Assembly Elections 2017: Uttar Pradesh

Freedom Fight in Rampur

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It’s a difficult choice for Muslims as the battle between the Nawabs and the Khans intensifies

AROUND 10 KM from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh lies Sarkathal village, populated mostly by Muslims and—fewer—Dalits, and due for polling on February 15th as part of the Swar-Tanda Assembly constituency. It is mid morning, and there is a gathering of adults near the village’s primary school. Some schoolgirls are also to be seen around, waiting for the coffee and snacks they have been promised once the programme is over. It proves a long wait. By around 2 pm, an eruption of slogans announces the arrival of the political leader in whose honour the crowd has gathered. From a grey Toyota Fortuner emerges Kazim Ali Khan, who is known in these parts as Naved Miyan, grandson of the last Nawab of Rampur, Syed Raza Ali Khan.

If his regal disposition is constant, his party affiliation has been variable. He has represented this constituency as a legislator in the Assembly since 2002, and now seeks a fourth term. After stints with the BSP and SP, he won on a Congress ticket in the 2012 state elections. But in October last year, he was sacked from the party for cross- voting in the Rajya Sabha polls held in May. He rejoined the BSP, under whose ‘elephant’ symbol he is contesting the current election. “I left Congress because the party has no future in UP,” he tells Open, “I can’t go to SP, as my family rival for ages Azam [Khan] is there. That’s why I am in BSP.”

Naved Miyan’s bête noir is also from Rampur, and, true to script, he begins his speech with an direct attack on the Cabinet minister in the SP’s government. “It’s a fight against the brutalities of a zaalim mantri (tyrannical minister), and you all have to support me in this,” he urges the crowd of around 100. “You have supported me thrice before, but this time the fight is different.”

The electoral battle is indeed different, for Azam Khan has fielded his 26-year-old son Abdullah Azam against Naved Miyan. While the legislator speaks, his supporters distribute a pamphlet that mentions several issues but seems designed to hold the SP heavyweight responsible for wrecking the region’s communal harmony and for the sufferings of the poor. “On February 15th, when you go to vote,” warns the BSP candidate at the end of his five-minute address, “just remember the face of this cruel man called Azam Khan.”

The rivalry between the Nawabs of Rampur and Azam Khan’s family is half a century old and spans generations. It was in the 1970s that Azam Khan, then a Janata Party-Secular politician in his twenties, first challenged the hold of Kazim’s father and five-term Congress MP from Rampur, Zulfiqar Ali Khan alias Mickey Miyan. At that time, Noor Mahal, the ancestral palace of the former royals, used to be the focal point of region’s politics. Leanings of the time were all about being either pro-Noor Mahal or anti. In 1980, Azam Khan took on that power centre and won his first legislative seat by defeating Noor Mahal’s candidate. “I couldn’t hire a jeep for my election campaign as no one could dare defy the Nawab,” recounts Azam Khan.

Today, it is Abdullah Azam against Noor Mahal—or more specifically, Naved Miyan. The difference now is that instead of Azam charging the royal house with taanashahi (dictatorship), it is the Nawab’s descendent accusing the SP’s Azams of it. Locals in Rampur call it a battle between the Miyan and the Mantri. The irony is that if they both put up a strong show, the winner could turn out to be a third candidate of the BJP, as happened in the 2014 General Election which saw a split in the area’s Muslim votes.

At 11 the next morning, we reach Noor Mahal, situated 2 km off National Highway 24 that links Rampur to Delhi. In a large hall, Naved Miyan is to be found sitting with a group of supporters. The discussion is about what might be going on at the nearby office of the Sub Divisional Magistrate. The Nawabi descendant has challenged the nomination papers of Abdullah on the ground that he has not submitted his proof-of-age. Noor Mahal’s contention is that Azam Khan’s son is below the minimum age needed to join the fray. “We had filed our objection under Section 36 of the Representation of People Act, and informed the returning officer that Abdullah has not attained the required age of 25 years to contest the election,” says Naved Miyan, who will turn 57 this October. “Abdullah should produce his Class 10 certificate to prove his age, but he has failed to do so before the returning officer. As per law, a person with educational qualifications has to prove his age by producing his high school certificate.” There is a hearing in progress at the SDM’s office, where both the BSP and SP are arguing their case. A fear of clashes between members of the two opposing camps explains the heavy police deployment in the area.

