Muslims between the communal-secular divide


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POLITICAL analysts and ordinary Biharis alike deem 1990 to have been a watershed year in Bihar politics. This holds as true for Muslims as for other segments of Bihar’s electorate. While pre-1990 Muslim politics was played out around obtaining a second official language status for Urdu rather than other substantive issues, following the ‘Mandalization’ of politics in 1990, the discourse of social justice entered Muslim politics as well. While earlier the threat of majoritarian violence was ever present, the stopping of L.K. Advani’s rath by Lalu Yadav and the effective and firm handling of the Sitamarhi-Riga riots in 1992 brought that period to a close.

Muslim political behaviour in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections needs to be read in the background of three factors: the unprecedented rise of the BJP in 2014, which rendered the Muslim vote irrelevant; further to this, the return of the ‘fear factor’, which was rooted in reality – the state has seen 675 incidents of communal skirmishes since June 2013,1 when Nitish Kumar broke his alliance with the BJP; and last, the entry of Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the MIM and Member of Parliament from Hyderabad.

By way of illustration, take the example of Azizpur near Saraiya in Muzaffarpur district, which was rocked by communal violence in January 2015. The micro-politics around violence in this village reveal larger processes shaping and moulding Muslim political behaviour up to the assembly elections.

The Bihar administration led by the then Chief Minister Jitan Manjhi responded swiftly to the violence.2 Yet, some of the Muslim leaders (and leaders in the making) played the victimhood card to the hilt, their recurrent visits and inflammatory speeches alienating the Hindus who were cooperating with the police in punishing the rioters. The VHP leader, Togadia’s visit followed soon after, further polarizing the situation. Outraged with this, certain segments of the liberal Muslims appealed for soul-searching within the community and to marginalize and condemn the hoodlums and lumpen-criminals, also called rangdaars or dalals.


Interestingly, this same set of local Muslim politicians and activists were patronized and mentored by the very same Muslim leaders who chose to side with Manjhi upon his estrangement with Nitish – namely Syed Sharim Ali (whom Manjhi had appointed as the Waqf Administrator during his chief ministership) and Shahid Ali Khan, (the minister for minority affairs in the Nitish cabinet), who joined Manjhi’s HAM-S – and Akhtarul Iman, who was to become AIMIM’s face in Bihar.

Manjhi’s Muslim leaders were not averse to forging a declared or undeclared alliance with the BJP. The subsequent alliance of Manjhi with the BJP was either a non-issue or received implicit endorsement from these Muslim politicians/activists. They argued that Muslims should no longer remain the ‘coolies’ of secular parties, and rather demand a fair share in the structures of power via political processes. They dubbed the ‘secular’ parties – the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) – as scaremongers who always took the Muslim electorate for granted. Rumours were rife that it was Syed Sharim Ali who flew to Hyderabad for a long meeting with Asaduddin Owaisi once BJP’s overtures to Manjhi became public.

When Owaisi held his first election rally on 17 August 2015 in Kishanganj, there were reports that AIMIM would contest 26 seats in constituencies of high Muslim concentration in the eastern districts of Bihar, called Seemanchal. In Bihar, Muslims account for 17% of the population whereas in the four districts of Seemanchal, their share of the population is above 35% – namely, Kishanganj (68%), Araria (41%), Purnia (37%) and Katihar (43%).

However, immediately thereafter, fast paced changes started manifesting on the electoral scenario. The talk of a Manjhi-Owaisi nexus, followed by the Manjhi-BJP alliance, exposed the fact that under the pretext of talk about a ‘fair share of political power to Muslims’ was the reality of a politics that would only end up favouring the BJP. So, whether genuine or imagined, the Muslims of Bihar came to strongly suspect a BJP-HAM-Owaisi alliance.


