Strangers in their own land

The Qureshis of Muzaffarnagar became wealthy mainly through meat export, and subsequently joined politics to protect their businesses.

Updated - November 17, 2021 02:03 am IST

Published - August 30, 2015 12:02 am IST - Muzaffarnagar

In a district where Muslims are mostly small farmers or daily labourers, Asad Zaidi started a jewellery shop that over the years gathered a mixed clientele, dominated by Jat Hindus. “After every riot, Jats would avoid my shop but gradually things would return to normal,” Mr. Zaidi recalls, then pauses, “But the 2013 riots changed everything: I lost 90 per cent of my customers. They never returned.” 

Two years after violent communal clashes ravaged the area, forcing thousands of Muslims to flee, the hatred between the two communities, says Mr. Zaidi, has culminated in an economic boycott of Muslims.

Anil Yadav, a research scholar studying the impact of religious polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh, says the powerful Jats believe the only way to minimise the growing clout — especially political — of Muslims is to destroy them economically. “Muslims are more than 33 per cent of the population in about 14 districts of western UP. In the 77 Assembly segments here, Muslims won 26 seats in the last Assembly elections,” Mr. Yadav points out.

It was against this backdrop that Muslims “began to be singled out for economic boycott, as financial prosperity is the key to political power,” says Mr. Yadav. Religious polarisation caused by the 2013 riots, he points out, resulted in not one Muslim from UP being elected to Parliament in 2014; a first since Independence. He continues: “The Jats, egged on by the Hindutva groups, want to ensure similar results in the 2017 Assembly polls.”  

Varun Bahadur, departmental store owner in Shiv Chowk, confirms the economic boycott: “I receive many WhatsApp messages appealing to Hindus to avoid Muslim shops, mechanics, hotels and everything associated with them. We have reached the brink of a civil war.”

Many Muslim shop owners have given their establishments non-denominational names. For instance, Mr. Zaidi, the only Muslim jeweller in Sarafa Bazaar, renamed his shop from Shafaat Jewellery to S. Jewellery & Sons. But it has made little difference: “First-time customers choose a piece of jewellery and change their minds when they discover my name,” says Mr. Zaidi.

Muslims, who work largely in the unorganised sector as carpenters, masons and casual labourers, are no longer employed by Jat landowners, further deepening their economic distress.

Muslim prosperity began in the 1990s, when businessmen, taking advantage of the advent of economic liberalisation, began to buy shops in Muzaffarnagar’s markets, hoping to catch up with the majority community once the Babri violence abated.

The 1990s also saw the Qureshis, traditionally butchers, in Meerut, Hapur and Muzaffarnagar, expanding their meat shops and even building processing plants as they turned meat exporters. As business expanded, western UP became a major centre of meat export in India. Soon, the Qureshis entered the leather-based sports goods industry in Meerut.

As Muslim entrepreneurs began to prosper and consolidate their economic gains, they, particularly the Qureshis, turned to politics, a fact Hindutva groups did not relish.

Worse, the prosperity of the Qureshis drew a fault line within the Muslim community, who derisively describe members of this Other Backward Class (OBC) community as kasais (butchers). When during riots, the poor Muslims are affected far more than the wealthy Qureshis, it makes ordinary Muslims “frustrated and angry”. 

Local political activist Shandar Gufran said: “Most Muslims want to distance themselves from the Qureshis because their association with beef has been used by rightwing Hindu groups to target the community as a whole. Qureshi leaders became a politically convenient target for the BJP and Hindutva groups, allowing them to demonise and stereotype Muslims as uncivilised butchers who need to be hated.”

The image of Qureshis as “troublemakers” was accentuated after the 2013 riots. Shahnawaz, whose alleged harassment of a Jat girl and subsequent murder by the girl’s cousins set off the communal conflagration, was a Qureshi, thus cementing the enmity.

The Jamiat-ul-Quresh was created in the late 1920s, and it organised the Qureshis, who have subsequently joined politics to protect their businesses. Fellow Muslims, however, say they have not used their clout to help other OBC Muslims.

In the post-Mandal era of the 1990s when OBCs began to assert themselves and get representation in Parliament, OBC Muslims, classified as pasmandas or ajlaf, followed suit. Being financially well-off, the Qureshis began to dominate mainstream Muslim politics. 

As significant as the OBC Ansaris (weavers) who led backward Muslim politics in the country, especially in UP and Bihar, the Qureshis joined Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in large numbers in UP, enabling her to forge a political alliance of Muslim OBCs and Dalits. They have since shuttled between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress.

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