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Is Azamgarh the new Muzaffarnagar?

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Ghulam Nabi Azad share snacks with villagers in Azamgarh early in September. The district has witnessed a string of communal clashes of late.  

It was in mid-May that a clash between Hindus and Muslims broke out at Khodadadpur village in the district. But it still comes up in conversations here.

“2017 will be a Hindu-Muslim election, that’s my sense,” says Bijendra Singh, owner of Hotel Garuda in Azamgarh town and one-time Samajwadi Party activist, who is no longer in active politics.

In the past so many months, he says, there have been a string of incidents involving the two communities in the district. Some were so small, he continues, that they escaped major media notice, but they are enough to keep the communal cauldron gently bubbling in this largely rural district.

The one in Khodadadpur, of course, hit the headlines. It started out as a violent quarrel between two individuals, rivals in local panchayat politics. The fact that one was a Dalit, Musafir Ram, and the other a Muslim, Danish, was then used by adherents of the Hindu Vahini — and of ex-BJP MP Ramakant Yadav — to turn the issue into a full-blown Hindu-Muslim battle, a civil rights activist, Rajeev Yadav, says.

But the way the story played out in the headlines was that it was a Dalit-Muslim clash, though most of those who participated on the Hindu side in the violence that followed the first episode on May 14 were largely Yadavs.

Indeed, Inspector-General of Police, Varanasi, S.K. Bhagat who rushed to Azamgarh at that time to prevent the situation from escalating further, told The Hindu: “From a professional point of view, I can say that the first episode [between Musafir Ram and Danish] was the fallout of panchayat elections. It was not a case of a Dalit-Muslim clash, but rivalry between two individuals. What happened on subsequent days was a full-scale Hindu-Muslim clash, largely between Yadavs and Muslims.”

So why was the May 14 episode highlighted as a Dalit-Muslim clash, while the bigger incidents that followed it did not get the same notice?

The answer lies in the battle for the Muslim vote in next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh. The consensus that emerged from a recent trip to the central and eastern U.P. was that while the SP was the first choice of Muslims, if the SP — wrecked by an internal feud — did not look up to the task of keeping the BJP at bay, the community would shift its support to the Bahujan Samaj Party.

But if reports of Dalit-Muslim clashes are highlighted — as they are being from many parts of western U.P. ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014 — it will frighten Muslims away, while drawing Dalits into the Hindu – read BJP – fold, as happened to a large extent in U.P. in the last Lok Sabha polls.

BSP supremo Mayawati appealed for Dalit-Muslim unity at a rally in Azamgarh on August 28, stressing that members of both communities were victims of the BJP nationally.

On Adityanath’s turf

These episodes have not gone unnoticed in neighbouring Gorakhpur district, where Yogi Adityanath, mahant of the wealthy Gorakhnath Temple, and five-time BJP MP, heads the Hindu Vahini.

Local journalist Manoj Singh explains: “In 2014, the BJP used the Muzaffarnagar violence and the mass exodus of Muslims from their villages to polarise society along religious lines. This time, there is an attempt to make Azamgarh, located in eastern U.P., a hub for similar polarisation. The fact that Azamgarh became notorious after the Batla House encounter in Delhi as the home district of suspected terrorists, the BJP feels, can make its task easier.”