Muzaffarnagar, Kairana (Uttar Pradesh): “Look, this election isn’t really about voting for your MP. It’s about bringing Prime Minister Modi back again.”

That was former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) union minister of state Sanjeev Balyan addressing an election gather of 100, mostly men, in their white dhotis and pagris (turbans) in a square in Naghori village here in western Uttar Pradesh. He made no mention of the September 2013 riots that got him political fame, as 62 people--42 Muslim, 20 Hindu--were murdered. A former PhD in veterinary sciences, Balyan firmly cast his lot with the Hindus.

The polarisation that Balyan, 46, had effected did its job last time, so he made Modi his primary sales pitch. Many BJP leaders believed that the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, with Balyan at its epicentre turned the tide for the party in UP, delivering it 73 of 80 seats, its best performance in India’s electorally most important state.

More than 50,000--most Muslims--fled their homes and had to move to the neighbouring town of Shamli in the neighbouring district of Kairana. Balyan was charged with disobeying curfew orders, using criminal force to deter public servants from doing their jobs and wrongful restraint. He is still fighting these cases in court. But the polarisation between Hindu and Muslim in Muzaffarnagar gained him victory over his nearest rival from the BSP by a margin of 400,000 votes.

Balyan was rewarded and made union minister of state for agriculture. Two years later in 2016, his portfolio was changed to water resources and a year later, he was dropped from the union cabinet altogether.

Despite his patchy track record and the cases he is still fighting, the BJP calculated that, perhaps, Balyan would be able to consolidate Hindu votes yet again and named him the candidate from Muzaffarnagar constituency.

After the rally in Naghori village, Balyan sat in the drawing room of one of his supporters, before a table of cashew nuts and savouries, and talked plainly about what happened during the Muzaffarngar riots.

First, as someone fighting cases in court, he was cautious.

Pehli baat toh meri party ka usmey koi role nahi tha. I want to clarify first of all that my party had absolutely no role to play in those riots,” he said.

What about the role he played in the riots? Balyan was quick to reply.

Ab bhi koi aisi sthithi aayegi toh mai abh bhi khada rahoonga. If circumstances like those arise again, I will stand up and do my bit again,” he said, referring to local attitudes. “Mai us kshetra se hoon jahan eenth ka jawaab paththar se kiya jaata hai. Where I come from, we believe in giving an eye for an eye.”

That a parliamentarian and former union minister was making a statement admitting to violence and ignoring the law was not an aberration. It is the fulcrum around which politics in Muzaffarnagar moves, as UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath confirmed during an election speech in the district on April 8, 2019. “It was Sanjeev Balyan who was fighting for you and even went to jail,” said Adityanath.

Balyan and Adityanath’s approach is connected with the economic distress of the region and the consequent availability of young men.

Foot-soldiers are available

Before the 2014 election, said a local BJP leader, requesting anonymity, violence was stoked to win votes. In August 2013, a local fight erupted between Jats and Muslims over the alleged sexual assault of a Hindu girl.

It spiralled after two young Jat men were killed by Muslims--seven were convicted in February 2019--and a Muslim killed by Hindu Jats. But the state stepped in and imposed a curfew. At this point, Balyan, a local Jat leader at the time, played a key role as a self-styled “protector of Jat pride”.

In defiance of the curfew, he and other BJP leaders from the area called for a Jat mahapanchayat or a grand council of Jats on the September 7, 2013. Slogans were shouted at this public gathering of Jats from across western UP and Haryana: “Muslims have only two sthans (places), Pakistan or kabristan (the graveyard).

The disregard for the law, said political scientist and UP watcher Sudha Pai, who has spent much of her professional life studying UP’s communal and caste politics, comes from a historical downward spiral of UP’s economy and Muzaffarnagar within it. “The bottomline,” said Pai is “a total breakdown” of law and order, which is true for not just the BJP but other parties in the state.

“Coupled with the lack of development, this has meant that there are a large number of men without jobs available as foot soldiers,” said Pai, the author of Everyday Communalism, published in 2018.

When the farm sector and local industry dwindled, politics shifted to carving out caste and community based vote banks, which are easier to tap, said Pai. But this time, there are concerns beyond communal polarisation--sugarcane, for instance.

The politics of sugarcane

Muzaffarnagar district is primarily an agricultural zone: 26.02% of the workforce are cultivators and the remaining 78.03% agricultural labour, according to the Muzaffarnagar district census handbook of 2011.

