Politics

In UP’s Bijnor, Communal Tensions Shift Electoral Balance

Recent communal violence may have shifted the tide towards the ruling Samajwadi Party and the BJP, but it is unwise to rule Mayawati’s BSP out of the race, at least in Bijnor.

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Aneesuddin’s son Javed. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Situated near the foothills of the Himalayas, Bijnor district falls in the Moradabad division of Uttar Pradesh, some 160 km from the national capital. Compared to the surrounding districts, Bijnor is more urbanised with 12 municipalities and six nagar panchayats (village councils) within its purview. According to the 2011 census, around 55% of the district’s population is Hindu and 43% Muslim. The majority of the Muslim population is concentrated in urban areas, where Muslims outnumber the Hindus, who are generally concentrated in the rural areas. In September this year, the district garnered national attention after a communal clash between the region’s Jats and Muslims made headlines across the country.

An uneasy calm in Peda

As one moves along the road connecting Bijnor with the Meerut-Haridwar highway, gur-making (jaggery-making) factories line both sides. The air is heavy with smoke and the sweetness of boiling cane juice, but it cannot mask the bitterness that defines Hindu-Muslim relations in the areas near the city. This divide has only deepened since the Peda kand (episode). On September 16, an incident involving Jat boys from the nearby Nayagaon village who harassed (‘eve-teased’) a Muslim girl from Peda village, situated only 2 km from Bijnor, escalated into a communal clash.

In the violent altercation that followed, the Jat men, armed with firearms, from the villages of Peda, Nayagaon and Kachchpura attacked the family of Aneesuddin, a Muslim man from Peda from the dhobi sub-caste, leaving three people dead and dozens more injured.

There men were killed, Aneesuddin (50), Ehsaan (36) and Sarfaraz (17), all of whom were from the same family. Anees and Ehsaan were brothers while Sarfaraz was their nephew. Ehsaan was differently-abled and had been visiting from Delhi, where he worked as a barber, to celebrate Eid with his family.

According to survivor accounts, one of Aneesuddin’s sons was taking his sister to school when a group of Jat boys passed some objectionable comments. This resulted in a brief skirmish between the boys and Aneesuddin’s family. However, people stepped in to mediate and stop the fight.

Javed, one of Aneesuddin’s sons, recalls what happened after: “We came back and were having breakfast when a group of Jats from Nayagaon and Kachchpura, along with Jats from our own village attacked us with brickbats and then started firing. They only left when people of the family started crying over the deaths.”

Three of Aneesuddin’s five brothers had already died due to natural causes and this episode claimed two more. “There are five widows in this house, along with old women and young children,” says Imrana, the wife of Mohammad Furqaan, Aneesuddin’s lone surviving brother. He asks, “Why did they do this to us?”

Sansar Chand, a Jat whose house is no more than 20 meters from the victims’, was named in the FIR along with his son, more than a dozen relatives and other Jats from Nayagaon and Kachchpura. As of now, more than 20 people are in jail on charges of rioting and murder, while some are still absconding. All of the people named, arrested or absconding in the case are Jats.

Government land, political ambitions and electoral polarisation

Some residents from Kachchpura and Peda believe an entirely different issue was the main bone of contention between the two groups. Waste water from Peda used to go through a nalla (drain) to a pond situated on the other side of the main road that leads to Bijnor. Muslim dhobis from the village annexed this government land a couple of years ago and blocked the nalla, causing the pond to dry up, which in turn converted the land into prime real estate, that too right in the vicinity of the expanding city.

A police officer posted near the village, who preferred to remain unnamed, said, “The Jats wanted to annex this land, while Muslims were maintaining their hold. It was a property dispute given communal colour to hide the real reasons.”

The piece of government land which is at the centre of this issue. Credit: Rajan Pandey

The piece of government land which is at the centre of this issue. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Dilawar Singh, the new village pradhan (leader) of Kachchpura-Peda re-opened the nalla in September with help from the local police. Dilawar’s actions also caused some bad blood between the communities. “That is why pradhanji has been dragged into [the issue] by the dhobis,” says Muneshwar Singh, a Jat man from Kachchpura.

But how did the incident end up becoming a communal issue? The majority of the people I talked to maintain that political ambitions are to be blamed. After the minor scuffle between the Jat boys and the girl’s family had been resolved by mediators, an RSS activist, Kunwar Sen, allegedly informed some BJP workers about the incident and sought their help. Aishwarya Chaudhary, alias Mausam Bhaiyya, a Jat lawyer from Bijnor – who was also an aspirant for the BJP ticket for the Bijnor constituency – along with his cousin Arun Kawadi and a number of supporters congregated near Peda, leading to more violence.

Local journalist Sajjan Singh says, “The BJP leaders did try to make it a big issue. State leaders of the party were keeping a keen eye on the developments in this matter”. If this was indeed the case, one wonders how it did not evolve into a full blown communal clash. “The administration was very quick to respond,” says Javed. “The local MLA, Ruchi Vira, also helped us a lot,” he says, as we look at the Samajwadi Party (SP) flag fluttering on his rooftop.

Many people agree that the administration responded very quickly, but also allege that the response was biased in favour of the Muslim community. “The Muslims also fired in the incident, and they had beaten up Hindu boys previously but no case was registered against them,” says Mohit, Sansar Chand’s nephew. Mohit has come to Chand’s house as both male members of the family are in jail, which has left his old mother alone in the house. “Our farms are left fallow, 18 members from our extended family have been either arrested or are absconding and the SP government is only favouring the Muslims,” he alleges. This charge is repeated in many Jat homes, whose members have been named in the FIR and where most of the adult male members have been arrested or are absconding.

The charge of “unjustly favouring the Muslims” has also been levelled against SP MLA Vira. Her pro-active approach to containing the riots and the speedy arrests of the accused have earned her a lot of detractors in BJP circles. I am shown a Whatsapp video by some BJP activists – a recording of a mushaira organised by Vira this month. In the video, after poet Imran Pratapgarhi has recited a couplet praising Vira’s efforts to contain the riots, she kisses him on the forehead.

There is nothing objectionable in the video, but the narrative accompanying it makes it so. “See, now she is embracing-kissing these people on the stage even,” says one of the activists, pointing to the fact that the majority of the event’s attendees were Muslims. “Vira is considered pro-Muslim by the majority,” says Atul Gupta, a seasoned BJP insider from the district. “The upcoming elections on Bijnor seat will be fought on Hindu-Muslim polarisation, with [the] SP getting Muslim votes and the BJP candidate getting Hindu votes,” he adds. Clearly, Vira too has made a great comeback after this incident, as just last year she was suspended from the SP for conducting anti-party activities during the District Board elections.

At Bijnor jail, Aishwarya awaits bail as his application has been turned down by the district judge despite the Bijnor Bar Association’s repeated attempts to pressurise the judge. “We are waiting for the charge sheet after which we will apply for bail in the higher court,” says his counsel Balwant Singh. But Bijnor’s prominent lawyers admit that he may not get bail so easily. BJP insiders agree that his chances of getting a party ticket from Bijnor are now bleak. “Like his father, he too could not make it in the end, and the internal politics of BJP is responsible for it as senior party leaders don’t want a strong Jat leader to compete with here,” said one BJP leader on condition of anonymity. He is referring to Rajendra Singh, Aishwarya’s father, who is a BJP leader and was given the party ticket for Bijnor’s Lok Sabha seat in 2014, which was later withdrawn. The reason for this is said to be Baba Ramdev’s displeasure over Rajendra’s candidature, after Aishwarya allegedly misbehaved with him on phone regarding some issue.

Sansar Chand's house. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Sansar Chand’s house. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Is the elephant finished?

Bijnor is considered a stronghold of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which won all seven of the district’s seats in 2007 (Bijnor had seven seats in the previous delimitation; the new delimitation in 2009 increased the number to eight). BSP supremo Mayawati first contested from Bijnor in the Lok Sabha by-election in 1985, finishing third. In the 1989 general elections she won this seat, becoming an MP for the first time. In the assembly elections held the same year, the BSP won three of the seven seats, the highest from any district at the time.

Bijnor’s Muslim and Dalit electors are considered to be the BSP’s main support. In the 2012 elections, when the party got a drubbing in most other districts, it still managed to win four of the eight seats in Bijnor. In the same elections, the BJP also managed to win two seats (Bijnor and Noorpur) while the SP won the remaining two – Nagina (Scheduled Caste) and Dhampur.

The BSP recently suffered an image crisis when a number of its senior leaders like Swami Prasad Maurya, R.K. Chaudhry, Daddu Prasad and Dara Singh Chauhan left the party. The same thing happened in Bijnor too, as two of the party’s sitting MLAs – Mohammad Tasleem from Najibabad and Om Kumar from Nehtaur (Scheduled Caste) – left the party, while two of its former MLAs and 2012 election runners-up – Omwati Devi from Nagina (Scheduled Caste) and Ashok Kumar Rana from Dhampur – also left. While Tasleem has gone to the SP, the other three have joined the BJP. The BSP seems to be the biggest loser in this scenario, while the BJP looks like the biggest gainer.

