The Hindutva heartland

In UP, the return of an older pattern of communal politics.

Much has been written on the communal riots in Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar district — the violence against the minority community, the rapes, how the riots spread to rural areas and now, the poor conditions in government relief camps. But two issues require urgent attention. Why are those living in the harrowing relief camps not willing to go back to their homes? And why has the UP government decided, despite the cold wave sweeping across north India, to dismantle the camps and, in some cases, forcibly evict those living there? These questions are significant because, after the collapse of the Congress in the state, the ruling Samajwadi Party has been trusted and supported by the minority community.

UP has had a history of communal riots, starting after Independence and continuing into recent decades: Aligarh in 1978 and 2006, Moradabad in 1980, Meerut in 1987, Agra in 1990, among others. However, the communal violence over the Babri Masjid dispute and the recent riots in Muzaffarnagar have distinctive features. They stem from religious mobilisation by political parties, most notably the BJP. Parties have played two kinds of roles in relation to religious and caste identities. Immediately after Independence, they reflected the existing social diversities without disturbing social harmony. But since the late 1980s, party mobilisations have run along social cleavages, deepening the existing divides, causing distrust, conflict and violence. The earlier pattern of moderate, centrist politics and democratic, secular modes of mobilisation was replaced by the exploitation of religious identity. However, after the destruction of Babri Masjid, the dispute lost political importance, leading to the organisational and electoral decline of the BJP by the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, scholars pointed to the emergence of a post-Babri, "autonomous" Muslim politics in UP. With the weakening of identity politics, the community was no longer afraid of the BJP and under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party was moving towards an agenda of development and reform. Two small political parties, the Peace Party and the Rashtriya Ulema Council, emerged as Muslims felt they should form their own parties and not remain vote-banks for others. With the erosion of the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, electoral politics in the UP of the 2000s became a bipolar contest between the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

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