Divide And Rule

Familiar patterns of communal violence take a new turn in Uttar Pradesh

A policeman searches a thicket for bodies during the rioting in Muzaffarnagar district on 11 September 2013. Sunil Saxena / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
01 September, 2014

A FEW DAYS BEFORE THE GENERAL ELECTION results were announced in May, a crowded commercial area in Meerut erupted in violence. There were broken heads and gunshots; a young man died. Shops were looted and burnt. The ostensible cause was a long-standing dispute over a small well to which a mosque and a temple both laid claim. Several police companies were deployed, and a relatively peaceful equilibrium restored. But since then, by one count, there have been thirty cases of communal conflict in Meerut, and a total of over six hundred across Uttar Pradesh.

This represents a significant upsurge in communal strife in the state—ranging from public disputes to full-on rioting. Although the overall intensification has been widely remarked upon, the dynamics of such conflicts are changing in ways that have not been fully acknowledged. While recent incidents follow many of the patterns of earlier periods of communal violence, they also exhibit new characteristics that test many popular explanations for what is driving the discord in Uttar Pradesh.

Political violence, of which communal violence is one kind, is endemic in India. In the last decade, fifty thousand to eighty thousand cases of rioting and unlawful assembly (with various causes) were recorded each year. Even by these standards, six hundred cases of communal conflict in Uttar Pradesh in just two months suggests that the systems that keep communal conflicts simmering and generate riots are now working overtime. In 2013, by comparison, there were only 247 officially recorded incidents of communal violence in Uttar Pradesh, including last year’s well-publicised outbreaks in the rural areas of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts.

It bears repeating that there is nothing spontaneous about communal violence. In The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, the political scientist Paul Brass, looking at the city of Aligarh over several decades, deconstructs how individuals, organisations and the state escalate insignificant local disputes into massive communal confrontations. Brass calls this an “institutionalised riot system”: petty animosities are kept alive through the creation and endless repetition of rumour; information about small local incidents flows to political leaders who decide what action should follow; propaganda and misinformation are spread; crowds are collected; and violence is instigated.

There is also a well-established correlation between communal violence and elections. The incidence of such conflict increases in periods of intensified political competition, and the recent strife in Uttar Pradesh fits this pattern. According to the Indian Express, more than four hundred of the six hundred reported cases since mid May have occurred in or around 12 constituencies where by-elections to the state assembly are due.

What is striking about these incidents is that a very large number have occurred in villages and qasbas—rural or semi-rural parts of the state. Most scholarly studies of communal violence focus on towns and cities, and until quite recently it was considered a largely urban phenomenon. Even during the peak years of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Uttar Pradesh’s villages were untouched by the sort of violence that bloodied cities such as Aligarh, Meerut, Moradabad, Lucknow, Kanpur and Muzaffarnagar. Communal conflict between Hindu Dalits and Muslims has also become prominent—especially where there are Muslims from landowning or trading castes, who tend to display the same hostility toward Dalits that Hindus from similar castes do.

In reconstructing the structure of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in August last year, as well the smaller incidents that preceded them for a story that appeared in this magazine (A Separation, March 2014), it was hard to ignore the sense that Brass’s “riot system” had taken root in rural Uttar Pradesh. The pattern was the same: small local incidents were portrayed by political leaders as Hindu–Muslim confrontations, instead of crimes or cases of calculated misinformation, which is what they really were. Rumours circulated for months after the incidents, and spurious

events were recounted as if they had just been witnessed.

After Muzaffarnagar imploded, police and intelligence officers insisted that they had been caught unawares. Small disputes in villages where different communities lived cheek by jowl were not unusual, and were routinely dealt with by the local police. In villages and qasbas, officials had none of the established networks of information they had in towns and cities, and the incidents of communal conflict that were reported in the lead-up to widespread rioting were too few and too scattered to add up to a bigger picture.

Acknowledging, perhaps a little too late, the extreme social polarisation in rural Uttar Pradesh, the state’s administrative officers have begun to collate police station data to build a picture of what is happening on the ground. The communal incidents since the elections—none of which amounted to a riot—seemed to follow a broad pattern. The majority arose over the use of loudspeakers in mosques and temples, or over the construction of new mosques, madrassas and Muslim graveyards. Two practices that the Sangh Parivar actively opposes—cow slaughter, and inter-community marriage or sexual harassment—were apparently at the root of a quarter of the cases, and land disputes and minor accidents another quarter.

