Lessons From Kairana

The outcome of the by-poll in the Lok Sabha seat of Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh has come with a resounding message of hope, dealing a significant blow to the fascist politics of the BJP and RSS. At Kairana, the candidate of the united Opposition, Tabassum Hasan of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), trounced the BJP candidate Mriganka Singh, the daughter of the BJP MP Hukam Singh whose death has necessitated the by-poll.

Kairana falls in the Shamli district and is home to the Kirana gharana of Hindustani classical music – one of the many examples of India’s rich composite heritage. But Shamli, along with Muzaffarnagar and other areas of Western UP, was the site of systematic communal polarisation and violence that played a major role in winning Parliamentary seats for the BJP in 2014, and helping Modi become the Prime Minister. For the past four years, Kairana continued to be epicentre of continuous attempts at communal polarisation. The BJP MP Hukam Singh led the way with a divisive, poisonous, and false claim that Hindus were being forced to leave Kairana because Muslims were “buying up Hindu’s land.” The BJP President Amit Shah, Modi’s junior Minister for State Kiren Rijiju, and many other Central Ministers and leaders added fuel to the fire, comparing the so-called “exodus of Hindus from Kairana” to the “exodus of (Hindu) Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir”. The Sanghi dictionary expanded its poisonous vocabulary: just as relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women were branded “love jehad,” Muslims buying land from Hindus was branded “land jehad”. All independent investigations by journalists and citizens found, of course, that Kairana’s local people denied the claims of any “Hindu exodus” – but this did not deter the Sangh-BJP propagandists.

As the Kairana by-poll drew nearer, the Sangh machinery resorted to another familiar ploy: of branding a University as “anti-national” and unleashing ABVP violence there. In 2016 JNU was attacked a couple of months before Assembly elections in Assam and West Bengal; in 2017 Ramjas College and Delhi University was targeted days before the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. This time, they targeted the Aligarh Muslim University, unleashing violence in the name of protests against a portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah (which had had a place in AMU long before Jinnah ever demanded Pakistan). All this was with an eye on Kairana. Way back in 2016 itself, RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha had declared that the “mindset of Jinnah” had portioned India in 1947 and was now partitioning Kairana: the ABVP attack on AMU was meant to stoke such prejudice and hatred on the eve of the Kairana by-poll.

The Opposition campaign in Kairana not only highlighted the real issues of the people of Western UP – in particular, the distress of debt-ridden sugarcane farmers – but also directly confronted and resisted the communal and divisive propaganda, by declaring that the contention in Kairana was that of “Jinnah vs Ganna” (i.e divisive issues like ‘Jinnah’ versus genuine concerns of ganna – sugarcane - farmers). The Kairana results showed that the people (across community lines and religious divides) firmly chose “ganna” (sugarcane, representing bread and butter issues) over “Jinnah” (representing needless, poisonous, divisive issues). This choice in itself indicated a shift away from the political climate of the UP Assembly polls last year, which was successfully polarised by Modi’s and Yogi’s divisive “shamshan vs kabristan” (cremation ground vs graveyard) speeches.

Kairana also challenged another political myth that has been gaining traction in the Opposition camp: that the BJP’s ouster demands a ‘strategic’ taboo on Muslim visibility and political participation and on anti-communal issues. This myth put forward the argument that secular politics must be visibly ‘Hindu’ in appearance, and must mute itself on the question of persecution of Muslims; it also required Muslims to keep their heads below the parapet and maintain a low profile in politics. Even as the BJP virtually stopped fielding any Muslim candidates, the Opposition too began marginalising Muslims in the political arena. Kairana marked a change in this tendency. In Kairana, the site of relentless communal propaganda, the united Opposition candidate was a Muslim woman and the evocative campaign slogan of ‘Ganna vs Jinnah’ refused to divorce anti-communal politics from bread-and-butter issues. The fact that Jats and Muslims alike responded to this campaign and elected Tabassum Hasan, making her the only Muslim MP from Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha, is significant and welcome.

In Shamli, Muslim women were raped during the communal violence of 2013, and the BJP leaders including Ministers in Modi’s cabinet have stood in open defence of the rape- and riot-accused. Meanwhile, the BJP propaganda tried to project Muslim women as helpless victims of violence and discrimination by Muslim men, needing ‘rescue’ by the BJP. At the same time, the BJP and its Governments in UP and elsewhere held rallies for rape-accused men; most shamelessly in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir, and Unnao in UP. In this backdrop the victory of Tabassum Hasan – as a Muslim and as a woman – challenges communal and patriarchal stereotypes and assumes another layer of significance.

The BJP’s response to the Kairana result makes it clear that in spite of the failure of its communal ploy, it plans to continue the same ploy, perhaps because it has nothing else to offer an electorate, having broken all its promises of ‘development’. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, speaking on a television panel debate, quite openly claimed that the victory of a Muslim candidate meant a defeat of Hindus: “When word will spread that 32% Muslims could unite, but where were Hindus? Islam won but why did Hindus lose?” Meanwhile, the BJP’s fake news factory spread the false claim that Tabassum Hasan had described her victory as ‘the victory of Allah and the defeat of Ram.’ This fake news was even retweeted by three Twitter handles that the Prime Minister Modi personally follows.

However, if the BJP continues to sing the ‘Jinnah’ tune of divisiveness and hatred, the people of the country seem to be firmly focussed on ‘Ganna’. Farmers’ oganisations all over the country have called for a ‘Gaon Bandh’ (village strike) that has affected the supply and prices of milk and vegetables, in protest against the Government policies resulting in ruinously low prices of farm produce.

The message from Kairana is clear: if the people of India unite, refuse to be divided on the lines of communal and casteist hatred, reject defensiveness and embrace boldness in the face of communal and patriarchal aggression, and assert the rights of farmers, workers, women, students and common people, they can defeat the fascists.

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