UP’s Communalism Is Not a Singular Story. Here's Why That Matters in This Election 

Ahead of the first phase of the assembly polls, a long look at how caste and religious considerations shape political perceptions in UP.

Shamli: It was a bitterly cold afternoon and the rain took the electricity out as it often did in the district, where Mushtaq bhai and this reporter made up for the lack of heating by dipping sarson ka saag in warm makki ki rotis smothered with butter.

“I might vote for the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] this time didi, you never know,” said Mushtaq. He was a Muslim in a district in Uttar Pradesh where Muslims had been massacred in violence that had erupted in September 2013. But the thing about a good meal on a cold day is that it allows a journalist in an election some lag time, to relax and let the significance of this line sink in.  

Shamli and Muzaffarnagar were the two neighbouring districts where a local clash between a few men from the Jat community and some Muslims was quickly and deliberately painted as communal. In the mob violence that followed, almost 60 Muslims were killed and 50,000 were displaced. It was the polarisation from this region that led the Hindu right BJP to win two successive state elections with an unprecedented majority.

It’s not inaccurate to say that the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli riots sliced the communal history of UP into two distinct halves. The pre and post riot eras. In an election season, the bends and shifts in the Hindu-Muslim story are most acutely visible from here. Ground zero. 

Also watch | Eight Years After Muzaffarnagar Riots, Its Victims Are Still Living in Virtual Hell

For Mushtaq to say over lunch that he was considering voting for the BJP could sound preposterous to most anyone who scans back to scenes of ghost villages pockmarked with charred homes and Muslim families huddled in camps, living on scraps. But living in Shamli for the last year and a half had shown this reporter how strange and counter-intuitive the view up close can be and how Mushtaq’s words actually made sense.

The communal story in Uttar Pradesh, seen from this vantage point is not a singular story. Caste, sub-castes, cadres and even food complicate the plot. 

Mushtaq’s words were like car headlights forcing their way through a dense fog. He was a Muslim from the Ansari caste – part of the Other Backward Classes or OBC list. Both parts of his identity mattered equally. As a member of a middling caste, he was bullied by more dominant castes – both Hindu and Muslim. And that, not just the memory of the riots would now influence his vote. As a professional mali, he had decided to vote for the party he calculated would make his everyday movement from one village and town to another safer, from thieves as well as caste bullies.

“When the Samajwadi Party was in power, it was hard to move on the Kandhla highway, (not far from where we were sitting down to lunch), because of the goondaism on the streets. You could get mugged, robbed. The highways are much safer now under the BJP,” he said, helping himself to another roti, his black kohl lined eyes gleaming. But then again, he added, his residential colony had not still made up its mind and was vacillating. 

In Shamli, the main opposition to the BJP is the SP-RLD – an alphabet soup of dominant castes. The RLD or Rashtriya Lok Dal is led by the most dominant caste in all of western Uttar Pradesh – the Jats. You can tell a Jat section from any other in a village quite easily. Look for the biggest houses with a tiger motif on the wall, large double barrel doors and flashy gold pillars on either side. The only community where the men sit in various shades of undress in the village choupals or their private courtyards, legs crossed, hookah in hand, looking straight in the eye of any stranger passing by. 

The entrance to a house owned by a Jat villager. Photo: Revati Laul

For a Muslim like Mushtaq, the non-communal, Muslim friendly party that fields a large number of Muslim candidates in every election is the Samajwadi Party – the SP. But in this election, the SP had tied up with the Jat-dominant RLD and the Jats are traditionally seen as Muslim bigots or at the very least, reluctant to vote for a Muslim candidate if that is the choice they’re faced with. In this election, wherever the alliance has given tickets to Muslims, the Jats have wondered whether to do a volte face and ditch the alliance in favour of the BJP.  The Muslims in turn in Mushtaq’s village turned on the Jats and said, ‘If you don’t vote for the alliance candidate just because they’re Muslim in your area, we won’t vote for the Jat candidate contesting from ours. We’ll vote for the BJP instead.’ 

Apart from the surprise story of a Muslim like Mushtaq, there are middling castes like the Kashyaps with an equally counter-intuitive position. This time from the village Lissad, one of the main sites of the communal conflagration of 2013. All the Muslim inhabitants of this village were driven out to areas of Muslim concentration elsewhere, having to sell their land at throwaway prices to Hindus in the village. Monu’s family had bought their plot of land from a fleeing Muslim. 

But Monu from Lissad, was a young, ambitious 24-year-old Kashyap in search of a job, money, power and social mobility. He wore tight jeans and hung out with the cool set in his village. This was the part his identity he wanted to keep. His political choices, he insisted weren’t determined by Lissad’s communal past. “Us Kashyaps had absolutely nothing to do with the violence against Muslims. It was the Jats that attacked them. And now those same Jats have tied up with the Muslim-friendly Samajwadi Party. Bhai bhai ho gaye sab?” Monu’s question bent the communal gaze in the completely opposite direction. If the erstwhile perpetrators had tied up with the victims, then which party was more communal – the BJP or the alliance? 

