Two villages in Bijnor district in Uttar Pradesh highlight the communal polarisation in the district’s villages. Peda and Nayagaon—dominated by the Muslim and Jat communities respectively—are situated on the outskirts of the district, on opposite sides of the Bijnor-Najibabad road. Communal tension in the villages heightened after September 2016, when a group of Jats from Nayagaon village killed three and injured more than ten Muslim men from Peda village. The tension appeared to have simmered down before escalating again on 10 February 2017, when a group of eight Muslim men allegedly murdered Vishal Singh, a 17-year-old Jat boy, and injured his father, Sanjay Singh. Both victims belonged to Nayagaon village. Several Muslim men in Peda told me that the men accused of Vishal’s murder were either relatives or friends of three of the victims in the September clash.
When I visited the villages on 14 February, vehicles belonging to the Rapid Action Force—a specialised force under the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) set up in 1992 to deal with riot situations—were consistently combing the area. Bijnor went to polls on 15 February. Sanjeev Kumar Saini, the owner of a teashop situated just before the turn to Peda, said, “Gaon mein mahaul September se kharab raha hai, lekin pichle haftey ke kand ke wajeh se, yaha toh khichadi bana rakha hai”—the atmosphere has been bad since last September, but after the incident last week, panic and confusion has been created. Saini said that while he could not deny the work of Ruchi Vira, the incumbent Samajwadi Party MLA from Bijnor, he would vote for the BJP—he felt that Vira had sided with Muslims after the communal clashes occurred.
Residents of both villages said that there has long been tension between Peda and Nayagaon. Often times in instances of communal violence, as was the case in the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots, the conflicting communities claim that the violence was triggered by physical or sexual harassment of the women of either community, which is treated as an affront to the community at large. Even in the case of Bijnor, many residents suggested that the bus stand on the main road, where residents from both villages converge, is often the place that women from both villages are harassed. According to several villagers of Nayagaon that I spoke to, the September incident was a result of men from Peda having harassed a Jat girl from Nayagaon.
The few Jat homes in Peda—all of which sported BJP flags the day before Bijnor went to polls—are located on the side of a narrow road leading into the village. Navneet Singh, a resident of one of those houses, “Abhi toh Peda Momdun ka gaaon hai, lekin chunav ke baad yeh badal jayega”—Peda is currently a Muslim village, but after this election, that will change. (Like several others I spoke to, Navneet used “Momdun” to refer to Muslims.)
Three men whom I met outside a barbershop in the village—Hussain, Shahid and Wahab (they refused to give me their last names)—were discussing the candidates in their constituency. Wahab said, “What Ruchi Vira has done in the last two years, no one else has been able to do for the last ten.” Shahid added that there were no water and electricity problems in the village anymore. Agreeing with them, Hussain said Vira has also been responsible for seeing to it that none of the clashes between the two villages have escalated and turned into a “Muzzafarnagar sort of incident.” Wahab added, “yeh SP gaon hain or woh BJP gaon hai,”—this is an SP village and that is a BJP village.
Most Muslim residents of Peda that I met echoed Wahab, and said that Vira was the first candidate in their area that made them feel secure. Hasimuddin, who is related to two of the three men killed in September, said that the timing of the murder in 10 February was unfortunate, but not surprising, because the elections would make it difficult for the Jats to retaliate. According to him, it was evident soon after the September incident that the youngsters in the village felt that their friends and family members were attacked without reason, and that they wanted revenge.
Hasimuddin said that Vira’s silence on the February murder in her recent rallies could cost her among Muslims in other villages, but it would not in Peda, where she maintained close contact with the families. As a result, he said, she would continue to enjoy their support. Hasimuddin was one of several village residents who told me that Rashid Khan, the BSP candidate, did not enjoy the same support because “he did not visit in September and did not come this time either.”
Deeper inside Peda, I met Mohammed Haroon, the owner of a fruit-and-vegetable shop in the village. Haroon appeared to disagree with the villagers I had met until then; he said that many Muslims in the village were confused about whom to vote for after the February attack. He said that voting for Khan could ensure greater security for Muslims—the Jats may be deterred from attacking with impunity if Khan’s were the face of the constituency. His wife Fariha disagreed. She said that the Jats in the area continually accused Muslim men of harassing Jat women, but according to her, it was the other way around. She said that if Khan won, it would agitate the Jats even more.
