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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 01:35 GMT
Cracking India's Muslim vote

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Uttar Pradesh

The madrassa in Juanpur, Uttar Pradesh
Islamic seminary students in Juanpur say they value democracy
Swami Chinmayanand, a saffron-robed priest and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party MP, is holding urgent consultations with leaders of the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Swami Chinmayanand is seeking re-election in Jaunpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Like many constituencies in the state, Jaunpur has a significant Muslim population that can influence the outcome of the vote.

In previous elections, Swami Chinmayanand's campaign revolved around the contentious issues of protecting Hindu pride and building a temple on the ruins of a demolished mosque at the disputed site of Ayodhya.

But this time his party is making a conscious effort to reach out to India's Muslim minority.

We have been living side-by-side for centuries. The majority of the people do not want any trouble or violence
Abdul Batin Nomani

It is a strategy that the VHP (World Hindu Council), which has close ties to the BJP, is uncomfortable with.

"Muslims and Christians want to take over this country," says VHP leader Ashok Singhal.

"Hindus are being terrorised and we have to stop this," he tells a religious rally.

Uttar Pradesh is India's most politically influential state, sending more members to parliament than any other.

It is from here that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi, have been elected.

Sacred city

With a large Muslim population, the state has been at the centre of the Hindu nationalist agenda.

The Gyanvapi mosque in Benaras
The high security at the Gyanvapi mosque in Benaras angers locals

On the banks of the Ganges river in the east of the state lies Benaras, one of Hinduism's most sacred cities.

It is also home to a large number of Muslims who make up nearly one-third of its population.

In the heart of the city, surrounded by a maze of narrow lanes and houses, is the gold-domed Vishwanath temple.

A high barricade of iron staves and chicken wire separates it from the Gyanvapi mosque alongside.

The buildings have co-existed for centuries.

But Hindu hardliners claim the mosque was constructed by a Mughal emperor after demolishing an existing temple, which was later rebuilt alongside.

Tension has increased in the area after a Hindu mob destroyed the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 over a similar dispute.

Now more than 1,000 policemen guard the Vishwanath temple and the Gyanvapi mosque.

Hindus and Muslims entering the shrines for prayers are thoroughly searched before being allowed in.

It is something that infuriates local residents.

Naveen Giri, who heads the local traders' association, has lived in the area for 25 years and feels there is little need for security.

"The people of Benaras, be they Hindu or Muslim, are good people who want to live together."

His thoughts are echoed by Abdul Batin Nomani, the head priest of the Gyanvapi mosque.

"Benaras is a city with a shared Hindu-Muslim culture. We have been living side-by-side for centuries. The majority of the people do not want any trouble or violence."

Business ties

It is not just a common heritage and society that draws the two communities together - economics is a key factor.

I have heard Vajpayee speak. He's a good man and I am willing to give him a chance
Ashfaq Ahmed, Muslim voter

In and around the city, traditional weavers are hard at work creating the richly brocaded Benaras silk sari worn by most Indian brides.

Hindus and Muslims work alongside, united by the fact that only the poorest in each community work in these conditions.

Naseem Ahmed, 28, and Gulzari Lal, 30, have been working together for 20 years.

"We work together, eat together and celebrate festivals. Faith holds no barrier," says Naseem.

But they say that all that counts for little during religious riots.

Gulzari says he remembers the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri mosque well.

"It created a lot of mistrust. I stayed with other Hindus and didn't come to work. Even if I trusted Naseem, I could not be sure he could protect me if I was attacked by people from his community."

The Mohammad Ilyas tea shop in Benaras
Work and food are the key issues for tea shop patrons in Benaras

But many Muslims believe the contentious issues of the 1990s have faded.

At the Mohammad Ilyas tea shop in the Muslim-dominated Madanpura area of Benaras, local Muslims ponder the future over steaming cups of tea.

"All anyone cares about is making sure we have work and food," says Abdul Momeen, an elderly Muslim who has lived in Benaras all his life.

Ashfaq Ahmed agrees and says he is willing to consider voting for the BJP - once a political taboo for most Muslims.

"I have heard Vajpayee speak. He's a good man and I am willing to give him a chance."

It remains to be seen how much of that sentiment translates into actual votes.

Back in Jaunpur, at the 150-year-old Hanafiya Madrassa, an Islamic seminary, Abdul Majid Khan lectures his students on valuing democracy.

"Islam teaches us to care for our land and exercising our democratic right is one way of doing that," he says.

Many of the 400 students who attend the madrassa are eligible to vote.

"We just want to be given the same opportunity as everyone else," says one student, Mohammad Sajid Raza.

"We do not want to be branded as militants or anti-nationals. We are as Indian as anyone else."

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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