A makeshift camp at Islamabad Shahpur in Muzaffarnagar
Less than a hundred and fifty kilometres from Delhi, 40,000 Muslims live as refugees in some two dozen camps in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. We should, for a minute, forget the why and wherefore of this and consider the enormity of this fact: 40,000 refugees, not across some remote troubled border but in the heart of western Uttar Pradesh, in the neighbourhood of the national capital.
How did this happen? Remember that Muslims in this part of India don’t constitute a small vulnerable, politically orphaned minority. The largest concentration of Muslims in the province lives in west UP. As in Bijnor, Bareilly and Moradabad, Muslims constitute roughly half the population in Muzaffarnagar town. Sections of the urban Muslim population in west UP have done well out of the swelling trade in artisanal handicrafts; they have also, as substantial landowners, benefited from rising land values.
In Mayavati and the Bahujan Samaj Party and Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party, Muslims in UP have had two successive political regimes that actively sought their political support. So how does it come to pass that they are suddenly at the receiving end of communal violence where an overwhelming majority of the dead, the injured and the displaced are Muslims? The questions multiply. Given the Jat-Muslim modus vivendi that sustained the political coalition built by Chaudhary Charan Singh and inherited by his son, Ajit Singh, and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, why are the constituent elements of this alliance confronting each other in a vicious communal face-off?
An incident in Kawal, a village near Muzaffarnagar, on August 27 precipitated this earthquake. A Muslim boy called Shahnawaz is said to have harassed a Jat girl. In retaliation, her brothers stabbed Shahnawaz and they in turn were killed by Muslims. Like all narratives, this one is contested. Shahnawaz’s father claims that the violence had nothing to do with sexual harassment: it was, according to him, the by-product of a road accident involving motor-cycles.
Similarly, the escalation of this bloody tit-for-tat incident into a major communal confrontation has been severally explained. One narrative blames Muslim leaders like Qadir Rana for inciting Muslims at a gathering a few days after the original incident and then indicts Muslims for attacking Jat farmers returning from the Jat Mahapanchayat that met on September 7. A supplementary explanation would have it that the Samajwadi Party was fishing in troubled waters: western UP is not a Samajwadi Party stronghold and it is claimed that the party and the regime were willing to let communal tensions escalate and then intervene as champions of a Muslim population that generally votes for parties like the BSP and the RLD in this sub-region of the province.
A counter-narrative squarely blames the Bharatiya Janata Party and the sangh parivar. This explanation starts with the premise that since the BJP needs to win 40 seats and more in UP to have a chance of forming a government after the next general elections, it needs to make inroads into Hindu populations in UP where it has traditionally been weak. The Jats, in this narrative, are low-hanging fruit. Since the deaths of Charan Singh and Mahendra Singh Tikait, Jats haven’t had a leader from within their community able to allay their social and economic anxieties. Ajit Singh, Charan Singh’s son, is widely seen as ineffective because he hasn’t been able to get crucial concessions like other backward classes status for the Jats. After Tikait’s death in 2011, his sons Rakesh and Naresh have done little as the leaders of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.
The sangh parivar, according to this explanation, has played to the anxieties of this rudderless community by diligently playing variations on the ‘Love jihad’ theme, the sinister idea that there is an orchestrated campaign by which young Muslim men prey on young Hindu women. The Mahapanchayat that met despite prohibitory orders on September 7 was called the Bahu-Beti Samman Bachao Maha Panchayat, a meeting expressly designed to protect the honour of the community’s daughters and daughters-in-law. It was addressed by four BJP members of the legislative assembly, one of whom, Sangeet Som, was accused of uploading a video shot elsewhere and passing it off as the brutal killing of the two brothers who had attacked Shahnawaz.
So who is responsible for the killing and ethnic cleansing that has led to 40,000 Muslim refugees in Muzaffarnagar’s makeshift camps? To fix responsibility by looking for the definitive narrative that will pinpoint the original provocation is futile. Most interpersonal violence never becomes a public issue. Things happen; political parties come into their own in broadcasting the significance of these events, these acts of violence, in ways that play well to audiences on their ideological wavelengths.
The Samajwadi Party as the party of government is clearly culpable. Days after the August 27 killings, its police administration failed to stop clearly inflammatory and dangerous gatherings. If Azam Khan and Akhilesh Yadav did in fact let matters boil over thinking they could turn Muslim insecurity to their political advantage, they miscalculated. The situation got out of hand and Muslims throughout UP have been denouncing Akhilesh’s regime as both impotent and two-faced.
It’s worth remembering that the Samajwadi Party’s Muslim clients tend to be clerics and urban political operators, often newly rich chhutabhaiyas, happy to use muscle to make their political bones. The Muslims in the refugee camps, in contrast, are overwhelmingly rural, Muslims who fled their villages when the dominant community attacked them.
The peace of the Mayavati years is testimony to the fact that she understood that the only way of preventing communal riots was by giving the police a free hand and strict instructions to suppress the first flickers of violence. Once rioting gains momentum, minorities are always at the receiving end, regardless of the political dispensation, because the apparatus of the state — the administration, the police — is majoritarian in its composition and insensitive to the predicament of minorities in times of violent crisis.
If the Muzaffarnagar violence was a disaster for the Samajwadi Party, it was a coup for the sangh parivar and the BJP. The inspired opportunism of the BJP in the aftermath of the August 27 killings amounts to a kind of evil genius. To encourage the holding of a Mahapanchayat in the face of prohibitory orders in a charged communal context, to have four of its MLAs make speeches stoking-up an armed crowd in the name of Hindu unity, to upload grotesquely violent videos online that had nothing to do with the August 27 killings to incite communal violence, to use the Jat community’s anxieties about its womenfolk to boil the communal pot, make it clear that Hindu consolidation is the main entrée on the BJP’s menu this election year. With a cynicism that would be startling if it weren’t so routine, the BJP has decided to pitch governance to the urban salariat and Hindutva to the rest.
Thanks to these riots, the BJP has given itself every chance of becoming the default broadcaster of Jat grievance against Muslim ‘appeasement’. Those 40,000 Muslim villagers in Muzaffarnagar’s refugee camps mightn’t think so, but for the sangh parivar and its admirers, they represent the community’s come-uppance for getting above itself. There are those who argue that the Gujarat Model — violence, subordination and segregation —mightn’t scale up to fit a subcontinental polity, but one thing is certain: this electoral season, the BJP under Narendra Modi isn’t going to die wondering.