Election in Pincodes: As scars heal, disaffection widens in fractured town | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election in Pincodes: As scars heal, disaffection widens in fractured town

Apr 19, 2024 11:53 AM IST

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, HT looks at some key constituencies across India that encapsulate the issues shaping the elections

Muzaffarnagar In the small courtyard of his two-storey home, 42-year-old Mohammad Amin smoothens the frayed corners of a photograph in his hand. The photograph is from Eid 2013; his wife is in a shimmery green suit, a wide beaming smile across her face, their two young children, 3 and 5 then, are in matching blue outfits, holding her salwar kameez as they stare into the camera. He peers closely at the image of himself, tall, strapping, in a crisp white kurta and a black flowing beard. “Look at me now. All I have is white hair, and tiredness all over my face. In das saal mein maano teen daur guzar gaye (As if in this decade, three ages have gone by).”

Union minister of state Sanjeev Balyan (centre) and RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary(on his left) in Muzaffarnagar on April 9. (X)
Union minister of state Sanjeev Balyan (centre) and RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary(on his left) in Muzaffarnagar on April 9. (X)

The first age was fear.

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In September 2013, Muzaffarnagar, once known for its sugarcane fields, thriving paper mills, and a broadly syncretic society, began to burn in a communal cauldron. For weeks, violence continued unabated, spreading to villages far and wide and limiting the administration’s ability to quell the fighting. Sixty-three were killed, hard battle-lines were drawn in villages where Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony for decades, and more than 50,000 were displaced.

Amin resisted the urge to leave Lisadh for a week, he remembers. But his faith was shaken, and neighbours seemed like enemies. As houses were torched around them, the family of four left in the dead of the night in a bullock cart, and made a tarpaulin tent in a refugee colony in Kairana their home for a year.

The next age was reconciliation.

For that one year, Amin dabbled with the idea of never returning to Lisadh. He found work as a daily wage labourer in Panipat, 35km away. But the three-acre plot of land that sustained his family was in Lisadh; it was his ancestral home , and he was afraid that it would be forcefully occupied. He returned on Eid 2014. The violence had abated; his neighbours were not hostile. “There was doubt in our hearts. They must have had it too. But there was nothing else to do. Over time, we found some normalcy,” Amin said.

In the winter of 2020, the Jats and Muslims of Lisadh found common ground. As the Union government announced three controversial farm laws, northern India — western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana in particular — were in tumult. For a year, thousands of farmers laid siege to the national capital, eventually forcing the Centre to roll back the laws in November 2021. Amin lived intermittently at the Ghazipur border throughout that time, his ties with his Jat neighbours strengthening around a sense of perceived injustice, and then perceived victory when the laws were repealed.

The third age, Amin says, began on March 2, 2024.

That day, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a party founded by Jat leader Choudhary Charan Singh and now led by his grandson Jayant Chaudhary, abandoned the INDIA bloc, and joined hands with the BJP.

“In 2022, when the elections took place, the Jats and the Muslims were together, the BJP was kept out. Now, the RLD and the BJP are together again, and in the coalitions political meetings in our village, there are no Muslims. Nothing has happened, but our consensus has broken,” he said.

He has no name for this third daur (age) yet. “Ask me again on June 4,” he said.

 

HT graphic
HT graphic

The politics of Muzaffarnagar

For most of its electoral history, the Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha seat was a bridge too far for the BJP. Its 41.39% Muslim population formed a formidable alliance with the Jats that swore their loyalty to the RLD, a party that often found itself in opposition to the BJP.

In the 62 years between 1952 and 2014, Muzaffarnagar had a BJP member of Parliament for just three years, winning two Lok Sabha elections in 1996 and 1998 but losing to the Congress in 1999.

But the 2013 riots changed everything. Fierce polarisation swept the region, and religion became the central tenet of the poll campaign. In the 2014 elections, as the BJP swept to sole power at the national level, Sanjeev Balyan – a Jat leader from Kutbi, 35km from Lisadh, and a man who faced a case for allegedly instigating the riots – won the seat by over 400,000 votes. He was immediately made a Union minister of state. In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP swept all five of Muzaffarnagar’s five assembly segments.