At the railway tracks near the edge of the village, the scene changed once again. Blue flags with the BSP’s elephant insignia were hoisted atop all the houses along the track, which belong predominantly to Jatavs and non-Jatav Dalits. Monty Kumar, an 18 year-old school-going Jatav boy, told me that the Febraury and September incidents should lead the Muslims of the village to vote for Khan. His father Sonu said, “Is gaon ke sab Momdun Ruchi ke thekedar hai, isliye yeh gaon mein SP ko vote milega”—All the Muslims in this village are loyal to Ruchi, which is why SP will get votes.
On the other side of the Bijnor-Najibabad road, a narrow lane leads to Nayagaon, a village with larger fields and houses. Not much further from the lane is the house of Sanjay Singh, the injured father of the 17-year-old who died in the February incident. Several residents of Nayagaon told me that Singh is a respected member of the village. He was in the hospital when I visited his house, but I spoke to his family members. They vehemently denied that he was affiliated to either Suchi Chaudhry or Rahul Singh—the BJP and RLD candidates respectively, both of whom led protests after Sanjay and his son were attacked. I asked Rajiv Singh, Sanjay’s younger brother, what he thought was the reason behind the attack on his brother and nephew. According to him, Sanjay was a wealthy man who was held in high regard by Nayagaon’s residents because he helped many of them. Some of the people he helped, Rajiv added, were family members of those named in the September killings. He said that this led people from Peda to believe that Sanjay was also involved. Referring to Sanjay, Rajendra Singh, another relative of Sanjay’s, added, “Hindutva ke naam pe, woh Jat log aur Saini log ka madad karta tha, usme kya galat baat hain?”—he would help those belonging to the Jat and Saini communities in the name of Hindutva, what is wrong with that?
A constable seated outside their house, who asked not to be named, told me that the member of parliament Kunwar Bhatendra Singh, of the BJP, visited Sanjay Singh frequently. According to the constable, Sanjay was known to have had connections with Aishwarya Chaudhry—the district president of Adhivakta Sangh, an RSS-affiliated lawyer’s body, and the husband of Suchi Chaudhry, the BJP’s candidate for the Bijnor assembly constituency. In October 2016, Aishwarya was arrested for his alleged involvement with the September attack.
Almost all houses in Nayagaon have BJP flags on their roofs—the few remaining ones sport flags of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, or RLD. Shivam Chaudhry, a Jat resident of the village, who appeared to be in his early 20s, told me that while Rahul Singh, the RLD candidate, has been able to win over some of the Jats in Nayagaon and neighbouring villages, only the BJP is committed to seeing that Muslims are not given “preferential treatment” by the police when they commit crimes. His friend Saurav Singh, who appeared to be around the same age, added, “There is only one way to stop the Muslims, and that is by voting for the BJP.” Bittu, a similarly young Jat resident of the village, told me that the Muslim men attacked Sanjay and his son during elections because they knew that there would be police in plenty to ensure peace. “Agar unko lagta hain ki woh khoon ka badla khoon se liya hai, toh chunav ke baad dekh le na. Unke paas Ruchi nahi hogi bachane ke liye”—if they think that they have taken their revenge of blood for blood, then see what will happen after the elections. They will not have Ruchi to save them.
On the day of my visit, I also went to Kachhpura, the neighbouring village, where I met Deshraj, a Dalit resident of the village. “Yeh Ruchi-Suchi se kuch badlav nahi aayega”—There will be no change with either Ruchi or Suchi, he said. Deshraj said communal tension is frequently discussed, but that the violence and exclusion that Dalits feel at the hands of other communities in the village are often overlooked. In villages dominated by Jats, you will hear praise for the BJP, and in villages dominated by Muslims, you will hear praise for the SP, he added. Referring to the BSP, he said, “Lekin har gaon ke peeche jahan hum rehte hai, sab haathi ko hi chahte hai. Is baar, peeche se haathi wapas ayega”—But behind every village, where we stay, everyone wants the elephant. This time, from behind, the elephant will return.
Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.