A young Muslim woman leader is being forced to answer for the JD(S)-BJP alliance

Trying to write off young JD(S) leader Najma Nazeer Chikkanerale, a popular Muslim politician, over political giant HD Deve Gowda’s decision to join hands with the BJP is unjust, writes Naveen Soorinje.
Najma Nazeer Chikkanerale
Najma Nazeer ChikkaneraleFacebook
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Time and again, Muslims must prove their patriotism to communalists and their secularism to progressives. This time, it is Najma Nazeer Chikkanerale, the working president of the Janata Dal (Secular)’s women’s wing, who finds herself having to prove her secular credentials in a social media trial. 

After the JD(S) officially joined the NDA, it is Najma who has been facing the most intense scrutiny: Will she continue in the JD(S) which has aligned with a communal BJP? When will Najma resign? Does Najma still believe that the JD(S) is secular? A 26-year-old woman in the party is now expected to answer for a decision taken by 90-year-old political giant HD Deve Gowda.

When Najma chose to become a JD(S) worker, she was just 22 years old, and when she was chosen as the state-level media spokesperson, she was 23. She rallied the women of Karnataka to build support for the party and on February 16, 2023, when she was appointed working president of the party’s women’s wing and sat on the same stage with former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy as an equal, she was just 25. 

Although Najma rose steadily in the party ranks, her post was not handed to her on a platter. Neither Najma’s parents nor anybody else in her family has any political connections. Her parents live in a village called Chikkanerale in Mysuru district. Najma’s father Nazeer Ahmed is a poor tobacco farmer and like most parents, he too wanted his daughter to pursue a career in the medical field. So, he sent her to Bengaluru to pursue higher studies. It was her desire to be of service to society even as she studied medicine that led Najma to politics. 

When Najma was a medical student, she watched news reports about anganwadi workers’ protests on TV. The workers’ protests demanding a hike in wages and permanent jobs shook the government, but in those visuals, Najma’s eyes noticed the little children whom the protesting women had brought with them. She saw those women holding tiny babies shivering in the bitter cold, and decided to go to the protest in Freedom Park, organised by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) under its leader Varalakshmi. Najma turned up at the protest site at night, with warm clothes, medicines, biscuits, and containers of warm milk. Realising that she must be a college student who’s going out of her way to care for these children, I asked around. That’s how I became acquainted with her. That night, I put up a Facebook post along with her picture saying, “You too can support the mothers who work in anganwadis just like this college student.” Najma never looked back after that. She turned up at one pro-people protest after another. 

When the Union government attempted to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) nationwide, Najma furiously campaigned against it all over Karnataka. She may be the only woman activist who has addressed audiences in each district of the state. When she was scheduled to speak in Mangaluru, she happened to meet right-wing nationalist Mahesh Hegde at the airport. She went up to him along with other activists, turned her camera on, and challenged him to sing Vande Mataram to prove his ‘Indianness’. That video went viral and sparked a debate, with many defending and condemning her actions. Whether or not it is right to insist that someone sings Vande Mataram is a separate matter. But the incident is important because it shows that she has the courage to confront an ideological opponent. 

Her political activities during the resistance to the NRC earned her many loyal admirers across the state. There was a joke going around at the time about how several young men in Mangaluru would have borrowed money to send parcels of cashew nuts to Bengaluru after listening to her speech. (Giving dry fruits is a way of showing respect among Muslims.) But this joke is also a testimony to her popularity among Muslims. 

It was such developments that led her to choose politics as her goal. Within a short time of joining the JD(S), she became a part of Kumaraswamy and Deve Gowda’s close circle. During elections, Najma was a star campaigner along with Deve Gowda. Her campaign for the JD(S) candidate Ammajamma in the 2020 Sira bye-poll earned her Deve Gowda’s respect. The way she handled the campaign made people wonder if she was JD(S) candidate Ammajamma’s daughter. Her role in the 2023 election victories of the JD(S)’ women MLAs Sharada Pooryanaik and Karemma too is immense. 

Today, the JD(S) has aligned with the BJP for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Whether or not Najma, who is secular and progressive, resigns is a different matter. But can a politician who has built a support base of party workers and followers, however small, announce her personal decision to resign? Isn’t it her duty as a political leader to make arrangements for those who supported and trusted her? Is it right to raise the question of why she hasn’t resigned yet, and to thus write off a talented woman politician?

That a Muslim woman, and one from a poor family at that, has achieved political stardom at the age of just 25 is no mean feat. This assumes more significance when we consider just how few Muslim women are active in politics today. We would be hard put to name even a handful of Muslim women who are mass political leaders. We see how strong Muslim men politicians are in the Congress. Isn’t it a tragedy that the Congress has failed to produce even one Muslim woman as a mass leader? Would Najma have had her current post of party spokesperson if she had chosen the Congress, and not the JD(S), when she decided to enter politics? How would have Najma fared in the ocean that is the Congress?

Najma’s political future must not end over this debate about the JD(S) aligning with the BJP. The political career of a hardworking Muslim young woman should continue in one party or another. Political critics — whether on social media or elsewhere — should introspect about their own role in the development of the political career of a Muslim woman. What they are currently doing — demanding answers of 25-year-old Najma, criticising or subjecting her to sarcasm for the actions of old war horses such as Kumaraswamy and Deve Gowda — is plainly wrong. When there are simply no Muslim women in politics, to write off the political career of the only such proactive Muslim youth politician in the state, is an injustice. 

Naveen Soorinje is a senior Kannada journalist and co-founder of the Journalists’ Study Centre. This piece was translated by Anisha Sheth. Views expressed are the author's own.

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