Suchi Chaudhury, the Bharatiya Janta Party’s candidate for Bijnor City, sat beside a giant stuffed teddy bear embroidered with the words “So Sweet”, and explained why she was contesting one of the tightest seats in Uttar Pradesh’s pivotal election.
“My husband,” said Chaudhury, a 27-year-old homemaker with no previous experience of public life.
Chaudhury’s husband, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member Aishwarya “Mausam” Chaudhury, is one of 31 people currently in jail for allegedly inciting a communal riot between Jats and Muslims in the villages of Peda and Nayagaon in September 2016 in which three Muslims were shot dead and scores were injured. The violence was part of a string of similar clashes that have polarised the region’s Jats and Muslims into opposing camps.
Forty three percent of Bijnor’s population is Muslim, 20 percent is Dalit, the remaining are land-owning Jats and assorted general castes, making this seat a bellwether for the many forces that have made Uttar Pradesh’s election so hard to call.
The candidates reflect their respective party’s strategy to navigate this diversity. While the BJP has chosen Chaudhury, the ruling Samajwadi Party has gone with Ruchi Veera, who comes from an old Bania family with deep roots in the city and hopes to consolidate the Muslims and general caste swing voters who form Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s core support base.
The Bahujan Samaj Party’s Rashid Ahmed, plans to win by uniting Dalits and Muslims – a formula that worked for the BSP in the 2007 elections, while the Rashritya Lok Dal’s Rahul Chaudhury is looking keep his faltering party relevant by breaking enough of the Jat vote for the others to take notice.
“Suchi Chaudhury represents our honourable Prime Minister’s emphasis on women’s empowerment. This has nothing to do with communalism,” said Ram Mohan Aggarwal, BJP in-charge for Bijnor, who vacillated between describing Chaudhury as either “highly qualified“ or a simple home-maker, “joh abhi abhi chooleh se aaiye hai” – explaining she had “only just left the kitchen” to fight for her husband’s honour.
“We could have given a ticket to Aishwariya Chaudhury’s father,” said a BJP member from Bijnor, explaining that the narrative of a Jat woman forced to leave her home to fight an injustice was likely to be very effective in this patriarchal society.
“Women’s honor is my biggest issue,” said Chaudhury in a recent interview with this correspondent, “My first step is to save women from street harassment and domestic violence.
A Saffron Thought Bubble
In Uttar Pradesh, “law and order” has always meant much more than the upkeep of the village thana. For the BSP in the mid 1990s, improving “law and order” meant the implementation of the SC/ST (Prevention) of Atrocities Act 1989, that safeguarded the party’s mostly Dalit constituents from dominant caste violence.
For the SP government in the early 2000s, it meant protecting these same dominant castes from prosecution under the SC/ST Act, and for the BJP in West UP in 2016, “law and order” and the “safety of women” taps into ingrained insecurities produced by staple BJP’s “Love Jihad” campaigns against inter-religious marriage.
At a recent interview with the press BJP President Amit Shah explicitly played into these fears when he said his party would set up an “anti-Romeo squad” to protect the girls of Uttar Pradesh. The party manifesto also speaks of appointing special officers in each district to check the supposed “exodus” of Hindus from the region due to religious persecution – an allegation that has been found to be untrue.
On campaign, Chaudhury walks quickly – she is a tall woman with a neat face and large inquisitive eyes – head covered, eyes downcast, hands held before her in perpetual Namaste.
She dislikes speaking in public: Her speeches, rehearsed with her handlers, negate her own personhood at the expense of a diffuse saffron-hued thought-bubble in which her listeners may place their particular vision of an ideal BJP candidate. In her interactions with villagers, she leaves most of the talking to a formidable phalanx of Jat women whose sons and husbands have been imprisoned for allegedly participating in the same riot that landed her husband in jail.
At a Republic Day celebration at a local RSS-run school, the sort of venue at where a seasoned practioner of Hindutva would wax eloquent, Chaudhury spoke for literally 30 seconds while her women companions fanned out across the village.
