Lucknow encounter: Did Saifullah's father have a choice but to disown him?
The Uttar Pradesh elections have finally come to an end. Over the past couple of months, each and every person who considers himself an expert has held forth at great length on what is called the “Muslim vote”.
"The Muslim vote will decide the election", "Muslims are moving towards Mayawati", "Muslims love Akhilesh", "Muslims are coming out to vote in large numbers" - are some of the observations these experts have thrown at us. The "Muslim vote" has been made into this all powerful entity that has a life of its own.
But on the last day of polling we got a cruel reality check on how powerless a Muslim voter actually is.
Meet one such Muslim voter – Sartaj, father of 22-year-old Saifullah, an alleged terrorist who was gunned down by the Uttar Pradesh Anti Terror Squad in Lucknow on Wednesday. Sartaj refused to bury his son's body saying that "we will not accept a traitor's body. He has brought infamy to not only us but the entire nation".
Asserting his patriotism, Sartaj said, "We are Indians, we were born here, our forefathers were born here and anyone who's a traitor can't be a son or any relation of ours".
Everyone hailed the brave father for his spirit of sacrifice and his patriotism. And rightly so. It really must take courage and an exemplary love of the country to disown one's own son. Mind you, many so-called patriots even find it difficult to disown the man who killed the father of the nation. But let's leave that aside for now.
The main question here is – did Sartaj have a choice but to disown Saifullah? Consider what would have happened had he accepted his son's body and given him a proper burial. He and his family would be hounded forever – by everyone from the law enforcement agencies, to local goons, Hindutva vigilantes and even hostile neighbours and relatives. They would have found it difficult to find work or marriage alliances.
And imagine the glee with which Hindutva trolls would have shared the pictures of Saifullah's funeral on social media, with the caption "those who attend terrorists' funerals, deserve to meet the same fate". It would have given them the perfect brush to pain the entire Muslim community as terror sympathisers.
So again, did Sartaj have a choice? Did he even have the option to state a legal fact: that his son was a terror suspect and not a terrorist, until his guilt is established by an inquiry?
Does it matter whether this Muslim voter supported Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati? Would any either of them have assured him protection from any discrimination or harassment, had he chosen to exercise his right to bury his son?
Does it matter whether Sartaj is Pasmanda or Ashraf, Ansari or Pathan – terms which keep cropping up whenever experts try to showcase their knowledge of the “Muslim vote”?
In the end, Sartaj will be known as the father of a terrorist. Or the “good Muslim” who disowned his “bad Muslim” son.
This one episode tells us that this all powerful “Muslim vote” that we are told about, comprises lakhs of helpless people like Sartaj, whose main challenge is survival.
Speaking of survival, take a brief glimpse at the context which Sartaj and Saifullah come from. They live in Jajmau, a south eastern suburb of Kanpur. Muslims comprise over 80% of the population in this area which is the hub of Kanpur's leather industry. But a combination of factors – tough implementation of environmental norms, vigilantism by cow-protectors and more recently demonetisation – has destroyed the leather industry. Several tanneries have shut down and lakhs of people have lost their jobs, creating a massive crisis of survival.
The Dargah of Hazrat Makhdoom Shah Ala is a major landmark here and the area is proud of the fact that it hasn't witnessed any major communal riots in decades. But obviously, the breakdown of the leather industry and the activities of cow vigilantes, have disturbed the social balance here.
But context doesn't really matter, does it? Eventually, be it Sartaj or Saifullah or any Muslim in Uttar Pradesh, they would invariably be seen from the prisms of competing political narratives.
For instance, all through Wednesday when polling was still underway in South Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Saifullah was being projected in the media as an ISIS operative, a rather blatant attempt to polarise votes in the last phase of polling.
But by evening, after the polling was over, the ADG Law and Order coolly said that there was no evidence of any ISIS links, contradicting the police's previous position.
In the end, we make no attempt to engage with human struggles, challenges and aspirations of individual Muslims. It's just too convenient for us to see them through labels like “patriotic Muslim”, “radicalised Muslim”, “moderate Muslim” or as part of the larger aggregate called “the Muslim vote”.