The following is an edited extract from Ram Mashru’s excellent new book Human InSecurity: Fear, Deprivation and Abuse in India. It is reprinted with permission.
Uttar Pradesh (UP) is India’s most populous state. Home to 199 million residents (16.5% of India’s population) the state is as big as Brazil. India’s national rural-to-urban ratio is 2:1, lower than UP’s where there are 3.8 people living in rural areas for every 1 in towns and cities. Furthermore Muslims, who make up around 13 percent of India’s population, represent 20 percent of UP’s inhabitants, with the proportion rising as high as 45 percent in some western parts of the state. It is in the context of these extraordinary demographics that the recent bloodshed in the state, between Hindu Jats and Muslims, needs to be understood.
Muzaffarnagar, a small city in the prosperous “sugar belt” of UP, became the epicenter of the riots in the worst case of communal violence India has seen in over a decade. Not since 1992, when Hindu mobs tore down the Babri Masjid – a 16th century mosque said to be built on the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple – has UP witnessed such large-scale ethnic violence.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On August 27, 2013 three men, one Muslim and two Hindu, were killed in the village of Kawal when fights broke out over the alleged harassment of a Jat girl. Days after the triple murder a “grand assembly” – mahapanchayat – was organized in Muzaffarnagar by Hindu Jats to discuss the safety of their women. Videos recorded at the meeting show local politicians making incendiary speeches inciting attacks against Muslims. The violence flared on September 7 when, according to reports, Muslims pelted stones at those leaving the assembly. By mid-September – after days of looting, arson, beatings, rape and murder – as many as 55,000 had fled their homes, hundreds had been injured and close to 60 lives were lost.
Though the violence has ceased, the riots have spilled over into a humanitarian crisis. Of those that escaped tens of thousands have taken shelter in makeshift refugee camps inside mosques and religious schools. The government responses, at both the state and federal level, have been criticized as woefully inadequate. No efforts have been made to build shelters, provide necessities or resettle the displaced, leaving them dependent on handouts from locals. On September 16, flanked by cameras and journalists, the triumvirate of the ruling Congress party – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Party President Sonia Gandhi and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi – swept into Muzaffarnagar for a few hours to hear local grievances. Their visit amounted to nothing in the form of relief. In November, UP’s Chief Minister, Akilesh Yadav, appeared on national news channels urging people to return to their homes. But months later those who fled riot-afflicted areas are too afraid to go back or have nothing to go back to.
The timing of the riots is the biggest cause for concern. India is preparing for next year’s general election, in which citizens face an increasingly polarized choice between the incumbent, socialistic Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s right-wing Hindu-nationalist opposition. UP – with 80 MPs, the most of any state – is the constituency in which the fortunes of both parties will be decided. With a history of communal tensions being stoked to consolidate votes, as the electioneering becomes more aggressive many fear the state will become a tinderbox.
The History of Ethnic Conflict
India, as a nation-state, was born of ethnic violence. The bloodshed that followed Partition claimed as many as 1 million lives. But the communal violence that recently tore through UP is very different in kind to the inter-ethnic conflict of pre-independence India.
According to Christopher Bayly, a professor of colonial history at the University of Cambridge, in the 18th and 19th centuries relations between Hindus and Muslims were syncretic. Outbreaks of violence that disturbed this harmony were territorial “land wars.” Distinct religious and cultural identities only emerged in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when inter-ethnic conflict was tied to economic and political change: struggles for office, representation and access to resources. In their report on inter-ethnic violence between 1947 and 2003, Delhi’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies similarly found that upturns in communal incidents correlated with major shifts in Indian politics such as the rise of Hindu nationalism as an electoral force and the emergence of parties representing minorities.
After Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard in 1984, Hindus led a massacre of Sikhs across the north of the country killing more than 3000 people. The trials of Congress politicians, accused of aiding and abetting the massacres, are still ongoing. More recently a pogrom led by Hindus against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 claimed as many as 2000 lives. Widely believed to be a concerted act of ethnic cleaning, the slaughter took place under the watch of Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat and now the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. These communal ghosts still haunt Indian politics, and this history has forced itself onto the agenda of next year’s election.
The Politics of Communalism
Politicians from all parties in India have benefitted from playing on identities. As a strategy it consolidates voters along cultural lines, affirms loyalties and forces floating voters to pick a side. The BJP, along with a host of young caste-based parties, has reaped huge rewards at the ballot box with communalist campaigns. Accusations that Narendra Modi stood by and watched as Muslims were being slaughtered did not diminish his electoral successes: after the 2002 massacres he was re-elected as Chief Minister of Gujarat three times. Nor has the charge of having Muslim blood on his hands hampered his prime-ministerial ambitions, with polls naming him the likely victor in next year’s general election. In UP the BJP reached the zenith of its popularity after the Babri Masjid was razed in the 1990s, and since then party’s electoral fortunes have waned. In the 1998 general election the party returned 57 MPs from the state; in 2009 it returned a mere ten. In a clear signal of its designs in UP the BJP have installed Amit Shah, an apparatchik implicated in the 2002 genocide, in the state to turn the party’s electoral prospects around.