‘You can tell a Jat section from any other in a village quite easily.’ Photo: Revati Laul

If the socialist opposition has internal contradictions, then the ruling BJP is riddled with them. While the party’s PR is stridently Hindutva, many supporters take what they like and discard what they don’t. Not too far from Lissad, in another Kashyap dominated village, Savita, a fiercely god-fearing woman spread out a charpoy in her courtyard and asked her samuh-sakhis or friends to come join our discussion. These were women from a cluster of micro-finance groups under the government run National Rural Livelihood Mission. “The thing is,” they explained more or less in unison, as the sun made Savita’s red lipstick shine brighter, “the Jats bully us all the time.” In their village, Babli had thrown garbage in the same waste plot of land as the Jats and that was too much for them. They had shouted at her but even though Babli was frail and tiny, she stood her ground and let out a volley of abuses. This was beyond anything the Jat male ego could stomach, so they punched her in the chest until she doubled up in pain and fell into the nearby ditch. 

Babli went with her women colleagues to file a case against the Jats but the next day, the Jats paid a visit to the local police and threatened to finish off Babli’s family if she didn’t have the case against them dropped. If a Jat heavy party came to power, the women explained, their newly asserted strength as members of the government-run small business and finance schemes would be in tatters. In another village in Shamli, Savita had fought valiantly for the right of a fellow Muslim woman leader to not be outdone by the other women. So Savita was not communal. Her BJP leaning was clearly about making the dominant caste in the region diminish. 

At the height of the year-long farmers’ agitation against the BJP government, people like Savita – Kashyaps, Sainis, Gadariyas, Giris – middling castes from the same OBC grouping as the Jats said over and over, ‘We’re glad Modi-ji has brought these farm laws and the Jats are getting screwed over. Serves them right.’ 

Many of these castes work for daily wages on sugarcane farms owned by Jats. Some have still not been paid their dues. Others have borrowed money from Jats who often double-up as moneylenders and have played an especially pivotal role in two successive pandemic years. The smaller castes got kicked out of daily wage jobs both on farms and brick kilns and subsisted on borrowed money. Banks only lend money if land or wealth is supplied as collateral. Jats lend without that, but at phenomenal rates of interest – as much as 30%. So, they’re disliked to the point where the most sensational news about protesting farmers being run over had little effect on Savita and her women colleagues. 

Also read: The Lakhimpur Kheri Incident Didn’t Occur by Chance, it Was a Long Time Coming

This reporter who also doubles up as an activist was in a discussion about rights and the story came up, as did the video of a big fat SUV – apparently owned by a cabinet minister’s son ran over protesting farmers. The women listened half-heartedly, “Hmmm bahut bura hua, yes it’s terrible,” they said what was expected of them but their eyes weren’t in it.

It was as if someone decided to switch from an Akshay Kumar film to Swan Lake. No one said anything but no one wanted to continue the discussion. “Next he’s going to say there are people starving in the Sudan,” – a line from the film Notting Hill, came to mind. In the film, the actor Hugh Grant has a mad Welsh roommate who scoffs at being made to listen to news about things he’s supposed to feel guilty about. The women gave this journalist exactly that impression and deftly changed the subject to one that did interest them. Schemes being rolled out by the government. When could they get their labour id cards made and their Aadhaar cards? And their Ayushman cards? 

 As Hindu OBCs in Shamli, and by all accounts in much of the rest of UP seemed to suggest they’re sticking with the BJP, there is now some new math available to suggest why these conversations against Jats are not just the stuff of whimsy or by any means an exception to the rule. The academic and political journalist Nalin Mehta’s just written a book called The New BJP in which he’s counted the number of candidates fielded by the BJP as well as ministers in the UP government in the last assembly election of 2017 and the numbers provide the teeth to the anecdotes we’ve narrated so far. OBCs and Scheduled Castes or SCs – the official name for the group of Dalit castes account for more than half the BJP’s candidates in that election – 52.8% to be precise, 50% of all office-bearers in the party in 2020, 48.1% of UP’s council of ministers and 35.6% of the party’s district-level presidents. 

What further complicates the question of religion is the crucial role caste plays amongst Muslims. Caste is as endemic to Indian Muslims as it is to Hindus and must be factored into the math especially in a state where the Muslim population in the state is 19%  – 5% higher than the national average. Just as the Jats have other OBC Hindus riled up, Muslim Gujjars are the equivalent bullies in districts like Shamli. 

Two days ago, this reporter’s colleague came to work with a hand wrapped in a crepe bandage from having beaten up a few Gujjar Muslim boys. “They were on smack or some drugs or the other and first they ran their motorcycle into a kid. Then they threatened to burn down our entire village,” said Akram bhai. He’s from the Fakir caste which is the equivalent of the Dalits in the hierarchy of castes. “Hamari beradri se ho kar woh aisa behave karte hain didi to mera khoon khaul utha – they’re from our religion and yet they behave like this, I couldn’t take it, I saw red,” he said. 

