Lucknow: “Doorbin laga kar bhi dekho toh nahi dikhenge Shia” (Even if you wear binoculars you won’t be able to find Shias).
This remark allegedly made by Azam Khan, who was part of Akhilesh Yadav’s cabinet in Uttar Pradesh, still rings in the ears of Shias in Lucknow who tell the story of being a “minority within the minority” in the Muslim community.
However, now with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Yogi Adityanath sitting in the seat of power in Uttar Pradesh, the Shia community is “asserting its presence,” said Bukkal Nawab, founder of Rashtriya Shia Samaj and the only Muslim member in the BJP’s executive body in Uttar Pradesh.
“For the BJP, Shias hold an important place. When the saffron party comes to power, Shias are hopeful that their time has come,” Nawab said.
The MLC, who was with the Samajwadi Party earlier, has also painted his house saffron in a show of allegiance.
He added, “There is only one Muslim minister in the central government, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, and he is a Shia. Even the Yogi government has just one Muslim minister who is also a Shia — Mohsin Raza. The president of the National Minorities Commission, Ghayroul Hasan Rizvi, is a Shia Muslim. This is the mahatva (significance) of Shias when the BJP comes to power.”
Nawab’s organisation was founded five years ago but registered in 2017. “With the BJP in power, Shias are hopeful that their issues will be addressed,” he said.
The Shia discourse under BJP
According to community leaders, there are seven crore Shias in the country. For an objective view of their condition, Yasoob Abbas, a Shia leader and member All India Shia Personal Law Board, demands setting up of a commission on the lines of the Sachar Commission.
Abbas said, “We have made this demand to other governments also but we are hopeful that the BJP government will look into the issues of unemployment and lack of education among Shias. We have written to the authorities to set up a Sachar-like commission and report on our condition.”
He added, “In the previous government, Azam Khan was not sensitive to the demands of Shias; he was not their friend. But for some reason, we have hope that the BJP will change things for Shias.”
The alignment of the Shia community towards the BJP is not new. While former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the Lucknow parliament seat five times, home minister Rajnath Singh has made his presence felt at gatherings and funerals of Shia clerics.
In the 2017 elections, Shia clerics started an alliance with the Sufis and campaigned against the Samajwadi Party, thus benefitting the BJP.
Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawad Naqvi’s cousin Shamil Shamsi, who heads Husaini Tigers, started the Shia Gau Raksha Dal with an aim to expand to other states for the cause of cow protection. In 2016, the same group announced a bounty of Rs 15 lakh on televangelist Zakir Naik.
A solution for Shia leadership?
The community feels it was not given importance during the stints of previous governments in Uttar Pradesh.
“It is not so common to find a Shia vice-chancellor in a university,” said the V-C of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Urdu, Arabi, Farsi University, Professor Mahrukh Mirza.
He feels there is a leadership crisis in the Shia community that can be resolved only with the BJP in power. The people who portray themselves as representatives of Shia Muslims, in his opinion, have vested interests and do not enjoy an influential following in the community.
Mirza said, “If the Shia leadership has to be honed, then it will be because of BJP government in power. The leadership issue cannot be solved by any other party and that is because the intellectual and leadership space of Muslims in other parties is occupied by Ahle-Sunnat. They are well entrenched in the system that Shias don’t stand a chance to lead.”
The BJP government, he said, “has to invite the Shias who matter and have a following to be able to get support. We will then practice a form deception, called Taqiyya, where Shias will not publicly support BJP but will vote on secret ballot for the party”.
However, Justice Haider Abbas Razi, who retired as a senior judge from Lucknow High Court, countered the charges and said: “The Shias seen close to power are the ones with vested interest. The BJP government also knows this and uses their opportunism to create the Shia-Sunni divide. They will get those people who can speak divisive language. They get close to power but hold no power among the Shia public.”
Cultural similarity, but no Shia unity
Bukkal Nawab added that there are cultural and historical reasons because of which Shias are close to the BJP.
“Shia nawabs were inclusive; Asafuddaulah gave equal land to Idgah and Ramlila and the nawabs also played Holi. The concept of ghat is exclusive to Hindus but last year in Lucknow, Shias got their first ghat — Mahdi Ghat — where the community holds celebrations for Shabbe Baraat.”
Abbas added that according to a legend in Lucknow, “Dinesh Sharma, deputy chief minister of UP, was born after his mother prayed to the third Imam of Shias”.
But Razi dismissed these claims too. He said, “In the past, some Shia leaders such as Congress leaders Syed Sibte Razi, who became the governor of Assam, and former UP minister Ammar Rizvi, were given space. The situation for Shias largely deteriorated after the Partition. They became the minority within the minority and felt politically neglected, which was reaped for politics.”
Some Shias trying to come out of political oblivion have also found a challenge in the lack of unity within the community on some issues, for instance, the Ram Mandir.
While on one hand, the chairman of National Minorities Commission is trying to build a consensus on the Ram Mandir by meeting Muslim intellectuals, on the other, Abbas stands with the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.