Two villages in Bijnor district in Uttar Pradesh highlight the communal polarisation in the district’s villages. Peda and Nayagaon—dominated by the Muslim and Jat communities respectively—are situated on the outskirts of the district, on opposite sides of the Bijnor-Najibabad road. Communal tension in the villages heightened after September 2016, when a group of residents from Nayagaon village belonging to the Jat community allegedly killed three and injured more than ten Muslim men from Peda village. The tension appeared to have simmered down before escalating again on 10 February 2017, when a group of eight Muslim men allegedly murdered Vishal Singh, a 17-year-old Jat boy, and injured his father, Sanjay Singh. Both victims belonged to Nayagaon village. Several Muslim men in Peda told me that the men accused of Vishal’s murder were either relatives or friends of three of the victims in the September clash.
When I visited the villages on 14 February, vehicles belonging to the Rapid Action Force—a specialised force under the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) set up in 1992 to deal with riot situations—were consistently combing the area. Bijnor went to polls on 15 February. Sanjeev Kumar Saini, the owner of a teashop situated just before the turn to Peda, said, “Gaon mein mahaul September se kharab raha hai, lekin pichle haftey ke kand ke wajeh se, yaha toh khichadi bana rakha hai”—the atmosphere has been bad since last September, but after the incident last week, panic and confusion has been created. Saini said that while he could not deny the work of Ruchi Vira, the incumbent Samajwadi Party MLA from Bijnor, he would vote for the BJP—he felt that Vira had sided with Muslims after the communal clashes occurred.
Residents of both villages said that there has long been tension between Peda and Nayagaon. Often times in instances of communal violence, as was the case in the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots, the conflicting communities claim that the violence was triggered by physical or sexual harassment of the women of either community, which is treated as an affront to the community at large. Even in the case of Bijnor, many residents suggested that the bus stand on the main road, where residents from both villages converge, is often the place that women from both villages are harassed. According to several villagers of Nayagaon that I spoke to, the September incident was a result of men from Peda having harassed a Jat girl from Nayagaon.
The few Jat homes in Peda—all of which sported BJP flags the day before Bijnor went to polls—are located on the side of a narrow road leading into the village. Navneet Singh, a resident of one of those houses, “Abhi toh Peda Momdun ka gaaon hai, lekin chunav ke baad yeh badal jayega”—Peda is currently a Muslim village, but after this election, that will change. (Like several others I spoke to, Navneet used “Momdun” to refer to Muslims.)
Three men whom I met outside a barbershop in the village—Hussain, Shahid and Wahab (they refused to give me their last names)—were discussing the candidates in their constituency. Wahab said, “What Ruchi Vira has done in the last two years, no one else has been able to do for the last ten.” Shahid added that there were no water and electricity problems in the village anymore. Agreeing with them, Hussain said Vira has also been responsible for seeing to it that none of the clashes between the two villages have escalated and turned into a “Muzzafarnagar sort of incident.” Wahab added, “yeh SP gaon hain or woh BJP gaon hai,”—this is an SP village and that is a BJP village.