Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh): On March 11, 2017, the day the assembly election results were declared in Uttar Pradesh, a clip of Muslim women celebrating Narendra Modi’s victory in Varanasi was prominently featured on the media. The ANI feed made its way to primetime news on almost every channel. Several people across the city would cite the images of a few burkha-clad women dancing and singing praises of Modi as proof that ‘even Muslims’ were supporting their ‘great leader’.
A few months later, in May 2017, another ANI clip got much play. This featured Muslim women at Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Darbar, reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, 100 times, to “get rid of the ill practice of triple talaq”.
“Teen talaq ke ‘sankat’ se mukti ke liye Hanuman ji ki sharan mein Muslim mahilain (Muslim women seeks relief from Triple talaq at the Hanuman temple)” ran the headline in Amar Ujala. “Muslim Women for Reprieve from Triple Talaq” claimed the Times of India.
On Diwali, the Times of India YouTube channel showed Muslim women performing the Ram Aarti in Varanasi. Six months later, ANI had another story on Muslim women making rakhis to send ‘Modiji’, their true brother who had saved them from triple talaq. Most recently, in the run-up to elections 2019, Muslim women were shown campaigning for Modi in Varanasi.
Most of the stories were picked up from the ANI feed. They were widely circulated, but had very few details. They failed to point out that these ‘Muslim women’ rarely numbered more than five, or that the two women at the centre of all the clips and images were always the same. Some reports mentioned the organisations they were linked to – the Muslim Mahila Foundation and the Vishal Bharat Sangh – but there was no mention of the fact that these organisations, though nominally independent, have the RSS’s support.
The impact of these stories is found in the many voices one hears in Varanasi that embellish praise for Modi with details of how he even enjoys the support of ‘Muslim women’.
In search of Varanasi’s ‘Muslim women’
In 2017, while reporting the UP assembly elections from Varanasi, I went looking for these Muslim women who were being shown celebrating the BJP’s victory. Across several Muslim mohallas, I found no signs of these women or of any jubilation. Not a single Muslim I encountered in any of these areas was out celebrating Modi’s victory (not even in the Shia areas, where there is considerable support for the BJP), nor had any of them heard of such celebrations anywhere else. Instead, the mood was sombre, the BJP had just swept the state at the end of a most divisive campaign, and it was easy to sense the fear and anxiety.
This election, back in Varanasi, I went looking for these ‘Muslim women’ and their stories. Local reporters directed me to the recently relocated premises of the Vishal Bharat Sangh, 10 km from Varanasi city.
A massive arched gate marks the entry to Lamahi, famous as Munshi Prem Chand’s village. There’s little here to evoke the rural landscape the author vividly described in his novels. Rapid urbanisation has overtaken parts of the village closest to the road. Amidst the construction underway is a large Shankar Temple across the road from Prem Chand’s home, now a memorial.
At the end of a lane stands Subhash Bhawan, the office, residence and activity centre of the Vishal Bharat Sangh (VBS), a two-floored structure named after Subhash Chandra Bose, whose bust is prominently placed at the entrance of large hall. As you enter a canopy with the BJP logo, names and colours catch the eye, as does a massive poster of Indresh Kumar, the ‘margdarshak’ (guide) of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, the Muslim wing of the RSS.
On the first floor, Rajeev Srivastava greets me with a ‘Jai Hind’. Seven women flank him echoing the greeting. Srivastava is a well known figure in Varanasi, with many friends in the local media who oblige him by diligently covering every event of the VBS.
Srivastava tells me that he and his whole family are followers of Subhash Chandra Bose. He was in class ten, he says, when on a blazing summer’s day, he saw villagers refuse to let a child drink water from their hand pump. The child was a ragpicker, a Dalit “From that day I decided I would dedicate my life to work for ragpickers and to rid this country of caste.”
His family had objections to him bringing “dirty children” into the house, so after his graduation he left home, did odd jobs to make ends meet and travelled across railway stations to work with ragpickers’ children. Eventually, he got a job as a professor of History in Banaras Hindu University and started a home for the children of ragpickers, those who had run away, were lost or abandoned by their families.
“You call Mahatma Gandhi the father of the nation, but he has not even adopted one child, I have become a father to 740 children, I have got them educated and given them my name.” Of them, 20 boys and 15 girls live in Subhash Bhawan.
Srivastava is particularly proud of the fact that he has adopted several Muslim children and that all those who live in Subhash Bhawan are free to follow their own religion, “You will see some do the namaz, the other Shiv tandav.”
Religion does indeed seem to play a critical role in the lives of those in Subhash Bhawan. I’m introduced to 16-year-old Ili, sporting a chandan tilak (sandalwood mark) on her forehead, she says everyone is very spiritual here, and emphasises that even the Muslims are vegetarians. Ili was two when Srivastava ‘adopted’ her. The details of her life, like those of most others I spoke to, are sketchy. She says her parents were migrant workers who kept moving but she never had a desire to return to them. When I press Srivastava for details, he says some of these children had been abandoned, others had heard of the organisation and came to him.
Ili tells me, “Now I am called Ili Bharatvanshi and this is my entire family”, pointing to the others.
