I met Baba Harikishan, the head of the Gathwala khap of the Malik Jat community on 8 February 2017. The Malik Jats make up a majority of the residents in over 25 villages in the Shamli constituency of Muzaffarnagar district in western Uttar Pradesh. As Harikishan reclined on a charpoy laid out in the February sun, facing the hookah that had been set up for him, he let his eldest son Rajinder, who will head the khap after him, do the talking. “Biradari ek saath ho gayi hai—the community has come together.”
Rajinder was referring not only to his fellow Jats in Lisarh—a village near the town of Shamli—but to much of the community in western UP, which is consolidating behind Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. However, the reasons he invoked for this support were specific to Shamli and a few of the surrounding constituencies that had been affected by the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence. “The BJP won the 2014 elections because it became a Hindu-Muslim election. But not once have Modi, Amit Shah or Rajnath spoken out publicly in favour of those Jats who have been implicated in false cases by this state government,” Rajinder said.
In August 2013, communal clashes broke out in Muzaffarnagar district after an altercation—the descriptions of which range from a traffic accident to an instance of eve-teasing—between Jat and Muslim youths. The incident resulted in the deaths of two young Jat men and one Muslim youth. In response, a number of Jat-affiliated organisations called a mahapanchayat—a large-scale political meeting—on 7 September at Nagla-Mandaur village. That day, a lakh-and-a-half people arrived to attend the mahapanchayat, many of them armed. At the meeting, several speeches revolved around saving Hindu daughters and daughters-in-law from Muslim men. As the Jats were returning from the mahapanchayat in the evening, angry Muslims attacked them. In the ensuing violence, tractor trollies and motorcycles were set on fire, and 13 Hindu men were killed. Late that night and the next morning, Jats in nearby villages launched a retaliatory attack on Muslims. Nearly fifty people were murdered, a number of women allegedly raped, and scores of people displaced.
Lisarh witnessed some of the worst violence during these riots. A Jat resident took me past a charred, abandoned brick house, and said, very matter-of-factly, “After the violence on the night of the seventh, the Muslims fled from the village leaving a few of the elderly behind. A mob from the village gathered here, herded them together and set the house on fire. Twelve men were charred to death.”
A reportpublished on The New York Times’ India-focussed website, India Ink, in September 2013, quoted Mohammad Yamin, whose wife, the grandmother of a 15-year-old, had refused to leave Lisarh with her family. Recounting what his neighbours had told him, Yamin said, “When she saw the attackers coming, she tried to climb a stairway to seek refuge in the house next door.” The story noted that Yamin’s wife had polio and diabetes, which made movement difficult for her. “They dragged her down, violated her and burned her alive inside,” Yamin continued. According to the news report, the mob had gathered after announcements were made over a loudspeaker, asking Hindus to get together and kill Muslims, allegedly “at the behest of Ajeet Singh, the village chief and another man who is a leader of a khap panchayat.”