Politicians and Politics that Stoked Latent Communal Tensions in Muzaffarnagar

The BJP MLA Sangeet Som (second from right),was arrested for his alleged role in inciting communal violence during the riots. Dheeraj Dhawan / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
15 January, 2015

Kunwar Bharatendra Singh, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Bijnor, was elected as member to the Court of Aligarh Muslim University today. Singh was accused of provoking communal tension in Muzaffarnagar district, and was arrested in October 2013. This appointment has come close on the heels of the exoneration this Monday of six of the eight accused in the murder of a Muslim youth, Shahnawaz Qureshi,by the Special Investigation Team probing the Muzaffarnagar riots of December 2013.Qureshi’s murder led to the lynching of two members of the group—Sachin and Gaurav—which is believed to have been one of the causal factors of the riot. In our March 2014 issue, Anjali Mody chronicled the events that culminated in riots in a district that was largely accustomed to the peaceful co-existence of its different communities. In this excerpt from that story, Mody gives us a a perspective on the political forces that were involved in escalating latent communal tensions.

Much has been made of the Jat–Muslim relationship in western Uttar Pradesh ever since the former prime minister, Lok Dal leader Chaudhary Charan Singh, constructed an electoral compact between the region’s land-owning Jats and numerically superior Muslims in the 1960s. Crucial to that arrangement was the fact that western Uttar Pradesh was home to both Hindu and “Muley” (Muslim) Jats, with shared economic interests and social parity.

By 2013, though, that electoral compact had been under pressure for at least 20 years. The Rashtriya Lok Dal, the successor to the Lok Dal, led by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh, aligned itself with various parties, including the BJP. Jats in western Uttar Pradesh had first turned to the BJP in reaction to being excluded from the list of OBCs in the Mandal Commission’s report in 1980, and then again in the 1990s following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, when the BKU, officially non-partisan, effectively called on Jats to support the BJP electorally.

Still, in the rural parts of this region, the collapse of the old electoral arrangement did not strongly affect Jat–Muslim social relations. Non-Jat Muslims in Hindu-Jat dominated villages like Kakra owned no agricultural land; only a minority of them worked as seasonal labourers on the Jats’ fields. Until last year’s rupture, the nature of the relationships between Jat and Muslim families seemed to have endured from a time when more Muslims had worked for Jat farmers and the ties between families were essentially feudal. But with the riots, the region’s political players had prised apart the communities—first little by little, and then in one wide split.

In January this year, I met Umesh Mallik, the BJP activist who was so contemptuous of Ravinder Singh’s efforts to protect Kakra Muslims. We gathered at the home of Sanjay Agarwal, a district-level BJP leader, in the centre of Muzaffarnagar town. Mallik and Agarwal, both in their mid forties, described themselves as “swayamsevaks”. They had been with the RSS as young men, and continued to attend the daily shakhas. Agarwal had narrowly lost the election for the chairmanship of the Muzaffarnagar municipal council last year.

On 19 August, eight days before the Kawal murders, a small dispute in Sohram, a village close to Kakra, had spiralled into a violent clash between young Hindu and Muslim men. Muslim and Hindu Jats in Sohram were more or less evenly matched, holding the village pradhanship almost by turns. On 19 August, the police appear to have acted with speed to prevent matters from escalating, making arrests on both sides and initiating a community dialogue. But political interference had been difficult to prevent. Among the first groups on the spot was the BJP, with Mallik at the helm. When I spoke to the BJP’s young village committee chairman in Kakra, Sachin Agarwal, he told me that this was where the “danga”—the riot—had actually begun; the sub-inspector of Shahpur police station, Hindveer Singh also told me the police considered the Sohram incident to have started the communal trouble in their jurisdiction.

Mallik, tall and heavily built, somewhat rough in manner, is a self-described helper of Hindus; he told me that if he identified any Muslims at his meetings by their beards or skullcaps, he made an announcement asking them to leave. He recounted the Sohram incident as a way of demonstrating that the BJP had been at hand to “help resolve the dispute”. Following the escalation of violence in the village, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Interviews with political activists and observers in Muzaffarnagar and Kakra confirmed that, since at least the middle of 2013, the BJP’s district-level and local leaders had been busy cultivating a latent sense of grievance between Hindus—especially Hindu Jats—and Muslims. They had made a particular habit of intervening in both consensual relationships and cases of sexual violence that involved Hindus and Muslims. Some of this, on the face of it, was no more than the usual political grandstanding. One instance occurred in Shamli district in June after a young woman reported that she had been gang-raped while on her way from Haridwar to Jind, in Haryana. Some local newspaper reports identified her as Balmiki by caste, and her rapists as Muslims. The police made two arrests, but the BJP took things further, and organised a public protest while a curfew was in place, demanding the immediate arrest of several other accused individuals. Prohibitory orders were in force; the protest turned violent and several BJP leaders were arrested and charged.