By 2019, however, as memories of the riots began to fade, there were signs of a weakening of the BJP’s grip. Balyan was re-elected, and in some ways, did the once unthinkable – beat Ajit Singh of the RLD in Muzaffarnagar. But as the BJP widened its gains nationally, the Muzaffarnagar margin narrowed, and there was some evidence of a Jat shift away from the BJP as Balyan won by less than 7,000 votes. In the 2022 assembly elections, there was more evidence of a fracture in the Hindu edifice. Of the five seats, the BJP won only one — Muzaffarnagar city. The other four, in the district’s hinterland where the 2013 violence had left the deepest scars, were split between the SP and the RLD.

At a city BJP office in Muzaffarnagar’s Nai Sadak, where 10 workers sit on a mattress laid out on the floor, there is acknowledgement of a challenge, but the party lists two key reasons for confidence. The first is the banner that spans the length of one wall in the room which proclaims the newly minted BJP-RLD alliance, and has two faces front and centre — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jayant Choudhary.

“The second is that Balyan ji has always taken care of Hindus and their issues. In Muzaffarnagar, it is key that we vote together to win. For example, Balyan has been instrumental in bringing the country’s first cow sanctuary to Muzaffarnagar. Has anyone else in the country done that?” Shiv Shankar Tayal, the most senior leader in the group, said.

Faith vs caste

For 30km beyond Muzaffarnagar on Bhopa road, the smooth black-tarred two-laned road runs parallel to the serene upper Ganga canal whose water is a life source for the villages around it. Past the village of Jaula, a distinct green board with an arrow sign carved into it, begins to appear.

“Cow Sanctuary,” it says.

The signs lead to the village of Tughlaqpur Kheda, where the road vanishes into masses of rubble and sand, difficult for any vehicle save a tractor. The fields on either side are irrigated, and the water spills into perennial puddles.

Harpal Malik, a resident of Kheda, grumbles about the state of the infrastructure. And yet, there is no unhappiness. “The roads any government can fix. But have you seen the cow sanctuary? Sanjeev Balyan brought this to our village. There is no facility like this anywhere in the country,” he said. Since 2019, Balyan has been the Union minister for state for animal husbandry, fisheries and dairying.

Stretching out in front is a white wall that snakes its way around a 350-acre campus, inaugurated by the central government in February 2024. The aim of the pilot project is simple: To house cows left stranded on Uttar Pradesh’s streets after they outlive their utility for farmers, putting in harm’s way both the animal and commuters.

Inside the white wall are 12 sheds that now house 3,000 bovines that are taken care of by an expansive infrastructure that creates feed and provides medical attention. Vipul Choudhary, the manager of the project, said, “This has come up at breakneck speed, and is state of the art. The government gives us the best equipment, we have a surgeon and several paramedics, guards round the clock, and are in the process of getting an incinerator so those that die can be given an honourable cremation.”

Outside the gates that have round-the-clock security and barbed wire to keep out thieves who could target equipment or feral dogs who could attack the infirm, Harpal Malik counts the benefits. “It is all this region can talk about. We admire what the Modi and Yogi government have done for gau mata, preventing anybody from killing cows, or being strict on cow slaughter. We were having difficulties understanding what to do with our cows when they got old. We require them for our sustenance; for milk or to pull carts or to till the land. So there is always the need for young, healthy cows. Now, we send them here, and they are treated well. What can show more thought for Hindus and what is sacred for us?” he asked.

Right next to him though, Ramesh Saini holds back a chortle. Malik’s opinion, he says, has turned in the last month, when the RLD-BJP alliance came into existence.

Before that, his opinion was decidedly different, and not so welcoming of the BJP, Saini points out. “This is not like previous elections. In all of our villages, different caste groups have been meeting, and the support for the BJP is not unanimous. Look at how the BJP leaders have been sniping at each other in public,” Saini said.

Malik responds quickly. “This is all just before the elections. When you take a bull into the cow sanctuary from the street for the first time, there is discomfort in the group. But it lasts for a few hours, and then settles down.”

Eleven years have passed since the riots but for residents like Mohammad Amin (quoted in the story) the hope is "...that the next daur(era), no matter the political party in charge, is one of peace.” (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/File photo)
Eleven years have passed since the riots but for residents like Mohammad Amin (quoted in the story) the hope is "...that the next daur(era), no matter the political party in charge, is one of peace.” (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/File photo)

Murmurs of discontent

But Saini, who said he campaigned for the BJP both in 2019 and 2022, insists that there is clear evidence that all is not well within. He points to public comments made by former Sardhana MLA Sangeet Som, who in April accused Balyan publicly of being inaccessible to the people for five years.

