The broken road that runs through miles of picture-postcard greenery often witnesses fights between Muslim and Hindus of different castes, shouting each other down along the paddy and potato fields. The provocation, mostly, is not quite politics: just buffaloes blocking the road.
In a state where the politics of religion and caste has divided people for decades, dozens of villages in western Uttar Pradesh are setting an example, keeping themselves politics-proof.
The region votes on April 18, and politicians in the constituency are again raking up religious and caste issues.
Katari village in Jyotiba Phule Nagar district is home to large numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Next door in Navada village, lower caste Hindus dominate. The region is dotted with towns that have witnessed religious riots. But “relations between Hindus and Muslims are first class here. When I step out on the roads, they all say namaskaar to me,” says Maulana Sajid Hussain, the cleric at Katari’s large mosque. “Politics has not been able to divide us,” he adds.
Katari favours Mulayam Singh Yadav; Navada is Mayawati’s turf.
Most Katari residents are milk sellers who cart large cans on their motorcycles every day to sell door-to-door or to big traders. Some graduate to become dairy owners. Others own, or work in, mango orchards. As families grew, so did unemployment, and land holdings became smaller. Only five people here have regular jobs.
Down the lane, Bhoop Singh — the oldest man in the village — interrupts the journalist with a flourish of the hand as he sits by his buffalos and great-grandsons. He was part of a peace committee formed to prevent clashes the day after the Babri mosque was razed. “I am 100 years old. You must take my word. There has never been any trouble here,” he says. “Not after Partition, not after Babri. We are wise people.”
Last month, a Hindu-Muslim clash broke out over a religious procession in a village 30 kilometres away. It was ignored here.
Next door, Dalits in Navada went through crushing social discrimination until two decades ago, until the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Times changed. “Whether it is Muslims, Yadavs, Dalits or any other lower caste, there is no discrimination or tension. We sit together, eat together, go to each other’s weddings and funerals,” says Jai Prakash, who runs a flour-making shop.
Leave aside social tensions, the village has a greater problem to deal with — potato bugs. “Paddy and potato is all we grow, and the potato crop was killed this year by a disease. So many people lost money,” says Ami Chand. “People sprayed insecticide up to four times. But it did not work.”
Voters here have other complaints too, including erratic power supply, suspension of widows’ pensions and the sinking water table. But one issue always strikes a chord in Katari. “The Jatavs in Navada tie their buffalos on the road. We can barely take our bicycles through,” says shopkeeper Mohammed Afzal. “We are constantly fighting over this.”