Mallik and Agarwal were also active in a campaign against what they called “love jihad”. Similar campaigns had been carried out before in other parts of the country, notably in coastal Karnataka, by Sangh Parivar outfits like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Agarwal, the cooler, more detail-oriented of the two, explained to me that “love jihad” was a conspiracy hatched in Deoband to increase the Muslim population, while simultaneously lowering the Hindu population. This was achieved, he said, by having Muslim men marry Hindu women. Good-looking Muslim men were trained, Agarwal said, to ensnare Hindu women whom they met in public places or by cold-calling them on their mobile phones.

“We have saved at least a hundred girls from Muslims,” Mallik told me. “Ninety-three,” Agarwal corrected him quietly. “Well, about a hundred,” Mallik said.

It was just this sense of grievance which helped rapidly escalate the events in Kawal, thanks to rumours that Shahnawaz had been preying on Sachin’s sister. This is a region where women carry the burden of family and community honour. (In Kakra, a family with links to the RSS told me in casual conversation that in the last year news had filtered through the village of two young Jat women being killed because they were said to have brought dishonour upon their families.) In such a world, the idea that Jat women were victims of a Muslim conspiracy gave wings to the campaign against “love jihad”. Stories of well-dressed Muslim men on motorcycles seducing Jat girls were repeated regularly and with little variation.

The Sohram dispute, and its unsatisfying resolution, was an example of the local BJP’s skill at turning everyday incidents into bigger disputes. Instead of a community-based agreement of the kind that the district administration or a non-party organisation like the BKU might have negotiated, Sohram opted for an agreement that involved the BJP and the Samajwadi Party—political parties that spoke respectively for Hindus and Muslims in this case.

Part of the group that negotiated the settlement was Ashok Baliyan, a Muzaffarnagar-based lawyer who runs an NGO, the Peasant Welfare Association, and has links with both the BKU and the Congress. Baliyan unconsciously echoed the words of Umesh Mallik when he told me that the BJP had indeed been involved in this dispute and the resolution, “but only on the side of the Jats”.

The agreement, according to a report in the Dainik Jagran, was made on 22 August, and called for both sides to restore relations to how they were prior to the conflict—to attend each other’s weddings, share in each other’s joy and sorrow, consensually withdraw cases filed against each other and socially boycott those who sought to create disharmony. It was, however, not worth the paper it was written on. Hindu Jats rejected it outright, claiming that the neutrality of the agreement had been undermined because the orally negotiated settlement was committed to paper at the home of Budhana’s Muslim MLA, Nawazish Alam of the Samajwadi Party. Baliyan blamed himself for not having foreseen this possibility. Negotiating in good faith, he said, had been a mistake, because the others involved were groups that benefitted from divisions in society.

At every stage, the BKU, the most conciliatory representative of western UP’s Jats, had been outmanoeuvered by the political parties. The BKU had been at the height of its powers in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was led by its founder Mahendra Tikait. It had then actively projected itself as a non-sectarian association, giving prominence to its Muslim membership; the academic Dipankar Gupta notes in his book on the BKU, Rivalry and Brotherhood, that its public meetings began with cries of “Har Har Mahadev” and “Allah ho Akbar”.

But all that appeared to have changed. Less than a week after the Sohram failure, the BKU willy-nilly handed its platform to the BJP by agreeing, at the behest of the district administration, to cancel a public meeting slated for 31 August to call for legal action in the murder of Gaurav and Sachin. As a result of this, the battle-ready local BJP grabbed the initiative from the hesitant BKU, and forced it to follow where the BJP led. After the Kawal murders, while the BKU focused on the administrative failures that had compounded the conflict, the BJP focused on the Jat sense of grievance. “Since the August disturbance and … the tandav (dance) that followed, we went from village to village, motivated people and became their support,” Mallik said. “So the message went out that if there is ever a Hindu–Muslim issue, then the BJP people will be the only ones standing by us.”

