I met Baba Harikishan, the head of the Gathwala khap of the Malik Jat community on 8 February 2017. The Malik Jats make up a majority of the residents in over 25 villages in the Shamli constituency of Muzaffarnagar district in western Uttar Pradesh. As Harikishan reclined on a charpoy laid out in the February sun, facing the hookah that had been set up for him, he let his eldest son Rajinder, who will head the khap after him, do the talking. “Biradari ek saath ho gayi hai—the community has come together.”
Rajinder was referring not only to his fellow Jats in Lisarh—a village near the town of Shamli—but to much of the community in western UP, which is consolidating behind Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. However, the reasons he invoked for this support were specific to Shamli and a few of the surrounding constituencies that had been affected by the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence. “The BJP won the 2014 elections because it became a Hindu-Muslim election. But not once have Modi, Amit Shah or Rajnath spoken out publicly in favour of those Jats who have been implicated in false cases by this state government,” Rajinder said.
In August 2013, communal clashes broke out in Muzaffarnagar district after an altercation—the descriptions of which range from a traffic accident to an instance of eve-teasing—between Jat and Muslim youths. The incident resulted in the deaths of two young Jat men and one Muslim youth. In response, a number of Jat-affiliated organisations called a mahapanchayat—a large-scale political meeting—on 7 September at Nagla-Mandaur village. That day, a lakh-and-a-half people arrived to attend the mahapanchayat, many of them armed. At the meeting, several speeches revolved around saving Hindu daughters and daughters-in-law from Muslim men. As the Jats were returning from the mahapanchayat in the evening, angry Muslims attacked them. In the ensuing violence, tractor trollies and motorcycles were set on fire, and 13 Hindu men were killed. Late that night and the next morning, Jats in nearby villages launched a retaliatory attack on Muslims. Nearly fifty people were murdered, a number of women allegedly raped, and scores of people displaced.
Lisarh witnessed some of the worst violence during these riots. A Jat resident took me past a charred, abandoned brick house, and said, very matter-of-factly, “After the violence on the night of the seventh, the Muslims fled from the village leaving a few of the elderly behind. A mob from the village gathered here, herded them together and set the house on fire. Twelve men were charred to death.”
A report published on The New York Times’ India-focussed website, India Ink, in September 2013, quoted Mohammad Yamin, whose wife, the grandmother of a 15-year-old, had refused to leave Lisarh with her family. Recounting what his neighbours had told him, Yamin said, “When she saw the attackers coming, she tried to climb a stairway to seek refuge in the house next door.” The story noted that Yamin’s wife had polio and diabetes, which made movement difficult for her. “They dragged her down, violated her and burned her alive inside,” Yamin continued. According to the news report, the mob had gathered after announcements were made over a loudspeaker, asking Hindus to get together and kill Muslims, allegedly “at the behest of Ajeet Singh, the village chief and another man who is a leader of a khap panchayat.”
Another young man from Lisarh told me that over a hundred cases had been filed against men from the village but “nothing has happened. Even my name was on the list. I managed to pay the police and get my name removed from the list, as did many others, but even the rest are out on bail.”
When the violence broke out, there were close to 2,000 Muslims living in the village, most of them artisans and labourers. Not one has returned. An old idgah on the outskirts of the village lies locked up, the overgrown vegetation is already threatening to take over the building. Of the three mosques in the village, one has been encroached upon and taken over. Lane after lane of abandoned houses line the village, awaiting the same fate.
The man showing me around was dismissive of the plight of the Muslims, “They’ve got more compensation than they could have dreamed of, why will they return?’’ This is a prevailing sentiment that has existed since the time of the riots. A report published by a fact-finding team of academics and journalists in December 2013 stated that the team had visited the twin villages of Hussainpur and Mohammadpur Raisingh on 10 November. That day, according to the report, “A meeting of 35 biradaris (communities representing different Jat Khaps and other castes) was to take place.” It noted, “A crowd of over 350 comprising mainly the Khap leaders, Jat village pradhans, leaders of some other castes such as the Brahmins, Thakurs and Gujjars and some of their supporters had assembled for the panchayat at Mohammadpur Raisingh. They came from different villages of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and other districts of western UP, as also from Haryana.” The reported stated that the khap meeting took place in the hall of a Shiva temple in the village and that it “was presided over by Baba Harkishan Singh, the chief of Gathwala Khap.” “The others present included Naresh Tikait of the Baliyan khap and a leader of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), Durga Mal (from Bainswal, one of the villages badly affected by the violence),” it continued. The fact-finding team also added that the general emphasis of the speeches veered around the themes of: “Muslims are not returning to villages due to the greed of compensation; that Jats are being subjected to injustice; about how patriotic Jats are and that they can’t compromise with self-respect especially if the issue of bahu, beti and izzat is involved.”
It is this perceived sense of Jat self-respect and its betrayal by the Bharatiya Janata Party that has seen support mount for the RLD in the riot-affected areas of western UP. The RLD candidate from Shamli, Bijendra Singh, is a Malik. He is opposed by Pankaj Malik of the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance, and the BJP’s Tejendra Nirwal, who is seen as a candidate handpicked by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Two other candidates, the BSP’s Mohammad Islam and Manish Kumar, an independent, are also serious contenders. In a five-way split of votes, the backing of the estimated 70,000 Jats and the 70,000 Muslims of this constituency is crucial.
Prashant Malik, a young Jat in Lisarh who is among the few not backing Bijendra, told me, “It was different in 2014 when the Jats were all for the BJP. But the BJP has done nothing to establish a presence in the villages. Even those who were once closely involved with the BJP have forsaken it.” Kirsanpal, from the village of Makhmoolpur, was once an active member of the Gau Sewa Abhiyan, a group of cow vigilantes that worked with the local unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. “Once just five of us traveled to Budhana and knocked sense into the head of 15 Muslims in the trade,” he said. “But I soon realised that no one was interested and the officials of this government were not helpful. In any case, the VHP has hardly any presence in the villages. Now I am back with the RLD.”
Yet, it is clear to everyone in the constituency that this overwhelming Jat support cannot result in an RLD victory without other communities voting for the party. Prashant said, “The elections are on Saturday and all depends on the call that goes out during the Friday prayers.” While the RLD may still hope for Muslim support, it is unlikely to get it. What it might make feasible—thanks to the Jat votes it will probably take away—is a defeat for the BJP. This possible BJP defeat though, irrespective of who wins, will be no secular victory.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.