‘I once voted to build the country...'

...now I’ve voted to save it,’ says 92-year-old Khwaja Moeenuddin, who also voted in the first general elections in 1952

Khwaja Moeenuddin was not scared after Partition, but now wonders if he belongs (photo: Parth M.N./PARI)
Khwaja Moeenuddin was not scared after Partition, but now wonders if he belongs (photo: Parth M.N./PARI)

Parth M.N.

Khwaja Moeenuddin still remembers the crisp white kurta he donned on the morning of that voting day — in India’s first-ever general elections in 1951-52. He was then in his early 20s, and could barely contain his excitement, skipping across his small town to the polling station, breathing in the celebratory air of a newly independent democracy.

Seventy-two years later, Moeen is in his tenth decade. On 13 May 2024, he once again stepped out dressed in a crisp white kurta. But this time he walked to the polling booth with the help of a cane. The spring in his step was gone, as was the celebratory atmosphere of voting day.

Tab desh banane ke liye vote kiya tha, aaj desh bachane ke liye vote kar rahe hain (I voted to build the country then, now I am voting to save it),” he says, speaking to PARI at his home in Maharashtra’s Beed city.

Born in the early 1930s in Shirur Kasar tehsil of Beed district, Moeen worked as a chowkidar (watchman) in the tehsil office. In 1948, he was forced to flee to the city of Beed, about 40 km away, to escape the violence during the accession of the then princely state of Hyderabad to the Indian Union.

A year after the bloody Partition of 1947, three princely states — Hyderabad, Kashmir and Travancore — resisted accession to the Union of India. The Nizam of Hyderabad sought an independent state that would be part of neither India nor Pakistan. The agrarian region of Marathwada — in which Beed falls — was part of the princely state of Hyderabad.

Indian armed forces moved into Hyderabad in September 1948 and forced the Nizam to surrender in less than four days. However, according to the Sundarlal committee report — a confidential government report that was made public decades later — at least 27,000 to 40,000 Muslims lost their lives during and after the invasion, forcing teenagers like Moeen to flee for their lives. “The well in my village was filled with bodies,” he recalls. “We escaped to Beed city. It has been my home ever since.”

He got married in Beed, brought up his children here and watched his grandchildren become adults. He worked as a tailor for 30 years and even dabbled a bit in local politics. Now, for the first time since he ran away from his original home in Shirur Kasar more than seven decades ago, Moeen’s Muslim identity makes him feel insecure.

According to India Hate Lab, a Washington DC-based organisation documenting hate speech and hate crimes, India had 668 hate speech events in 2023 — that’s nearly two per day. Maharashtra, known for its progressive thinkers like Mahatma Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar, topped the chart with 118 of them.

“There was a bit of uncertainty about the place of Muslims in India after Partition,” he recalls. “But I didn’t feel scared. I had faith in India as a nation. Today, after spending all my life here, I wonder if I belong...”

He thinks it’s incredible how one leader at the top can make all the difference. “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru genuinely loved everyone, and everyone loved him back in equal measure,” Moeen says. “He made us believe that Hindus and Muslims could live in harmony. He was a sensitive man, and truly secular. As the prime minister, he gave us hope that India could become something special.”

In contrast, Moeen says, it feels like a punch to the gut when Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, refers to Muslims as “infiltrators” and looks to win elections by dividing the electorate along communal lines. (On 22 April 2024, Modi, while addressing a rally in Rajasthan, falsely claimed that the Congress party plans to distribute people’s wealth among “infiltrators”.)

Moeen says, “It is depressing. I remember a time when principles and integrity were the most valued currency. Now, it is about power at any cost.”

About two or three kilometres from Moeen’s one-room house lives Syed Fakhruz Zaman. He may not have voted in the first general election, but he did vote to re-elect Nehru in 1962. “I know times are bad for the Congress but I would not abandon the ideology of Nehru,” he says. “I remember Indira Gandhi had come to Beed in the 1970s. I went to see her.”

Syed Fakhruz Zaman, 85, voted to re-elect Nehru in 1962 (photo: Parth M.N./PARI)
Syed Fakhruz Zaman, 85, voted to re-elect Nehru in 1962 (photo: Parth M.N./PARI)

He was impressed with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, where Rahul Gandhi carried out a padyatra (march) from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. In Maharashtra, he is thankful to Uddhav Thackeray — a sentiment he never thought he would express.

“The Shiv Sena has changed for the better,” he says. “The way Uddhav Thackeray conducted himself as the chief minister during the pandemic was impressive. He went out of his way to ensure Muslims weren’t targeted in Maharashtra like they were in other states.” Zaman, now 85, says there was always an undercurrent of communal division in India, but “the people opposing it were equally vocal, if not more”.

