In Western UP, a Clash of Identities Could Decide Election Outcome

Western UP residents say they will choose who to vote for depending on the communities the candidates belong to and who they are seen as supporting.

Jat farmers in Paarsaul. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Jat farmers in Paarsaul. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Dadri: “We don’t like Muslim appeasement, which the Samajwadi Party (SP) is doing, so we would vote for either Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or BJP, both are good for Hindus.”

However strange it may sound, this is the reasoning that different sections of society are using to justifying their electoral preferences in western Uttar Pradesh. While helping the BSP, this is giving sleepless nights to BJP leaders.

Just a few kilometres onto the Grand Trunk road while travelling from Laal Kuan to Dadri, one can see a huge structure on the left, a typical BSP-style park named after B.R. Ambedkar. As I turn left to enquire about the structure, I reach Badalpur, Mayawati’s ancestral village. Badalpur is a Gurjar-dominated village, where swanky houses can be seen all around as SUVs rush past on smooth roads. I ask a group of Gurjar elders about the park. “Ye to pichli yojna (2007 government) ke time hi bana hai, gaon ki kaafi jamin bhi chali gayi isi main (It was made during previous the BSP government, a significant part of the village’s land was acquired for it)”. Was there any opposition to it during that time, I ask. “Ab virodh to kiye par sarkar ke age kya chale (We did oppose it but you can’t win against the government)”, replies another. Then how come the BSP candidate Satveer Gurjar won last time from this seat? “Ab Satveer bhi Gurjar hi hai to sabne socha chalo bhai Gurjar ko hi dena hai to jitney vale Gurjar ko do (Satveer is also a Gurjar and we thought if we are going to vote for a Gurjar candidate, let’s go for the winning one)”. As I ask them about the big houses in the villages, the elders smile, “Ab jamin bech li to kya makaan bhi nahin banbawen (Shall we not get good houses after selling the land).”

Houses in Badalpur. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Houses in Badalpur. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Dadri is a Gurjar-dominated seat where Bhati and Nagar Gurjars flock in opposite directions to make their candidate win. While the SP is likely to field Ravinder Bhati, the BSP has declared Satveer, a Nagar Gurjar, as their candidate again. The BJP is in a tizzy as it has to choose from two names – Nawab Singh Nagar and Tejpal Nagar. The choice is not easy as both have strong support bases. While Nawab Singh, an ex-minister, is the tallest Gurjar leader in this area, he has lost two previous elections, which has made Tejpal’s claim stronger. “If Tejpal master is not given the ticket, we will go with Satveer,” say groups of Gurjar youth in both Akilpur and Kodi Kheda villages. But Gurjar respondents in Badalpur and Bhambhad maintain that only Nawab Singh could give competition to Satveer, and his supporters may go with the BSP if he is not given the ticket. In any case, the BJP has to work hard to quell the in-fighting after ticket distribution, which is exacerbated by the fact that the local BJP MP and minister, Mahesh Sharma, is perceived as anti-Gurjar.

As I talk to some Gurjars in Dadri, it becomes clear that the Bisara beef lynching incident has communalised the atmosphere. All of them make inflated claims about the benefits and money given by the SP government to the family of the victim, Muhammad Akhlaq. How can you think of going with the BSP if you are angry with the SP’s ‘Muslim appeasement’, I ask. “We can go with BSP or BJP, after all both are Hindus” comes the reply. When I talk about the fact that the BSP has fielded 97 Muslim candidates, they remain unfazed. “Vo sab nahin pata, hamare yahan to Gurjar diya hai aur ham Gurjar ko hi vote denge (We don’t know about these things, they have fielded a Gurjar here and we will vote for a Gurjar).” 

Bisara and Ghodi Bacheda: From a shared past to a troubled present

A few kilometres further on GT Road lies Bisara village; a statue of Maharana Pratap with a tricolour stands atop the village’s entry gate. Bisara made national headlines in September 2015, when Akhlaq and his family were attacked by a group of villagers on allegations of consuming beef. Akhlaq’s death created an uproar, as writers started returning their national awards to protest what they said were the growing incidents of intolerance and violence in the country. More than a year later, the atmosphere is far from normal in the village. There is open hostility towards visiting journalists, as residents think the media has given a ‘bad name’ to the village. Primarily a Sisodiya Thakur-dominated village, Bisara has some Dalit households and very few Muslim families. The families of Akhlaq and his brothers have left since the incident and other Muslim residents are not ready to talk too much. “All is well here, there is no problem,” says 40-year-old Nawab. But the tension is far too obvious.

The Thakurs are angry that around a dozen of their youth accused in the case are still in jail, having been unable to secure bail. A bail hearing is scheduled in January and hence they are maintaining restraint while talking to the media. As I reach the village’s Shiv mandir, the public announcement system of which was allegedly used to incite the mob before the attack, a group of youngsters gather around me. The local priest, who said that he was overpowered while the village youth attacked the family, has since fled the village. I talk to them about the incident and one of them says,“Now it has been proved that it was beef. Tell me, if you are a Hindu, won’t your blood boil if you come to know that a cow has been slaughtered?” Suddenly, an elderly man comes and orders the youth to keep quiet. I am later told his son is also an accused and still in jail. I ask whether I can photograph the temple and I am told not to do so.

But people are ready to talk when I ask them about elections and make it very clear that their votes will certainly go to the BJP, no matter who the candidate is. “Still, Tejpal is a better candidate,” says Sanjay Rana, father of another accused, Ravi. “He touches our feet whenever he comes here, Nawab is not so polite,” he adds.

Though the OBCs are still hesitant to say anything, Dalits in the region are very vocal about their support for Mayawati. When I ask them about the communal polarisation, they say, “Hindu hain to sapa ko vote nahin dena, baspa bhi to Hinduon ki hai, usko dene main kya dikkat hai (Hindus must necessarily not vote for SP, BSP is also for Hindus, what is the problem in voting for them)”.

Subedar Ramesh Rawal. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Subedar Ramesh Rawal. Credit: Rajan Pandey

“It’s not that Thakurs and Muslims always had such animosity,” says local journalist Pankaj Parashar. “Some of the Thakurs who later converted to Islam are still in close relations with the local Thakurs, as can be seen in Ghodi Bacheda village of Hindu Thakurs, who maintain close ties with Muslim Thakurs of Til Begampur village.” Subedar Ramesh Rawal, a Thakur peasant leader who led the Ghodi Bacheda peasant agitation against land acquisition in 2007 that left six peasants dead in police firing, confirms this. “We are still close to each other as our ancestors were the same,” he says, “but now things are being twisted which is wrong”. Rawal is also contesting elections from Dadri from his own party, the Rashtravadi Pratap Sena symbolised by the flute. “I hope to improve the vicious atmosphere,” he says, before leaving for an election campaign.

‘Protests are one thing, elections another’

In May 2011, a prolonged farmers’ protest in the Jat-dominated Bhatta and Paarsaul villages of Gautam Budh Nagar (Greater Noida) district erupted in a violent outburst that led to the death of two policemen and two farmers. Farmers were protesting the acquisition of their land by the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority, which developed Mayawati’s dream project – the Noida-Agra Yamuna Expressway with the JP Group. As Mayawati’s government dealt sternly with the movement, barring opposition leaders from entering the villages, Rahul Gandhi stole the show by pillion-riding a motorcycle to reach the affected villages. Bhatta-Paarsaul became the symbol of new age peasant resistance against the BSP’s high-handedness. In the 2012 assembly elections, the Congress fielded Thakur Dhirendra Singh, the man who took Gandhi on his motorcycle to the villages, as its candidate, but Singh lost to the BSP’s Gurjar veteran Vedram Bhati, who won due to the consolidation of Gurjar-Dalit votes.

Five-and-a-half years later, things have changed in Bhatta and Paarsaul. Singh joined the BJP a couple of weeks ago and is likely to become the BJP candidate from here. But it’s not the fault of the candidate, even voters have switched loyalties. Kiran Pal Singh, one of the leaders of the movement, says, “Jats in western UP have gone towards the BJP after Muzaffarnagar, as only the BJP is talking about our problems. So here also we are supporting BJP.” But won’t the Jats refrain from voting for the BJP now that the Jat Arakshan Samiti (JAS) has asked them to boycott the party for remaining non-committal on the Jat reservation issue? Jat respondents in Paarsaul burst into roaring laughter at the question. “Yashpal is not such a big leader that he could tell us what to do and not do, and we would follow it,” says one of them, talking about JAS leader Yashpal Malik. “Is the issue of Jat reservation not significant for you then?” I ask. “Mudda jaruri hai, lekin andolan ki baat aur hai aur chunaav ki aur (The issue is important, but protests are one thing and elections another),” replies another Jat respondent in Paarsaul.

Postscript: Thakur Dhirendra Singh finally got the BJP ticket from Jewar seat. In Dadri, the BJP gave its ticket to Tejpal Nagar, after which Nawab Singh Nagar and his Gurjar supporters have publicly opposed the decision. They also staged a protest outside Amit Shah’s office in New Delhi.

Rajan Pandey is an independent journalist and author of Battleground UP: Politics in the Land of Ram.

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