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.