So intense was this suspicion that Owaisi was forced to recalibrate his ambitions. Eventually the AIMIM contested only six seats, including one reserved for the Scheduled Castes. On this seat, the lone Hindu AIMIM candidate, Amit Paswan, secured only 1669 votes as against around 75,000 votes secured by the AIMIM in the remaining five seats it contested. Even its most well known face, Akhtarul Iman, who contested the Kochadaman assembly seat of Kishanganj, only secured 37086 votes and came second, losing the election by a margin of about 19000 votes. HAM’s Muslim leadership also suffered losses: Shahid Ali Khan who contested from Sursand (in Sitamarhi) got only 13954 votes and came third, while Syed Sharim Ali, who was HAM’s nominee from Belaganj (Gaya district) secured 40726 votes and came second.

No previous election campaign in Bihar was as rabidly communalized as this one. As the prime minister went to seek votes in the name of his own caste location, Indian democracy touched a new low in its wilful descent to social disharmony. It was the prime minister who first spoke of an alleged conspiracy to give away OBC reservations to ‘another’ community, well before its appearance in a party advertisement. As the BJP politics of majoritarian homogeneity unfolded through the campaign, a scared Muslim minority found itself compelled to not only put on hold the issue of its own intra-community heterogeneity, but also remain silent on raising issues of its general concern. Even institutions like the Imarat-e-Shariah, essentially part of the ‘Deobandi’ maslak of Sunni Islam and running since 1921, and the Idara-e-Shariah of the ‘Barelwi’ maslak (running since 1968), which normally issued appeals and statements indicating their voting preferences to their followers at election time, this time around chose to exercise tactical silence in order to avoid a reverse polarization of Hindus behind the BJP.


Regardless of the defeat of the overtly communal political formations at the hustings in November 2015, it is evident that the communalization of the Bihar society has been spreading alarmingly. Historically, during the Congress era, the opposition political space in Bihar was captured by the left and Socialist forces, rather than by RSS-Jan Sangh. From 1990s onwards, the network of RSS schools, Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, started to grow. This was a period when many duly recruited teachers of the government schools began to retire. However, there was little fresh recruitment of teachers through due process on regular pay scales to fill these vacancies, whereas there was a concomitant and significant rise in the demand for school education. The understaffed government schools gave way to private ones, misleadingly called ‘convent’ schools. The RSS schools too came to be seen as providing a relatively better education than that available in the government schools, besides also offering a modest stipend to the educated unemployed youth. These schools soon came to be preferred by the upper castes, the relatively affluent and even those from the less disadvantaged sections of the backward castes and dalits. Gradually, this paved the way for Sunday drills of the RSS shakhas in Bihar’s hinterland. While there has been much talk of the rise of madrassas, media reporting and research activism on the Saraswati Shishu Mandir phenomenon in post-1990s Bihar remains scanty.


Though Nitish Kumar’s focus on education, which saw the enhancement of facilities in government schools – the bicycle scheme for girl students, mid-day meals, uniforms, scholarships, and so on – did place some check on the spread and popularity of the RSS schools, and may have been one of the reasons for the strain in the JDU-BJP alliance,3 the network is now well entrenched.

There are some other social processes at work which have been silently eroding not only Hindu-Muslim harmony, but also triggering sectarian (maslaki) conflict within the community. One of these is migration to the Gulf among the Muslims, resulting in the emergence of a remittance economy which has brought affluence to migrating households, and indirectly the local Muslim samaj, and with it the conspicuous building of grander mosques with taller spires. This, along with a vulgar display of wealth by neo-rich Muslims employed in the West Asian countries, has intensified economic competition and rivalry.


This process is often accompanied by a subscription to ‘neo-Wahabism’, deeply transforming preexisting social relationships. The age-old practice of participation in marriage ceremonies by both the communities – Hindus and Muslims – is increasingly coming under attack. With rising ‘neo-Wahabism’, sections of local clergy (Pesh Imams – the prayer leaders of the village mosques) have started prohibiting participation of Hindu friends in marriages; in some cases, the Hindu friends of the groom sitting on the ‘stage’ for nikah have been driven out by the maulvis coming to perform the ritual, brazenly setting aside traditional courtesy and hospitality.