This is sugarcane country and the state accounts for 43% of India’s sugarcane cultivation, according to the UP sugarcane and cane development department. Muzaffarnagar is UP’s sugarcane epicentre, but the sugar mills currently owe farmers over Rs 11,000 crore, according to government data, referred to in a 2018 parliament question, an issue that appears to be the leading local political problem.

The UP government’s cane development study outlines the problem: on average, a sugarcane farmer needs to make 53 trips every year to sugar mills for various reasons, including price inquiries and when she or he is likely to be paid.

This tedium has economic and political implications, as growing protests by cane farmers in the last few years indicate.

In addition, sugar mills face the same predicament that manufacturing units across UP do. Of 31 states and union territories, UP has the lowest percentage of electrified villages, the second-lowest per person consumption of power. About half of rural UP still awaits electricity, according to 2017 government data.

Balyan and the cane failure

It was perhaps to address the sugarcane concerns of many of Balyan’s 653,391 voters that he was made union minister of state for agriculture and food processing. That did not alter the predicament of sugarcane farmers, who sell their produce to mills and are not being paid the arrears the mills owe them.

Balyan admitted as much: “Maine bahut shor machaya apni party me apni sarkaar me. 14 din ka payment sunischit nahi kara paya. Yeh fact hai. I raised a storm in my party, in the government repeatedly, saying sugarcane farmers must be paid their dues within 14 days of the delivery of cane to mills (as is the law). But I wasn’t able to deliver on that. This is a fact.”

It was also a fact that Balyan was moved within two years from the agriculture ministry to water resources, and a year after that, he resigned from the union cabinet.

A veteran BJP party leader from the region, who did not want to be named, summed up what he thought of the region’s persistent under-development and the continued faith his party has displayed in Balyan for 2019: “Western UP me inki prayog-shala ban chuki hai. Sanjeev Balyan ka uday yahin se hua hai – Hinduvaad se. Western UP has been turned into a factory of Hindu hate, and that is what Sanjeev Balyan owes his political origin to.”

Without Hindu-Muslim issues, the lack of development would make voters put their faith on caste and community-based politics, the pattern in UP over the last two decades. The proportion of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar is 41.3%. In 2014, Balyan defeated the Muslim candidate from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Kadir Rana, a man who was also accused of stoking violence in the Muzaffarnagar riots. In the previous elections in 2009, Rana had won this seat. If Muslims voted en-bloc, then the violence in 2013 prompted various Hindu castes to consolidate around Balyan.

This time however, with no new polarisation to fall back on, Balyan admitted it was going to be “difficult”, especially with a formidable opponent in Jat leader Ajit Singh, founder of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. So, the battle for Hindu votes will be a Jat vs Jat contest.

Balyan hoped his past efforts to consolidate Hindu votes around a projected fear of Muslims would tide him over. As he left the rally, his supporter, Nirantar Singh emphasised the idea. “We don’t want the Talibanis back here,” he said referring to the SP and BSP alliance that many of Balyan’s supporters see as supporting Muslims and, therefore, Balyan the protector of Hindus.

A new generation of hate miners

Whether or not Balyan wins the seat again, it is clear that the template for Hindu politics in Muzaffarnagar district has been set and the next generation of political aspirants are copying this formula.

This was apparent in a town like Shamli, the place where Muslims displaced from the violence of 2013 re-located. The ramshackle town is 28% Muslim, double the national average of 14.3%, has potholed roads, patchy electricity and a near-absent drainage system in most residential areas.

In a crowded shanty called Kaka Nagar lives 25-year old Bajrang Dal activist Vivek Premi. Up a flight of stairs in a living room flanked by two diwans, a large hairy rat paced the room as Premi spoke of his modus operandi as a Hindutva activist leading a cow protection group, a love-Jihad group, a temple-protection group and overall full-time career as a Hindu vigilante.

If Balyan is hoping to cash in on communal politics in this election, Premi is building a Hindutva base for the next generation. As part of the long term vision of the Sangh Parivar, a collective of Hindutva institutions that includes the intellectual arm - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the World Hindu Council or Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the muscular, trishul wielding arm, the Bajrang Dal. Once the ground work is done, the political wing, the BJP, cashes in on the catchment of Hindu consolidation. Balayan’s politics is the immediate. Premi’s--as he acknowledged--is long term.

Premi comes from a trading family. His father owns a jewellery store in the Shamli market. His grandfather was a freedom fighter. “Working for the country” is a sort of inheritance, said Premi, eyes shining.

