Muzaffarnagar memories


How political mobilisations divided communities with a shared past.
Since the Samajwadi Party came to power in March 2012, there has been over a 100 communal clashes in Uttar Pradesh. But the recent spate of violence in Muzaffarnagar district has particularly shaken people. With a toll reported to be around 50, the Muzaffarnagar clashes displayed some disturbing new features. The number of those killed in a single incident was very high and the riots spread to rural areas, with many villages swept up in it. Finally, the violence was so intense — a place of worship, shops and vehicles were burned, people fled their villages — that the army had to be called in after 21 years. The provincial armed constabulary and rapid action forces were also deployed.
But perhaps the most distinctive feature of the clash was that it took place between Jats and Muslims. The immediate provocation was a row between the two communities at a mahapanchayat called by Jat leaders in Muzaffarnagar town. The purpose of the meet was to discuss an earlier incident, which took place in Kawaal village on August 27. A fight had reportedly broken out in Kawaal when two brothers took up the cudgels against their sister’s harasser. All three youths had been killed in the incident. While Jats gathered in large numbers at the mahapanchayat, Muslims protested on the streets of Muzaffarnagar. This culminated in a violent confrontation.
The Jats and the Muslims are the two important communities in the region, with sufficient strength to change the political fortunes of parties. The Muslims, mainly an urban community, are the largest religious minority in the state, but they still do not form the majority in any district. They are also not a homogenous community. They are divided into the Ashraf and Ajlaf groups and into 68 castes and sub-castes, as well as by dialect and geographical distribution. But they do possess a sense of group identity that is based on cultural and historical factors. This enables them to come together in times of crisis. In as many as 13 Lok Sabha constituencies, Muslims are a significant presence. The Jats are predominantly a rural community with a strong sense of identity. They make up 6 per cent of the electorate in western UP but can swing political fortunes in at least 10 Lok Sabha constituencies. But the growing dominance of the Yadavs under the SP has contributed to upsetting equations in the region.
In western UP, the two communities have always lived side by side and have close historical links. There were conversions to Islam among a number of peasant castes — witness the Muley Jats, the Muslim Rajputs and Tyagis, the Ranghars. Many of them retained pre-Islamic customs such as clan exogamy. Both communities benefited from the Green Revolution and Muslim artisans have also entered specialised industries like lock manufacturing and brassware. While doing fieldwork in Muzaffarnagar during the late 1970s, Ravi Srivastava found that the district had been affected by the forced sterilisations of the Emergency — a phenomenon that convulsed rural society, especially Muslims — but the social ties between the two communities had remained remarkably intact. Hindus and Muslims, whether Jat, Tyagi or Rajput, had memories of a common kinship. Anecdotes of a shared past abounded and social differences were accepted as a matter of fact. There was little evidence of mutual recrimination and mistrust. This was probably the ground on which Charan Singh had built a successful political alliance, persuading Jats and Muslims to vote the same way on many occasions.
The conscious political mobilisation that came later has been responsible for the construction of polarised identities and relationships based on them. By the early- and mid-1990s, bonhomie had been replaced by deep mistrust between the two communities. In many villages, an aggressive majority community had begun disputes on graveyard land and the use of loudspeakers in mosques. It also resisted the use of common lands, including sports fields, by the other community. The socio-political agitation for the Ram temple created a big schism between communities in both rural and urban areas. Troubled by the Dalit challenge, the Bhartiya Kissan Union in rural Muzaffarnagar, under Mahendra Singh Tikait, shifted towards the BJP in the 1990s, which threatened the prospects of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. This, along with the strident BJP campaign in the state, the abdication of the law and order machinery in rural areas and the increasing unease among Muslims, forms the backdrop to the Muzaffarnagar conflagrations. So it is not surprising that the violence spread quickly from towns to the rural hinterland.
The emergence of communal faultlines between the Jats and Muslims will affect the Congress-RLD alliance, which is dependent on the support of these communities. But it could help the BJP in western UP in the 2014 national elections. The Congress has been muted in its criticism of its ally, the SP, but it has been alleged that the latter joined forces with the BJP to foment trouble and consolidate their respective Muslim and Hindu vote banks. A number of respected Muslim clerics, from the Darul Uloom, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and other organisations, have expressed the fear that the recent incidents were part of a conspiracy to trigger much larger communal riots. An angry Muslim community could now reconsider its political alignments, particularly with the rise of autonomous Muslim parties. At the RSS-BJP meeting held on September 9, it was made clear that the BJP would bring back its core Hindutva agenda — Ram temple, uniform civil code, Article 370 — for the general elections. Despite urgent issues such as corruption, inflation, an economic slowdown and low levels of industrial investment, it seems that the old spectre of communal discord will return to haunt UP in 2014.
(With inputs from Ravi Srivastava, professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies, and rector, JNU express@expressindia.com

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