A little over ten days ago, a man went to a clothes shop in Charthawal in Muzaffarnagar. The shop owner reportedly asked his customer to pay back his debts. They argued, mobilised people, and got into a clash. And before one knew it, the market shut down. The owner was a Hindu, the customer a Muslim, and instead of being seen as a spat over a financial transaction, it became a communal incident.
Paramilitary soldiers patrol a street during a curfew imposed following communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar. (AP Photo)
"Tensions occurred earlier too. Didn't people fight?" asks AP Gautam, head of the Shahpur police post in the district, when asked if communal incidents had increased. "But now the role of rumours have become stronger, and there is added religiosity."
He recounts another similar incident where a Hindu motorcyclist hit a Muslim girl; she wasn't hurt but Muslim boys of the area beat him up. "It was a small thing, but it shows that people are always willing to confront each other. Then the media reported it and fuelled things further."
He may be partly right about the media's often simplistic and sensationalist reportage. But few can deny that there remains a wide gulf in Hindu and Muslim narratives, especially about the administration, in much of western UP.
In conversation after conversation, Hindu journalists, businessmen and politicians have the same refrain. "SP is a party of Muslims. The administration is there to serve them. Our complaints are not registered. Muslims think they can get away with anything," says R Tyagi, a village chief in Kharkhouda block in Meerut.
But Shandar Gufran, a political activist in Muzaffarnagar says this is an absurd criticism because the higher administration is entirely dominated by Hindu upper castes, and the lower levels are run by Hindu intermediate castes, with negligible Muslim representation. He alleges. "They also know that Modi is here to stay, and while BJP may or may not win the next state elections, SP will definitely not win Lucknow again. So they have no reason to bat for minorities."
While higher levels of the state may be engaged in cynical politics of polarisation, travels across six police stations in villages and small towns of Muzaffarnagar and Meerut revealed that the local police - the very first line of defense and response of the state - is not particularly discriminatory.
Assistant Sub Inspector of Police, Narendar Singh, at the Budhana station, says he would be happy to show his register and clarify that they register complaints of everyone. "The problem is not us. It is the trust deficit between both communities and its leaders," he said.
But mostly, sincere local cops are hesitant, cautious about consequences of their actions in a polarised social landscape, and limit themselves to damage control and token efforts. Manoj Singh, who has just taken over the Karkhouda station organised a peace meeting of influential local pradhans on Sunday. In Shahpur, where a Hindu woman was allegedly raped by a group of Muslim men, AP Gautam organised a goodwill kabaddi match.
As a police official in Muzaffarnagar put it, "We will continue to see tension because society is divided and parties want it. But people don't want to live through violence and curfew and disrupt lives; parties will suffer if that happens." And this is why, the official reasoned, there would be communal incidents, but no large-scale bloodshed. "It will not stabilise, it will not burn."