KUTBI IS A NONDESCRIPT village—only about twenty-six hundred people strong and a good twenty kilometres from a town of any note—but, on the morning of 5 November 2012, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Uttar Pradesh unit was inspecting a helipad there. A few hours later, Nitin Gadkari, the national president of the BJP at the time, and Rajnath Singh, a former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and former party president, descended in their helicopter. They were due to attend the Ganna Kisan Mahapanchayat—sugarcane farmers’ meeting—which was reportedly supposed to address issues of sugarcane pricing, delays in the running of sugar mills and demands for reservation for the Jat community, who make up a majority of the village.
But, as the meeting dragged on, its primary focus became clear: the BJP’s top brass unveiling their own leader for the Jat community, Sanjeev Balyan. It was a big title for the 39-year-old with nearly no political experience and only a short career as a government veterinary surgeon in neighbouring Haryana. But Balyan had organised the mahapanchayat—Kutbi was his natal village—and he received many garlands that day. He was the first major homegrown leader the BJP had been able to cultivate in the Jat communities of Muzaffarnagar.
Less than a year later, Kutbi would be the scene of some of the worst inter-religious violence in Uttar Pradesh’s already bloodstained history. On 8 September 2013, less than a kilometre away from where the mahapanchayat had been held, in Kutbi’s sister village, Kutba, eight Muslims were murdered, and the rest of the Muslim community fled. This was the pattern for many of the villages around Kutbi, across Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. The violence tore a deep seam across the region, leaving 62 dead and over fifty thousand displaced—the vast majority of whom were Muslim. It was the sort of destruction few could have predicted, except those who had lived, as I did, through the months of mobilisation on the ground before the sparks flew.
In the electorally crucial region of western Uttar Pradesh, which sends 29 members of parliament to the Lok Sabha, the BJP, historically, had limited political clout. Even following the mass mobilisation for the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in 1992, the party remained an urban phenomenon, primarily backed by Brahmins and Baniyas—upper-caste priestly and trading communities—who pushed it to victories only in municipal elections and urban legislature seats. The vast rural hinterland of western Uttar Pradesh, peopled by agrarian castes such as the Jats, Gurjars, Muslims and Dalits, were outside their remit.