How a change in polling venues laid bare Aligarh's communal faultline
Priyata Brajabasi @PriyataB | First published: 6 February 2017
In Baniya Para neighbourhood of Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, communal tension between Hindus and Muslims is fairly palpable. It is no coincidence that the region goes to polls in the first phase on 11 February.
Baniya Para is quite neatly demarcated into Hindu and Muslim enclaves in the main road by the Sri Varshney Dharamshala. On the Hindu side, the residents told Catch many of them are "boycotting" this election. Reason? The "transfer" of polling booths to the "Muslim areas".
Apparently, the Election Commission last month shifted the polling booth from Sri Varshney Dharamshala to Islamiya Primary School. In the nearby Turkman Gate area, the booth was moved from Kanchan Trust Dharamshala to Prince Modern Public School.
Neither the returning officer's explanation nor the fact that the new polling venue in Baniya Para is less than 500 metres away and Turkman Gate under 1.5 km away is any consolation to many Hindu residents, who are in a minority in both localities. Baniya Para has 900-odd eligible Hindu voters and Turkman Gate about 3,000.
On 22 January, Hindus of Baniya Para had, in a letter, appealed the district election officer to change back the polling venues. Their letter emphasised that the area was "communally sensitive" and "unsafe for women".
The Muslim residents dismissed the reservations of their neighbours about the safety of women as "absolutely baseless". Zafarul Khan, the principal of Islamiya Primary School, said, "There is no reason for them to fear coming here and voting. There is nobody here that will breach the peace and security of the neighbourhood. Also, paramilitary forces will be deployed, so these fears are invalid. I welcome the Hindu community to come and vote here without any fear."
The Returning Officer's explanation notwithstanding, some people, Hindu and Muslim, attributed political motives to the shifting of the polling booths. Atul Rajaji of Baniya Para told Catch, "The decision was certainly made under pressure from the BJP's opponents. Otherwise, why would they change the locations when for years the dharamshala has been the polling booth? It is a conspiracy."
Zafarul Khan felt the move "is nothing more than a politically-motivated ploy to divide the two communities".
The Hindus of Baniya Para and Turkman Gate overwhelmingly support the BJP while the Muslims appear split between the SP-Congress combine and Mayawati's BSP. So, if the Hindus make good on their threat to boycott the election, it is not difficult to guess which party's chances that would hurt in Aligarh.