Muslim-Hindu violence in Uttar Pradesh helped India’s Modi take power.

Six years on, peace could kick him out

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 6:00pm, 28 March, 2019

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  • Muzaffarnagar, in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh, was rocked by sectarian riots in 2013 that left 62 people dead and nearly 50,000 displaced

  • The violence helped propel Narendra Modi’s BJP to power, but six years on the communities are uniting – and see the party as a common enemy

Residents argue with police in the wake of 2013’s deadly Muzaffarnagar riots. Photo: AP

By the time the Jats came to murder his family, Mohamed had already escaped.

The day before, a call to arms had come from the local Hindu

 temple: kill all Muslims and “chop them into pieces”. Mohamed and his mother spent that night fearing for their lives, before security forces evacuated their home the next morning.

On a previous night, his mother had seen their long-time neighbours sharpening knives and swords in a courtyard outside.

Mohamed Gayur Saifee with his sons, Anas and Nawazish. Photo: Kunal Purohit

The village of Lank, where the now 38-year-old Mohamed Gayur Saifee lived, was one of the worst affected by the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 that saw violent clashes between the region’s Hindu Jat and Muslim communities.

His cousin, 22, and an uncle who was too frail to flee his home were among the 42 Muslims killed in the communal violence that erupted over three days in September that year – 20 Hindus were also killed and an estimated 50,000 people were displaced.

Various reasons have been given for why the riots started. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) local branch were later charged with fanning the flames of hatred by calling for revenge after the deaths of two Hindu men in an altercation with Muslims.

But whatever the cause, the ensuing brutality tore the local community apart – breaking centuries-old ties between Muslim and Jat and paving the way for the BJP’s electoral success. Eight months after the riots, the party swept the region: winning 71 of the 80 seats in the decisive northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which encompasses Muzaffarnagar.

This helped propel Narendra Modi to the prime ministership with a margin not witnessed in India for 30 years. So perhaps it’s not surprising that on Thursday Modi chose Uttar Pradesh as the place to launch his party’s campaign for next month’s national election.

But six years on from Modi’s historic victory, something seems to have changed. An uneasy truce has broken out between the Muslim and Jat communities of Muzaffarnagar, who are united in an unlikely aim: defeating Modi’s BJP, even if it means relying on each other to make that happen.

A FARMING ECONOMY

Before the riots, Muzaffarnagar was best known for its sugar cane cultivation. The district is also home to the Bharatiya Kisan Union, made up of farmers known to take aggressive stances on issues concerning the local community.

Sugar cane formed the basis of the original compact between Muslims, who traditionally worked the fields, and Jats – a major agricultural caste in the region, who own much of the land.

But the riots changed all that, with many Jat farmers finding themselves short-handed in the wake of the communal violence. “Without a Muslim, a farmer here is finished. The farm will collapse,” said Kanwal Pal Singh, a Jat farmer from Sonta village.

BJP flags atop farm vehicles in Muzaffarnagar. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Also changed was an unwritten agreement that had previously united the two communities at the ballot box – locals like to point out how a number of Muslim candidates found electoral success in the region before 2013.

But in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP’s Jat candidate Sanjeev Balyan received nearly 400,000 more votes than his Muslim opponent and closest rival Kadir Rana. Both had previously been accused of inciting violence during the riots.

This time around, an alliance of opposition parties is aiming to take on the ruling BJP by fielding a popular Jat candidate of their own – former civil aviation minister and six-time MP Ajit Singh.

They are banking on his popularity to bridge the divide between Jats and Muslims and renew the old electoral compact when Muzaffarnagar goes to the polls on April 11.

Ajit Singh, for his part, has been vocal about his motivations for contesting Muzaffarnagar. The 80-year-old owes much of his political success to the region, which has long shown support for both him and his father, former Prime Minister Charan Singh.

He sees it as the area that propelled the BJP to victory in 2014 and has previously told reporters that it is where he wants to “bury” Modi’s party.