He came by his nationalism at a Bajrang Dal training camp that he first attended when he was twelve. “I went there because of the physical training and exercise,” Premi said. “And then I was informed about the state of the nation.”

Jis prakaar Islamic aatankvaad desh ke andar badh raha hai, kabhi love jihad ke naam pe kabhi land jihad ke naam pe. Roz kitni gauein ki hatya kari. Islamic terror is growing across the country, sometimes in the name of love jihad (holy war) at other times as a land (grab) jihad. So many cows are slaughtered every day,” said Premi.

From this generalised indoctrination Premi said he was motivated to be part of specific campaigns, such as the 2013 Sangh Parivar campaign against India’s Congress led government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA); including a belief that it was breaking the Ram Setu, or Adam’s bridge, a rocky link to Sri Lanka, used--as mythology says--by Lord Rama.

Premi went around Shamli displaying what he said were stones from the Ram Setu and talked about what he had heard – that the UPA, led by the Congress party, intended to break the Ram Setu. This work gave him recognition in the Sangh and he was gradually given the official responsibility of indoctrinating students from schools and colleges across all of western UP.

“Of course, I can’t get official permission from the school principal to talk to kids,” Premi said. “But as soon as it’s chutti time (when school gets over), the gates are open. I stand outside and introduce myself and two or three students gather around. And I tell the about the state of the nation and the need for this kind of nationalism.”

Premi’s work also includes spear-heading a cow-protection group. Shamli district is divided into six WhatsApp groups, by geography, by Premi and his followers, who have turned car mechanics and chai stall owners into Dal informers.

This is how it works.

As soon as an informer spots a truck carrying cows on the highway, they alert Premi or one of his team mates. The WhatsApp groups alert the nearest Dal member and a team gets on to the road to stop the truck--illegally because they have no legal authority. They can identify a lactating cow from a non-lactating one.

They also ask the truck driver to display his permit. If he doesn’t have one, they call the police and hand him over. The fact that this vigilante force works like a parallel administration and has become an integral part of the politics of Shamli does not surprise anyone any more.

Premi said “cow thieves” needed “to be taught a lesson” and that he has on occasion beaten up a few Muslim offenders to set an example. “I did use a belt to beat up a man who stole calves. At the time “doosrey vicharon ki sarkar thi - there was a government with a different ideology then,” said Premi. “A government that allowed Muslims to get away with their lawlessness,” he added. “Toh woh gussa tha – that filled me with anger.”

2-3 chamdi udhad jayegi to phir samajh me aa jayega kit u gau hatya karega toh yeh parinaam hoga. When 2 or 3 miscreants are skinned alive, then they will know not to kill cows,” Premi said, grinning, his face full of pride.

On another occasion, this vigilantism was used to prevent a Hindu girl from dating a Muslim man. When asked if it occurred to him that this is not a crime, Premi stammered over his words. “Errrr haan,” he said. “Lekin samaaj ke vyawastha ke khilaaf hai aur hum uske virodh me hain. It’s against our social norms and so we are firmly against it.”

Premi is not an isolated vigilante in Shamli. As the BJP insider previously quoted explained, there is a connection between Balyan’s political rise, the faith the BJP has shown in him despite an arguably poor performance in two ministries and the politics of Premi.

Political scientist Pai, whose book explains the Hindu vigilante phenomenon, said that this time around, the predicament of this Jat-dominanted belt is more complex than 2014.

In 1992, buoyed by the movement to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya and the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Jats voted predominantly for the BJP.

“By and large, the Jats of Muzaffarnagar may not mind being anti-Muslim, but they are not that comfortable with the destruction of a place of worship,” said Pai. “Also, Muslims work as labour on farmland owned by Jats. So when things return to normal (unlike the Babri demolition or the Muzaffarnagar riots), they will ultimately have to decide what they are going to do.”

Regardless of who wins, Pai said, there is a long-term template of communalism that has now been set in this part of India’s most populous state. However, much depends on which way the votes go this time.

“If the mahagathbandhan (the grand coalition) or the SP-BSP alliance wins, that template could get buried,” said Pai. “A new normal may get created. But if Modi wins, it will make UP more communal. That’s why UP is so significant this time. It’s the mother of all battles.”

Muzaffarnagar appears to be the barometer of that battle.

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that, in August 2013, a local fight erupted between Jats and Muslims over the alleged sexual assault of a Hindu girl, and not a Muslim girl as we said earlier. We regret the error.

(Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of 'The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context in December 2018.)

This is the second of a six-part series exploring the Hindu vote in UP. You can read the first part here.

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