In Indian Punjab’s Muslim ‘island’, voters vying for change
By Ahmad Adil
MALERKOTLA, India (AA): As the multiplicity of political parties is ensuring a tight contest, candidates in the Indian province of Punjab leave no stone un-turned to lure even a minuscule Muslim population that accounts for less than 2% of the population.
Since the region witnessed the worst ever communal riots and large-scale migration in 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim population was drastically reduced from 33% to 0.5%.
As per the 2011 Census, Muslims now account for 1.93%, with the majority of them inhabiting Malerkotla district — the only Muslim-dominated district in India’s Sikh-majority state.
Dressed in a black suit, Hassan Mohammad, a lawyer and an independent candidate, is campaigning door-to-door across different villages in the state’s Malerkotla district, which has a 70% Muslim population.
“When I go to meet people in the villages, I see how bad their condition is. The previous governments have not done much for them,” says Mohammad, adding that everyone in Punjab is now yearning for change.
In the present elections, 15 candidates, mostly Muslims, are contesting for the assembly segment. The population, however, feels ignored despite the area sending a representative to the state’s assembly every year.
As the candidates campaign, Mohammed Ashraf, a resident, told Anadolu Agency that health facilities in the town are abysmal.
“Usually, there are no specialized doctors available. There is only one big government hospital which caters to a population of more than 130,000,” he said, adding that the patients have to bigger towns if the problem is “severe.”
Education is a priority
Ramzaan Sayeed, another local, said the Muslim town lacks professional colleges and good educational institutions.
“It is a matter of professional courses these days. We have to send our children to different places for a good education,” he said.
It is a triangular fight, this time in Malerkotla. Usually, people have been voting either for the Shiromani Akali Dal, a Sikh-centric political party in the state, or secular centrist Congress. This time, however, the Aam Aadmi Party’s presence in the constituency has added a new dimension to the contest.
Not only these day-to-day issues, but some national issues related to Muslims also find a place here.
Liyaqat Ahmad in the main town says he would not vote for the Aam Admi Party because of its indifference towards the Muslim community in the Indian capital Delhi, where it is the ruling party.
He mentions that in the worst-hit communal riots in the city in 2020, this party did not help Muslims.
In the worst-hit riots in decades, which started on the day when US President Donald Trump was in Delhi, over 50 people were killed and hundreds injured in February 2020.
“Some of my acquaintances are there, they say the government didn’t do anything for them. So how could we trust them?” he asked, adding that the unemployment issue is also a major problem in the town.
As one walks towards the main market of the town, the broken roads give a tough time to the commuters.
“There are basic problems like sewerage and safe drinking water. We want the new government to look at all these issues,” said Jafar Ali, a shopkeeper.
The incumbent Congress government had announced setting up a medical college and last year inaugurated a new flyover.
“As far as a medical college, there is not much progress. And the heavy traffic on the flyover had to stop because it developed some problems… such is the condition here,” said Ali, adding that in the previous governments, the legislators from the segment were made ministers in the government, but there was no major developmental change in the town.
Malerkotla was a Muslim princely state during the colonial era and the only place in Punjab where no communal violence took place during the Partition of British India in 1947 into two sovereign states of India and Pakistan.
That bond of communal harmony lasts even today. While over the years, it is only Muslim candidates who win from the seats, the votes also come from people of other religions.
Across the town, Sikhs are these days participating in the campaigning for the Muslim candidates who are contesting the elections.
“For us, the welfare of the people is important and not the religion of the candidate,” said Karnail Singh, one of the supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party contesting candidate in Malerkotla.
Singh said that this time, the town which has maintained communal harmony for decades, is looking for a change.
“We want this to become the number one district in the state. Earlier, the local legislators became the ministers in the government, but nothing changed for people here,” he said.
The roots of communal harmony in the area date back to 1705, when Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s forces were pitted against Sikh spiritual leader Guru Gobind Singh.
Historical records suggest that ruler of Malerkotla Sher Mohammed Khan had protested at the killing of Singh’s sons, who were captured by the Mughal army.
In recognition of this act, Sikhs respected the Malerkotla and did not violate its integrity, even when they ruled a large swathe of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir in the 19th century.
Predominantly agricultural, Malerkotla is also known as the vegetable capital of Punjab. It also supplies vegetables to other parts of the country.
[Photo: Election campaign in another area of Punjab, by Sham Lal, popularly known as Sham Lal ‘Gandhi’, looks through a television cabinet as he campaigns for the upcoming Assembly elections in a residential area, in Amritsar, India, February 07, 2022. Photographer: Raminder Pal Singh/AA]
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