NEW DELHI: A few days ago I was sitting in the lawns of the prestigious India International Centre where membership is select, and where the ‘who’s who’ of at least Delhi are housed. Using the moment to catch up on pending emails I suddenly heard a man behind me say that Muslims were all terrorists, or words to that effect. Another mildly remonstrated to which the first gentleman said in slightly louder tones that Muslims should go back to where they came from. Where, said the second voice. Pakistan, said the first, they created it, they should go there.

I turned to catch a glimpse of the lot, all honourable men of Delhi. Recognisable as retired opinion makers, with a view that they now declare loudly as it has become legitimate. Well almost.

I spent some time thinking of what has indeed come to pass. And how easily today Muslims have been placed at the periphery, sharing that space with the Dalits who have always been on the outside looking in. The difference today is that the Dalits have learnt not to look in and are taking hold of their own destiny under some able leaders and public intellectuals; while the Muslims are still struggling to cope with communalism as an institutionalised policy and the absence of a leadership altogether.

The Muslims who stayed back in India ---of course that bigoted man at the IIC will never care to know---accepted a secular ethos and with it the political leadership as their own. As Jaipal Reddy once said to me, the leaders Muslims have accepted as their own have been Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, VP Singh. In this voting pattern the Muslim has always rejected the candidates fielded by Muslim parties (except for the Muslim League in Kerala that is very different from its parent party) in the north in particular, with organisations like the Jamaat e Islami unable to make any headway in a state most impacted by Partition ---Uttar Pradesh.

The UP voter has rejected the Muslim party, the Muslim clerics like the Imam of the Jama Masjid whose political fatwas never cut any ice with the community, making it clear that the mullahs had a place in personal affairs but not in political affairs. This despite the fact that the political parties, in particular the Congress, spent time and money in winning over these clerics in the belief that they could influence the voter not realising that for the Muslim---like all others---the issues remained centred on livelihood, along with security, rights and justice that has been over the years violated over and over again by successive governments insofar as this community is concerned.

The environment today has added to this insecurity, with the state seen as being supportive of those who encourage violence against the minorities. The IIC man---difficult to add the appendage ‘gentle’---was saying what one hears all around. From the academic who could not rent an apartment because she was a “Muslim”; from the student who was refused an internship because he was “Muslim”; from the corporate honcho who could not buy an apartment in a block of flats because he was “Muslim”: from a little girl in an exclusive school who was told that “Muslims” are dirty as they eat cows; from a domestic help who worked in houses without telling the employers that she was a “Muslim”; from the college student who was told ‘ but you do not look like a “Muslim”; and then from these educated who’s who of the IIC who feel that “Muslims” are terrorists and should go to Pakistan.

This does not include the list of those who are arrested on a daily basis ---yes it all started with the Congress governments and worsened as the years rolled on----on trumped up charges of terrorism as the state police and the intelligence agencies rush to fill the quota that will convince their political masters that they are ahead on their job. The hundreds and thousands who are forgotten in jails, until the occasional one acquitted by the courts re-emerges. Destroyed. None of these men, jailed when they were young and released after 10, 16, 24 years walk back into the homes they left behind. Parents have suffered in health, homes are economically destroyed, and none of them can get jobs to re-start their lives. This is the story recorded by many of us who have interviewed the few who do manage to prove their innocence.

The Muzaffaragar violence where thousands were displaced; the Dadri lynching; the beating up of individuals by cow vigilantes; the hundreds of other communal incidents dotting the landscape of India now; all these are serious and severe add ons that have led to deep---almost unfathomable---insecurity amongst Muslims. This is compounded by the inability of the so called secular political parties to cope with these concerns, as most find it increasingly difficult to take up the issues for fear of being criticised for appeasing Muslims, as is the BJP wont.

In Uttar Pradesh, however, the large percentage of Muslim votes and the presence of two strong regional parties ---the Samajwadi and the Bahujan Samaj---spells some relief for the minorities in terms of options and redressal. This also, conversely, has made the state the bedrock of communalism with ghar wapsi, love jihad slogans followed by the gau rakshaks striking fear and discord throughout, despite the Samajwadi government in power.

The background of heightened communalism over the past years has impacted on the voters in UP, as it has on Kashmir. Significantly, the Kashmiris who liked to keep a distance between themselves and the Indian Muslims---seeing them as hostile---are today reacting to the BJP for its actions against the minorities in India as much as within Jammu and Kashmir. The Muslim is amongst the most terrified voter in UP, aware that this time the vote can make a crucial difference to his/her existence per se.

The Samajwadi family feud is being seen with some dismay, particularly by the elite Muslims in UP who have over the years switched loyalty from the Congress to the Samajwadi party. The BSP has this time fielded the largest number of Muslims, has formed a team to aggressively target the minorities, with Mayawati now speaking of the Dalit and the Muslim with the same passion.

All in UP and outside are aware that a Muslim-Dalit alliance can be the winning formula, with the BSP cadres now directed to work in cementing this in the districts of UP. The Muslim vote share of the BSP has gone up over the years, but at about 20% still remains below that of the Samajwadi Party that remains the favourite. However, this time the minorities are aware that the vote is not all about affection and loyalty but about defeat and victory. And if Mayawati is able to demonstrate that she has the Dalit vote bank, and that she has no interest in the BJP, the Muslim vote that has remained a little edgy about the BSP could turn in the forthcoming Assembly elections in her favour.