In December 1992, radical Hindu outfits led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) demolished the Babri masjid in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya city, claiming it was the birthplace of the mythological figure Lord Ram. Communal clashes erupted across the country in the aftermath of the incident, including Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, which was rocked by bomb blasts and riots.

Zaman remembers the tensions in Beed during the 1992-93 unrest. “My son carried out a peace rally through the city just to ensure that our brotherhood remains intact. Both Hindus and Muslims joined in large numbers. That solidarity seems to be missing now,” he adds.

Zaman was born in the same house he currently lives in. His family has been one of the influential Muslim families in Beed, often called upon by political leaders to seek blessings before elections. His father and grandfather, both teachers, were even jailed during the 1948 ‘police action’. When his father died, he says, thousands of people across religious lines attended the funeral, including local leaders.

“I had an excellent relationship with Gopinath Munde,” Zaman says, referring to one of the tallest leaders from Beed. “My entire family voted for him in 2009 even though he belonged to the BJP. We knew he wouldn’t differentiate between Hindus and Muslims.”

He says his equation with Pankaja, Munde’s daughter contesting on a BJP ticket from Beed, is also amiable; however, he holds that she won’t stand up to Modi’s communal pitch. “He made an incendiary remark during his rally in Beed as well,” Zaman says. “Pankaja lost thousands of votes after his visit. You can’t go far by telling lies.”

Zaman recalls a tale from before he was born. Not too far from his home sits a temple which came under scrutiny in the 1930s. Some local Muslim leaders believed it was actually a mosque and appealed to the Nizam of Hyderabad to convert the temple.

Zaman’s father, Syed Mehbub Ali Shah, had the reputation of being truthful. “It came down to him to decide whether it was a mosque or a temple,” Zaman says. “My father testified he had never seen evidence of it being a mosque. The matter was settled and the temple was saved. Even though it disappointed a few, my father didn’t lie. We believe in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘truth always sets you free’.”

Gandhi comes up regularly during the conversation with Moeen as well. “He instilled the idea of unity and communal harmony among us,” he says, and goes on to recite an old Hindi film song: ‘Tu Hindu banega, na Musalmaan banega/ Insaan ki aulad hai, insaan banega...’.

Moeen says that was his motto when he became a councillor in Beed in 1990. “I quit my job as a tailor in 1985 after 30 years because I was attracted to politics,” he chuckles. “But I didn’t last as a politician for long. I couldn’t come to terms with the corruption even in local elections. I have been a retired man for over 25 years now.”

Zaman’s decision to retire also stems from changing times and rampant corruption. He worked as a local contractor. “After the 1990s, it changed,” he recalls. “Quality of work took a backseat and it was all about bribery. I thought I was better off at home.”

Both Zaman and Moeen have become more religious after retirement. Zaman wakes up at 4.30 am and offers his morning prayers. Moeen shuttles between his home and the mosque located right across the street in search of peace.

Over the last couple of years, Hindu right-wing groups have celebrated the Ram Navami festival by playing provocative, hateful and incendiary songs right in front of mosques. The story in Beed is no different. Fortunately, the lane where Moeen’s mosque is located is too small to stage an aggressive procession.

Zaman is, in that sense, less fortunate. He has to listen to the songs that call for violence against Muslims as well as their dehumanisation. Every word makes him feel less of a human being. “I remember my grandchildren and their Muslim friends used to serve water, juice and bananas to Hindu pilgrims during Ram Navami and Ganesh festivals,” Zaman says. “It was such a beautiful tradition that came to an end after they started blaring provocative songs only to make us feel bad.”

He has utmost respect for Lord Ram but, he says, “Ram never taught anyone to hate others. The youngsters are defaming their own god. That’s not what he represented.”

The groups of Hindus landing up in front of mosques is dominated by young adults, and that worries Zaman the most. “My father wouldn’t eat on Eid until his Hindu friends came over,” he says. “I did the same. I see that changing drastically.”

If we want to get back to the days of communal harmony, Moeen says, we need someone with the conviction and honesty of Gandhi to revive the message of unity all over again. “Otherwise, the Constitution will be changed and the next generation will suffer,” he says.

Gandhi’s journey reminds him of a couplet by Majrooh Sultanpuri: ‘Main akela hi chala thha janib-e-manzil magar/ log saath aate gaye aur karvaan banta gaya (I began walking all alone towards the destination/ people kept joining and the caravan grew).’

Courtesy: People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). You may read the original article here

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