Second, since 2006, when Nitish Kumar introduced reservations for the ati pichra category (extremely or most backward castes, EBC/MBC) in the panchayati raj institutions, Muslims have witnessed some political empowerment: 28 of the 43 Muslim communities fall in this category; nine communities are listed as pichra, while the remaining four are upper castes. However, this too has gradually become a source of conflict, more particularly when it comes to electing the pramukh (chief of panchayat samiti), and chairman (adhyaksh, i.e. chief of the zila parishad district board). All these have resulted in intensifying identity based rivalries.

While Owaisi’s entry may have been a washout this time, his appeal persists. This has partly to do with the history of the failure of the secular political parties. For instance, Kishanganj continues to be an extremely backward area, despite being represented by high profile politicians such as the diplomat turned parliamentarian, Syed Shahabuddin, senior journalist and editor M.J. Akbar, and currently, Maulana Asrarul Haq Qasmi. Material and substantive issues of livelihood remain unattended. There was some resentment – articulated on social media and Urdu newspapers – that while Lalu’s sons walked away with high profile portfolios, the tallest Muslim leaders of the RJD were given a short shrift. All this only ‘vindicated’ the thesis of ‘secularists’ using Muslims as mere ‘coolies’ to empower and fatten themselves rather than empowering the Muslims. The space for an Owaisi brand of politics remains, and it will be up to the secular parties to ensure that this social group which consolidated in their favour does not splinter.


Though there is near unanimity among election watchers that Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks on revising the quota for the backwards and Dalits resulted in a massive consolidation of these groups behind the mahagathbandhan, there remains an anxiety among the Muslims: What will happen in the future when the RSS-BJP moves towards propping up backward leaders of some stature as chief ministerial candidates, for example, the present BJP chief Nand Kishore Yadav, or Prem Kumar, currently the leader of opposition in the Bihar assembly?

Another question worth asking is: Would it be possible for the Lalu-Nitish combine to successfully lead political mobilization on the issue of Bihar having been kept as an ‘internal colony’ of India since independence? Can they really succeed in creating, what Shaibal Gupta so often talks about – a ‘Bihari sub-national nationalism’? That could possibly be another effective way of containing communalization of Bihari society and polity.



1. The Indian Express, 22 August 2015.

2. Immediately after the Azizpur riots, some necessary, though not adequate, action against the culprits of the violence was initiated. The video footage by a local journalist, Arun Srivastava, provided the initial lead to the investigations. It helped in identifying and nabbing the culprits of the violence. The government also provided compensation of Rs 5 lakhs to the next surviving kin of each deceased; each injured got Rs 20,000; of the 77 families in the 56 houses of the village, each was given Rs 4700 for kitchen utensils. Finally, the government then assessed the total property loss and agreed to pay compensation. Unfortunately, the main accused, Ram Parvesh Sahni, is still at large. In the Azizpur riots, two people were killed and two others burnt alive to death. Yet, the only arrests made were for cases of theft and burglary. For details see my ‘Caste, Community and Crime: Explaining the Violence in Muzaffarpur’, Economic and Political Weekly, 31 January 2015, pp. 12-15.

3. Nitish Kumar is also credited with having converted the ‘niyojit sikshaks’ (contractually appointed teachers), numbering a total of 3,34000, as reported in the local Hindi dailies, into regular government employees with near proper pay scale. Since 2003, this segment was desperately waiting to be placed on proper pay scale. The JDU and the BJP had promised this in their first manifesto of 2005. But, BJP’s Sushil Modi, the then Deputy Chief Minister cum Finance Minister (2005-13) had reportedly backtracked. Nitish fulfilled this promise soon after his split with BJP, thus becoming the darling of this segment of Bihari society.