The fields are green with ripening sugarcane, wheat and corn. The narrow roads are occasionally flanked by groves of mango trees. There is little to connect the lush landscape with the naked frenzy and fear that stalked this seemingly idyllic area in western Uttar Pradesh a little over five years ago.
Communal riots ripped apart Muzaffarnagar district in 2013, when around 45,000 Muslims — largely poor daily wage workers — fled their villages to escape the wrath of the dominant Jat community. The religious polarisation that followed saw the Hindu vote consolidating behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party swept not just western UP but also the entire state in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections , and subsequently, the Assembly polls.
The fires have died down, but the embers occasionally glow. The region is quiet, but it is still a tenuous peace.
The situation can now change — for better or for worse — after the 17th Lok Sabha results are out next month. Polling took place in Muzaffarnagar on April 11, and the still sprightly 80-year-old Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief Ajit Singh — who is a candidate there — is hopeful of change.
Singh represents a coalition that connects his RLD with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The Congress, which is not a part of the coalition, has not fielded a candidate. Will divisive politics get a second wind in the region, or will there be a re-cementing of ties between the Hindus and Muslims?
Singh’s closest competitor, fellow Jat and sitting BJP MP Sanjeev Baliyan, is an accused in the 2013 communal riots. Their disparate campaigns underline the divisions that cleaved the region.
Singh has been travelling extensively through the area for over a year now, holding small meetings in villages. “I have only been working on (re-establishing) bhaichara (brotherhood),” he tells BL ink early one morning at his hotel, before setting off for his day’s electioneering in the run-up to the polls.
“I am talking to people in small groups, asking them to bury the hatchet and mend relationships in the larger interest of the farming community. I have been telling Hindus and Muslims, Aa jao, gale mil lo (come, embrace each other), try and withdraw cases against each other to end the bitterness,” he says.
His message of peace has made an impact among many of the region’s Jats, who, along with Muslims and Dalits, are among the numerically large communities in western UP. Indeed, many Jats have had time to reflect on the incidents that led to the cycle of violence in 2013.
“We are a swabhimani jaati (a self-respecting caste), quick to react if our honour is touched. It wasn’t a communal incident, just a clash that led to crimes. It was given a communal colour, and all Hindu castes lined up behind the BJP in 2014,” says advocate Dharmendra Baliyan, sitting in his tiny cabin in the busy Muzaffarnagar district court, as he explains what caused the communal madness that set the area ablaze for days on end.
He is referring to a story that had gained popular currency in 2013. The Hindu community was told — and it believed — that a Muslim man was stalking a Jat woman. Her two brothers murdered him in an “honour killing”. Angry Muslims retaliated and killed the Jat brothers. The Jats hit back, killing more Muslims. The stalking story was eventually proved false, but by then the fire couldn’t be contained.
This fed into the Hindu rightwing’s ongoing campaign against “love jehad” — a so-called Muslim conspiracy to target innocent Hindu girls, to humiliate the Hindu community and add to their own numbers. It later transpired that what had triggered the violence was a quarrel. The three men had had a fight after their motorcycles collided. The fight led to the murder, wild rumours, counter-murders and the subsequent attacks in which many more Muslim lives were lost.
The madness of 2013 has died down, says Dharmendra Baliyan and allowed them to rethink their options: “As a community, we are not the bonded labour of any political party. We don’t like the BJP’s style, its tendency to call people anti-national, and their use of religion to garner votes. If you want to talk of religion, go to the temple.”
The only leader before whom the Jats will bow, he says, is former Prime Minister and farmer leader Charan Singh. “He gave us leadership, identity, pride. He was like a God for us,” says the advocate.
Ajit Singh is his son, and, to a great extent, the beneficiary of that legacy and goodwill in Muzaffarnagar. His son and Charan Singh’s grandson Jayant Chaudhury, fighting from neighbouring Baghpat constituency, enjoys considerable Jat backing, too.
What is also working in Ajit Singh’s favour is the fact that he is a part of what is being seen as a winning coalition. During the 2017 Assembly elections, it was widely felt that if the RLD had been a part of the Congress-SP combine, the Jats — who account for 15-17 per cent of the population in western UP — might have thrown in their lot with it. For, in 2017, too, Jat farmers had spoken to this correspondent about agricultural crises, and resentment was brewing, as it is now.
If the gathbandhan — as the opposition coalition is referred to in conversation — is focusing on healing old wounds, Sanjeev Baliyan and the BJP do not want people to forget 2013.
