met from the Muslim community in the Awadh region had a similar opinion. The general consensus was, that for a party to get tagged with a community is not just dangerous for secular polity, but also for the community itself, as the unfounded accusation of favouritism alienates them from other sections of society.

Ghazala Jamil, who is associate professor at the School of Law and Governance at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that this articulation by Muslims cannot be explained without looking into the many other factors involved.

“There are multiple factors involved in it. The first is the trauma of being a Muslim in times when the ruling dispensation’s entire politics is based on othering the community, and making a Hindu-Muslim binary out of everything.

“Another is the fear of being tagged as communal or casteist by the ruling elites, as soon as a deprived community starts asserting its identity.

“And there is also a genuine churning among Muslims in this country. That despite being largely associated with the secular parties they have not benefited. Hence they want to go back and claim their rights as citizens of India, while also attempting to foil the Hindu-Muslim binary endlessly created by the present government.”