“All the people who lost in 2022 are against Balyan, because they believe that they could not have been defeated without his intervention. Som is a big Rajput leader, and they are unhappy. In Khatauli, Vikram Sini lost and he is quiet this election. Now the RLD has come, and the castes that always backed the BJP are feeling sidelined,” Saini said.

At the Nai Sadak BJP office, among the 10 men sitting on the white mattress, there are some murmurs of disaffection too.

“The BJP should not just indiscriminately bring in everyone. At the national level, people are asking why the corrupt are being brought in. Even in our zila committees, people from the Samajwadi Party and RLD are coming in. They are all bahubalis (strongmen) and use their might. Koni maarte hai, aur karyakarta peeche ho jaata hai. (They elbow people out, and the BJP worker loses out,” one man said.

A second local leader concurs, and as he steps out to campaign, leaves with a word of warning. “Harender Malik (the SP candidate) is not weak. Everyone knows him, and he may get some Jat votes. If we don’t campaign well, some Hindu castes break away, and the Muslims consolidate, we could cut it close,” he said.

But Tayal, wisened by age, holds him by the shoulder in reassurance, sanguine in his own assessment. “This is now a Hindu family. Every family fights a little, particularly when new people come in. But the family will win,” Tayal said.

The challenge

In many ways, the challenge for the Samajwadi Party, arguably the principal opponent to the BJP in Muzaffarnagar, is to build a Hindu coalition of its own — a coalition of the aggrieved.

Senior SP leaders say that their strategy, despite a distinct lack of voluble campaigning — across Muzaffarnagar there is only the rare green and red Samajwadi flag and poster— is to go door to door, conduct rallies and small community meetings to ensure that this election is a Sanjeev Balyan versus Harender Malik election, and not a Prime Minister Narendra Modi versus everyone else election.

In many ways, the challenge for the Samajwadi Party, arguably the principal opponent to the BJP in Muzaffarnagar, is to build a Hindu coalition of its own — a coalition of the aggrieved. (PTI)
In many ways, the challenge for the Samajwadi Party, arguably the principal opponent to the BJP in Muzaffarnagar, is to build a Hindu coalition of its own — a coalition of the aggrieved. (PTI)

“Balyan has been the MP for 10 years. People are tired of him, and several communities have expressed their anger against him. The Jats in the region, many of whom back the RLD, are unhappy at the sudden switch to the alliance. They have not forgotten that it was Balyan who defeated Ajit Singh in 2019, and what all was said in the campaign. Next to him, Harender Malik is a powerful Jat leader who has always stayed among his people,” Maulana Nazar, vice-president of the SP minorities cell said.

Harender Malik, even BJP leaders admit, has a robust political history in the region. He was first elected the legislator from Khatauli in 1985, and then won five straight elections from Baghra (a seat that ceased to exist after delimitation in 2008). He unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections from Muzaffarnagar and Kairana on four occasions, but his son Pankaj Malik won two separate assembly elections from Baghra in 2007 and 2017. “Harender Malik is an old leader and while the Jats of the Balyan khap may vote for us, he has some support in the Malik khap. The BSP has fielded Dara Singh Prajapati, a strong Prajapati leader who will also gain some support. This is a dangerous election,” one BJP leader admitted, requesting anonymity.

Nazar says it is this discomfiture that the SP intends to capitalise on. “The Muslims will vote for us, but there are several other communities that are angry with Balyan and the BJP-the Rajputs, the Sainis, the Pals and the Prajapatis, and even some sections of the Jats. I am not saying they will all vote for us, but there will be a break away and we are comfortably ahead,” he said.

This politicking is a world away from Lisadh, where Mohammad Amin is still clutching the frayed photograph in the palm of his hand, his forehead creased with worry. Eleven years, and four poll cycles — state and national — have passed since the riots, and he has seen enough to know that elections are difficult to predict; they can turn even on the last day. “There is no point predicting anything,” he said.

Perhaps because his aspiration is so single-minded, steeped in lived memory. “My only hope is that the next daur, no matter the political party in charge, is one of peace.”

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