Grassroots secularism grows in western Uttar Pradesh

The farmers’ movement has strengthened the bonds between Muslims and Jats in western Uttar Pradesh

March 02, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Jat villagers playing cards in Kaserwa Kalaan in Kairana, a Muslim-dominated constituency.

Jat villagers playing cards in Kaserwa Kalaan in Kairana, a Muslim-dominated constituency. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The revival of grassroots secularism in western Uttar Pradesh, which is lifting the veil of fear for Muslims, is among the most rewarding benefits of the farmer’s movement in north India. The movement strengthened the social and cultural bonds between Jats and Muslims whose communal harmony of many decades took a beating during the violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. Whether this grassroots secularism will have ripple effects in other parts of U.P. or in the rest of India is a legitimate question. Nonetheless, this in itself is an impressive accomplishment.

The damage caused in 2013

The history of communal harmony of this region is unique because this area remained untouched by the violence following both Partition and the Ayodhya movement. Yet the violence that was unleashed in 2013 tore the secular social fabric like never before — mainly owing to a religious polarisation campaign by the forces of Hindutva, who, according to elderly Jats, were able to brainwash their younger generations to support Hindutva’s ideological cause.

Secularism has been debated by scholars of various disciplines in India. Some have argued that it is a Western idea and thus inherently incompatible with Indian society, where religion is entrenched. For others, secularism is an Indian idea. In my view, the grassroots secularism reflected in the social bonding of the Jats and Muslims in western U.P. presents evidence of the latter variety.

According to Naresh Tikait, elder son of the late farm leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, the old days of bonhomie between the Jats and Muslims have returned, and the massive electoral benefits that the BJP accrued in 2014, 2017 and 2019 are not going to be seen this time in the region. It is worth recalling that Naresh Tikait pleaded with Muslims not to leave Sisauli, his village, during the 2013 violence by taking off his headgear and placing it on the ground. The Bharatiya Kisan Union, which the senior Tikait formed and led, had both Muslim and Hindu leaders and followers, but the 2013 violence caused a split in the organisation. In Mr. Tikait’s house even today, a lamp is lit every day as a tribute to the farmer’s movement as well as the organisation’s secular ethos since 1987, the year which saw the birth of the iconic slogan, “Har Har Mahadev Allahu Akbar”.

A vast majority of Muslims of this region always trusted leaders Charan Singh, Mahendra Singh Tikait, and Mulayam Singh. While they seem to be throwing their weight behind the Akhilesh Yadav-led alliance this time, they appear concerned and fearful. Many victims of the 2013 riots continue to live in colonies set up by disparate organisations or families such as the Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind (of Arshad Madani), the CPI(M) and the family of Tabassum Hasan, the first Muslim MP from U.P. since 2014. In these colonies, victims struggle for basic amenities and livelihood. Many have sold their ancestral properties to Hindu villagers with whom they grew up and lived until the riots. Though Muslims fled the affected villages, there are still abandoned mosques and madrasas in these places. For communal harmony to return, these issues need to be addressed, says social worker Subodh Tyagi, who led a large peace march in Budhana during the riots.

An important issue, unaddressed

The lynching of Muslims has been a prominent issue since 2014. Sadly, this issue has not been spoken about by any party, including the so-called secular ones, during the recent election campaign in U.P. This was the case in West Bengal and New Delhi too. In 2018, the Supreme Court asked Parliament to bring in a separate law against lynching, but the government has made no effort to do so. The same government, however, has shown extraordinary alacrity in implementing the court directive in the Ayodhya case, delivered more than a year later. Former MLA and prominent Jat leader Harendra Singh Malik assured this author that the issue of lynching will be addressed with laws if an Akhilesh-led government comes to power.

While this revival of grassroots secularism deserves appreciation, there is a need for its further consolidation. Communalism, as historian Gyanendra Pandey notes, is constructed. The truth is: secularism also needs construction. As Toseef Rahi, a senior leader from Budhana and associated with the Samajwadi Party, said, “What kind of a secularism did we have in India for about 70 years that it took only about five years for a Hindutva regime ‘to put Muslims in their place?’” The rise of Hindutva and its ruthless use of coercive state power has shaken the foundation of grassroots secularism and the confidence that Muslims had in it. One can only hope that this fresh lease of life for grassroots secularism is sustained.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is the author of a forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims

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