Evening discussions at Mehtab Ahmed Khan’s furniture showroom at Civil Lines in west Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly city have been a regular affair for decades. People walk in from 4pm and the discussions continue till late into the night, with the number of participants ranging between 60 and 100.
In the last few days, the numbers have risen, as has the intensity of debates.
The burning issue has been the ‘politics of polarisation’ in general and in particular, the Muzaffarnagar riots and Narendra Modi’s elevation as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.
Bareilly — where Bollywood star Sadhana lost her jhumka (recall the popular song ‘jhumka gira re’) — has in the last few years found its way into the infamous list of highly communally sensitive districts in UP.
This happened after riots in 2007 and 2012 when the new majority governments led by Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav took charge.
Geographically, it is close to Muzaffarnagar and demographically, it has a sizeable Muslim population.
“The feeling of insecurity is palpable in Bareilly and now people and the administration are holding regular meetings to maintain communal amity,” Khan says.
With the demand for dismissal of the Samajwadi Party government growing, the administration seems to have risen from its slumber in communally sensitive areas to regularly interact with the public to defuse escalating tensions on trivial issues.
In Kanpur, before Muslims wore black arm bands during Friday prayers, state officials had a dialogue with them. Similar meetings were held in Allahabad.
However, as you move to the backward pockets of the state — the east and Bundelkhand, life appears normal.
Manoj Kumar from Mahoba in Bundelkhand says, “Issues take time percolating till here. While politically inclined people take a tough line during discussions, the common man is either ignorant or neutral. The Muzaffarnagar riots won’t divide society here.”
This emotional disconnect between east and west was visible during the Tappal firing on agitating farmers during Mayawati’s regime.
As land acquisition is hardly an issue in the east and Bundelkhand — where lack of infrastructure keeps private investment away — farmers were too bogged down fighting poverty to empathise with their counterparts in the west.
It is for reasons like these and regional dissimilarities that experts feel UP should be split into smaller states.
The only connect, if there is one, is that of religion — Ayodhya being an example. Accordingly, voting patterns are different.
AK Singh, former director of the Giri Institute of Development Studies, Lucknow, says, “It’s a huge state and issues echo only when they acquire a larger dimension. The ramifications of the latest riots will be felt across UP if it is converted into a bigger Hindu-Muslim tension.”
Nonetheless, this time around, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav face a double-edged sword over the riots. While Hindus accuse them of appeasing Muslims, Muslims blame them for cultivating a fear psychosis to mobilise the minority votes.
And one single factor that seems to have gone against the father-son duo is their meeting with Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders at their residence.
As UP sits on a tinderbox, they will have to work hard to save the 18-month-old government and its vote bank.