Muzaffarnagar/Meerut: One night last week in Meerut a Hindu businessman woke up to find that someone had set his tent house—a temporary structure erected for functions and, by extension, business establishments that put up such structures—on fire.

The police were called, but the businessman decided against pressing charges—no one was hurt—and a complaint wasn’t filed, according to Navdeep Rinwa, the district collector in Meerut. A complaint, he added, may have been just the spark required to create a problem between Hindus and Muslims.

Meerut, where Muslims make up 45% of the population and Hindus, the rest, is barely 35km from Muzaffarnagar, a city in western Uttar Pradesh that burned last fortnight, after an instance of eve-teasing involving a Hindu girl and her Muslim tormentor snowballed into a fight between the two communities, fuelled by fake videos and provocative speeches by members of both groups, and eventually left 44 dead and caused more than 40,000 people to flee their homes, according to Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party government that has been criticized for its failure to contain the violence.

Yet, Meerut hasn’t seen any significant outbreak of communal violence since 1987.

Some academics such as Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University have argued in the past that this differential response of urban areas to communal provocations is part of a pattern.

According to them, the civic engagement between Muslims and Hindus has contributed to the gradual demise of communal violence in urban areas such as Meerut, even as the lack of such interaction has failed to prevent or contain violence elsewhere. Even in 1992, the riots that broke out across the country after the demolition of the Babri Masjid left Meerut largely untouched.

And so, around two months ago, when a 63-year-old Muslim social worker was killed, allegedly by Hindus, the local administration formed a group of businessmen and community leaders from both communities that defused the tension.

The fact that Meerut didn’t go the Muzaffarnagar way may well highlight what went wrong in the second city.

One common thread that emerges in narratives is the failure of the local administration.

Uttar Pradesh is ruled by a socialist Samajwadi Party government that counts Muslims among its electoral base. Rivals have always claimed that the party has a long tradition of appeasing Muslims and, indeed, in the aftermath of the riots, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav appeared in meetings in a skull-cap, as if to indicate his solidarity with a community when, in fact, there were casualties on both sides.

If anything, the administration’s first response to the violence was inept—it transferred officials who knew people belonging to various communities and could have counted on the support of existing networks of Muslims and Hindus to help keep the peace.

That wasn’t to be.

“The local administration is new in Muzaffarnagar. The district collector and superintendent of police were replaced on 27 August when three boys died in communal clashes in Kawaal village which led to trouble in the entire district. There has been no meeting of the peace committee yet and that is strange," said Pankaj Aggarwal, a member of the peace committee and also the chairman of the paper mills association in Muzaffarnagar.

Previously, the administration would call such meetings “immediately," he added.

Aggarwal’s views are echoed by Ravinder Singh, member of the transport association in Muzaffarnagar. At the least, the administration could have responded faster, he added.

Experts also point out that while the 1987 clash in Meerut was between Hindus and Muslims, the caste riots in Muzaffarnagar were between Jats, a sub-group of Hindus, and Muslims, who have historically lived beside each other in harmony.

“The state government could have avoided these clashes if timely action was taken. The riots in Muzaffarnagar cannot exactly be categorized as Hindu-Muslim riots because only Jats and Muslims are involved," said Vishesh Gupta, associate professor and head of the department of sociology at the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Rohilkhand University.

According to him, the communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar were designed to polarize the populace with an obvious eye on the upcoming general election—Uttar Pradesh sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha.

“The beard and moustache of an elderly gentleman was shaved at gun point, threatening pamphlets were found inside a temple, acid was thrown on another elderly person and a pig was killed and thrown inside a religious place. There seems to be a definite plan to create problems in Meerut also. I can’t say who is responsible for this because the cases are under investigation," said Rinwa.

Such interference and manipulation usually exacerbates the situation.

“Self policing idea typically works in segregated societies, if it does (Malaysia is a good example since 1969). Muslims and Jats interacted in Muzaffarnagar a lot. Until we know more this is a story of pre-existing networks unable to resist the might of political manipulations," said Varshney in an email exchange.

Which probably explains why at least some people in and around Meerut live under the shadow of fear.

“I lost my father and elder brother who were killed by a mob at Holi Chowk in Maliyana (in 1987). Many of the residents migrated from Maliyana to Ghaziabad and Delhi. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) tried to create problems after Ayodhya (the demotion of the Babri Masjid) but they were unable to do it," said Raees Ahmed from Maliyana, near Meerut. “But these people succeeded in Muzaffarnagar. We just pray that it doesn’t come to Maliyana," said Ahmed, who had named 53 people of Maliyana in the FIR.

The administration isn’t taking any chances. It has classified Maliyana and parts of Meerut as “sensitive" and also stationed policemen in most areas.

It has also tapped into existing networks, particularly business associations.

“It is only businessmen from both the communities who help maintain peace. We don’t look at customers as Hindus or Muslims, they are just customers for us. Businessmen from both the communities are in regular touch," said Arun Vashisht, president of Sanyukt Vyapar Sangh of Meerut.

Political experts who are actively following the communal clashes in Uttar Pradesh point out that civil society members are normally active only before or after riots and that the situation in Muzaffarnagar was peculiar because the peace committee was not even involved by administration.

“While the secular section of the district is quiet and is not taking initiative to calm the situation, it is possible that civil society members have also become communal and they are behaving like Hindus and Muslims. The civil society is successful only before the riots or after the communal clashes when people are ready to listen to each other. Civil society never plays a role during the riots," said Badri Narayan, professor at Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.

The Western Uttar Pradesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is based in Meerut, believes that the residents of the city are tired of communal clashes and want to break free from the past reputation of being a city that is divided on communal lines. “There is no doubt that attempts were made to instigate violence in Meerut. But association members were sent to trouble spots to talk to community leaders and residents to pacify them. Meerut has seen violence in the past and people don’t want a repeat of such clashes," said Arvind Nath Seth, president of the lobby group. “People of every community suffer due to violence and this has been understood by everyone in the city."