It’s a cold and wet January morning in Khampur, a Muslim-majority village in Muzaffarnagar district in western Uttar Pradesh. A group of men are huddled around a fire in front of a roadside stall, sipping piping hot tea and discussing, what else but the upcoming assembly elections in the state. Noticing us clicking photographs, the shop-owner offers us tea. “Come and join us, it will make your day warmer.” But warmth is a rarity here, a region torn asunder by communal riots in 2013 that killed more than 60 people officially and displaced more than 50,000. Most of the victims were Muslims. The warmth that Hindus and Muslims shared for generations became a mirage. Not even the brightest fire nor the hottest cup of tea has since managed to melt the icy wedge that was struck between the two communities.
Khampur, about 10 km from Muzaffarnagar city, is now home to many of those displaced by the riots, living in tiny brick houses built by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, an influential Islamic organisation of the Deoband school of thought. Among those sitting by the fire is Mohammad Aquil, 52, who too had fled during the riots from a Jat-majority village. “We were not directly affected by what unfolded in 2013. However, nine of our relatives were killed in another village by Jats. So, as the news came, we ran away overnight and reached here for safety,” he tells Outlook.
Overnight, new social chasms appeared as Muzaffarnagar and adjoining districts drifted away from the traditional farmer-centric politics. Muslims and Jats, who lived peacefully in a mixed culture and shared economic relationships, overnight started baying for each other’s blood. For the Hindu voters, the “issues” changed—they now talk about protecting the ‘honour’ of their women and ‘love jihad’, besides other emotive issues. The stories about how the region remained a textbook example of communal harmony were rendered meaningless. So did the decades-long political equations.
The Rashtriya Lok Dal, the farmers’ party, was soon replaced by the BJP as it aggressively pushed ahead with its Hindutva agenda, and reaped rich dividends in successive elections post-2013. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party won 71 of the 78 seats it had contested in UP. In the 2017 assembly polls, its performance was unprecedented as the Narendra Modi-led party won 314 seats out of 403 it contested. Again, in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the party won 62 seats.
The rise of the BJP also marked the disintegration of the Muslim ‘vote bank’ and sowed seeds of doubts in the community against a consolidated Hindu identity, even in a caste-ridden state like UP. Especially in western UP, where they form 27 per cent of the population, the community now finds itself in the margins of electoral mathematics and unsure of its standing, both politically and socially. Once pampered by so-called secular outfits, Muslims now accuse these parties of deserting the community fearing a majority backlash in hustings. “Now it doesn’t matter whom we vote. We have consistently voted for secular parties, believed in the Constitution of India, but they cannot win without the support of the people from the majority community. And that will not happen for them until they desert us completely,” says Mohammad Zeeshan, a Khampur resident. “There was a time when candidates used to come to us before the elections. Even that has stopped now. They know that we have no alternative other than to live in constant fear of this regime or else vote for them,” he adds.
At an informal gathering of Islamic scholars and community members at the Mahbubul Libanat madrasa in Muzaffarnagar, the question that was on everybody’s mind was: what now? “It has come down to the question of our survival now amid open genocidal calls by the Hindutva fringe. We understand that there is no one by our side now, but it is also crucial not to react out of impulse,” says Maulana Akram Nadvi, taking a pacifist view. “We cannot paint everyone with the same brush. We will have to be more pragmatic and understand that if SP-RLD can form the government, we will get some breathing space. We won’t have a fear of being lynched while moving out…it will impact our business prospects,” he adds.
It is by now clear that a majority of Muslims are siding with the SP-led coalition for the polls. But does it mean absolute allegiance of the community? It is here that another equation emerges—Asaduddin Owaisi and his party, the All India Majli-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Though a large section of Muslims sympathises with him and connects with his articulation of their grievances, not all consider him an electoral option. Most youngsters support Owaisi and might vote for AIMIM. The elders of the community believe it is no solution. “I will vote for AIMIM. If we don’t vote for him today, we will never have an independent political agency like the Dalits, Yadavs and other OBCs,” says Waseem Tyagi, who owns a small printing business in Muzaffarnagar. “It’s not about AIMIM winning or not but sending a message to the secular parties that we are no longer willing to be taken for granted. Also, if we can’t make them win, we can make them lose the elections.” His elder brother Istekhar Tyagi, however, believes that they are not in a position to have a Muslim party. For the record, the Hyderabad-based AIMIM will fight elections in 100-odd seats in the state.
Muzaffarnagar Moments (Clockwise from left) A Muslim family; friends walk back home from school; houses destroyed and abandoned during the 2013 riots.
Even in Saharanpur’s Deoband constituency, the largely conservative Muslim voters are backing the SP. Muslims form a large chunk of the population in the constituency. “I do understand the criticism of secular parties on the Muslim question, but we don’t have a choice right now. We need to defeat the bigger enemy. We have been living under constant fear of being beaten up by anyone for wearing a skull cap and other identity markers. This will change if BJP goes out of power,” says Ali Nadwi, a student at the Darul Uloom. The incumbent MLA from Deoband is Brijesh Singh of BJP.