In the build-up to the mahapanchayat on 7 September, the party called a bandh and circulated a CD with a video—which its MLA, Sangeet Som, also posted on his Facebook page—that supposedly showed the brutal killing of Sachin and Gaurav. In reality, the video was two years old and had been recorded in Sialkot, Pakistan. On 31 August, a week before the mahapanchayat, the BJP also took charge of another public meeting at Nagla Mandaur, which it disguised as a shok sabha—a condolence meeting—for Gaurav and Sachin. The BKU had announced this meeting, then called it off, only to have the BJP march in and take it over. Sanjay Agarwal, who, along with Umesh Mallik and several other BJP activists, was arrested in the wake of the meeting, told me that the gathering “did not have our banner, but it was our meeting.”

Jat community organisations and political leaders of all stripes, even as they appeared to follow the BKU’s lead, continued to demand that the government take action in the murder of Gaurav and Sachin, or face mass protests. The Gathwala Khap, which includes 64 villages in the area, followed by the Baliyan Khap, which controls 84 villages including Kakra, stared down the government over 72 hours. As a result, the Bahu Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat went ahead. The banners raised were all the BKU’s, but it was the BJP leaders from Muzaffarnagar and Shamli who monopolised the stage and the microphone. Six months after the riots, Sanjay Agarwal was able to reckon that if the BJP had the support of 40 percent of the Jats before 7 September, afterwards it had support among nearly all of them.

Uttar Pradesh is key to electoral fortunes at the centre, and the BJP has never enjoyed sustained success here. In the 2009 general election, it won a mere ten of the state’s 80 seats. The party stepped up its activity in the state mid last year, when Amit Shah, a former Gujarat state minister and the right-hand man of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, took charge of election preparations. The BJP attempted to put the Ram temple, its 1990s trump card, back on the agenda in Uttar Pradesh with an “84-kosi yatra”, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, in mid August, forcing the Samajwadi Party government to put the state on lockdown to avoid clashes.

Prior to the violence, Kakra’s village-level BJP committee, which usually meets in the homes of party members, had been working to find new recruits. They claimed to have signed up 30 Muslims in the village, and even put one of them, Salim, in charge of Kakra's BJP minorities cell. However, Muslims are not a major consideration in the BJP’s strategy, which is now focused on consolidating support among groups that do not traditionally vote for it—the Jats, and the Scheduled Castes who have, for the last decade, voted consistently for the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party. Most observers now believe that Hindu Jats may tip the balance in a region that elects eight of the 80 MPs Uttar Pradesh sends to parliament—and shore up the sympathies of like-minded voters throughout the state.

Weeks away from a potentially transformative general election, Muzaffarnagar’s Jats were calling it for Narendra Modi, according to the Kakra pradhan, Ravinder Singh. Singh is considered no friend by Kakra’s BJP men; “Woh hamaare anti rehte hain” (He is “anti” us), Sachin Agarwal told me. Yet Singh seemed to share at least some of the hardliners’ views on what he called “the problem with Muslims”. Chief among these was the belief that the Muslim population was rapidly rising. The first time we met, without provocation or questions on the subject, Singh had been belligerently clear about this. “They [Muslims] are called a minority, but you can’t really call them a minority, can you?” he asked. I said that Muslims constituted 22 percent of the state’s population. “But they are 38 per cent in all of western Uttar Pradesh and 49 per cent in Rampur,” he argued. “How can you call them a minority?”

The BJP’s work, it appeared, had not been that hard. It had tapped a seam of prejudice that was embedded in the relationship between Jats and Muslims, which in good times was overlaid with easy-going and mutually beneficial ties between individual families. Even as Singh spoke of his sincere belief that Kakra’s Muslims would eventually return to the village, he complained that the Muslim population was growing while the Jat population shrank, and that the former received excessive benefits from the government as a consequence.

Speaking to me in January this year, during yet another meeting in his courtyard, Singh pointed out to me that the Nagla Mandaur mahapanchayat had been a panchayat merely in name; its purpose and form contradicted that of a panchayat. Instead of a space for calm deliberation and the setting out of demands, it had become a site of battle.

He described the riots and their aftermath as “a partition right here, inside our country.” Muslims were now living in Muslim-majority areas and Hindus in Hindu-majority areas. It did not bode well for the future.

I asked him if he thought the BJP had played a direct role in the riots. “The BJP finds Muslims an irritant,” he replied. “It does incite. To create Hindu–Muslim [conflict], it does incite people.” Where earlier his village was soft, and had no kattarpanthis, or fanatics, now it was different, he said. It was not so easy to see reason anymore.

An extract from 'A Separation' published in The Caravan's March 2014 issue. Read the story in full here.