Dangerous experiments

Rekindling of communal conflict in UP must be checked. Old anxieties cannot be allowed to return

Muzaffarnagar has become the site of communal tensions of a kind rarely seen in recent years. While there have been intermittent episodes across north India in the last few years, the fear of large-scale communal conflict has mostly ebbed in the national consciousness. Unlike the turbulent 1980s and '90s, when the Hindutva mobilisation was being shaped and sharpened, there is no framing context for its eruption now. For over a decade now, the BJP itself has seemed to leave the angry movement behind as it became a party of government, at the Centre and in several high-performing states. A common politics of aspiration has tempered the tensions over religion and identity that previously exploded in violence. With growing urgency and impatience, citizens demand better education, jobs, benefits and stakes in economic growth, and political parties that aim to form governments offer competing visions and programmes of development. The nature of communal antagonism has, by and large, shifted from destruction of life and property to more subtle expressions of discrimination and denial of opportunity.

In other words, there is no wider frame, no larger context for the new outbreaks of communal violence, as in Muzaffarnagar. In all probability, then, they point to active troublemaking in anticipation of the 2014 general election. As Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said on Saturday, there have already been many more such incidents in this year than in 2012. Uttar Pradesh remains a prominent trouble spot, but Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Jammu and Kashmir also have uncomfortable communal dynamics.

For the BJP, this gathering trend should force some introspection. Its presumptive prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, is ostentatiously trying to divert attention from his polarising record, by refusing all mention of the communal violence that occurred under his watch in 2002 and attempting to steer the public gaze to his development record in Gujarat instead. At the same time, however, other Sangh Parivar organisations have been openly trying to stoke the fires in UP, without much resistance from the Samajwadi Party government. While this may or may not be a mutually convenient strategy, both the BJP and SP are evidently struggling to define their core appeal for 2014. Apparently, the BJP does not know whether to foreground Hindutva or keep it simmering under the surface, speaking in one voice in the streets of UP and another in the corridors of government. The SP has failed to present a convincing case for itself in the year it has been in power, it has no governance successes to speak of, and nothing to show for the hopes placed in its young chief minister. At a time when economic prospects are dimming, it may be easier to exploit the disaffections among people. But given how incendiary the politics of religion has proven to be, even playing with the cinders is deeply unwise.

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