By Chandan Nandy
14 Jan, 2014
Muzaffarnagar and adjoining Shyamli districts of western Uttar Pradesh have been mis-characterised as a tinderbox that one spark could ignite into an orgy of Hindu-Muslim violence.
And yet, the bloody riots, marked by expressions of inter-group antipathies by at least one side, warrant our attention. They were spurred by deliberate action for mobilisation.
Far from being spontaneous acts of killing, the September riots were the products of political manipulation and organised thuggery. Such political programmes, which academic Paul Brass has described as "institutionalised systems of riot production (ISRP)", shaped the incidence and modalities of the conflagration.
The institutionalised systems were most noticeable in Gujarat in 2002, explaining the deliberate staging, provocation, dramatisation and intensification of planned and targeted killing of Muslims across most parts of the state, and not just in and around Ahmedabad. The existence of ISRP in Gujarat was demonstrated by the deliberate action of riot entrepreneurs or local elites - across the many outfits of the Sangh Parivar - by conveying political messages couched in religious overtones and recruiting agent provocateurs who followed specific instructions.
There, the larger objective was capturing power at the state level. But the "activation" of ISRPs and the production of riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shyamli in western UP's thickly-populated Muslim districts had a limited focus.
It sought to exploit local conditions for competitive electoral politics. The BJP's objective was to wrest, ahead of the 2014 general elections, Jat votes from the Rashtriya Lok Dal to challenge the Samajwadi Party (SP) or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 26 Lok Sabha seats in western UP. In Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar-Shyamli, politics was framed in terms of religious antagonisms.
Meerut Out of the Rut
But why does Meerut, where serious riots and killings occurred in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, not experience bloody riots now?
Short answer: beef. Meerut is one of the main centres of India's $2.8-billion export of bovine products to the UAE, Malaysia, the Philippines and Iran. Since the 1990s, almost the entire Muslim population of Meerut has been engaged in this trade. This has not only brought prosperity but compelled them to protect and consolidate economic gains.
As the craze for cricket grew in India through the 1990s, there was ahuge demand for leather balls and other cricket gear, which Meerut's industrious Muslims supplied. Communal peace is an incentive for building on the economic consolidation.
In Muzaffarnagar, on the other hand, the predominantly Muslim population has traditionally been engaged in agriculture that is increasingly becoming non-profitable. Large landholdings are few, and when Muslims families do own land, it has splintered among brothers.
Many Muslims, who till a few years ago worked as artisans, carpenters, weavers and farm labour, have started working as drivers, mechanics, shop-owners and petty traders.
This shift, while lucrative, has cut them off from the village's traditional economic and social ties. "Civic engagement" or inter-religious associations that existed in the past and partially explained the absence of riot-like conditions or communal hatred have given way to the formation of new cleavages, raising Jat-Muslim suspicion and hostility.
Jats, Muslims Ill at Ease
As parties like the SP and BSP promise sops and largesse, across Muzaffarnagar, Bijnore and Kairana, Muslims seek to enter government employment, in the police force and the petty bureaucracy. These were traditional strongholds of Jats. Competition for scarce resources has pitted Muslims against Jats who frown upon this encroachment. A subtle social change is occurring among Muslim girls, whose families now seek economically-well-placed grooms.
Under the charged conditions in western UP, it is too early to predict how Muslims will vote in parliamentary polls. There is a shift among Jats toward the BJP. Muslims in western UP adhere to strategic voting, to keep the BJP from seizing power.
Strategic Muslim Voting
Even after the SP's irrational statements and actions at the festering riot camps, Muslims will vote for either the BSP or SP, depending on the ability of candidates to draw votes from other communities.
While more and more parties have adopted a development agenda, UP continues to exemplify narrow, atavistic politics. Parties have not shirked from unleashing collective violence. Muzaffarnagar and all of the several riots that occurred in UP during Akhilesh Yadav's tenure so far as chief minister has policy implications elsewhere in the state.
Action must be taken to dismantle existing or dormant ISRPs. The police must act against such groups. Collective violence has, in Brass' words, continued for "far too long and far too often has gone unrecognised and unpunished".