Lucknow, Sept. 9: Bhopa, a semi-urban market town 22km east of Muzaffarnagar in the sugarcane-rich Jat heartland, has turned violently on its history.
Here was where farmer rights protagonist and the late Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait led a 40-day agitation in August-September 1989 to secure the safe return of Nayeema, an abducted Muslim girl.
The movement — Nayeema Lao (Bring back Nayeema) — had turned iconic as a symbol of communal common cause in western Uttar Pradesh, an exemplar of unity between religious groups that very often, under former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, and then under Tikait, joined hands to wage many farmers’ struggles.
The fires that have swept across this belt the past few days have left Bhopa’s legacy — and the spirit of concord — cindered.
Since two men were killed over the teasing of a girl on August 27, Bhopa has been drawn into the vortex of violence. Neighbours have turned on each other and, probably for lack of effective leadership, mayhem has reigned.
Bhopa is now under curfew and shoot-on-sight orders have been issued. Two bodies were recovered from the neighbourhood yesterday. The toll in Muzaffarnagar district has gone up by five since last night to 31.
“Tikait’s legacy seems to be under severe strain as the mutual trust between the communities in western Uttar Pradesh has begun to erode,” said Chaudhary Mustaq Ahmed, a farmers’ movement leader and member of the Legislative Council.
|Families look out of windows as security forces patrol streets in Muzaffarnagar. (AP)
He recalled that elopement of young couples, land disputes and atrocities on women had provoked tension in the past. But the events had never taken a diabolical turn, especially in the rural heartland where communities live cheek by jowl.
Under leaders like Charan Singh and Tikait, there was seldom the fear of violence leaping out of hand; both could use their authority to reason with community elders and impose peace.
Tikait, who rose to prominence with a long and successful sit-in at Shamli village nearby against the high power tariff in 1986, made sure that his movements involved farmers from both communities. He emphasised that their primary identity was that they were agriculturists and, therefore, faced common problems.
“During long-drawn agitations, Tikait used to ask the Muslims to pray at places near the dharna site even as Hindu agitationists shouted Har Har Mahadev on the other end,” says Mahesh Raghuvanshi, a member of the BKU at Sisauli, Tikait’s village and the nerve-centre of all movements.
“The cracks in this unity of the middle peasantry began to surface even during the last days of Tikait as political polarisation began to take shape. Jats began to show loyalty to the BJP when Chaudhary Ajit Singh sided with the party in 1999,” says Surendra Singh Tomar, a leader from Shamli who is campaigning for unity among communities. Ajit Singh, the son of Charan Singh, is now the Union civil aviation minister.
“Today loyalties in this region are split many ways — the Jats are divided between (Ajit Singh’s) Rastriya Lok Dal and the BJP, the Dalits and Gujjars stick to Mayawati, and the ruling Samajwadi Party has its traditional support base among Yadavs and Muslims,” says Tomar.
The divide has widened under the political rivalry between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP for one-upmanship in the run-up to next year’s general election, BSP leader Mayawati alleged today in Delhi.
The Samajwadis blamed the BJP for provoking the clashes. The police in Muzaffarnagar registered cases against four BJP MLAs for violating prohibitory orders today.
But Hukum Singh, the BJP legislative party leader and one of the four booked, said the clashes would not have happened if the police had handled the teasing incident of August 27 carefully.
A polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh is expected to put the BJP in a position of advantage as it upsets the Congress’s plans to forge an alliance of Jats and Muslims. The Congress was hoping to firm up such an alliance in the region with the help of the RLD but the clashes have dealt a blow to the calculations.