In a speech earlier this month in Saharanpur, the constituency that borders Muzaffarnagar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminded people of the communal conflagration, and of the need to vote for his party to “protect wives, sisters and daughters”. Modi also looms over street corners in Muzaffarnagar city. The party’s campaign is not about agricultural distress, but the threats from across the border. Most of the enormous BJP hoardings speak of issues related to Pakistan, terror and nationalism.
“The country will win, terrorists will lose,” says one hoarding in Hindi; “We stormed the homes of our enemies,” says another.
Local BJP leaders freely admit that but for the Balakot airstrikes that followed the Pulwama terror attack earlier this year, the party would have found it very hard to distract farmers from issues such as delayed sugar cane dues, high electricity bills and increase in the price of fertilisers.
BJP supporters also repeatedly cite a fall in crime rates as their reason for backing the party. Women, they hold, can now walk freely even at midnight without the fear of being molested. Probe a little, and you realise that “security at home” is a euphemism for “keeping Muslims in check”.
Indeed, “security on the border” and “security at home” are the party’s twin themes.
After the BJP’s Yogi Adityanath was installed as the chief minister in 2017, the state police has been gunning down alleged criminals, a large number of whom are Muslims from the four western districts — Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur and Baghpat. In public statements, too, Adityanath has justified extra-judicial killings. “…everyone should be guaranteed security, but those who want to disturb the peace of the society and believe in the gun, should be given the answer in the language of the gun,” he said.
But most Jats, who had earlier been vocal on matters relating to Hindu pride and Muslim crime, are now maintaining a low profile. Reports from across the constituency suggested that well over half the Jats — and especially those over 40 — had decided to vote for the opposition combine.
Indeed, even in Sanjeev Baliyan’s own village, Kutba — which saw the killing of eight Muslims followed by a mass exodus of members of the community in 2013 — the Jats are divided. While members of the village pradhan’s family tell this correspondent that everyone in the village has been backing Baliyan, a few houses away, Chaudhury Harinder, a schoolmaster, rues the violence of 2013.
“We always had good relations with the Muslims, but politicians created the rift,” he says. He and his neighbour, Chaudhury Kanwarpal Singh, then expand on the farming crisis and the problem that the ban on cow slaughter has created for them (stray cattle are on the rampage, destroying crops). Many in the village, they say, are backing the RLD.
“The old want peace. The young are bent on destruction, but they are no longer in our control,” says one villager.
There is an economic side to the story, too. Wealthy Jat farmers were adversely affected when those who worked on their fields — largely Dalits and members of other backward castes — moved to cities in search of better-paid, less-arduous jobs, forcing many farm owners to harvest their own crops. This was the case with rich Muslim farmers, too. Economic compulsions saw Jats and Muslims reaching out to each other to share the “labour burden” on each other’s land; the next step was a resumption of social relations during weddings and festivals.
The BJP’s campaign in Muzaffarnagar has been loud and aggressive; that of its main opponent, the coalition, low-key, almost invisible. But it’s deliberate, the coalition’s spokespersons said, as they didn’t want any of their actions or speeches to lead to any kind of communal strife.
So the candidates and their campaigners focussed on small meetings, door-to-door canvassing, reaching out to members of their own caste or community. Their first major joint rally was only on April 7 on the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar in Deoband — and the response was overwhelming, with thousands of SP, RLD and BSP supporters coming together.
In a way, Muzaffarnagar typifies the elections in western UP this time. The principal battle is between the opposition combine and the BJP — the Congress is in the fight only in a few seats such as Saharanpur, and in the second phase, in Fatehpur Sikri.
The Muslims who took the brunt of the violence in 2013 and account for around 26 per cent of the population in western UP — and as much as 35 per cent in Muzaffarnagar — are hoping these elections will make them politically relevant again.
Accustomed in the past to seeing community members represent many of these constituencies, they found in 2014 that their candidates — whether Hindu or Muslim — lost. Yet, Muzaffarnagar alone, since 1952, has had eight Muslim MPs. The last three were elected as recently as in 1999, 2004 and 2009, on the party symbols of the Congress, the SP and the BSP respectively.
This time, however, the presence of the opposition coalition has injected hope not just in the community, but also in Dalits, who have joined hands with the Muslims. What led to the coalition (among other factors) was the fact that many Dalits were arrested by the Uttar Pradesh government under the National Security Act in April 2018 for participating in a countrywide strike to protest the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Finally, many sections of the farming community — including Jats — would like to see a more farmer-friendly government. The opposition alliance is being seen as strong enough to challenge the BJP in western UP constituencies that will go to the polls in the first three phases.
In social terms, it is an attempt to bring together Jats, Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims. On paper, at least, the numbers add up. But an election on the ground, of course, can always change the final figures.
Smita Gupta is senior fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy