The riot route

The riots in Muzaffarnagar following the killing of two Jats and a Muslim sharpen the communal polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

A damaged mosque at Kutba, one of the villages in Muzaffarnagar district affected by the riots.

A damaged mosque at Kutba, one of the villages in Muzaffarnagar district affected by the riots.

KAWAL, one of the largest villages in Muzaffarnagar district, was a quintessential village, divided into two distinct halves, in western Uttar Pradesh. The land-holding Jats in the north are separated from the affluent Muslim households in the south by a cluster of houses belonging to Dalit and Muslim agricultural workers. Despite the segregation, the communities have always remained economically dependent on each other. The poor Muslims and Dalits worked mostly in the sugarcane farms of the Jats while some Muslims and a small section of Sainis controlled the commercial enterprises. Kawal gradually began to earn the reputation of being a harmonious and business-friendly village, an extraordinary feat at a time when communal tension was at its peak in the State after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

In the first week of September, however, high tension following the murder of a Muslim boy in the village snowballed into a major communal riot, claiming 36 lives and injuring many. Many Muslims have fled the village. The village, which was populated by Muslims and Hindus in equal numbers, was now a Hindu-majority village. The Muslims who have stayed back refuse to work in fields owned by the Jats and have decided to send their children to Chennai, an attractive work destination for the region’s Muslim folk, who mostly trade in cloth. The Jats and the Sainis, on the other hand, have become insecure and communalised despite being in a majority, a sentiment usually exploited by the Bharatiya Janta Party and the larger Sangh Parivar.

In fact, Kawal is not the only village in Muzaffarnagar to have witnessed such communal polarisation and a resulting demographic transformation. In most of the riot-affected villages Frontline visited, these two facets of the riots that continued for two days are visible. In all the villages where the Hindus were predominant, the Muslims have left their homes. And the reverse has happened in Muslim-majority villages though such villages are comparatively fewer in number. This has unsettled the socio-economic framework of Muzaffarnagar and the adjoining districts where the Muslim population is somewhere close to 40 per cent, according to the 2011 Census. Such massive changes happened within a week after an altercation in Kawal on August 27, which claimed three lives.

Immediate causes Around 1 p.m on August 27, two Jats of neighbouring Mallikpura village, killed a Muslim boy following an altercation. Soon, a Muslim mob lynched the two men. The Jats of the region rallied in thousands for the cremation of the two community members. On their way back from the cremation, the Jats entered the Muslim colony of Kawal in tractors and motorbikes and allegedly looted and vandalised Muslim houses and shops. They also destroyed the property of a mosque. Mosques and the homes of Muslim agricultural workers, who have now fled, were the worst affected in the attack.

A Muslim resident of Kawal told Frontline : “They came here to destroy our property. They were armed with sickles and country-made pistols. They were shouting slogans such as Jao Pakistan, warna Kabristan (Go to Pakistan or graveyard), Hindu ekta zindabad (Long live Hindu unity), and Ek ke badle ek 100 (For one life, we will claim 100 lives). I agree the Jat boys should not have been killed. The culprit should be booked and convicted. We got entrapped in the whole fight. And now we have nowhere to go except to live in fear.”

Clearly, the Jat rally was not spontaneous and the inflammatory slogans point to political planning. On August 29, a video circulating among the Hindus showed two men being beaten to death by a Muslim mob, creating the impression that it was the recording of the killing of the two Jats in Kawal. The police confirmed that it was a two-year-old video from Pakistan, which was available on Youtube.

As the video began to stoke communal tension in the area, a few Jat leaders called for a mahapanchayat, a sort of a general body meeting of Jats, to discuss pertinent issues. This time, the mahapanchayat was called to “defend Jat honour against the aggressive Muslims”. Many prominent regional leaders of the BJP such as Hukum Singh, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana attended the meeting along with Naresh and Rakesh Tikait, leaders of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), a farmers union started by their father Mahendra Singh Tikait, who was a Jat patriarch. The Congress leader Harendra Malik, also a Jat, attended the meeting.

The BJP’s narrative of the altercation in Kawal became the main theme at the mahapanchayat. According to the BJP, the incident is the result of the Muslim boy teasing the minor sister of the two slain Jats. Muslims of Kawal, however, deny this charge. According to them, and the first information report, the altercation was over a trivial matter concerning motorbikes. Some Dalits in the village, however, told Frontline that the boy and the Jat girl were in a relationship and that the Jats tried to prevent him from meeting her. It could be a case of honour killing, they say.

However, at the mahapanchayat, the leaders called the Jats to defend the honour of “their women”. The mahapanchayat came to be known as Bahu, Beti Bachao Mahasammelan (Save your daughter-in law and daughter). After the meeting, the dispersing crowd attacked Muslim homes en route to their respective villages. The violence gradually spread to Muzaffarnagar town and other villages. The Muslim leadership, in response, organised its own panchayats to counter the violence and to organise themselves.

Polarisation & politics In the aftermath of the riots, the people in the region are clearly divided on communal lines. Taking advantage of the demographic transformation, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), in order to consolidate its image as a pro-Muslim party, has been organising relief camps for the displaced Muslims. As many as nine concentrated relief camps organised by Muslim leaders of the S.P. are functioning in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. Yadavs are not predominant in the western districts of Uttar Pradesh, including Shaamli, Meerut, Baghpat, and Sahranpur. The S.P., which is generally seen as a party dominated by Yadavs, is looking to consolidate the 40 per cent Muslim vote in the region in its favour, with an eye to the next parliamentary elections.

On the other hand, the Sangh Parivar, apparently rejuvenated by the appointment of Amit Shah, a close aide of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, as the BJP general secretary in charge of U.P., has successfully managed to feed the now-consolidated Hindus its theory of “hurt majority sentiment”. This became clear during this correspondent’s conversations with the Jats and other Hindu communities.

“Narendra Modi is the only leader in India who can show the Muslims their place. We are determined to put up a united fight or our women will not be able to step out,” a Jat in Muzaffarnagar said. This sentiment was reflected in almost all the villages Frontline visited. “The Hindus have come together. We do not believe in caste identities such as Jat and Harijan,” a Bajrang Dal activist in Kawal said. The BJP, clearly, is trying to forge caste unity aggressively within an overarching Hindu identity. Since it already has the traditional support of the trader communities and upper castes, it is trying to win over the other backward classes and Dalits. Since western U.P. is a non-Yadav belt, it will not face any direct clash with the S.P.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), headed by Ajit Singh and traditionally considered a Jat party, has lost much of its steam. It had to contend with 10 seats in the 2012 Assembly elections. It could win only one of the three seats even in its stronghold, Baghpat. “Ajit Singh has evidently parted ways with Muslims. The first instance of it was when he allied with the BJP in 2001 and kept shifting sides since then. Over the last few years, the Jats have been drifting towards the BJP. His father, Charan Singh, remained invincible because he was able to forge a strong Jat-Muslim alliance,” political analyst Sudhir Panwar said.

The BJP is also relying on a few Dalit communities, especially Valmikis. According to a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, organised by psephologist Yogendra Yadav, the share of Valmiki votes for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), an Ambedkarite party known for its social justice agenda, dropped from 71 per cent in 2007 to 42 per cent in the 2012 Assembly elections, and the share of Jatav and other Scheduled Caste votes showed a similar decline, from 86 per cent to 62 per cent and from 58 per cent to 45 per cent respectively. The events in Shamli in the first week of September corroborate the BJP’s calculations.

Following a tiff between a Valmiki and Muslims in Shamli on September 4, a few Valmikis were arrested. A few members of the Valmiki community beat up some Muslims. After the incident, the traders of the area, on the BJP’s diktat, downed shutters demanding the release of the arrested Valmikis and sought the transfer of the Shamli Superintendent of Police, who was incidentally a Muslim. A few months ago, BJP leader Hukum Singh organised a massive dharna when a Valmiki minor girl was raped, and demanded the police officer’s transfer saying that he was partial towards Muslims. Fearing another backlash, the government transferred the officer on September 10.

“The BJP-led agitations in the past two years against administrative failure have taken place only in connection with criminal cases [especially sexual crime cases] in which Muslims were perceived as culpable,” an editor of a regional daily told Frontline .

