February 07, 2017

India - 2017 UP assembly elections: How a change in polling venues laid bare Aligarh's communal faultline

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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.
Priyata Brajabasi / Catch NewsOld polling station - Staircase leading to the polling station on the 1st floor at Sri Varshney Dharamshala in Baniya Para
Priyata Brajabasi / Catch NewsOld polling station - Sri Varshney Dharamshala in Baniya Para."The polling booths were shifted mainly for two reasons," Pankaj Kumar Verma, the Returning Officer of Koal constituency, told Catch, "First, the logistics were not in place. The dharamshala in Baniya Para has a long flight of steps to reach the first floor, where the polling booth would have been set up. It would have been very difficult for senior citizens and differently-abled people. Second, the Election Commission has recommended that polling booths should not be set up in religious buildings."
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.
Priyata Brajabasi / Catch NewsThe alley leading up to the new polling location at Islamiya Primary School in Baniya Para.
Priyata Brajabasi / Catch NewsNew polling station - A classroom at Islamiya Primary School which will be converted to a polling booth."The main issue is of safety," claimed MonicaVarshney, a housewife in Baniya Para. "The area is unsafe, especially for women and older people. That area had a thriving Hindu population, but it has declined fast. Hindus sold their properties and moved out. Women are harassed in broad daylight; we prefer not to go in or out at night. We do not venture into that locality at all. And the way to the new polling booth is through a narrow alley."
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".
A letter dated 22.01.2017 addressed to the District election officer.Since the demand was not met, the community's elders decided to boycott the election, and some may go on a hunger strike, Monica claimed. They are also "inclined towards writing a letter to the Election Commission with their own blood to pressurise them to reverse the decision".
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".
Hindu residents of Baniya Para protesting the change of polling venues.Rajaji said elders from his community had approached the BJP candidate from Aligarh Sanjeev Rana with the issue of the polling booths. "Sanjeev Rana was busy with campaigning. Also, he does not want to question the decision of the Election Commission."
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.