COVER STORY MUZAFFARNAGAR RI OTS Riot for Vote
VIOLENCE IN UTTAR PRADESH UNDERLINES THE POLITICS OF COMMUNALPOLARISATION AHEAD OF ELECTIONS 2014
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