However, political experts see a fault in the community leaders’ reasoning. “Muslims have been again made to believe that their only agenda is to defeat BJP,” says Satish Prakash, a faculty at Meerut College and a Dalit activist. “However, this is not (the case) with others. The Jats will look for a Jat candidate, the Dalits vote strategically. Also, SP and RLD want Muslims to vote as silently as Jatav Dalits do for BSP. The BJP wants them to visibly consolidate behind the SP and RLD to tag them a Muslim alliance. The saffron outfit fears that a Dalit-Muslim coalition in western UP can completely wipe out BJP from power,” Prakash explains.
Echoing the views of Prakash, a Muslim leader from SP, who wanted to remain anonymous, claims that only Muslims have taken the lead in bridging the gap between the two communities. Jats are still unwilling to vote for a Muslim, which is not the case with Muslims. “They will vote for Jats from the SP-RLD coalition,” he says.
Jats and Muslims together form about 35 per cent of the electorate in western UP. The SP has left 33 seats for the RLD in the first round. In at least five seats, SP candidates are contesting on the RLD’s hand pump symbol. To woo Jat voters, BJP too has fielded 12 Jat candidates. “Following the Muzaffarnagar riots, Muslims tried to fill the divide by voting massively for late RLD supremo Ajit Singh. However, the Jats were found wanting. Even today, they are not willing to vote for Muslims, and that’s one reason why the alliance has not given even a single ticket to Muslims in Muzaffarnagar district,” he adds. Fissures in Jat–Muslim unity have emerged in others parts of UP too. The UP Jat Mahasabha has stated that if a Jat is not chosen as a candidate in the Siwalkhas, it will urge people to vote against the alliance. In a pre-emptive move, RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary tweeted that his grandfather, Chaudhary Charan Singh, never engaged in Hindu-Muslim politics.
Yet another minor drama is playing out in Sambhal, a Muslim-dominated district where the community has largely consolidated around the SP-RLD coalition. While the Sambhal parliamentary seat is held by SP’s Shafiqur Rahman Barq, a 90-year-old veteran, the assembly seat is held by Iqbal Mahmood, also of the SP, who has represented the constituency for 25 years. In the previous assembly election, Mahmood defeated Barq’s grandson Ziaur Rahman Barq, who contested on an AIMIM ticket. This time around, Sambhal will see a triangular contest between incumbent Iqbal Mahmood, BJP’s Rajesh Singhal, and Congress’s Nida Ahmed, a former journalist with a news channel in Noida. Ziaur Rahman Barq has been given an SP ticket from the Kundarki seat this time.
“My grandson will be winning the Kundarki seat with a margin of not less than 50,000 votes,” says Shafiqur Rahman Barq. On being asked why he did not contest on an AIMIM ticket again in Sambhal like in 2017, he says, “We realised that the votes he fetched in the last election were ours and not AIMIM’s. Also, we want to defeat the communal politics of the BJP. Therefore, everyone has to remain united with the SP+RLD coalition.”
For the Muslim women too, this election has assumed more importance than ever before. Though enthused by more representation to women by the Congress, 24-year-old Bushra Khan says she is not convinced about her winnability. “I am happy to see a woman candidate in a male-dominated political ecosystem, but I don’t think I will vote for her, considering that this is an important election against the incumbent chief minister and the BJP government. So, I will vote for anyone who is in a position to stop the BJP juggernaut,” Bushra says.
Amid the churning in the community, Asaduddin Owaisi released a report titled ‘Situating Development of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh Policy Implications’, prepared by the Centre for Development Policy and Practice. The document focuses on the socio-economic condition of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.
Said to resonate with the findings of the Sachar Committee— formed in 2005 by the then Congress government at the Centre to study the socio-economic condition of Muslims in India—the report examines a wide range of challenges that influence Muslim public life, livelihoods, educational achievement, economic mobility and factors that cause and exacerbate inequality. It also had policy recommendations to address the issues.
The most striking part of the document deals with alleged government targeting of Muslims’ source of income. According to the research, the government discouraged Muslim entrepreneurs from engaging in particular businesses, such as meat or leather trade. “Even though the majority of the country’s population is non-vegetarian, the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS, largely Brahmin (upper caste), Hindu vegetarian clan, continue to criticise Muslims for beef consumption and the business of selling meat and leather,” the study says. Talking to Outlook, sociologist and former faculty member at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Arshad Alam says that the “findings of the report are mostly true on different parameters. Similar findings were also reflected in the Sachar Committee report. However, the new element here is the attack on sources of livelihood of the Muslims.”
“There has been a consistent attack on the meat business carried out by Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. As a result, Muslims working in the meat industry have suffered a lot; among them are butchers. People involved in the trade of skin and bones have also been impacted negatively,” he adds.
As the tussle for votes and debates around Muslim politics intensify in this region, abandoned houses in Jat villages stand as a metaphor for the community’s plight. Muslims say they do not feel secure in going back to their old villages. Jat villagers claim they have requested the Muslims to return. “No one likes hostilities. They lived here, we shared many happy and sad memories. One unfortunate incident should not leave a permanent scar. We want them to come back here, not to work in our fields but to live with us again,” says a Jat woman in Kakda village. Islamuddin, 70, a resident of Khampur, is not too sure: “We too want to return to our villages, but who will guarantee us security?”
It is a loaded question, begging an answer. Since 2013.
(This appeared in the print edition as "In the Crosshairs, at the Crossroads")
Asad Ashraf in Muzaffarnagar