After about half an hour, the BSP candidate’s second son Hamza Miyan comes in with news of the outcome. “The returning officer has rejected our claim and validated Abdullah’s nomination as we couldn’t provide any document in support of our argument,” he says. There is a moment of silence in the hall, interrupted by Naved Miyan. “No worry,” he says, “We will challenge it in court. Let’s proceed with our campaign.”

Naved Miyan elaborates on why he holds his rival in such contempt. “Rampur is a beautiful historic city which has its own culture of communal harmony and peace,” he says. “Since 2012, when Azam Khan became a cabinet minister in this government, he’s been on a rampage to kill the essence of the city.” The former Nizam, Micky Miyan did a lot to preserve the city’s charm, he adds, but Azam Khan is determined to undo that legacy.

The Nawabs have tortured people over the centuries. It’s our courtesy that we are allowing them to live here

That the SP leader has sought to stamp himself upon the city is clear from a tour across Rampur. Almost every road corner has a marble plaque that bears the name of ‘Mohd Azam Khan’. In just four years, the SP leader has had all 24 gates of the old walled city demolished, saying that they posed a threat to public safety. New gates are now being erected on these sites. In this loss of heritage, some locals see the passing of an old culture of nobility and learning as well. “Rampur is a city which has Persian influence to some extent in its architecture,” says Fazal Shah Fazal, former journalist of an Urdu daily in Rampur who has studied the history of the city. “There is some Arabic influence too, but the overall mizaaz (disposition) is more Persian.” In the famous Raza Library in the heart of Rampur, there is even a Persian language copy of the Valmiki Ramayan. “That shows how close Hindus and Muslims were to each other,” adds Fazal. “With the coming of Azam Khan, a division in society can clearly be seen.”

The new gates being built have an Arabic imprint that Fazal regards as a clumsy attempt to distort all that Rampur stands for by way of cultural confluence. The century-old building of Rampur Club has given way to a Circuit House and a hotel, still under construction. The Club, a stately structure, was built in the early 19th century by Naved Miyan’s grandfather Major General Nawab Syed Raza Ali Khan, and was lying unused for almost a decade before the state’s ruling SP took an interest in the property.

However, Naved Miyan doesn’t think the city’s makeover represents a turn towards an Arabic architectural sensibility. His explanation: “[Azam Khan’s] father used to serve my grandfather, the last Nawab of Rampur,” he says. “He hates this reality of his past and is now aiming to finish all remnants of the Nawabs in Rampur.” A Nawabi era gate along the highway to the city was taken down on November 16th, 2013, though it was in good shape and not about to collapse. In its place, the SP government got two gates built. Inaugurated on November 26th last year by UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, one is called Bab-e-Nizat (‘gateway to freedom’) and the other Bab-e-Hayaat (‘gateway to heaven’).

“It is a strategy by Azam Khan to develop Naya Rampur, a city on the outskirts, towards his Jauhar University. Just see how much land has been acquired. Houses and religious places have been demolished [for it],” alleges Naved Miyan. Apart from the gates, the SP’s other projects include an artificial lake, a flyover, an auditorium and a redeveloped Gandhi Samadhi, all of which form part of a Rs 200-crore plan, most of it to be spent within a 5 km radius of Jauhar University. Azam Khan’s dream project, it began operations in 2006 on a 350-acre campus, 250 acres of which was allotted by the state government to the Mohammad Ali Jauhar Trust established by the SP leader. The rest of the land was acquired from farmers who live in the villages around the site.

