Rajasthan polls: What's in a name? BJP replaces candidate over 'charges' that he's Muslim

The BJP has not fielded any Muslim candidate from either Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, or Chhattisgarh for the assembly elections

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election campaign rally in Rajasthan, 2018 (photo: Getty Images)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election campaign rally in Rajasthan, 2018 (photo: Getty Images)

Prakash Bhandari

Ahead of assembly elections in Rajasthan on 23 November, the BJP has sprung a surprise, replacing its Masuda constituency candidate Abhishek Singh with Virendra Singh Kanawat, after party cadre in Ajmer district, of which Masuda is part, informed the party top brass that Abhishek belongs to a clan that "follows Islam". The consensus seems to be that the 40-year-old belongs to the Cheetah-Mehrat community, which embraced Islam long ago, and is therefore 'not Hindu'.

With a name like Abhishek Singh, the 'charge' seems odd, but for context, Cheetah-Mehrat is an ethnic community spread across Ajmer, Bhilwara, Pali, and Rajsamand districts of Rajasthan, with an estimated population of one million. Known for its harmonious assimilation of Hindu and Islamic beliefs, it practices both religions and is classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC).

Earlier, Yunus Khan, a two-time cabinet minister in the BJP government under former chief minister Vasundhara Raje, quit the primary membership of the party when he was denied a nomination from Deedwana in Nagaur district, from where he had won twice.

In fact, Khan was among three Muslims to win assembly seats in 2013, the others being Mumbai-based advocate Saghir Ahmed from Dholpur, the domain of Vasundhara Raje, and Hafizur Rahman, a Congress veteran who deserted the party to join the BJP and won from Nagaur, a Jat-dominated seat.

Union home minister Amit Shah campaigning in Rajasthan this year
Union home minister Amit Shah campaigning in Rajasthan this year

Significantly, the BJP has not given a single ticket to any Muslim candidate this time, though it has a minorities cell in the state, where Muslims comprise about 9 per cent of the population. In fact, the party seems to have ignored the claims of seven aspirants who sought tickets to contest from various constituencies for the 200-seat assembly.

On being dropped as a candidate, Abhishek said he belongs to the 'Rawat-Rajput' community, which is largely based in Ajmer, Bhilwara and Chittorgarh districts. "I am nothing but a Hindu, but my detractors who were not happy with my nomination misled the party leadership and created confusion.

"My kuldevi (family deity) is Ashapura mata, my family also worships Lord Shiva and is a descendent of the great warrior Prithviraj Chauhan, who ruled Delhi. I joined the BJP in 2019 during the Lok Sabha elections, but the party has withdrawn my candidature even after nominating me," Singh said.

Interestingly, the Cheetah-Mehrat community also traces its origins back to the Chauhan rulers, and reportedly adopted Islam about 700 years ago, though they preserved many of their Hindu customs and practices. Their names, wedding rituals, and clothes reflect the religion they prioritise — Hinduism or Islam.

In 2018, Khan was pitted against Congress leader Sachin Pilot from Tonk, being shifted from Deedwana as there was no rival perceived as strong enough to take on Pilot in a constituency with over 50,000 Muslim voters and once ruled by a nawab, the only Muslim ruler in erstwhile Rajputana.

"Denial of a party nomination to Yunus bhai was a betrayal as he sacrificed by shifting from Deedwana to Tonk, knowing full well that defeat was certain. But he agreed to contest from Tonk against Pilot because the party won. Now, the party has not given him a nomination from Deedwana again. Yunus Khan is very popular and on public demand, he will contest as an independent and win,” said Sunil Sharma, a close confidante of Khan's.

Explaining the party's decision, state BJP spokesperson Mukesh Pareek said, "The main factor in electoral politics is the winnability factor and the party is not prejudiced against Muslims. When Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was chief minister, he inducted Ramzan Khan twice as a minister. This proves that the BJP was never prejudiced against Muslims.

"But the party found that Yunus Khan had lost ground in Deedwana and offered him a seat in Jaipur city, which has a very large Muslim population. But he insisted on Deedwana and the party was helpless.”

The bit about Jaipur is somewhat correct. At one stage, the BJP did try fielding Yunus Khan from either Kishanpol or Adarsh Nagar, with 83,000 and 1.05 lakh Muslim voters respectively. A third constituency in Jaipur, Hawamahal, has 46,000 Muslim voters. But Yunus Khan saw no chance of victory from either Kishanpol or Adarsh Nagar, and refused to contest.

Pareek added that the party has not fielded any Muslim candidates from two other major poll-bound states — Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — either.

In fact, the party has no Muslim representative in either the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha with former Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s tenure in the Rajya Sabha ending last year.

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