Will Muzaffarnagar transcend its communal fault line?
Ajit Singh takes on the BJP here, five years after the 2013 riot.
In 2013, Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh burst into flames.
A Hindu-Muslim – to be more specific, Jat-Muslim – riot displaced 50,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes. About 50 people were killed.
The riot – which took place when Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party was the state’s Chief Minister – impacted politics in western UP. The Jats – a dominant agrarian caste constituting around 1.5 per cent of the state’s population but believed to be about 7 per cent in west UP – took a turn from a farmer-centric politics to identity politics.
The shift meant that the community moved away from the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) of Ajit Singh to the BJP, a party that openly spoke in support of the Jats at the time of the riot.
I travelled to the town and nearby villages during the riot. The displacement had made Muslims flee their villages to take refuge in madrasas in villages dominated by the community. One such madrasa I visited housed close to 10,000 displaced Muslims. And in the heat of the polarisation, many displaced Muslims shared their experiences, also insisting that Muzaffarnagar wasn’t always like this.
They said community ties had suddenly become strained.
The region had been known for a cross-community farm politics for decades, they added. If there was the Lok Dal of Chaudhary Charan Singh -- the political expression of farm politics -- there was also a Jat-dominated farmers’ organisation, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), with which Muslims had long-standing links.
That composite existence had been torn apart. They also recalled how BKU leader Mahendra Singh Tikait had once taken up the issue of a Muslim girl’s abduction.
But Muzaffarnagar was no longer the same once the riot broke out. Hindus cutting across caste in the town were sympathetic to the Jat youth involved in the riot. Even a local BSP leader told me: “Under state protection, local Muslim youth had been creating trouble for everyone. The Jats being a dominant caste retaliated.”
The othering of the minority community was complete.
The BJP swept western UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Amit Shah, who is now party chief, courted controversy by telling Jat voters in one of his addresses to “take revenge” through the ballot.
Sanjeev Balyan of the BJP, a Jat, won the Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha seat in the elections. There was now a real possibility of the Jat shift to the saffron party becoming a lasting trend, with the BJP also grooming a leadership from the caste.
In the 2017 assembly elections, too, the BJP swept western UP.
The coming of the idea of a grand alliance to take on the BJP – something that was successfully attempted in the 2018 Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll – complicated the situation for the saffron party.
In line with this experiment, Ajit Singh of the RLD is contesting from Muzaffarnagar as the grand alliance candidate against the BJP’s Balyan.
The idea is to break the BJP’s Jat votes in the name of former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh’s legacy. And to combine Jat, Muslim and Dalit votes, in what is also a symbolic pitch against religious polarisation.
Ajit Singh told Asiaville in an exclusive interview that he had deliberately chosen the constituency to send across a message of communal amity.
The grand alliance is a powerful challenger to the BJP in the sugarcane belt of west UP, where the BJP still enjoys steady support among the upper castes and lower OBCs.
The contest in Muzaffarnagar promises to be one that has implications beyond the present election. This makes Muzaffarnagar a constituency to watch out for.