On a sultry June afternoon, Tara Singh crossed the Ganga-Yamuna doab, from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh down to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. He was joining thousands of other protesters, demanding justice for the Dalits of Shabbirpur in Saharanpur, whose homes were burned after clashes with local Rajputs in May. “The Yogi government has emboldened UP’s Thakurs,” says Tara. “They want to suppress us Dalits but we are unafraid.”
The spectacular electoral victory of the BJP in the northern state may signal a decline in Mayawati’s party, the BSP. It may also suggest a vacuum in Dalit politics—one that a leader such as Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhim Sena’s founder, might try to fill. Yet, many Dalits of western UP—for the flame from Shabbirpur has now spread across the entire region—want to prove just the converse is true. “We support Chandrashekhar and his Bhim Sena but only as a social movement. Mayawati remains our unequivocal political choice,” says Lokendra from Muzaffarnagar. He’s not alone in saying so. The sentiment is echoed across many parts of this large swathe, including in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli—two volatile districts that offer a snapshot of the shifting canvas of community relations that characterises the region.
“Almost all of UP is caught up in communal or caste conflicts. That has awakened the Dalits, though they were initially despondent after the BSP’s defeat in the polls,” says Dr Bale Ram, a professor and Dalit rights activist at Jansath. According to him, the BJP consciously avoided wooing Mayawati’s core supporters, the Jatavs. By this, he feels, the BJP managed to drive a schism between the most vocal and politically conscious elements among BSP’s supporters and the more silent among Dalits. “The Ambedkarites were split from the other Dalits, and this was achieved by making claims that Mayawati neglected all but her Jatav voters—this is a strategy the Dalits now see through.”
If a community’s survival depends on sensing who controls the lever of power, such a state of awareness is high among the Jats of Muzaffarnagar. Take, for INStance, Madan Pal Singh. “Why would Jats vote only for other Jat leaders or a party of Jats,” asks the prosperous Jat farmer of Bokaredi. “Is that the only way a Jat is supposed to think—along caste lines?” The Jats are 15 to 20 per cent of western UP, but in Muzaffarnagar they hold power far disproportionate to their ten per cent share in the population. That usually overwhelming Jat identity is, however, temporarily on ice.
Such extraordinary lines, like Madan Pal’s, have become commonplace since the assembly elections this summer. The jostle for power left the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a party the Jats once considered their natural political habitat, powerless and dispirited. The Jats had to seek comfort in melding with other Hindu castes under the BJP umbrella—a place where old caste animosities are being re-enacted in new ways. The attachment restores to the Jats a modicum of their old sense of power, and enables them to articulate their anger against groups that stand for reservation, including the Dalits.
This phenomenon is rooted in a tectonic shift in socio-economic relations, visible everywhere in this region. For, Jats too are under the strain that farming middle castes feel everywhere. Madan Pal is among the last few farmers in the area who is not indebted, the only one whose lands haven’t split as his family grew.
Recently, the farmers of Bokaredi and around collectively sent a dozen young boys to a training academy in Noida where they would be prepped to join the army—but their literacy skills didn’t quite match up. “All the boys were sent back; the institute said they cannot be trained,” says Rampal Singh, a farmer. “Our children need the sort of training Skill India provides,” he says. In this context, the Jats find their support for the BJP a necessary trade-off: they subsume their hankering for a lead role in a rainbow coalition to try and melt into urban India. To do so they must align with a party poised to win, even if this isolates old allies: the Muslims. But it’s not a happy divorce.
The Muslims, no matter that they are 38 per cent of the district, always needed to align with a powerful Hindu caste for a share in power. This suited both sides. So past coalitions smothered religious differences by fusing Hindu and Muslim castes—such as Hindu Jats with Muslim (Muley) Jats. With the Hindu Jat turn to the BJP, that connection goes cold. As for the latter, from a dominant partner of formations that included Muslims, Gujjars, Rajputs and Ahirs—the old MAJGAR— they are now willing also-rans in a large BJP courtyard. A glimmer of resentment shows up on this count, as Jats freely express remorse over the 2013 riots, in which they attacked and chased Muslim workers out of home and field.
The word khichav—strain—bubbles up when Jats refer to relations with Muslims. “We feel isolated,” says Nepal Singh, a Jat farmer from Kookda, adjoining Muzaffarnagar. “All we’ve now is stubborn pride.”
Muslims have pulled out of farm work, says Ravindra Arya from Jansath. “We pay more today, to hire labour from outside our villages,” he adds. Muslim farm workers tend to be local, skilled and landless. They are perceived to be better workers. “Farmers in villages that rioted have to travel long distances to get their farm implements sharpened ever since the Muslims fled,” says Arya. “Muslims are not returning to riot-affected areas, nor forgiving the Jats for 2013.”
There is a perceptible disintegration of agrarian movements once led by Jats as well. Since 2014, Muslims, Rajputs and Gujjars have floated their own farmers’ outfits, fleeing the Jat-led Bharatiya Kisan Union, though it’s still the most powerful. A prominent newcomer is Thakur Puran Singh, whose lobby, identified with Rajput farmers, opened six months after the riots. “The Tikaits only represent one community,” he says, referring to Naresh and Rakesh Tikait from Sisoli in Muzaffarnagar. “Now nobody wants to be henpecked by the Jats.” Ghulam Mohammad Jola, with his own outfit for Muslim farmers, rules out Jat-Muslim unity. “With daily news of Hindu-Muslim conflict, how can peace prevail? Jats have become Jats and Muslims have been turned Muslim,” he says. What he means is, Muslim castes—Jats, Rajputs, Gujjars—are letting their caste identity sink. That further sequesters other Jats as Hindus.
