Muzaffarnagar memories

How political mobilisations divided communities with a shared past.

Since the Samajwadi Party came to power in March 2012, there has been over a 100 communal clashes in Uttar Pradesh. But the recent spate of violence in Muzaffarnagar district has particularly shaken people. With a toll reported to be around 50, the Muzaffarnagar clashes displayed some disturbing new features. The number of those killed in a single incident was very high and the riots spread to rural areas, with many villages swept up in it. Finally, the violence was so intense — a place of worship, shops and vehicles were burned, people fled their villages — that the army had to be called in after 21 years. The provincial armed constabulary and rapid action forces were also deployed.

But perhaps the most distinctive feature of the clash was that it took place between Jats and Muslims. The immediate provocation was a row between the two communities at a mahapanchayat called by Jat leaders in Muzaffarnagar town. The purpose of the meet was to discuss an earlier incident, which took place in Kawaal village on August 27. A fight had reportedly broken out in Kawaal when two brothers took up the cudgels against their sister's harasser. All three youths had been killed in the incident. While Jats gathered in large numbers at the mahapanchayat, Muslims protested on the streets of Muzaffarnagar. This culminated in a violent confrontation.

The Jats and the Muslims are the two important communities in the region, with sufficient strength to change the political fortunes of parties. The Muslims, mainly an urban community, are the largest religious minority in the state, but they still do not form the majority in any district. They are also not a homogenous community. They are divided into the Ashraf and Ajlaf groups and into 68 castes and sub-castes, as well as by dialect and geographical distribution. But they do possess a sense of group identity that is based on cultural and historical factors. This enables them to come together in times of crisis. In as many as 13 Lok Sabha constituencies, Muslims are a significant presence. The Jats are predominantly a rural community with a strong sense of identity. They make up 6 per cent of the electorate in western UP but can swing political fortunes in at least 10 Lok Sabha constituencies. But the growing dominance of the Yadavs under the SP has contributed to upsetting equations in the region.

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