For 29-year-old Kherunisa Qureshi, who lost her husband and two other family members in the Hindu-Muslim riots raging in Muzaffarnagar and its vicinity, returning to her village is no longer an option.
A resident of Shamli district, adjacent to Muzaffarnagar, she managed to escape with her two daughters, aged 5 and 10, and with bullet and stab wounds, took refuge at the local government hospital. She doesn’t want to return home because she fears being attacked once again after security forces deployed in her village are withdrawn.
Qureshi’s predicament captures the new battleground of communal politics: rural India. It is worrying because, in the past, communal violence tended to be concentrated in urban areas. This time, the spectre of Hindu-Muslim violence is also threatening to alter the political landscape in western Uttar Pradesh, a region that last seen riots of such scale, again mostly in urban areas, in the 1980s.
Not only is it causing a cleavage between rural communities, it is, in the run-up to the next general election, likely to further polarize the electorally crucial states of UP and Bihar, both of which have been witness to several low-intensity episodes of communal violence over the last two years. Such violence has grown in scale in recent months.
It is yet unclear whether and how it will alter the electoral arithmetic in UP, which at present is perceived to be a largely four-cornered contest between the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party, Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). UP sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha, the largest contingent from any single state.
“It is true that such riots are now happening in more rural areas. People in villages are more close knit and everyone knows each other. However, one needs to go deeper to find out why the communal forces are targeting villages,” said Badri Narayan, a professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad.
The rural phenomenon
NH 58, a normally busy highway to Muzaffarnagar, an industrial town in western Uttar Pradesh, is almost deserted. There are check posts at regular intervals manned by the army and paramilitary forces. In the city, no shops and business establishments are open because of curfew.
Jats make up around 30% of the population of western Uttar Pradesh, Muslims some 40%, Dalits 10% and Brahmins and Rajputs together the remaining 20%, said Vishesh Gupta, an associate professor and head of the department of sociology at Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Rohilkhand University in Bareilly.
Gupta attributes the spread of violence to rural areas to the involvement of the “new generation” and the growing distance between communities in the hinterland.
“Riots have happened in villages because of the involvement of new generation. The dialogue and harmony between communities which was present in the earlier times have gone down and the new generation is getting into conflicts with each other,” Gupta said.
According to the city administration, 38 people have died in the violence so far. Ambulances speeding by with their sirens wailing are evidence that the violence in the rural areas and the city hasn’t ended yet.
“The situation in both city and rural areas has improved but it is still tense. We are keeping a close watch and curfew was relaxed twice today so that people could buy essential commodities,” said Arun Kumar, the additional director general of Uttar Pradesh who is in-charge of the law and order situation in the state. “I have served in Muzaffarnagar as superintendent of police in 1995 but never heard of any violence in rural areas. This is a new phenomenon.”
A surgeon at the Muzaffarnagar civil hospital, who did not wish to be identified, said violence had spread to nearby villages in districts like Baghpat and Shamli.
“Violence in villages is not known. This is the first time. We have received 68 injured so far and some have been referred to government hospital in Meerut equipped with better medical facilities,” the surgeon said. “Most of the people coming to the hospital have either have bullet wounds or wounds made by sharp-edged weapons.”
As a consequence of the violent attacks, daily wage labourers, both Hindu and Muslim, have fled. Business associations in Muzaffarnagar are concerned that they may never return.
“Most of the labourers are Hindus or Muslims. There was never any differentiation on the basis of religion,” said Pankaj Aggarwal, chairman of the local paper mills association.
Most residents are blaming political parties and the state administration for allowing the violence to escalate to such a scale.
“This is a very unfortunate incident which looks like it was sponsored by the ruling Samajwadi Party and Bharatiya Janata Party. BJP can do well in the Lok Sabha election only by polarizing the people. The SP government wants to appease the people of a particular community (Muslims) for vote-bank politics,” said Dinesh Kumar, a retired principal of SD Degree College, the biggest in Muzaffarnagar.
“Mulayam Singh wants to be Prime Minister and believes this to be shortest way to success,” said Dinesh Kumar, referring to the president of the Samajwadi Party.
The riots that started on 7 September and went on unchecked for nearly three days have brought back memories of the Hindu-Muslim clashes that erupted in the summer of 1987 in Meerut. Around 350 people died in those clashes, according to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Some see a pattern underlying the revival in communal violence. The genesis, say analysts, was the overt attempts by both the Congress and the SP to woo the crucial Muslim vote in the state. Sensing a vacuum, fringe Muslim and Hindu groups sought to stoke communal sentiments, Mint reported on 4 December, 2012.
This trend in polarization got a fillip after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) attempted to revive the demand for building a temple at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished in 1992, Mint reported on 25 August. Hindu nationalists say the site is Ram Janmabhoomi—the birthplace of the warrior-god Ram.
This calibrated polarization is now giving way to large-scale communal clashes.
“The poisoning (of relations) between the two communities that took place during the Ram Janambhoomi agitation is the real cause of this violence. What was the need for VHP leader Ashok Singhal to meet Mulayam Singh Yadav,” said Zahoor Siddiqui, a retired historian from Delhi University who now lives in Bhagpat district, which has also seen a face-off between Hindus and Mulsims.
“The communal clashes in the rural areas are significant because they had never happened in the past. Riots are known to take place in cities and not villages. People have changed,” said Siddiqui, who runs a school for underprivileged children.
Residents of the Muzaffarnagar say the violence is likely to benefit both the ruling Samajwadi Party and the BJP and limit the influence of the Congress party in the entire western Uttar Pradesh region.
The violence erupted after a girl belonging to the dominant Jat community was subjected to street harassment by some young Muslims in Kawal village. The incident led to clashes between Jats and Muslims in the village in which three people died.
“I believe it was premeditated. The SP and BJP have strategically used people to polarise the situation in their favour. We expect more such incidents before the elections because politicians of both the parties will make use of these incidents for election campaigning,” said Ram Kumar Gautam, retired biology teacher in Shri Arvind Inter College.
Anuja contributed to the story.