TWO YEARS AGO on the morning of 6 September, Anita Singh, principal secretary to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was informed that thousands of people from the neighbouring states of Haryana and Delhi were gathering at a village in Muzaffarnagar district. A “Jat Mahapanchayat,” a large-scale political meeting of the region’s Hindu Jats, was scheduled to take place the following day, curdling an atmosphere already soured by threats and suspicion. Some days earlier, two young Jat men and a Muslim youth had allegedly been murdered in an altercation; rumours had circulated of the latter harassing a young Hindu woman. A number of Jat-affiliated outfits had responded by organising the mahapanchayat, with the involvement and encouragement of the local cadre of the Bharatiya Janata Party. All this had divided local Hindus and Muslims, and the regional authorities were on edge, anticipating violence.
Orders prohibiting assembly under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code were in force. The men occupying the posts of senior superintendent of police, and district magistrate, had been transferred out twice in the last fortnight. Thousands of police and paramilitary personnel were mobilised in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts to maintain the state’s control over a potentially inflammatory situation. An additional director-general of police, Arun Kumar, had come west from Lucknow to keep an eye on the proceedings. Yet instructions to actually stop the mahapanchayat never arrived from the secretariat.
On this day, Uttar Pradesh’s youngest-ever chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, was in Delhi to inaugurate the new headquarters of the information technology body NASSCOM. The offices had been set up in Noida, the part of the National Capital Region that falls under his governance, but he was presiding over the ceremony from the Taj Mansingh hotel in central Delhi. Since assuming office in 2012, Yadav had inaugurated several major Noida projects remotely, usually from Lucknow. Many speculated that this was because of persistent stories about the “Noida jinx”—a political superstition that no chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who visited Noida got to keep his or her seat in the following election. It had created some bad press for Yadav. Journalists covering the inauguration wanted to know whether Yadav, a tech-savvy environment engineer who went about distributing laptops to his state’s students, was falling prey to baseless belief. A reporter asked him why a young and modern chief minister was scared of Noida. Yadav, smiling, delivered a riposte in Hindi: “Because you guys live there.”