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Riot poison in sugar bowl

Mithaas mein zehar ghol diya hai (The sweet atmosphere has been poisoned).

Sridhari, 62, captures the prevailing distrust between Muslims and Jats-Dalits and how the riots last year have sowed seeds of poison in the sugar bowl of India.

She is eagerly waiting for April 10 to teach a certain political party a lesson for manufacturing hatred among people and separating her neighbour and close friend Haseena, who fled to a “safer” village along with her husband and children following the riots.

Gaon ke log murkh hain jo gandi rajneeti samajh nahin pate (People in villages are stupid, so they fail to understand ugly politics),” Sridhari says, sitting on a charpoy and drawing on a hookah in the verandah of her home in Pinna, around 8km from Muzaffarnagar city in western Uttar Pradesh.

She is busy campaigning in her village of 1,200 households, mostly Jats and Dalits, and has taken upon herself to ensure her fellow villagers vote for the candidate who is an “achha insaan (good human being)” and not along communal lines. The village is known for Hindu-Muslim unity and the two communities voted as one in the past elections.

“Vote for the candidate who looks after the poor and has love for both Hindus and Muslims,” she tells a group of 20 villagers.

At Pinna, a group of watchful Hindus and sane voices led by Sridhari and gram pradhan Ramdhan Chowdhury had protected 105 Muslim households from attackers. It still stands out in a belt blighted by fear and suspicion and where polarisation along religious lines continues unabated.

A large posse of policemen and paramilitary personnel was seen marching in “sensitive” villages. “This sight is alien to people of this area, where Hindus and Muslims have always lived in peace,” says schoolteacher Jogesh Singh.

Hundreds of Muslim families living in refugee camps in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts have a common prayer on their lips — aman wapas ho (Peace be restored).

“Muslims are safe only because of secular Hindus who protected us by fighting off members of their own community,” says Mohammed Athar, who runs a grocery shop in Muzaffarnagar town.

He said the BJP needed to change its nazaria (outlook) if it wanted to woo Muslims. “Muslims can embrace the BJP, provided it changes its outlook towards the community,” Athar says.

Akhtar Ali, a day labourer, adds: “All the parties should not forget that nobody can get an absolute majority if Hindu and Muslim votes are divided along communal lines.”

He was part of a group of six who were having animated discussions on politics and election results over tea in a shop in Muzaffarnagar city. They belonged to different castes and religions — two were Muslims, one belonged to a Scheduled Caste and two were Jats.

“Development is not an election issue in this belt,” says Ranveer Singh, a Jat. The others in the group nod in agreement.

He draws attention to the divide and how the riot had changed the social fabric and soured the poll pitch.

Speculation is rife about the Samajwadi Party’s alleged role in engineering the Muzaffarnagar riots to ensure its minority vote bank.

Shahbaz Khan, an electrician, says: “This Modi wave is the media’s creation. Our secular Hindu brothers do not like him.”

For 70-year-old Bhateri Begum, elections are far from her mind as she does not know when she will return to her village, Kankra. Living in a makeshift tiny camp in Shahpur, she is more concerned about the survival of her eight family members.

“I will vote for the party that gives me money,” she says.

Bhateri has not heard of Modi or any candidate.

The story is the same in relief camps in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, where nearly 30,000 families are living.

Most parts in western Uttar Pradesh are polarised.

Muslims speak of voting for candidates from the community fielded by the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party as there is anger against the Congress for allegedly not doing anything for the Muslims. They said they would vote for the party that has a substantial chance of ensuring the BJP’s defeat.

The Jats and a section of Dalits have been attracted to the BJP and Modi. Many Jats who earlier talked about communal harmony now want Modi as Prime Minister. “Muslims will become the majority in another 20 years. What will happen to us?” asks Sompal Singh, 55.

He says this will be the first time Jats would vote for the BJP and desert their peasant leader, Ajit Singh.

The possibility of Muslim votes getting split between the Samajwadis and the BSP cannot be ruled out. This will benefit the BJP.

“We have to stop the communal forces and that’s the only paramount issue in this election for Muslims,” says Maulana Jawed Qasmi, the imam of Shahpur.

“Many Hindus do not like Modi and his communal agenda. And our faith in them got strengthened when we witnessed how they saved so many Muslims from attackers during the riots,” the imam adds.

● Muzaffarnagar votes on April 10

 


Eleven years ago, Mohammed Osman Qureshi was an ice-cream vendor on a bicycle. In 2008, he took a loan of Rs 1 lakh under the Prime Minister’s welfare scheme for minorities. Now he is a small trader of garments in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. He repaid the loan last year. His parents were too poor to send him to school but he wants to educate his two children, a five-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. Qureshi wants them to get government jobs after they finish their education. “Sarkari naukri se achha kuchh bhi nahin hai (There is nothing better than a government job),” he said on Sunday while his wife was serving the chicken biryani she had cooked.

Name: Mohammed Osman Qureshi ,46

Place: Bagra, around 6km from Muzaffarnagar city

Profession: Garment trader. Also owns a small garment shop in the village

Education: Illiterate

Family: Wife Ayesha, two school-going children and mother. His two brothers, their wives and six children also stay in the same single-storey house that has six rooms with two toilets. His brothers hawk children’s clothes in Muzaffarnagar city

Do you earn more or less, compared with 2004?

More. Around Rs 2,000 a month in 2004 and now between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000. Around 11 years ago, sold ice-cream on a bicycle in neighbouring villages. Moved to Haldwani near Nainital with some friends and started selling clothes on bicycles. Five years ago, moved to Muzaffarnagar and started trading in garments

Do you save more or less?

It was a barely hand-to-mouth existence in 2004 but now save some money

How did you travel then and now?

I travelled on a second-hand bicycle but now have a Hero Honda motorcycle

Do you have a fridge at your house?

Yes, I bought one two years ago. I had a telephone connection, too, but disconnected it as everyone in the family has a mobile phone.

Do your children go to school?

My son Irfan and daughter Sakina have started going to a nearby government school

Has the midday meal made any difference?

Yes, it has. Now all parents send their children to the school and it’s always crowded. Children are also happy as they get food

Any difference in the food you can afford now and what you could 10 years ago?

My mother never cooked biryani 10 years ago but now I have home-cooked chicken biryani prepared by my wife once a week. My kids drink milk daily.

Do you encounter more corruption or less in your daily life?

I have never faced corruption except police who recently extorted Rs 200 from me for riding my motorcycle without a driving licence

When was the last time you ate outside the home with your family?

At a relative’s wedding last year

Do you have a cell phone?

I have a Nokia cell phone which I bought three years ago. My wife Ayesha has a Samsung touch phone, which I gifted her last year

What do you do with the cellphone?

Mainly for making calls to family members, friends and customers. My wife clicks photos from the phone most of the time and also flaunts her new phone when she goes to any relative’s house in the village

Do you run out of money to buy food towards the end of the month?

Not really

What is your biggest regret in the past 10 years?

No regrets

What is your biggest achievement in the past 10 years?

In 2003, we had a mud house and now have a one-storey house

Are you happier or sadder now? Why?

Very happy with my life. But unhappy, too, as I have a lot of responsibilities. I miss my bachelor days that were so full of fun.

IMRAN AHMED SIDDIQUI