LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — Sadaf Jafar spoke of the need for good schools, clean drinking water, garbage collection, and other issues that she has identified in the constituency that she hopes to contest the Uttar Pradesh election from. Different wards have different problems, and then the constituency has some overarching problems as a whole, the 45-year-old electoral aspirant from Lucknow explained. Having lived in the area as a single mother and school teacher, she knows it well.
“This is the place where I’ve struggled in my own life. This is where I have taken the small steps that have led me to the point where I want to fight an election. This place has seen me evolve. My students are here. I know the people and they know me. I feel like they will be able to trust me with their aspirations because their aspirations are no different than mine,” she said.
Jafar, the National Coordinator of the All India Mahila National Congress, was in the news in December 2019, when the UP Police arrested her following the demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Lucknow. The Yogi Adityanath led Bharatiya Janata Party government slapped her with a ₹64 lakh recovery notice for damage to private and public property, and displayed her photo and residential address on public hoardings which were put up to shame the anti-CAA protesters.
Jafar was the only woman to have been incarcerated in connection with the anti-CAA protest in Lucknow, and she alleged that she was beaten by male police personnel, verbally abused, and called a Pakistani.
In the three weeks that she was in Lucknow Central Jail, Mira Nair and Priyanka Gandhi tweeted about her. When she was released on bail, she spoke to the media about the alleged violence in custody. That same month, she helped mount a second protest against the CAA in Lucknow. She spent her days and nights at the Muslim women-led demonstration at the iconic Ghanta Ghar in the city, smaller but similar to the one in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the protest wound down, she joined the relief efforts of her party, disbursing grain to distressed migrants who walked hundreds of kilometers to reach home amid an unplanned lockdown.
One year on, in March 2021, Jafar was appointed as a National Coordinator of the All India Mahila Congress. Her first assignment was campaigning for the state election in Assam. Now, with the UP Assembly election on the horizon, Jafar hopes to get a ticket to contest from the Lucknow Central constituency.
“Getting sent to jail was not in my control, but raising my voice is. Now, I want to fight the election to build a nation that is secular and safe for women,” she said.
Getting sent to jail was not in my control, but raising my voice is.
Jafar is aware that she is taking her first steps towards electoral politics in a country divided by religion, where political parties have resigned themselves to gratifying majoritarian sentiments, and a Muslim candidate could be seen as a liability. The state where she wants to run has renamed places with Muslim names, has the highest number of hate crimes targeting minorities, and Muslim representation in its Legislative Assembly has plummeted from 17.1% in 2012 to 5.9% in 2017, even as they constitute 19.2% of UP’s more than 200 million people.
The BJP did not field any Muslim candidates at the time for the 403-member Assembly. Five years on, even those parties that count Muslims in their core vote are wary of addressing them in their campaigns and appear less likely to field them.
When we pointed out how the odds could be stacked against a Muslim woman candidate in a state flush with majoritarianism, Jafar said that while all these things make it difficult to contest, she believed that not only was it the right thing to do but that she was in with a fighting chance.
BJP’s Brijesh Pathak won the Lucknow Central seat by a slim margin of 5,094 seats in the 2017 Assembly election, with the Samajwadi Party placing second. With the exception of 2012, when SP won, BJP has been winning the seat since 1989 after wresting the seat from the Congress Party.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and the farmers’ agitation, the BJP is running a campaign on Hindutva and OBC (Other Backward Classes) mobilization. While she hasn’t delved into its caste and religious composition, Jafar, who is separated from her husband, said that she wanted to contest from Lucknow Central because it is where she lives with her two children — 18-year-old Kaunain and 14-year-old Humaid. Whether she gets a ticket and where from, are decisions that the Congress leadership will make.
“Even if there are families that vote for the BJP, I want to speak with them, especially the women. There are issues that unite us as women. When I was beaten up and jailed, Muslims spoke up for me, but there were even more Hindus who spoke for me. I have students who are members of the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad). Even they said that what happened to ‘Sadaf mam’ was wrong. Why should I think they won’t vote for me,” she said. “As a teacher, everyone was equal for me. As a politician, everyone is equal for me.”
