India Today - - INSIDE - By Ku­nal Prad­han

The ri­ots in Ut­tar Pradesh’s Muzaf­far­na­gar un­der­line the pol­i­tics of com­mu­nal po­lar­i­sa­tion ahead of Elec­tions 2014

National High­way 58, head­ing north- east from Delhi, roughly di­vides Muzaf­far­na­gar, Ut­tar Pradesh, into two ge­o­graph­i­cal and iron­i­cal halves— the Mus­lim colonies are on the left and the Hin­dus on the right. On Septem­ber 10, the town’s bustling streets, which of­ten smell of ripe sug­ar­cane be­ing trans­ported on splut­ter­ing trac­tors, are as silent as a grave. The only peo­ple on the road are from the Ut­tar Pradesh Po­lice, the state’s Provin­cial Armed Con­stab­u­lary, CRPF, and the In­dian Army. Three days ago, th­ese streets had been filled with scream­ing mobs bran­dish­ing ev­ery kind of weapon imag­in­able— guns, knives, ma­chetes, lathis, and sticks wrapped with barbed wire. For them, this was a holy war. Their in­ten­tion was to wound, maim and kill. The death toll in Muzaf­far­na­gar dis­trict has touched 40 in Hindu- Mus­lim vi­o­lence rem­i­nis­cent of the Gu­jarat ri­ots a decade ago, and the 1992 Babri Masjid ag­i­ta­tion. Hos­pi­tals are brim­ming with more wounded than they can han­dle. Po­lice sta­tions have turned into refugee camps. And politi­cians from BJP, Congress, Rashtriya Lok Dal ( RLD) and Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party ( BSP) have been booked for mak­ing hate speeches and send­ing in­flam­ma­tory text mes­sages as the rul­ing Sa­ma­jwadi Party ( SP) has cho­sen to blame ev­ery­one but it­self.

But what’s hap­pen­ing in Muzaf­far­na­gar is a sign of our po­lit­i­cal times. The most bru­tal man­i­fes­ta­tion of a grow­ing national phe­nom­e­non— the re­draw­ing of lines that had blurred over the last two decades as par­ties harden their con­stituen­cies in the run- up to a deeply com­mu­nal Gen­eral Elec­tion. With no clear win­ner ex­pected, lead­ers are try­ing to so­lid­ify their prin­ci­pal vote banks by re­sort­ing to the basest form of In­dian pol­i­tics: The di­vi­sion of com­mu­ni­ties. The ev­i­dence of this ‘ re- po­lar­i­sa­tion’ is all around us— in mul­ti­ple clashes in 2013 in states stretch­ing from As­sam to Ra­jasthan and Jammu & Kash­mir to Tamil Nadu.

The flash­points for each of th­ese ri­ots have been mi­nor, spon­ta­neous events. In Muzaf­far­na­gar, a Mus­lim boy had re­port­edly mis­be­haved with a Jat girl on Au­gust 27. In the ar­gu­ment that en­sued, three peo­ple, the boy Shah­nawaz, the girl’s cousin Gau­rav Kumar and his friend Sachin Taliyan lost their lives. It was a tragic in­ci­dent that could have sparked off a fam­ily feud, or even a ghetto con­flict be­tween mo­hal­las. But it es­ca­lated to a com­mu­nal riot be­cause it was fanned by lead­ers on both sides

who saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to con­sol­i­date their sup­port bases through the pol­i­tics of ha­tred.

Not too dis­sim­i­lar from other cases of re­li­gious vi­o­lence re­ported since March from dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the coun­try. In In­dore, Mad­hya Pradesh, 35 peo­ple were in­jured on Au­gust 20 af­ter the car­cass of a cow was found near a wa­ter chan­nel. Thirty peo­ple were in­jured af­ter vi­o­lence in Silchar, As­sam, on Au­gust 25 af­ter a ru­mour spread that beef had been planted in a Hindu tem­ple. In Kisht­war, Jammu, on Au­gust 9, vi­o­lence erupted af­ter some pro- Pak­istan slo­gans were al­legedly shouted shortly af­ter Eid prayers. Three died and 60 were in­jured. In Nawada, Bi­har, on Au­gust 10, two peo­ple were killed af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion be­tween two groups at a road­side dhaba. Cur­few was im­posed and preven­tive de­ten­tion was or­dered. It was re­port­edly the sixth in­stance of ri­ot­ing in Bi­har in six weeks. “Why is it that com­mu­nal clashes sud­denly oc­curred only af­ter we dumped coali­tion part­ner BJP on June 16? It is a mat­ter that has raised eye­brows,” said Neeraj Kumar, a spokesper­son for Ni­tish Kumar’s rul­ing Janata Dal ( United), rais­ing his own eye­brows as he spoke to re­porters.

Elec­toral pol­i­tics in In­dia is di­vi­sive and ma­nip­u­la­tive by na­ture. But it’s the am­pli­fi­ca­tion of the pol­i­tics of anx­i­ety that seems to be mak­ing a come­back af­ter be­ing pushed to the mar­gins in most of the coun­try since the mid- 90s, partly due to eco­nomic growth and partly due to the ex­pan­sion of a mid­dle class which had other things on its mind. The tar­get is al­most al­ways the Mus­lim vote in states where they have size­able num­bers. Ap­prox­i­mately 70 seats across In­dia have a ‘ de­ci­sive’ Mus­lim vote share of more than 20 per cent, and an­other 150 seats have more than 10 per cent Mus­lim vote share. Par­tic­u­larly in Ma­ha­rash­tra, Ut­tar Pradesh and Bi­har, which have a fairly large Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion along with a strong BJP pres­ence, a pro- Mus­lim stand by Congress, Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Ya­dav or Ni­tish Kumar can po­larise Mus­lims in their favour. Con­se­quently, any such po­lar­i­sa­tion can trig­ger a counter- po­lar­i­sa­tion among Hindu vot­ers for BJP.

“Mus­lims usu­ally vote de­pend­ing on whether or not they are feel­ing ap­peased or catered to by the party in power,” says psephol­o­gist Deven­dra Kumar, di­rec­tor of Re­search & De­vel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive, New Delhi. “A fine bal­ance for any party that has Mus­lim sup­port is to give the com­mu­nity enough sops to keep it happy but not so many that ma­jor­ity com­mu­ni­ties feel marginalised.”

Prob­lems be­gin when pres­sure is ap­plied from both sides. Par­ties such as SP in Ut­tar Pradesh and sec­tions of the Congress try to show Mus­lims that they have been ac­corded spe­cial priv­i­leges, which of­ten re­main un­ful­filled

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