In January 2015, Dada Miyan Ki Mazaar, a graveyard in Rampur’s Benazir Bagh, was cleared to widen an access road to the University. Several shops have been demolished in the city’s posh Civil Lines area to broaden streets.

LAST OCTOBER, AUTHORITIES of the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board bulldozed about 50 houses at Yateem Khana Basti in Rampur for the construction of Rampur Public School, which is to be run by the same trust. The residential basti was said to be on land controlled by the Waqf, a body that holds religious land in divine service; but it is Azam Khan who has charge of the state’s Waqf ministry.

Tanveer Guddu, a member of Rampur Nagar Palika and former basti resident, recalls how crudely he and his family were evicted. “All our things were thrown on the road in the middle of the night,” he says of the time he and his family had to sleep out on the street. “When I complained, five cases were registered against me. People say Azam is a leader of Muslims. But the maximum damage he has done is to Muslims. We all are going to vote against him.”

Faisal Lala, 30, is a Congress leader who was sure of getting the party ticket for Rampur to fight against Azam Khan. After his party struck an alliance with the SP, Lala finds himself in a fix. He will have to campaign for a man he has spent four years opposing bitterly. A businessman who owns a couple of plywood units, he says the local industry was thriving until it became an object of Azam Khan’s vengeance. There were about 400 units in operation, with about 200,000 people employed directly and indirectly. “We hadn’t supported Azam Khan in the last elections,” says Lala, “So when he became a minister, he got an order to shut all the factories. A few like us managed to operate with a court stay on that order.” Still, business is down. “Earlier, the daily turnover of plywood in the city used to be Rs 10 crore. Now it is hardly a crore.”

Azam Khan, seated in the visitors’ room of his residence on Jail Road, dismisses the allegations as a smear campaign run by Noor Mahal. “Those who couldn’t do anything in Rampur are not able to digest the good work and beautification of the city,” he says. “Yes, houses and shops have been demolished, but it was all unauthorised and the law has been enforced.” Talking about the gates, he claims all of Rampur celebrated the demolitions. “The Nawabs have tortured people over the centuries,” he alleges, “It’s our courtesy that we are allowing them to live here. They don’t deserve it.”

The Miyan-versus-Mantri battle in Rampur has divided the district’s Muslim voters, who account for about half the electorate for its five Assembly constituencies. In the 2012 polls, when Naved Miyan was a Congress candidate, the party won two of the five seats, the SP won another two and the BSP secured one. This time round, Miyan is banking on the 37,000 Valmiki votes in his constituency that the BSP symbol could draw in. “It’s a new combination this time as both Muslims and Dalits are traumatised by the prospect of Abdullah Azam winning here,” he says.

Not everyone agrees. “Miyan did nothing in the last 15 years,” says Zuber Ali,24, of Lalpur Kalan village, “He is trying to win this time by using Azam Khan’s name to scare people.” His friend Nand Kishor voted BJP last time and is sure of the victory of BJP’s Laxmi Saini, a candidate who has been runner-up to Naved Miyan more than once. “This time the division of votes will make all BJP candidates win in Rampur,” says Nepal Singh, the BJP MP of Rampur. “Even Muslims are voting for us as they know the personal battle of two families won’t yield anything for them.”

The silver lining for Rampur’s Muslims is that a battle of personalities tends to keep Hindu-Muslim differences papered over, unlike in nearby places like Moradabad, where the electioneering is along communal lines. “Rampur is not Muzaffarnagar or Kairana,” says Ustad Muhammed Ahmad Warsi, a vocalist based in Rampur who sings Persian verses. “The place chose a BJP MP in 2014, defying local satraps, and that says a lot.”

Both Azam Khan and Naved Miyan term the electoral clash a jung-e-azaadi (war of freedom) against each other. The rivalry is so intense and so personal that neither seems too concerned about the rest of the state, so long as one can rub the other’s nose in.