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The Draupadi dice

- The gamble in Muzaffarnagar, a chessboard where the rules of the game have been changed by deadly riots

A group of villagers sat around a board playing chausar, supposedly the game of dice mentioned in the Mahabharat.

As they animatedly discussed the upcoming election, plots and subplots from the epic kept cropping up in their conversation. They seemed to be linking their fortunes at dice to those of Narendra Modi in politics.

“We’ll ensure that Modi does not suffer Draupadi’s fate. His honour will be intact,” said Raj Kumar, a grocer.

Sisauli, a Hindu-majority village 35km from Muzaffarnagar town, was untouched by the violence that engulfed the district and neighbouring Shamli last September.

Kumar spoke of how, in the pivotal game of dice in the Mahabharat, Yudhishthir staked and lost his kingdom, wealth, brothers and eventually his wife Draupadi, whom the victorious Kauravas tried to disrobe in public.

“But we won’t let Modiji be robbed of his honour,” Kumar said, drawing applause from fellow players and spectators.

Almost every conversation in Muzaffarnagar reflects the deep communal polarisation the riots have wrought in the sugarcane-rich Jat heartland of western Uttar Pradesh. Modi appears the odds-on favourite in a region where religious and caste affiliations have always dictated political preferences.

“Only Modiji can protect Hindus’ safety and honour. Muslims have united after the riots and are likely to vote for Muslim candidates fielded by the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and the Congress. So, why can’t Hindus unite?” asked Satpal Valmiki, a Dalit.

Valmiki is happy that the Hindu vote has consolidated behind Modi. A note of regret crept into his voice at the thought that this had come about at the cost of riots, but he quickly shook it off.

“Whatever happened, it was a good thing,” he said as several others nodded their agreement from a charpoy.

Caste arithmetic

Traditionally, the Jats and Muslims here have voted for Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and, before him, for his father and former Prime Minister Charan Singh.

But since the September violence, the BJP has made inroads among a divided Jat community while the Muslims have decided to support any party that can halt the Modi juggernaut.

“Ajit Singh will always be in our hearts because of what his family has done for Jats. But the head supports Modi,” Ram Niwaj Singh said.

“In a battle between the head and the heart, it’s the head that tends to win,” he philosophised. A group of educated youths listening to the conversation clapped.

A chunk of the Dalit voters, who had always supported Mayawati along with the Gujjars, too seem attracted to Modi this time. Valmiki is one. Another is Umang Kumar, a Chamar from Malakpur village in Shamli.

“In the worst-case scenario, Modi may turn out to be worse (than the current rulers) but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something new this time. We are sure Modiji will bring Gujarat-like development across the country,” Umang said.

Many Dalits are angry with Muzaffarnagar’s Bahujan Samaj MP Kadir Rana, anyway, and accuse him of “doing nothing” for them.

Sisauli elders Chaudhary Shyam Singh, 70, and Ram Niwaj Singh, 65, are the local cheerleaders for Modi. Neither has ever voted for the BJP in his life.

“Some Jats too were killed by the Muslims in the riots but Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party is not bothered about us. They are busy looking after Muslims who fled their villages to live in relief camps,” Shyam said between puffs on a community hookah.

“The Muslim population is increasing every year. We need a strong leader like Modi to save the Hindus.”

Nearly 60 people were killed and 50,000 — mostly Muslims — were displaced during the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli riots. Hundreds of Muslims are still living in makeshift camps while others have used their government compensation to buy land in nearby Muslim-majority villages.

Residents in the Jat-dominated Qutba village, about 15km from Muzaffarnagar town, made no bones about their desire for “badlao” (change).

Sitting around a teashop, they spoke of Modi as the “saviour” of Hindus. Qutba reported eight Muslim deaths during the violence; 150 Muslim families fled the village and have vowed never to return.

Only BJP flags and Modi’s posters can now be seen in the village, where several burnt and destroyed Muslim houses bear testimony to last year’s mayhem.

“The winds of change are blowing here. A Modi wave is sweeping through the region,” said Dharamveer Singh, 60.

Vote split fears

Such is the polarisation that BJP candidates have not felt the need to go in areas with sizeable Muslim populations while the Samajwadis, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress have often given Hindu-dominated villages the go by.

With the riot wounds still fresh, many in Shahpur, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor and Muslim-majority parts of Shamli are vocal against Modi.

“We will vote for either Mayawati or the Samajwadis, whoever is likeliest to defeat BJP candidates,” said Md Shahnawaz, a Shahpur tailor.

Few Muslims are likely to vote for the Congress because the community is seething at being used by the party as a mere “vote bank” for decades, said Maulana Mohammed Imdadullah, who teaches in a Shahpur mosque.

His worry is that a divided Muslim vote would give the BJP an edge in western Uttar Pradesh.

“We are campaigning among people to vote en bloc for secular candidates who are sure to defeat the BJP in their areas,” he said.

Four Muslim college students were campaigning in Shamli over a loudspeaker.

“Vote for secular candidates and ensure that your vote does not get divided. If it does, it will help the party that knows how to spread riots and destruction,” they shouted in the alleyways from an auto-rickshaw.

Sanju Singh, a Jat farmer, summed it all up nicely. “No one can predict the outcome of a cricket match or an election. Anything can happen. One can change one’s mind anytime,” he said.

Bahujan Samaj MP and candidate Kadir Rana as well as BJP nominee Sanjeev Baliyan have been accused, in FIRs, of inciting rioters. The Samajwadis have fielded Virender Singh, a Gujjar.

● Muzaffarnagar votes on April 10