Electorally, Dalits, Jats, Thakurs, Sainis and Baniyas are the dominant Hindu communities in the region, and two of the eight assembly seats in the district are reserved for Dalits. As of now, two of Bijnor’s MLAs are Thakurs, two Dalit, one Baniya and three are Muslim. The lone Jat MLA from the city was Bharatendra Singh, from the BJP, who became an MP in 2014 but lost the seat to the SP’s Baniya candidate, Vira, in the by-elections.

Given the polarising situation, Jats and Sainis – in addition to the Thakurs and Baniyas who already supported the party – seem to be moving towards the BJP. In this situation, the old leadership’s desertion seems to indicate that the BSP might be losing popular support in its stronghold. To confirm this, I decide to move across the district to understand the mood of the electorate and take their views on various issues, from demonetisation to elections. 

A Samajwadi Party flag on the victim's house. Credit: Rajan Pandey

A Samajwadi Party flag on the victim’s house. Credit: Rajan Pandey

The situation on the ground

“[The] BJP has painted the traders as if they are thieves,” says Saurabh Singhal, Bijnor’s Vyapar Mandal president, who thinks the government’s demonetisation exercise “has brought business down”. Many share Singhal’s views, but there are also those who oppose it.

“Demonetisation has caused some problems, but it is good for the nation. We will still vote for BJP,” says 32-year-old Pankaj Tyagi at Navada village, as his elder brother Kapil Tyagi nods in agreement. Navada is an old village of Tyagi Brahmins, which falls under the Nazibabad seat, most famous for being the birthplace of renowned Hindi poet Dushyant Kumar.

Sixty-year-old Nur Mohammad, a painter, disagrees with the brothers’ views. “How is it good for the country when common people of the country like me have lost work due to it?”

Kapil tries to reason that the problems are due to the badmashi (mischief) of banks, but another Navada resident, Bundu Ahmed, cuts him short. “This step has created more problems for common people and I have seem none of its benefits.”

When I ask them who the main contenders in the upcoming assembly elections are, they all agree the fight will be between the SP and the BJP. “The BSP candidate Muazzam is a bit weak compared to the SP’s Tasleem,” says Nur Mohammed.

There could be some truth to what he says, but as I go to Nazibabad, I see the presence of BSP on posters, banners and flags, far outdoing the SP presence.

In nearby Nagina, many of whom I spoke to believe that SP MLA Manoj Paras and BJP’s Omwati will be the main contestants, but on the remaining five seats – Dhampur, Barhapur, Nehtaur SC, Chandpur and Nurpur, it is BSP vs BJP everywhere. I ask a group of youngsters in the Milad-ul-Nabi julus (procession) in Dhampur who they will prefer and their answer is Ghazi (BSP candidate Mohammad Ghazi). And where will the sitting SP MLA Moolchand Chauhan go, I ask. “On third position,” they reply, implying that it is primarily a BSP vs BJP contest.

One wonders how Muslims are showing so much faith in the BSP when it’s opponents are spreading rumours that the party may align with the BJP after the elections and when some of its MLAs have already gone to BJP? Mohammad Akhtar Siddique, who runs a news agency in Afzalgarh town of Barhapur assembly replies, “It’s only the Harijan MLAs who have gone to the BJP, as Muslim MLAs won’t find it easy to go there. And this time BSP has fielded six Muslim candidates on all general seats of the district.”

The BSP may have fielded six Muslims on all general seats of the district to embolden its Dalit-Muslim alliance but the SP is not far behind in trying to attract the minority vote. Four of its candidates are Muslims while the fifth, Vira, is labelled as being “extremely pro-Muslim”.

On the other hand, the BJP has benefitted greatly from the general environment of communal polarisation. “This is the first time that we are in the main contest on all seats of the district,” says Atul Gupta, while also accepting that the recent incidences of communal violence “may be one of the reasons behind it”. But he too agrees that on most of the seats, it is the BSP they will contend with. “If the Dalit-Muslim alliance of BSP works, then it will sweep the elections here; the BJP’s only hope is that Muslim votes will divide,” says Shivraj Singh, another keen observer of Bijnor’s politics.

Clearly, detractors may try to rule her out but Mayawati’s elephant is very much alive and kicking, at least in Bijnor.

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