Muslims here have decided not to vote for Narendra Modi. But the Muslim vote is spoilt for choice between the Congress, SP, BSP and even the Aam Admi Party.
And that has raised the hopes of the BJP despite an influential number of minority votes.
As the evening azaan reverberates, there is a sudden rush towards the Masjid-e-Rasheed at Darul Uloom.
Among the students headed for the mosque is Amil, who is doing a maulvi course at the Islamic seminary. "I will not vote for Modi," he says. His friends nod in agreement.
He laughs: "Whoever you say."
There are others like him in the community, who have decided to vote against Modi but are still to choose their candidate or party in the four or even five-cornered contests in Western UP (the polls are on April 10 and 17).
Four maulanas have given the same message over the past week — communal forces should be stopped and secular forces strengthened. "But they have not said who is secular... Muslims have decided to vote against Modi because of his image," says Kamal Deobandi, a writer and school teacher in Deoband.
Anticipating a high Muslim turnout, workers of the RSS, the BJP's ideological mentor, are working with a missionary zeal to ensure the percentage of Hindu votes is high. "This time, we are working with a mission for change. Unless we work for it, there cannot be change socially," says Anil Kumar, an RSS worker in Kairana constituency, adjoining riot-hit Muzaffarnagar. Sangh workers do not use the BJP's symbol or pamphlets but go door to door asking people to vote, he says.
A divided Muslim vote, Hindu consolidation in a polarised post-riots polity and Narendra Modi's promise of "change" in a region craving for development seem to be giving the BJP an edge in Western UP.
But Navaid Hamid, secretary, People's Integration Council, says the Muslim vote will go to the strongest candidate against the BJP. "This election is an important milestone. Muslims are not opposed to the BJP but its ideology. After Muzaffarnagar, they are upset with the SP and the BJP."
The percentage of Muslims in the region, which includes Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Kairana, Bijnore, Amroha, Sahranpur, Moradabad, Rampur, Bareilly, and Pilibhit, ranges from 25 to nearly 50.
Mahendra Singh Tikait's son Rakesh, who is the RLD's Amroha candidate, says the Muslim vote will go to the Congress. "People have understood the BSP and SP politics."
The Muslim presence in the BJP, which has not put up a single candidate from the community in the state, could be less than 1% in the region. Shadab Tyagi, the BJP's minority cell president in Muzaffarnagar, falls in that less than 1%. Tyagi, whose grandfather was with the RSS and father with the Jan Sangh, holds the government and the administration responsible for the communal violence.
While in several seats the fight could be between the BJP and the BSP, it could also depend on candidates. In Sahranpur constituency, in which Deoband falls, the Congress and the SP have fielded Muslim candidates — Imran Khan and Shazan Masood — the BJP a Brahmin, Lakhanpal Sharma, and the BSP, sitting MP Jagdish Rana.
The SP initially gave a ticket to Feroze Aftab, and later to Imran. It finally gave the ticket to Shazan, son of Rajya Sabha MP Rashid Masood, who was disqualified after the Supreme Court struck down a provision that protects a convicted law-maker from disqualification. Imran, who is now fighting on a Congress ticket, is Rashid's nephew.
Deobandi says the Dalits are unhappy with Rana for not fulfilling his promises; but the fight will be between the BSP and the BJP.
In Kairana, the SP has put up a Muslim candidate, Nahid Hussain, whose uncle Kunwar Hussain is the BSP nominee. The BJP has put up riot accused Hukum Singh.
In Rampur, where the population of Muslims is nearly 50%, the Congress, the SP and the BSP have fielded candidates from the community.