By Ajaz Ashraf
September 13, 2013
Stretched to the limit: People of a village in Muzaffarnagar during curfew. File photo
The rioting in Muzaffarnagar is the result of the gradual breakdown of the Muslim-Jat coalition, aided in large measure by the political opportunism of the Rashtriya Lok Dal
Beyond the allegations against the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Sangh Parivar for tossing the bitter ingredients of communal politics into the cauldron of west Uttar Pradesh, the rioting in Muzaffarnagar illustrates vividly the ramifications of a social alliance breaking down at grass-roots level. The fury sweeping Muzaffarnagar has been generated because of the skittling of the MAJGAR — Muslim, Ahir (Yadav), Jat, Gujjar and Rajput — alliance and the intense competition among political parties to grab its fragments.
Thrived On Interests
It was former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh who stitched together this alliance, representing the interests of the middle peasantry which had economically benefited from the Green Revolution. It challenged the Congress’s hegemony in U.P. Though of five different social groups, the Jats and Muslims were the cornerstones on which the edifice of MAJGAR was erected.
The alliance thrived on the politics of interests, rather than on identity. Charan Singh, as old-timers would tell you, harped on the Muslims and the Jats of western U.P. belonging to the farming community, united together both by the problems they encountered and benefits accruing from the government’s agricultural policy. In this bonding, there was also the factor of propinquity, or nearness in space or time, at play — the social mix of villages was such as to foster the idea of mutual coexistence. It was this social alliance that Singh brought into the political realm with telling effect.
On his death in the summer of 1987, his son, Ajit Singh, now a union minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, inherited the mantle of Jat leadership. In fact, he was anointed as the heir apparent a year earlier, at a mammoth public rally at Muzaffarnagar, where, ironically, the Jat-Muslim bond was torn asunder last week. Over the years, Ajit Singh squandered the legacy of his father not only because his urbane persona and years of living abroad made it difficult for him to identify with the earthy Jats, but also because of his political opportunism that saw him hop from one party to another and his disinclination to work at grass-roots level.
There were two other factors that weakened his grip as well for cracks to emerge in the Jat-Muslim relationship. First, in the months Charan Singh lay ill before his death, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a self-avowedly non-electoral formation in western U.P., caught the popular imagination through its massive sit-ins and dharnas, first in Meerut and then in Delhi, on a host of issues pertaining to farmers.
Its star was undoubtedly the mercurial Mahendra Singh Tikait, who too ensured that the farmer agitation included both Muslims and Jats, at times symbolised through special arrangements made for the two communities to offer namaz and sing bhajans. In 1989, he launched a 40-day agitation to demand the return of Nayeema, a Muslim girl who had been abducted.
The first instance of the strain in the Jat-Muslim alliance came not from within but from a factor extraneous to their relationship. The decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations for reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in jobs angered and confused the Jats; though belonging to middle castes, they weren’t on the list of groups whose members qualified for preferential treatment. It saw them jump on the anti-Mandal bandwagon, turning them susceptible to the politics of the Sangh Parivar, which was fanning from the background upper caste/middle class anger against reservation. The BJP’s Ram temple agitation enhanced its lure for the Jats.
Politically, the Muslims were pulling in the opposite direction, palpably feeling insecure because of the temple agitation. As U.P. lurched from one crisis to another — the shilanyas ceremony, L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, the periodic assembling of kar sevaks in Ayodhya and the eventual demolition of the Babri Masjid — they rallied behind Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was then chief minister. Not only did MAJGAR begin to unravel, but even the cornerstones of this social alliance were no longer in sync.
If the Jats didn’t join the BJP in droves it was because the fragmented alliance of Charan Singh was still durable enough to exert a countervailing pull. More importantly, it was also because community leaders weren’t accorded the status they had imagined they would get in a party representing upper caste interests. Yet, the inroads the BJP had made into the community were obvious in the defeat of Ajit Singh in the 1998 parliamentary election.
As the fortunes of the BJP waxed and waned, the Jat-Muslim relationship experienced yet another shock in 2009, which was when Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) entered into an alliance to fight the 2009 election. No doubt, the RLD won five seats, but it angered the Muslims no end: they largely kept away from the RLD and, in this sense, the Jats and Muslims, for the first time in over more than two decades, voted in different ways.
Old-timers in western U.P., particularly those belonging to academia, say that should the RJD yet again break away from the Congress and align itself with the BJP for the 2014 election, the Muslims will forever divorce themselves from Ajit Singh and the Jats. For one, the presence of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on the national stage will see the Sangh Parivar strive to create the larger Hindu identity for subsuming caste divisions.
As in the past, this will be defined in opposition to the Muslim community, leading to polarisation, made easier because of the perceived bias of the State government towards Muslims. It’s a development they are wary of as it could turn the villages of western U.P., with Muslims and Jats living together in large numbers, as sites of social instability and friction.
Are not Ajit Singh’s choices limited? For one, his current ally, the Congress, whose UPA he joined after the 2009 election, is not in fine fettle in the State. Nor can he partner the SP, which has alienated the Jats. Again, the contradiction between the Dalits and Jats is too sharp for Ajit Singh and Mayawati to share a common platform. It is consequently assumed, as also rumoured, that Ajit Singh will once again embrace the BJP.
However, there are two factors which can dissuade him from ditching the Congress. One, the UPA could announce the inclusion of Jats in the OBC pool for reservation in Central government jobs and educational institutes. Two, it could announce the establishment of a high court bench in western U.P., a demand its people have voiced for years. Otherwise, it is argued, the last stakes will be driven into the wobbly Jat-Muslim relationship.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist.