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Gufran photo studio lies across the road from the police station. Gulrez Gufran runs the old family establishment, set up in 1935. His father, a crime scene photographer with the Criminal Investigation Department, was a well-known figure in town.
But pedigree is no insurance when society gets polarized, as the Gufrans have learnt the hard way.
Till the riots in Muzaffarnagar in August-September last year, almost 80% of the studio's revenue came from taking photographs at Hindu, especially Jat, weddings. “This year, in eight months, we have not been asked to shoot at a single Hindu wedding,” said Gulrez. “I guess it is good for the young Jat photographers. They must be getting more opportunities,” he added with a smile.
Last year’s communal clash between Jats and Muslims left 63 people dead and displaced 50,000.
Gulrez’s brother, Shandar, runs the MG Girls Public school. A political activist, who ran as an independent candidate in the recent Lok Sabha polls, Shandar told HT, “Leave politics aside, look at the social isolation. We used to have six Hindu teachers till last year. After the riots, many stopped coming, and today we are left with only one Hindu teacher.”
Hindu friends who visited on Eid or wished them through text messages did not do so this year, he added. “We went the next day to distribute sweets and some of them said, sheepishly, that they wanted to come but got busy. But we understand.”
There has been a spate of communal incidents in west UP in recent months, and it’s been blamed on political forces of various hues. It is indeed true that extremists on both sides have stoked sentiments, but the underlying story is how society itself is getting polarized and ghettoized, with Muslim alienation persisting and even deepening.
In Budhana block, a group of Muslim men are sitting around a tea shop. When asked about the communal situation, Mohammed Umeed, an 18-year-old student, said that with the Narendra Modi government in power, it was difficult to see how they would get opportunities. “Two weeks ago, two Muslim engineers paid a bribe of over Rs. 4 lakh each after being promised jobs in Delhi. But they did not get it because of their religion.”
The story may or may not be true, the reasons for not getting the job may be different, but it indicates how susceptible sections of the community are to believing the worst.
This, however, is not spread across the region. In Moradabad's Salempur village, Sabir Hussain told HT they have no worries. “Minor Hindu-Muslim tensions happened in the past, and will continue in the future. I don't think this government can make things better or worse.” He highlights the political balance of power. “This time, Hindus consolidated and Muslims split, leading to a BJP win. Next time, we will unite and ally with a Hindu caste group. The polarization will pass.”
Back in Muzaffarnagar, Narendar Singh, a local constable, places emphasis on the economic interdependence of both communities. “Tensions have increased, but bonds exist. A transport company may be owned by a Jat but some drivers may be Muslims. One may own the land but workers may come from another community. If there is disruption, both suffer.” This, he believes, will restore the social equilibrium.
But for now, the Gufrans and others like them are waiting, even as old social bonds fray and networks of interdependence break.