The Muslims feel besieged by their political segregation and a series of recent incidents in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which indicate the embers of 2013 are still smouldering. With Muslim MLAs down to 25 from 68 in 2012, the patronage networks that dealt out jobs, contracts and local leaders are drying out too.
Sherpur under Purkazi tehsil has roughly 10,000 Ranghars, a poor, barely-educated community of Muslim Rajputs. This June, on an anonymous tip-off, the police raided this area in search of an allegedly slaughtered cow. SSP Anant Dev Tiwari says Sherpur was no communal clash. “It was a fight between locals and the police.” The reason, he says, is the locals resisted arrest, hurled brickbats and burned a police vehicle. The villagers admit the police search enraged them, what with the cops going from house to house—and not just the one they were tipped off about. Also, their belongings were broken and communal slurs hurled. “The police overturned our pots and pans only to find lentils and potato,” says Akil, a Sherpur resident. “Yet, the same night, they raided us again.”
“The tipoff turned out to be untrue,” says the SSP. “We get scores of such tips daily. For Sherpur we had specific information. The force may have searched adjoining houses too.” The provocation for the second raid was that the Ranghars snatched their pradhan, Talib Hassan, from the clutches of the raiding police, set him free in adjoining fields, from where he went into hiding. “But our pradhan did no wrong—so why does police want him,” asks Shafiq, another resident. The Sherpur Muslims insist they are Rajput Muslims who have deep social ties with Hindu Rajputs. “I don’t know why this cow matter is coming up,” says Salim. Such incidents are a headache for local leaders. “Brickbats, sloganeering...make us want to tear our hair,” says Rao Waris, who was with the BSP until recently.
Another local leader, Sudhir Panwar of the Samajwadi Party, finds local Muslims are either bewildered by or unmindful of the nervousness about terrorism and violence. “Most Muslims are poor and among the poor, life can be cheap,” he says. Besides, aggression is almost part of western UP’s culture. “The poor Muslims do not realise that things have changed.” Sudhir Balyan, an old-timer with the BJP in UP, says, “I ask my party, will we pay attention only to Hindu-Muslim issues or any other work in Muzaffarnagar?”
Any incident involving touchy topics, or clashes in which the two sides happen to belong to different religions, get a communal flavour, he says. And privately talking down Muslims is like “a fashion” among Muzaffarnagar’s smartphone-savvy youth. “They draw comparisons between ISIS, Taliban and all Muslims,” he says. “Tell me, if a Hindu bumps into a Muslim, is that a communal incident? It doesn’t, but here large crowds gather at the mere hint of a dispute.”
Cops at a Nasirpur pocket after fresh bout of riots
Nasirpur, a kasba, erupted in June after Brijpal and Shahnawaz squabbled over a mere leaking drainpipe. “From an open drain, water splattered on a Muslim passerby and they argued,” says Raju Pal, ex-pradhan, Nasirpur. The current pradhan, Sabbir, settled this argument but soon another duo squabbled, over a severed cable. Soon, brickbats were flying, shots rent the air. In the chaos, Brijpal’s son got a fatal gunshot. The police arrested scores of men, including Sabbir. The narrative in Nasirpur is, had the pradhan called the police to resolve the drainpipe issue, the fight over cable would have been averted. “I support BJP and Modi but that incident had nothing to do with religion,” says Manoj, a local. He attributes the communal tone of the incident to the arrival of a string of BJP leaders, from MP Sanjiv Balyan to MLA Kapil Agarwal, on invitation from a local RSS worker.
This is not how RSS worker Madan, Brijpal’s neighbour, sees it. “It was a riot between Muslim Rajputs and Hindu Pals,” he claims. “Over a drainpipe, lots of Muslims collected with sticks and stones, saying they are more in numbers.” Nasirpur’s Muslims have locked themselves indoors and deny witnessing the events. Komal Devi, Brijpal’s grieving wife, says Muslims killed her son. “The bullet could have hit my son in the leg, in the chest,” she says. “Why the skull?”
RLD leader Chaudhary Mushtaq, a former Muzaffarnagar MLA, feels Hindu-Muslim amity, electorally at least, now turns on something beyond the Muslims’ control: “It depends now on when Hindus will vote against the BJP.” Muslims are nervous that educated Hindus seem to be turning against them, a trend they often spot on social media. “Yes, Babri was painful but only poor Hindus seemed to have gotten involved in that,” says Aarif Khan, a zamindar from Garhi Abdullakhan, a Pathan village in Shamli. “If today educated Hindus turn against Muslims, all India will become like Kashmir.”
Muzaffarnagar and Shamli had, a decade ago, over two dozen big iron and steel units. Today, Shamli has just one steel factory: Ashok Bansal’s. He, and other industrialists, are engaged in hectic talks with the government to get electricity rates cut: it’s the main culprit for the decline of industry. To top it, the growing communal schism. “When I was a child, nobody here was Muslim or Hindu,” Bansal says. “They were only chacha or tau (uncle).” Almost all of Bansal’s skilled workers—cutters, binders, pressers—are Muslim. They will leave, if tensions persist, he fears. Bansal, raised in a mixed neighbourhood, “now lives where there are only banias”. “Everybody is thinking, ‘we have to save ourselves, stay among our own’,” he says. But he wonders if Hindus will do the skilled work. He hasn’t seen any Hindus learning those trades.
By Pragya Singh in Western UP