“Bharatvanshi is the last name I’ve given all my children. It doesn’t indicate caste and it reminds the Muslims they come from this land,’” explains Srivastava. He says that they have encouraged the Muslim children to give themselves Indian, not Arabic names, “So now we have a Suraj Ansari and Prithvi Ansari.”
Bijli, a woman in a white salwar-kurta with a tilak on her forehead, interjects to praise Srivastava for the sacrifice he has made but is quick to clarify that she’s not from the ragpicker community. “I’m a Rajput, I’ve come to visit this organisation as Rajeev bhaiya and I share the same spiritual guru – Indreshji.”
Modi as messiah
Srivastava denies that he’s linked to the Muslim Rashtriya Manch or that they get any funding. “I used to think I had sacrificed a lot but after meeting Indreshji, who is an arabpatti, I realise there’s no one like him. He’s a margdarshak to us all.” Indresh is a frequent visitor and presides over most of Srivastava’s prominent activities.
There is little to separate the VBS’s work and its ideology from that of the RSS’s Muslim wing. Srivastava dismisses Nehru, is cautious on Gandhi, and believes Bose was responsible for the freedom of the country. He claims that Partition will be undone even if it takes another 500 years. Hindus, he unsurprisingly asserts, are entitled to the Ram temple in Ayodhya and that “Kashi, Mathura baaqi hai” (the same sinister slogan that came up after the demolition of the Babri Masjid).
Srivastava, then, introduces two young women, Najma and Nazneen, and says “even Muslims understand and pray for the Ram temple to be built”.
The two are instantly recognisable from the ANI video clips and media reports. Nazneen has written the Hanuman Chalisa, Durga Chalisa, and Shiv Chalisa in Urdu, and Najma led the delegation that recited the Hanuman Chalisa at the Sankat Mochan temple.
Before I can take any pictures, Najma puts on her burkha. “When I wear a burkha, people are able to identity me as a proper Muslim,” she says. “It’s become her trademark, a part of her identity,” adds Nazneen, who doesn’t wear a burkha.
Both women are from weaver families. Nazneen speaks of the long hours of work as a child, when she would cut the threads on the Banarasi textiles woven by her family. With money scarce, she was set to leave school but Srivastava’s sister, a teacher in the school, alerted her brother who took responsibility for Nazneen’s education. In 2005, Nazneen’s mother tied a rakhi to Srivastava and soon after Nazneen moved in to the BVS house, which was earlier in Varanasi city.
Najma Parveen Bharatvanshi came into contact with Rajeev Srivastava when he used to teach children in a park near her house. She was in class eight at the time and says she was inspired by the work he did. Her mother had died; her father was not able to support her studies. Srivastava once again stepped in to help. A few months later, when her father passed away, Najma and her brother moved in to be part of Rajeev’s family.
Nazneen and Najma lead the Muslim outreach programmes, which include a ‘Kaccheri Day’ (informal court) once a month, attended mostly by women with marital problems. “If you had seen how these poor women would come in hordes, turned out by their husbands with just three words, talaq talaq talaq, you would have realised why Modiji is our saviour,” says Najma. But they were unable to give me details of who the women were or how many had attended.
“We want Muslim women to be liberated from all this, so we are aggressively campaigning for Modi as prime minister and that’s why he’s the subject of my PhD,” says Najma. The title of her thesis reads – ‘Modiji ka karishmakari netritve eveam 2014 ka aam chunaav, ek vishleshatmak addhyan (The charismatic leadership of Modiji and the 2014 general elections, an analytical study).’
I ask Najma how many Muslim women celebrated Modi’s victory. For the first time in our conversation she is flustered, and pauses for a moment before replying, “This time I assure you there will be many more.”
From Modiji as the messiah of Muslim women to the need for the Ram temple in Ayodhya is the familiar arc of Hindu nationalism, where Muslims must speak and act in ways prescribed to them. After decades at the VBS, Najma and Nazneen have become the ideal representatives of this discourse.
The two also believe that Muslims should pray for the Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya – “Remember our ancestors also prayed for Ramji.” Once again, they chorus, “Only Modiji and his party will construct the temple.”
An unpopular opinion
These views have made them infamous in the Muslim mohallas of Varanasi. Najma has several Deoband fatwas against her, Nazneen’s family faces threats and social alienation in Lallapura, where they live. They say they have got threats from individuals, militant groups, even from someone claiming to be Hafiz Syed on Facebook. They were offered government security but have turned it down. “Feminists in the rest of the country don’t support us even when we are being abused or threatened, what sort of a women’s movement does India have?” Najma asks.
At Pilikothi, one of Varanasi’s better known Muslim weaver mohallas, everyone I speak to knows Najma and Nazneen but are dismissive. “They have even alienated their own families,” says one man. “Their sangathan is constantly trying to do activities in the Muslim mohallas, but how can we support this bhagwa (saffron) politics?”
What worries the Muslims of Varanasi most was articulated by Saifi Qalam and Danish, residents of Nai Sadak. “These are a handful of women, and the politics of their organisation is dangerous. But what is worse is the media, which knows that these are but a handful, yet runs stories suggesting they represent all Muslims. Why do they show five Muslim women from an RSS-type organisation and then run headlines saying ‘Muslim women did this’ or ‘Muslim women support Modi’? That is the real danger. Two RSS women who speak for no one in the community have been made to speak for all of us.”
All images by Radhika Bordia.