Because there appears to be no comparable data for earlier periods, it is impossible to say if these issues have always been sources of strife in Uttar Pradesh. Certainly there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that loudspeakers have been points of conflict since they first came into use in the 1930s, as has the building of mosques in areas where Muslims are a small minority or are economically disadvantaged.

The bare numbers are also silent about the way individual disputes play out. Conflicts can be defused locally—or they can unfold the way a dispute over the temple loudspeaker in Nayagaon Akbarpur village, in Moradabad district, did in mid July. Along with others, the local Samajwadi Party legislative assembly member and the area’s newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament reached a resolution to the issue. But soon after, the member of parliament, claiming to speak on behalf of the village’s Hindu Dalits, unilaterally rejected the signed agreement, thereby sustaining the tension between Hindu Dalits and Muslims.

Administrators and the police maintain that the only way to check the low-level communal strife that now appears to define life across the state is by keeping those with most at stake talking to each other. This is easier said than done when political agendas ride on doing just the opposite, as is evident from recent reports of communal violence and from last year’s Muzaffarnagar experience. In Muzaffarnagar, physical proximity, familiarity and communication did nothing to moderate the easy political manipulation of deep-seated prejudices and rigid community identities. The relationships of trust that are the basis of cohesive societies did not seem to exist. Beyond the family, identities and associations both framed and were framed by competitive electoral politics.

In the main, the escalating conflict has been blamed on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s ruling Samajwadi Party and the government of his son, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. The administration has been slow to rein in criminal activity from which it allegedly benefits, and has created an atmosphere of impunity and, hence, extreme insecurity.

But the Yadavs’ “goonda raj” does not fully explain the communal nature of the conflict, which has also been exploited by other political outfits. The spread of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s network of organisations through the Uttar Pradesh countryside has played no small part in the changes that have taken place. In the year preceding the general elections, the BJP’s campaign, supported by Sangh Parivar workers, not only

projected Modi as a political and economic messiah, but also pitched him against “Mullah Mulayam” and his ineffective son, who were tarred as protectors of Muslims allegedly involved in a conspiracy to convert and impregnate Hindu girls as part of a plan to take over the country through a population explosion. The first tactic slowly built support for Modi among the young and restless. The second relied on rumour and fear mongering, and was finally driven home through a campaign of violence, the slogan of which was “bahu-beti bachao”—save our women.

Working on deep-seated prejudices and hostilities, the BJP has painted the Samajwadi Party, and also in some areas the rival Bahujan Samaj Party, as pro-minority and anti-Hindu. It has also mobilised support among the BSP’s traditional Dalit base by setting up village-level units for scheduled castes, called “SC cells.” It has tapped into the tensions between Jatavs and other scheduled castes, and exploited their common sense of alienation from the BSP. It has also played on the economic expectations of Jatavs, who benefitted when the BSP was in power but grew tired of the regime’s uncontrolled corruption. The BJP has found it easy to champion the cause of Dalits against a local administration and police force that are considered to be Yadav-dominated and actively hostile.

The Samajwadi Party government, which sat back and watched the confrontation in Muzaffarnagar unfold, clearly expecting that frightened minority voters would flock to it, is stuck in a trap of its own making. The many explanations for why its government failed to contain the violence, most of them focused on the existence of multiple power centres within the party, don’t add up. By systematically denuding all state institutions of their integrity—among other things, it has wielded the power to transfer civil servants like a weapon, punishing those who do not bend to its will—the party has created the conditions for a contest in which any action by a state agency, however legitimate, can be labelled politically motivated and anti-Hindu by the BJP. In some ways, this is the logical conclusion of the extreme identity politics practiced in Uttar Pradesh.

The political rewards for the BJP, measured by the number of parliamentary seats won, have been huge. For the larger Hindutva movement, the BJP’s massive electoral mandate is a chance to grow and consolidate its organisations. There are few incentives to change tack. Thus far, the party has been able to blame the situation on the state government’s poor governance record. But more violence of the sort unleashed in Muzaffarnagar, and lately in Meerut, Moradabad and Saharanpur, visibly involving the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations, will raise uncomfortable questions—especially after the prime minister, in his first Independence Day address to the nation, called for an experimental ten-year moratorium on communal and other conflicts.