As a teacher, everyone was equal for me. As a politician, everyone is equal for me.
While the Congress Party hasn’t won an election in UP since 1985 and has been sidelined since the rise of caste-based regional parties like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, Priyanka Gandhi, who is leading her party’s campaign in UP, is one of the few political leaders who is speaking up for the civil liberties of Muslim activists even as it has become politically inconvenient. In 2019, she stood by the anti-CAA protesters who were arrested in UP.
Earlier this week, Gandhi announced that 40 percent of seats in the Congress Party would be reserved for women candidates in the upcoming UP polls.
“It is extremely empowering for women who have been balancing their household responsibilities with politics. Of course, it has boosted the chances of getting a seat,” said Jafar. “Women have a mind of their own and they will vote for candidates who understand their struggles.”
In 2017, the ruling BJP fielded 43 women candidates followed by the SP (22), BSP (20), and Congress (11). A record 40, including 34 from the BJP, made it to the 403 Assembly seats — only nine percent of legislators.
While BSP supremo Mayawati remains the face of Dalit politics in UP, India’s most populous state in recent years has yielded a handful of women parliamentarians, many of them famous actors or from powerful political dynasties.
The number of Muslim women has been fewer. In 1996, following the death of her husband Nawab Zulfikar Ali Khan, the Congress fielded Noor Bano from Rampur, Aligarh, who was twice elected to the Lok Sabha. Congress veteran Mohsina Kidwai was elected to the UP Assembly and Lok Sabha multiple times from the 1960s to the 1980s. In 2018, Tabassum Hasan, the wife of Chaudhary Munawwar Hasan, a former MP who died in an accident in 2008, contested the Kairana by-poll with the support of the SP, BSP, and Congress, and was elected to Lok Sabha. She lost the election in 2019.
Jafar’s paternal uncle Mohammed Jafar, an Indian independence activist, was a member of UP’s Legislative Council, the state’s upper house, and the president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee, in the fifties. Even as she speaks of old photographs of him with leaders like Feroze Gandhi, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, and Shankar Dayal Sharma, Jafar says that she is the first in her family to venture into electoral politics. “When we expect Muslims to vote for us, then Muslim leadership needs to be cultivated. We have to cultivate Dalit and Muslim leadership. If you want their vote, then you have to give them the leadership,” she said.
When we expect Muslims to vote for us, then Muslim leadership needs to be cultivated.
One boat in an ocean
For one year before she was given an official post in the party, Jafar was one of the hundreds of members of the Congress Party, struggling to find a niche in their state units, and trying to get noticed by the party’s leaders in Delhi. It didn’t take long for her to realize how difficult it was for a woman with political aspirations to be heard.
Even if women tread lightly in a male-dominated space, rife with internal rivalries as most political ecosystems are, they are sidelined and rarely involved in decision making, Jafar said.
In dire straits financially and with two children to support, Jafar said that she went through some “dark days” in which she questioned whether pursuing politics was the right course for her. Having survived jail and physical assault in custody, and emerging stronger after her ordeal, Jafar found herself refusing to be cowed down by the slights and snubs that came her way.
“Everyone has dark days. I ended up knitting some socks and scarves in those days,” said Jafar.
“Politics is a very difficult thing. I will not lie about it. Political parties find it difficult to tackle women in their cadres. Even if they want to embrace you, people want you to agree to their point of view. They find it a little intimidating when women have a mind of their own. That is okay because I do have a mind of my own,” she said.
Political parties find it difficult to tackle women in their cadres.
Even as she persists in carving her own space on the ground, and establishing her social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, and ClubHouse, Jafar said that being one member in a mammoth political party is like being adrift in an ocean.
“It is like an ocean and you have put your boat in it. Sometimes, you feel that you are sailing aimlessly. There are times when you feel like you are sinking. Whether you sink or sail your boat, depends on you. The party gives you an ideology, but you have to forge your own path. If you can do it, the party acknowledges you,” she said. “That has been my experience.”