Rajan Pandey, the author of a recently released book, Battleground U.P, Politics in the Land of Ram, points to similar trends. “The leader of the Muzaffarnagar riots was Sangeet Som, a Thakur leader, who had won a highly communal election against Hazi Yaqoub Qureshi in Sardhana near Muzaffarnagar. Qureshi is the one who issued a fatwa against the Danish cartoonist who had shown the Prophet in a bad light and had also announced a reward of Rs.50 lakh for anyone who could get his head. As in western Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has also successfully polarised Hindu votes in Rohilkhand [also in western U.P comprising Bareilly and Pilibhit, which Varun Gandhi represents and where he is known to have given inflammatory speeches]. More than 100 big and small communal riots have happened in the last two years. In most riots, it is clear that the BJP had a role to play by fuelling emotions and spreading rumours and organising muscle power. The idea is to definitely consolidate Hindu votes before the 2014 elections,” he said.

Change in riot pattern The recent riots were different from the earlier ones in that almost all of them were triggered in rural areas and advanced to cities and nearby towns. In the history of riots in independent India, riots have been known to advance from cities to villages. In western U.P, the BJP has institutionalised two aspects of its communal programme centred on the honour of rural Jats. One aspect is what the Sangh Parivar calls “love jehad” and the other is its rumour machinery. The Sangh Parivar campaigns claim that good-looking Muslim young men are identified and trained in madrassas to woo Hindu women. They are given mobile phones and motorbikes, which they can use to pursue Hindu women who eventually fall for them as they are also trained to be modern. If the Hindu woman resists, the Muslim youth will indulge in rape, molestation or eve-teasing, the Hindu nationalists claim. As most mobile phone shops are run by landless Muslims in the region, the Sangh Parivar offers an easy substantiation of its claims, too. Last year, a khap panchayat in western U.P. banned women from carrying mobile phones, a decision that was endorsed by the mahapanchayat of all khaps.

Most Jats Frontline talked to after the riots said that Muslims targeted their women and it was for this reason that they organised the mahapanchayat. “Will you not save your sister if an anti-social person tries to abuse her?” a Jat asked.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal, in a press statement, reiterated this hypothesis while justifying the riot: “The stalking and felonious behaviour of the ‘love jehadis’ with a Hindu girl student returning from Kisaan Inter-College was the immediate provocation for the grave incidents that took place in Kawal on August 27. The root cause is the ‘lust jehad’ being conducted under the garb of Muslim religion. This incident gave birth to the convening of the Bahu, Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat. When society could no longer bear the ‘love jehadists’ outraging the modesty and dignity of Hindu women and girls in rural and urban areas of U.P., the corrective movement in the form of the Bahu, Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat came into being.”

This save your honour propaganda is supported by a hyperactive rumour with misleading videos about Muslim men. Along with this, the old Hindutva rhetoric stereotyping Muslims as cow slaughterers, as reproductive machines who do not believe in family planning, as criminals and black marketeers is constantly fed. This is then backed up by the theory that an increasing Muslim population is a threat to the Hindu identity. Most Jats in Kawal knew that the population of Muslims, who were fewer than the Hindus during the 2007 parliamentary elections, had increased now. “In Kawal, there are 7,300 voters now and Muslims have 900 votes more than the Hindus,” one Jat woman said. This fact was supported by other Jat and Muslim households. A closer look at the riots also reveals that most rioting happened where Muslims and Hindus are almost equal in numbers, and not in villages where one community is in a clear majority. The BJP has been projecting the S.P government as a namazwadi sarkar , that is, a pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu government. It has been largely successful as the State government has not done much to regain its confidence among the general public. The destruction of Muslim property and loss of lives has irked many Muslims and most of them feel the previous BSP government was better in terms of providing security. The Muslim sentiment is reflected in the statement issued by the renowned Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband, in the adjoining Sahranpur district. It has criticised the State government for failing to check the violence in Muzaffarnagar. It said that the administration allowed the tensions to simmer and that conditions were created for a full-scale riot.

The city remains under curfew. In such circumstances, the largely perceptible hurt sentiments of the Hindus can stoke further violence unless the government starts to think beyond immediate political gains and controls the tension effectively.

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