“I wish everyone a happy republic day,” she began, “I am your daughter, I am from an ordinary family. On the 15th, when you press the button for the lotus, don’t think you are voting for Suchi Chaudhury, think you are pressing the button to protect the honor of your daughters, and daughters-in-law, and to improve their future. Thank you.”
The strategy seems to be working.
“Her husband is in jail, she should get at least some joy in this difficult time,” said Ajit Kumar, a farmer from Nayagaon, “That is the only reason I am voting for her.”
“Her husband has gone to jail for fighting for us Hindus,” said Savitri Devi, another constituent, “So we must support her.”
Chaudhury apart, the BJP has fielded sitting MLA Suresh Rana from the nearby Thanabhavan constituency. Last week Rana - once accused of inciting the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 - generated fresh controversy when he promised to impose a curfew on Kairana, Kandhla and Moradabad, three towns with significant Muslim populations, if he was elected to office.
“In 2014, the BJP benefitted from the Muzaffarnagar riots, now they are dividing people over the Peda incident,” said Ruchi Veera, the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) MLA from Bijnor, and Chaudhury’s opponent, “Suchi Chaudhury can’t name 10 villages in this constituency, “What election is she going to fight?”
A tale of three villages
The villages of Peda, Nayagaon and Kachchpura form a tight cluster of 2702 registered voters evenly split between Jats and Muslims. On the morning of September 16 last year, a Muslim girl was allegedly harassed by a group of Jat boys, resulting an altercation between both groups.
The altercation was initially resolved, according to police reports, when Aishwariya Chaudhury – Suchi Chaudhury’s husband – arrived on the scene and allegedly incited a crowd of Jats who surrounded the Muslim home and opened fire with a variety of country-made weapons.
“The bullets killed my brothers, Aneesuddin and Ehsaan, and Sarfaraz my nephew,” said Mohammed Furqan, “At least 20 other people were injured.”
Aishwariya Chaudhury, his cousin Arun Kawadi, and 29 others from the three villages were arrested. Since then, Furqan said, all relations between Jats and Muslims have disintegrated. Muslims renting Jat properties were told to vacate immediately, both communities now boycott the other’s stores and businesses.
A tall metal gate has been installed at the entrance to Peda’s muslim quarter and brick fences now gird the rooftops, given neighbourhood the air of a medieval town.
“A murderer’s wife has been given a ticket,” said Furqan, who said he would vote for Veera, the SP candidate, “When her husband was nothing, he opened fire on us. If Suchi Chaudhury wins, we’ll have to leave this place.”
Yet, in the Jat home just across the road from Furqan’s home, Savita Devi has placed all her faith in Chaudhury.
“My two sons were arrested after the Peda kaand. They are are in jail,” she said, “Only Suchi can get them out. We have been going village to village telling people to vote for her.”
Only Jats had been arrested, Devi said, no Muslims. A clear sign, she claimed, of the SP government’s appeasement of the minority community.
Veera, the sitting MLA from the SP, denied this allegation and defended her government’s response to the incident.
“On the one side, you have three dead and dozens injured, while no one was hurt on the other side,” she said, “This was not a clash, this was an attack on a community.”
Yet even in the midst of this polarised election, both the Jats and the Muslims find themselves drawn to other alternatives.
In Nayagaon, where the Peda incident has divided both communities, the village Pradhan, Raj Kumar, said he was pushing his people to vote for the Rashritya Lok Dal.
“The BJP has betrayed the Jats over the reservation issue,” said Raj Kumar, referring to the Haryana Jat agitation of 2016, “Demonetisation has destroyed the small farmer. This time we are going with the RLD.”
Meanwhile in Bijnor city’s Kanshi Ram colony – a housing project built by Mayawati’s administration in 2010, Mushkoor Ahmed Ansari, a religious instructor at a madrassa, said his vote was with the BSP.
“Mayawati gave me a home to live in,” he said, “We can’t betray her now.” The BSP, Ansari noted, had twice won Bijnor in the past, and could well emerge victorious once more.
For Chaudhury however, this election could well launch a career in politics. “If I win and my husband gets bail, I’ll obviously consult him and take his advice, but I will be the one looking after my constituents,” she said.
Were there any political heroes she was inspired by?
“Yes, my husband.”