It is caste bullying of this kind that explains why in the last one week, this journalist encountered Muslims from non-dominant castes – Fakirs and Jogis who said they would vote for the BJP to weaken the stranglehold of the powerful and landed Muslim Gujjars. One such person said he is campaigning for his ‘Bua’ – the term ‘aunt’ is used as a euphemism for the BJP candidate from the Kairana seat in Shamli – Mriganka Singh. 

Also read: It’s Been Two Years Since the Poster Child of UP’s Farming Success Story Quit Active Farming

What is ironic about this stacking up of a few socially suppressed Muslim castes against dominant ones is that even the caste bullies are now saying they may vote for the BJP. Muslim Gujjars say they would like to underline their ‘Gujjar-ness’ over their ‘Muslim-ness,’ in places where they’re competing with their caste rivals – the Jats. They’re voting for the BJP wherever they think the Jats will vote for the alliance. “We’re Gujjars first and Muslims second,” some have said. A few are going still further, buying into the Hindu right’s saffron history by saying, “We were forcibly converted to Islam by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, now we must stack up and vote with our Hindu brothers, as Gujjars.” And so it is that the while-clad, macho Muslim Gujjars are feeding themselves on Islamophobia much like working class Brexiters in England or out of work white male Trump voters in America who voted themselves into even more distress because they believed it was for their own good. 

In the very complex counter-intuitive Muslim world of Uttar Pradesh, a part of the story that’s less spoken of is the communal behaviour of Muslims towards pork-eating and pig-rearing Hindus and tribals. In the village Makhmoolpur, Somvati, a middle-aged and confident woman leader from the Valmik caste shows off her big fat accounts register. She is part of the government’s National Rural Livelihood Mission and is so good with numbers that she’s been saddled with all the accounting work.

This despite never having finished school, she says proudly, her big cheeks puffed with pride and her red sindoor gleaming on her forehead in the afternoon sun. Despite this leadership role, Somvati was humiliated in the middle of a sarkari meeting in the block office by a Muslim woman co-worker from a middling Sheikh-Sarvari caste. 

“We would never eat or drink even a drop of water at your house,” said the woman, right in front of a room-full of colleagues. Somvati had to fight back the tears as she recounted the story. “This woman doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Many Muslims are more than happy to come to my home and eat.”

The humiliation re-surfaced when a village drunk said much the same of Somvati even though she had hired his services as a tent-wallah for a large-scale health camp she was overseeing. At the end of the health camp she noted that quite a few dominant castes – Hindu and Muslim had stayed away. Like her caste, many other Scheduled Castes as well as a few Scheduled Tribes like the Banwariyas vote for the BJP. If Muslims and dominant castes humiliate them, then they need the biggest bully of all to put the others in their place.  

The audience at a rally of BJP’s Adityanath. Photo: Revati Laul

In the dense caste-communal fog, one person who seems to disappear and re-appear briefly and mysteriously is Mayawati. Traditionally, she is the keeper of Dalit votes or scheduled caste votes from at least a couple of castes – the Jatavs and Chamars.

This time, her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP has her voters baffled. Where are the big fat posters, cadres, meetings, canvassing? And if she comes and goes, are rumours that she may end up in some sort of alliance with the BJP just fiction?

Also read: The UP Assembly Polls Are Almost Here – But Where Is BSP?

Perceptions matter and Jatavs and Chamars in villages like Nala and Hathchoya in Shamli say they’re firmly with the opposition, whichever opposition party appears to be stronger – if not Mayawati then the SP-RLD combine. The Jatavs and Chamars are traditional believers in Guru Ravi Das whose verses are part of the Sikhs’ Guru Granth Sahib. It is this belief that many within the communities say has made it hard for the Hindu right to win them over or turn them into Ram-bhakts.  

But perhaps there’s more than enough of ‘Ram-rajya’ (Ram’s kingdom) to go around even without them. The ‘Hindu-ness’ of things – from saffron flags to the expected kowtowing to Ram in the belligerent right-wing way is so much a part of the Uttar Pradesh political fabric that it’s no longer its most distinguishing feature. It’s a bit like patriarchy, only newer.

There is hope in this however, for those who are looking for some. If religious bigotry alone cannot cut it for a party as strong and well-entrenched as the BJP, then caste and its complexities has got to be their other big tool and the evidence from where this journalist is sitting suggests, that is where they shore up their chances.

It also means that the undoing of communal politics in the state cannot be determined by an election alone or indeed by the way people vote. And Hindu Kashyaps like Savita and Muslim Ansaris like Mushtaq, in their counter-intuitiveness point the way for a host of new political possibilities for those who have eyes and ears and an appetite for it, with or without sarson ka saag. 

*All names of people are changed to protect their identities since this writer lives and works amongst them.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and rights activist based in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh. She is the author of The Anatomy of Hate, a book that tracks the stories of the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots of 2002.