Sanjeev Balyan of the BJP, Muzaffarnagar’s incumbent MP, campaigns ahead of the polls. Photo: Kunal Purohit

This helps explain why he and his opposition alliance are focusing on the BJP’s failures: an economy that is slowing, unemployment that is at a 45-year high and an agrarian crisis that has hit the nation’s farmers hardest.

The Modi government, by contrast, has put national security top of its agenda, following the recent tit-for-tat military exchanges with Muslim-majority Pakistan earlier this year.

“We are constantly trying to remind people of the issues that matter to their lives and livelihoods. We are asking them to put the riots behind [them] and to not be swayed by the hawkishness over the air strikes on Pakistan,” said Sanjay Rathi, a local leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal party that Ajit Singh founded and leads.

By bringing the focus back to developmental issues, the attempts to flip the narrative in Muzaffarnagar provide a template for the electoral battles playing out across India this year as opposition parties seek to dislodge Modi and his BJP. The results of the polls are expected on May 23.

BRIDGING THE DIVIDE

In much the same way as reconciliation is being sought in the political realm, community leaders have also been working in recent years to resolve deep-seated issues between Muslims and Jats that were exposed by 2013’s riots.

Vipin Singh Baliyan, a Jat, has been spearheading a programme of grass-roots mediation for the past two years, attempting to resolve disputes through the issuance of apologies or financial reparations, without resorting to violence or the criminal justice system.

He is confident that Ajit Singh will win in the upcoming elections – 800,000 of the 1.7 million voters in the district are either Muslim or Jat, after all, and in Indian politics, the country’s myriad caste and faith dynamics often shape party allegiance and wider voter behaviour.

Muslim women in Muzaffarnagar show their fingers to prove they have voted in state elections in 2017. Photo: AFP

Dr Javed Usmani, a local leader of the BJP’s main rival, the Congress party, agreed – if for no other reason than because Muslim voters in Muzaffarnagar have such a dearth of other options.

“They can’t vote for the BJP, but they would also not want to vote for a Jat, ordinarily. Since there is no other strong candidate here, they are forced to vote for the Jat candidate in Ajit Singh so that the BJP loses,” he said.

Shaukat Ali, a 40-year-old Muslim who was arrested in the wake of a bout of communal violence that flared up in Purbaliyan village last year, shares similar sentiments.

Although Ajit Singh would not be his first choice, “this time, we don’t have an option. We have to back him to defeat the common enemy,” he said.

A COMMON AIM

In 2015, Ajit Singh was evicted from the government accommodation that had been granted to his prime-minister father, prompting massive protests from his supporters. This perceived slight by the Modi government was seen by some Jat voters as immensely symbolic.

“Many felt that the Jat community had been insulted by this act. He has been our voice in New Delhi all these years,” said Kanwal Pal Singh, the Jat farmer from Sonta.

For Muslim voters like Mohamed Gayur Saifee, meanwhile, the upcoming polls are a way to avenge what happened to him and his family.

“We lost everything, our livelihoods, our homes, our families. But most importantly, we lost our janmabhoomi (Hindi for birthplace),” he said, while sitting in the two-room house in a refugee camp that is home to his family of six.

A dismantled refugee camp of the sort where Mohamed Gayur Saifee’s family now lives, which provided housing to victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots. Photo: Press Trust of India

Along one wall is a line of handbags – marking the area that forms a makeshift shop during the day.

As Mohamed speaks, his eldest son Danish enters. The boy was so scarred by the riots that he suffers recurrent nightmares and had to be taken out of school. “His teachers started complaining about him, so we had to make him sit at home,” Mohamed said.

Behind Danish the youngest of the family walks in, six-year-old Nawazish, who was born as the riots of 2013 unfolded.

“The worst day of our lives was also the best day of our lives,” said Mohamed, adding that Nawazish wants to grow up to be a policeman when he is older “so he can go and beat up all those who harassed the family that day”.

The wounds inflicted by those fateful riots will take a long time to heal, but in their opposition to the BJP, both sides of the divide in Muzaffarnagar may have found a common cause around which they can unite. Which is why Mohamed cannot wait to vote, even if it is for a Jat.

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