The shifting sands of Muzaffarnagar

The riots have deeply divided Hindus and Muslims, but a new dynamic has entered the picture with the general election  

Updated - May 31, 2016 09:16 am IST

Published - March 29, 2014 02:05 am IST

The plots allotted to displaced Muslim families are tiny and the tents hardly fit one person. Yet, ownership of the plots has given them a sense of security. Photo: S. Subramanium

The plots allotted to displaced Muslim families are tiny and the tents hardly fit one person. Yet, ownership of the plots has given them a sense of security. Photo: S. Subramanium

Six months ago, a raging communal conflagration in and around Muzaffarnagar had destroyed the social fabric of the region, leading to a bitter polarisation of the hearts and minds, and shaking up patterns of political choices made in the long years of Hindus and Muslims living together.

On a visit to these parts, it is evident that the passage of time has not lessened the anger and pain. Indeed, as the two communities relive the nightmare, scorn and hate gush forth, with both sides affirming that relationships have soured irreparably.

And yet, today, there is a fluidity on the ground — in the first place because the local economy has collapsed without the participation of Muslims, and secondly because a new dynamic has come into play with the commencement of the general election. In the months after the violence, Muslims had disengaged from the Uttar Pradesh government and the Samajwadi Party (SP), feeling betrayed by their lack of empathy with the riot-affected. The offer of compensation had seemed like an insult, a token pay off for the mistreatment of the displaced families.

Today, the bitterness has been put behind. Instead there is relief at having survived the ordeal, which the Muslim refugees attribute to the SP being in power. “Under a different regime, the police would have killed us all,” is a common refrain in the neighbourhoods where the oustees have relocated. On the Hindu side, too, there is some change, with the Jat reservation announced by the United Progressive Alliance causing an ever slight dent in the perceived consolidation behind Narendra Modi.

Muslims justify the change in attitude by a simple differentiation between the “authority” and “sarkar.” The denial of justice is by the “authority” comprising the district police and the administration while “sarkar,” headed by Akhilesh Yadav and overseen by patriarch Mulayam Singh, is a friend rendered helpless by the wicked designs of the “authority.”

Regret with a caveat

In the aftermath of the riots, the Jat Hindus had rejoiced in the mass exodus of Muslims from their villages. Today, there is regret that they let this happen. However, the visitor’s surprise at the openly articulated remorse vanishes in no time. The repentance owes, not to a genuine change of heart, but to the opportunistic realisation that Muslims are needed to save the village economy from ruin, and in some cases, to buy freedom from pending criminal complaints. Muslims reject this offer totally, and insist that they prefer their hard life as riot-refugees to the fear and insecurity of returning to their vandalised ancestral homes.

But home here is no more than a make-shift tent pitched on a piece of plot bought from the cash compensation awarded by the Uttar Pradesh government. The award of Rs. 5 lakh each to the 950 Muslim families identified by the government is pitiful when compared to the wealth and property left behind. The plots are tiny, and the tents hardly fit even one person, let alone a large joint family. Yet, ownership of the plots has given the displaced Muslims a sense of belonging and security. It is a very different feeling from the dread, disorientation and loss they had experienced, when, simultaneously with the September 2013 violence, they had been shoved into relief camps in roughly the same areas as where they live now. The months that followed brought death and disease, and as winter set in, infants perished and the women barely survived.

But worse was to come in the callously indifferent form of the State government. Muslims felt an organic connect with the SP. Party chief Mulayam Singh was Maulana Mulayam. But this time round, Mr. Singh and his Chief Minister son would behave as if the violence on the riot-affected was self-inflicted. There were no answers to why a government invested in Muslims would treat them so inhumanly. The unkindest cut was when an official team set upon the camps with bulldozers right in the middle of winter.

In the event, shocked by the patron’s abandonment of them at their time of need and distress, the riot-affected lashed out at the government and swore to vote against it in the general election. Muslims bought into the narrative of the SP and the Bharatiya Janata Party being complicit in the violence to consolidate their respective vote banks.

Change in mood However, today, there is a discernible mood change among the riot-affected. In the resettlement colonies of Shahpur, Basi Kalan, Kharad and Jawla, there is little evidence of the anti-SP emotion documented in the months after the violence. “Mulayam has done no wrong. It is all the fault of local officials,” say Shaukat and Nazeer, both originally from violence-affected Hasanpur but now inmates of the only official relief camp at Jwala. This camp has been entirely bypassed for compensation but there is hope nonetheless that “do-gooder Mulayam” will rectify the oversight. The sentiment is stronger among those who have received compensation. Enoos Mussa, a resident of Basi Kalan, a resettlement colony housing as many as 250 families from Qutba village, spares the government and instead blames their plight on Jat Hindus and their “police patrons.”

The Jat-dominated Qutba reported eight Muslim deaths. There is a haunted feel to the Muslim parts of the village, with row upon row of burnt and destroyed homes collectively testifying to the September 2013 death and devastation. The Jats here seem contrite at having allowed the Muslim exodus. Suresh Pal a retired school-teacher says, “What happened was very wrong.” Yet the reason for feeling so is opportunistic: “Our economy is finished. Muslims did all our work, from masonry and carpentry to agriculture.” Eighty-year old Sukhbiri talks of a “ chhoti si darar” (small divide) between Hindus and Muslims, which can be healed with the latter’s return. But even as she advocates reconciliation, her language is abusive towards Muslims.

The Jat Hindus here are happy that the BJP ticket from Muzaffarnagar has gone to Sanjeev Baliyan, a prominent local figure accused of participation in the riots. “No one can beat the powerful combination of Narendra Modi and Dr. Baliyan.” Elsewhere in Muzaffarnagar too there is a “Modi, Modi” chant and open expression of delight at the candidature of Mr. Baliyan.

But this support is less unequivocal in the Jat areas outside Muzaffarnagar, not the least because of the UPA government’s decision to implement reservation for Jats. And though the benefit from this looks likely to go to the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal rather than the Congress, Jat reservation has upset previous calculations for the reason that caste is considered a potential wrecker of religious consolidation.

Unsurprisingly, the BJP has responded to the reservation googly with a strong infusion of Hindutva. In the three riot-affected constituencies of Muzaffarnagar, Kairana and Bijnor, the party has fielded men accused of involvement in the riots.

A third churn in the region is among Dalits, a section of whom admit to attraction towards Mr. Modi though certain that in the end they will vote the Bahujan Samaj Party. In itself this is a new development, and a cause for worry for Ms Mayawati.

In the past, Jats and Muslims often voted the same candidate. The trend briefly broke post-Ayodhya. The 2013 violence saw another political rupture. As Muzaffarnagar votes in this election, political positions seem less defined than six months ago, though undoubtedly it is the BJP in the lead.

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