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In UP’s restive towns, a usual suspect called poll

Paramilitary forces outside the temple at Akbarpur Chedri in Moradabad on Sunday. Picture by Prem Singh

Moradabad/Saharanpur, July 27: Moradabad and Saharanpur are 140km apart but united by two common features: upcoming polls and communal tension.

It’s an association of factors that is taking on the shape of a trend in western Uttar Pradesh, especially since the Muzaffarnagar riots last September in the run-up to this summer’s general election when the BJP swept the state.

Saharanpur City as well as Thakundara in Moradabad will vote in next month’s Assembly by-elections, having fallen vacant after their representatives were elected to the Lok Sabha in May.

The vote comes at a time sections of the political spectrum seem to have drawn mainly one lesson from Muzaffarnagar: that a communal polarisation may be a sure-fire formula for electoral success.

Communal clashes over a disputed plot killed three people and injured 27 in Saharanpur on Saturday, but local people and police were all agreed that the real “plot” was not a patch of land.

“The real issue is the polls. That’s why the political parties are again busy igniting communal passions — it’s all for electoral gain,” said a senior officer in Moradabad, one among several sent from Lucknow to control the situation. “We saw it before the Lok Sabha elections too.”

Residents said the communal situation in Saharanpur had been tense since July 4, when protesters attacked the police in Moradabad’s Kanth area after district authorities removed a temple loudspeaker from Akbar Chedri village.

Reports said Muslims had protested the constant use of the loudspeaker, donated by local BJP Lok Sabha member Kunwar Sarvesh, during Ramazan prayers.

A preliminary police probe has suggested that both BJP and Congress leaders instigated people in Saharanpur, precipitating Saturday’s violence, a senior officer said.

Two communities claim ownership of the disputed plot, located next to a gurdwara in the Kutubsher area, about 180km from Delhi. The clashes began after a group of people began construction on the land in the early hours of Saturday.

Both the police and residents accuse local Congress leader Imran Masood and BJP Lok Sabha member Raghav Lakhanpal of playing key roles in worsening the situation.

Masood had been in the news during the Lok Sabha poll campaign, having allegedly threatened to chop Narendra Modi into pieces in a speech. He fought the election on a Congress ticket but lost to Lakhanpal.

“We have ordered a probe and will file cases soon against political leaders for inciting violence,” the senior officer said.

Over 20 people have been arrested. Curfew and shoot-at-sight orders remained in force on Sunday in six areas in Saharanpur.

“The situation is better than yesterday,” district magistrate Sandhya Tiwari said.

While Saharanpur has grabbed the latest headlines, Moradabad continues to simmer too — with a lot of help from most of the state’s major political players.

Mohammed Ghulfam, a maulvi in the Muslim-majority village of Akbarpur Chedri, the epicentre, said: “We are living in constant fear. A riot can break out any time.”

Yesterday, the police prevented leaders from the BJP, Congress and the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party from holding “peace rallies” over the July 4 violence.

Each side in the political battle has been accusing the other of trying to polarise voters at its rallies.

“Both the BJP and the Congress-Samajwadis are trying their best to keep the issue alive for electoral gain,” a district official in Moradabad said.

“We have imposed Section 144 (which prohibits the assembly of more than five people) in Moradabad.”

Both Muslims and Hindus in Akbarpur Chedri said they had lived in amity before.

“We participated in each other’s festivals and always helped one another. We exchanged gifts and sweets during Id,” said a man named Lakshman.

“Now love has turned to hatred. We’ve stopped talking to each other.”

“When Sarvesh asked us to install the loudspeaker inside the temple for puja, the Muslims objected,” said Radhesyam, a man from the village who works as a labourer in Delhi.

The Muslims in the village said the loudspeaker was a ploy to sow communal tension during the month of Ramazan when the community holds special prayers at night.

“The temple had never had a loudspeaker since it was built 45 years ago,” said Mohammed Ashraf, a local trader. Apparently, the temple hired a loudspeaker once a year, during Shivaratri.

The July 4 violence occurred after the police prevented BJP leaders, including four MPs, from reaching the area for a mahapanchayat (mega convention) called against the loudspeaker’s confiscation.

Among those detained were Sarvesh and party MLA Sangeet Som, an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots.

If Muzaffarnagar sowed the seeds for Moradabad (60km away) and Saharanpur (100km away), the ripples from the July tensions are being felt in Ground Zero of the September violence.

“We are very scared. There is always the apprehension of another riot breaking out,” said Noor Hasan, still living in one of the Muzaffarnagar relief camps. “Fear is bound to be there if people like (Sanjeev) Balyan enjoy such goodwill in the BJP.”

Balyan, now Muzaffarnagar MP, has been picked as a junior minister in the Narendra Modi government despite facing charges of inciting last September’s riots.

In the April-May elections, Uttar Pradesh — where Muslims account for nearly 19 per cent of the voters — for the first time failed to send even one candidate from the community to the Lok Sabha. The BJP and its allies won 73 of the state’s 80 seats.