The party gives you an ideology, but you have to forge your own path.
In the three years since she joined the party in September 2018, Jafar said that her one big learning has been the importance of including women in the delegations dispatched to meet with families in the aftermath of a crisis, tragedy, or hate crime. As a National Coordinator of the All India Mahila Congress, Jafar insists they go.
“Why should only the men go? No matter how interior it is, take the local women and go. Why should there be a few strong women leaders at the top? There should be many strong women on the ground,” she said. “I tell the women, ‘pick up a car, get a driver, and go meet people.’ Why are we waiting for the men to involve us?”
Why are we waiting for the men to involve us?
Breaking through the tiers
At a time when political leaders shy away from addressing hate crimes against minorities, Jafar, who is outspoken about most, said that she has never been asked to tone it down.
Jafar attributes this freedom to the Congress being a “vast field where one can run,” and the example set by party leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, who have been among the few politicians to condemn the targeting of Muslims, even as the prevailing sentiment is that it doesn’t help the party electorally in the Hindi-speaking belt of the country.
Even after she was released from jail on bail, Jafar said that Priyanka Gandhi kept the lines of communication open, inquiring about her children, their studies, and future plans. But when it came to her own political aspirations, Jafar felt that she had to “break through the tiers” to convey how much she wanted to rise in the party.
“I was very adamant about meeting her at least once. But when I met her, I realized I didn’t really have that much to say because she was never out of touch. She was there on WhatsApp. She was there when I needed her. She was there to listen,” she said. “I had already said everything.”
What about people who say that she used her incarceration in 2019 to garner attention and get a “lift” in politics, we asked Jafar.
Jafar responded by saying that she used her work and struggle to reach out to the public and the party leadership.
“It is what it is. Getting sent to jail strengthened my resolve. I still have nightmares about it, but the fear of jail, or getting beaten up by the police, has gone because I’ve already survived it. I’m ready for the long fight. But people forget that while it is hard getting to a position you are striving for, it is harder keeping that position,” she said.
Getting sent to jail strengthened my resolve.
As a school teacher for 15 years in Lucknow, Jafar taught literature, history, and political science to students from classes six to nine. Over the past few years, she had started feeling that the country was out of step with the things that she was teaching them about the Constitution and the freedoms and protections guaranteed to all citizens.
Jafar turned to activism in the hope of fighting the rising tide of intolerance and fear, but she came to realize that without a position and power, there was little she could do to make systemic changes.
Noting that the Congress was providing the lawyers for her to fight the criminal cases in which the UP government has charged her for crimes under the Indian Penal Code, Jafar said that even survival was difficult.
“When I became an activist, I realized that I was on the streets protesting to protect the Constitution that I was teaching, whether it was the murder of Gauri Lankesh or for Junaid or for (M.M.) Kalburgi. Then I realized, an activist can work till a certain level, but one needs a political party that has a preamble and Constitution that is similar to the preamble and Constitution of the country,” she said. “A veteran leader recently told me, ‘Sadaf, don’t let that activist inside you die.’ I won’t.”
Are her aspirations a little more than a pipe dream given the persisting popularity of the BJP in the Hindi-speaking belt? Even after the devastation wrought by the second wave of Covid-19, and the anger over the Centre and state government’s response to the farmers’ agitation, the BJP still appears to be in pole position for the UP election.
Jafar, however, believes that the UP voter is angry, but silent, and will vote against the BJP in the 2022 election. “The voters are angry about many issues,” she said. “The voter is waiting silently for the EVM machine.”
The voter is waiting silently for the EVM machine.
If she did not get a ticket to the contest, Jafar said that she would be “disappointed,” but would soldier on with her political journey.
Jafar wants to win. However, if she gets the ticket and loses, she said, “I will mend my ways and try and win the next one. In politics, 45 is not old. I believe that I have a lot to learn from politics and I have a lot to give to politics.”