As Delhi's authority slowly recedes and regional leaders grow more powerful, the bloody riots over the weekend in the western Uttar Pradesh district of Muzaffarnagar and neighbouring areas hold wider significance for India beyond the elections of 2014.
For the first time since December 1992, when rioting overwhelmed civilian authority in the aftermath of the Babri mosque's destruction, the army has been called in to restore order in UP. Rioting, usually limited to towns, has spread to villages, as officials herd minorities (Muslims in Hindu upper-caste Jat areas and vice-versa) into protective custody. And rioters did something they almost never do — fire on military columns.
Since 2012, when the supposedly pro-Muslim Samajwadi Party took charge of India's most populous, congested state — it has about 200 million people, a little more than Brazil, which is about 34 times as large — there have been more than 100 riots, with Muslims usually at the receiving end. The causes were generally petty: dumping garbage, using a water tap, a procession's route, loud music, sexual harassment, road accidents, even a Facebook post.
In Muzaffarnagar, there were warning signals that some kind of sectarian explosion was at hand. On August 27, two young Hindu upper-caste Jat brothers were beaten to death by Muslims after they killed a Muslim youth sexually harassing their sister, the police said.
On September 7, Muslim vigilantes ambushed vehicles going to and leaving a Bahu Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat (Save our daughters and daughters-in-law meeting), where angry speeches called for random attacks on Muslims.
Both Hindus and Muslims believe the lack of retaliation to any incident, however trivial, is a sign of weakness. These actions indicate a slow breakdown in Hindu-Muslim relationships, and the growing inability of local officials to tamp down on violent manifestations of such animosities.
It is common to hear that the state government somehow 'allows' riots to polarise communities for electoral reasons. This is, largely, bunkum. Certainly, it is possible to orchestrate and organise large-scale attacks. As with Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002 — and more recently in Congress-run Maharashtra and Rajasthan — local police have even stepped aside to provide a free run to rioters, aiding them in some cases.
But rioting, whether organised or not, simply feeds on and, in turn, feeds existing insecurities and hatreds, old and new. In India, unlike the West, history is unimportant, except when it concerns religious matters.
For the most part, history related to the domination of one group by another is passed on orally, in absolutes. Nuances are not important, especially at a time of social instability.
So, the Hindu street still regards Muslims as lapsed conquerors, latent Pakistanis who procreate energetically, keep their women in burqas, shun education, propound jihad and vote en masse for whoever appeases them - though there is, as a 2012 IIM-Ahmedabad study revealed, no economic evidence of the benefits of this so-called appeasement.
Similarly, the Muslim street believes Hindus to be a devious and cowardly lot who discriminate against them, use state power to cow them, label them terrorists and Pakistanis — and that the best defence is offence. These are not issues discussed in civil society, but it is the truth.
Education and literacy do not suppress stereotypes. If anything, there is evidence that muddy, new awareness and technology can accelerate simmering hostility into a violent boil.
Indeed, a widely-circulated video of a Pakistani mob beating two men to death was passed off as an act of local Muslims and sparked, the police said, a flash-widening of Muzaffarnagar's riots.
Muzaffarnagar is important because it is a pointer to the future of UP - and India. Unless the state government displays great resolve, what happened here is likely to spread.
There are numerous tinderboxes of latent hostility, ready to be lit by a spark that political parties are often too willing to provide. Forceful administration can keep a lid on violence, but the antagonism is unlikely to recede any time soon in a poor state where 18.5% of the population is Muslim, according to the 2001 census.
Substantial data have been released from the 2011 census, but not India's religious composition. This is probably deliberate.
Although the overall Muslim fertility rate is falling, it is declining more slowly than that of other communities. India's Muslim population is likely to increase from 14.6% (177 million) in 2010 to 15.9% (236 million) in 2030, according to a 2011 'Religion and Public Life Project', run by the Pew Research Center, a US think-tank. The figures are projections made by Pew demographers, using Indian census data.
Much of that growth will come from Muslims in UP (and Bihar), who are poorer and more ghettoised than their counterparts in the south and east. Muslims in UP occupy the bottom rung of economic development.
Since the poor tend to have higher fertility rates, continuing poverty will boost population growth. This, in turn, could fuel greater tensions, especially as UP and Bihar are together producing the bulk of India's working-age population.
As riots engulfed Muzzafarnagar, The Hindu, quoting 2011 census data, reported that while the population of children under 14 was falling in southern states, it was growing in UP and Bihar.
"Much of the country's demographic future will depend on fertility trends in the northern states, which along with large populations, have the highest levels of illiteracy and poverty," noted a 2011 datasheet released by the Population Reference Bureau, a US think-tank.
In crumbling UP, there are few jobs for this new generation of restless, resentful youth, Hindu and Muslim, willing to kill for reasons small or insignificant. Whether politicians choose to tap that anger or not, it is not going to go away.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bengaluru-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal