Bijnor violence 2016: Upward Mobility of Pasmanda Muslims, a Root Cause

In the news reports on the Bijnor communal violence of Friday, September 17, 2016, as also in most of the recent instances of such violence in UP, Bihar, and Haryana, what is perceptible is a politics of reducing to anonymity (invisibilising, as it were) the subaltern identities of the Muslim victims, and reporting the crimes only in terms of their religious identity.  The accused too benefit from a systemic anonymity that more often than not protects them from punishment

Bijnore Violence 

Already an atmosphere of communal tension and polarisation prevails in most parts of Uttar Pradesh. In the Muzaffarnagar communal violence of August-September 2013 the victims (killed and displaced) belonged, in most part, to the poorer class of Pasmanda (Backward) Muslims engaged in artisanal occupations. The violence had broken out when the first phase of the ‘Pasmanda Kranti Abhiyan’ (founded in 2012) was underway in the western part of Uttar Pradesh. Scheduled to conclude on September 30, 2013, the slogan of the movement was “Dalit-Pichhrha Ek Samaan-Hindu ho ya Musalman’. The brute communal violence and consequent (almost inevitable) religious polarisation actually submerged an emerging interfaith subaltern solidarity.

In the Dadri lynching incident of September 2015, the victim, Md. Akhlaq was from carpenter (Saifi) caste/community among Muslims; he had recently acquired a car; one son of his was in the Indian Air Force, and another was preparing for the Civil Services; this advancement obviously did not go down well with his village compatriots, many of whom had had grown envious of this progress.

During the Riga (in Sitamarhi, Bihar) riots of October 1992, a similar pattern of empowerment of the backwards among the Muslims was visible: the Pasmanda Muslims, hitherto serving as field-labourers for the local landowning Hindus, had gradually become affluent through biri making, flute making, tailoring, etc., and one village headman, Ilyas, had even organised them into ‘syndicates’, or ‘cooperatives’, to sell these products profitably in the adjacent Nepali markets. But the then ruling Lalu regime never did make public the S. R. Adige Enquiry Report, nor did the Muslim leadership (of any hue) make demands for the document being made public. Even during the Azizpur (Muzaffarpur, Bihar) violence of January 2015, the victims were Pasmanda Muslims.

Now coming to Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, September 2016. Though the immediate spark in Bijnor, on September 17, 2016, was eve-teasing, tensions had been already simmering over community rights to use/access the pond water, in the village, Pedda, just four kilometres away from the town of Bijnor. Usually such contracts are given to the community of Kumbhars (potters), Singharias (the community that grows water chestnuts, singharas), and Dhobis (washermen). This year the contract was given to the Muslim Dhobis by the government while the pond was under the occupation of Hindu Jats.

In this overall context, the Bijnor violence looks like a case of spectacular crime carried out by the Jats in order to ward off the Muslim Dhobis from claiming their rights to the pond and trade in water chestnut(s). Haseenuddin, Sarfaraz, and Ehsan (differently abled), were all Pasmanda Muslims of Dhobi community of a particular family, who became the targets. Some local sources also say that the Jat hegemon, Sansar Singh was trying to forcefully occupy a piece of land owned by the Muslim family, as they were refusing to sell it to him.

These two crucial aspects, which could be a genesis of the conflict and eventually the trigger that transformed into acts of violence, have gone almost completely un-reported. This conscious suppression of the caste identity of the victims is becoming irksome for some of the Pasmanda intellectuals and activists, who are also disturbed with their own hegemonised political leadership and intellegenstia, who have turned a blind eye to this dimension of the conflict.

An altercation on the issue of eve-teasing need not escalate into gruesome communal violence, unless some other factors of tension did not already exist. At the moment when elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly are due next year, any minor scuffle acquires the saliency of escalating into large scale group violence. After all, communal polarisation yields electoral dividends.
Uttar Pradesh, under the dispensation of Akhilesh Yadav since 2012, has seen tremendous communalisation. Even before the Muzaffarnagar riots of August 2013, in some instances, the ruling regime, by some of its actions, indicated that there were some wilful attempts at communalising the province. The Samajwadi Party, by creating religious polarisation, probably intended to wean Muslim votes away from non-Bharatiya Janata Party political formations like the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal.

If it really did intend so, then the Samajwadi Party must not lose sight of the fact that the biggest beneficiary of the politics of communal polarisation will eventually be the BJP.

In a comprehensive study of communal riots, Yale University researchers assert that 'riots produce ethnic polarisation that benefits ethno-religious parties at the expense of the Congress' and 'the BJS (the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP's parent) saw a 0.8 percentage point increase in their vote share following a riot in the year prior to an election.'

In 1989, the BSP's Mayawati won the Bijnor Lok Sabha seat by a narrow margin, by working out a Muslim-Dalit alliance, leaving out the Jats and other Hindus like the Rajputs, Gujjars, Banias who were leaning towards the BJP. Subsequently, in 1991, the BSP performed well in the Bijnor assembly seat, securing 41% of votes, even though it lost to the BJP. Of the 8 assembly seats in the Bijnor district, four seats are currently with the BSP, 3 with the Samajwadi Party, one with the BJP.

There is a distinct possibility that the ruling Samajwadi Party may fear a repeat of a Muslim-Dalit alliance for the BSP in the 2017 assembly election. The Bijnor violence should be seen against this backdrop.

It has  been reported that two Muslim girls were teased by Hindu Jat boys on September 17, 2016, while on their way to school. The boys are said to belong to the family of a Jat hegemon in the village. When the girl's family went to the Jat hegemon's home to complain about the eve-teasing, they were fired upon from the roof of the fortified house, in a brazen display of power. One member of the girls' family was killed on the spot.

The assault did not end there. The next morning, a mob of around 100 people attacked the girls' home and as many as 17 members of the Muslim family were badly injured in the violence. Three of the injured died later and a fourth, Rizwan, who works in a hair cutting saloon in Delhi and who was injured severely with bullet injuries in his neck, has been admitted to New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where he remains critical.

In all, four people, including a woman, were killed in the violence, all Muslims. The fact that all the deceased and the injured belong to one family is proof that the girls' family had only gone to beseech the elders of the deviant boys to rein them in, rather than express any community driven sentiment.

The armed mob present at the home of the Jat hegemon (Sansar Singh) indicates a certain degree of pre-planning behind the assault. The Muslim villagers allege that the village pradhan and a local illegal arms dealer, one Manoj, were complicit in the killings.

The survivors and their families also allege that the sequence of events was not the outcome of what happened on that Friday morning, but that. The provocation and the assault that followed were pre-planned to create an atmosphere of communal tension in the village and the area. Serious allegations of complicity in the deliberate inaction and non-response of some policemen has also been alleged. Survivors say that policemen were even present in the home of the Jat leader when the firing started. The fact that the police did not answer around 12 phone calls made by a villager, Anis Ahmad, to the police control room during the attack, around 8 am. Bears testimony to these allegations. Ahmad had also called Ruchi Veera, the Samajwadi Party MLA, who, it is also alleged, did not answer the call. After the incident, Veera is said to have stepped in to curbed further outbreak of the violence. The MLA was also instrumental in securing compensation for the victims' families: Rs 20 lakhs (Rs 2 million) for each death that took place.

Tragically, even the amount of compensation paid out by the Samajwadi government has becomes a factor in further polarisation within Bijnor and around. The amount of Rs 20 lakh paid to the survivor families has bee, rather crudely, dubbed as ‘appeasement of Muslims’ by the regime by those belonging to supremacist organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political off shoot, the BJP.

Anis Ahmad, 38, is an alumnus of the Deoband seminary. His 'conservatism' or 'orthodoxy' is reflected in his sartorial manners. Anis was earlier a tailor in Kuwait. He is now a 'dress designer.' Having improved his economic standing, he entered politics and his wife is today elected as the village headwoman of Gokalpur, near Pedda.

Bijnor Violence

Reports have also come in, corroborated by the Additional Director General (ADG) of Police (Law and Order), Daljeet Chaudhry, that a local RSS functionary, Aishwarya Chaudhry, led the mob with his gunman, and that there is photographic evidence to prove it.  Aishwarya is a young lawyer who is part of the RSS affiliated “Adhivakta Sangh” (Lawyers’ Association). According to the local sources, Aishwarya and is vying for a ticket from the RSS’ political wing, the BJP, in the upcoming Assembly elections. His father Rajendra Kumar is said to have been initially chosen as the candidate from Bijnor for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the ticket was later given to Kunwar Bhartendra Singh.
In the Bijnor violence of 17 September 2016, as many as 27 persons have been named in the FIR. They are from Pedda, Kachpura and Nayagaon, Adipur villages. The Police said that six persons have been arrested while the others are absconding, including two Gram Pradhans of Nayagaon and Pedda. The names of the boys who had resorted to eve-teasing in the morning, have not been named by the media, as yet. In India, quite often, those resorting to violence, arson, and loot in the communal violence often benefit from the anonymity granted by the media and the police. By remaining anonymous ‘accused’, they go un-punished.  

The day after the Bijnor violence, two dailies, Dainik Jagran (Hindi), and Hindustan Times (English) mis-reported the violence, in a manner of suggesting that it was Jat girls who were eve-teased by boys from the minority (read Muslims), even though in the detail of it’s own story, the Dainik Jagran did write, citing police sources, that it was Muslim girls who bore the brunt of eve-teasing by Jat boys. This mis-reporting has had its own repercussions in building perceptions.

This deliberate mis-reporting by sections of the media has, in Uttar Pradesh, had a long and chequered history. It may be recalled that in the Aligarh riots of December 1990-January 1991, a vicious and false rumour was spread by the Hindi dailies, Aaj, Amar Ujala and Swatantra Bharat, after which, “attacks by Hindu mobs on Muslim persons and property, intensified”.  The then government of the Samajwadi Party led by chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav did not even institute an enquiry into the Aligarh riots of 1990-91. 

Overall, the Muslim washer men of the village have diversified their economy by using washing machines for commercial use, by working as tailors, as barbers, as fruit and vegetable sellers, automobile mechanics, and other artisanal practices. There are enough indications from the ground that reveal that it is this economic upward mobility of the Muslim dhobis that has not gone down well with the well-off Hindu Jats of the area. Even  Muslim dhobi girls(belonging to the washer man caste) have taken recourse to modern education, and this, too is a disdain and deadly jealousy for the Jats.

Across UP, a very high percentage — 31% — of political participation of Muslims in rural and urban local bodies may also be the reason for the resentments being fanned by supremacist outfits. In the UP assembly (2012), 69 out of 403 MLAs are Muslims. This has further contributed towards the growing anti-Muslim animosity.

Even though Bijnor has, until the September 2016 incidents, been generally regarded as an island of communal peace, it suffered huge communal violence in October 1990. Till 1990 Bijnor did not suffer from any communal violence, not even during the worst periods of the Independence struggle and Partition. Very few Muslims migrated from Bijnor to Pakistan.

In Bijnor town, around 49% of the population is Muslim. They constitute 57% of the total population in the three largest towns in Bijnor district: Bijnor, Nagina and Najibabad.

Overall, there has been a history of Jat-Muslim tension in Bijnor, in 1983, and in 1990, on the issue of eve-teasing.

More particularly, Mundahla (a Muslim-dominated village), and Suaheri (a Jat-dominated village) have a history of mutual tension. Some indications of anti-Muslim hatred among the Bengali Hindu refugees, who settled in the 1960s in Bijnor, were found during the 1990 riots.

Patricia Jeffrey studied the Bijnor riots of 1990 and observed that one of the probable reasons why Bijnor remained largely peaceful till the late 1980s is:
“Hindus and Muslims do occupy very different economic niches in Bijnor, with wholesalers and traders in the more valuable products (e.g., jewellers, groceries) more likely to be Hindu, and labourers and traders in the cheaper products (e.g., fruit and vegetables) more likely to be Muslims. The only substantial organised industry is the local sugar factory, where the management is predominantly Hindu and the labour is mostly Muslim. But class or other economic interests have not hitherto fused with religious allegiance to intensify local disputes”.

But all this has started changing in recent decades. The artisan class, the Pasmanda Muslims, have gained upward economic mobility by diversification of their artisanal economy, and also by remittance from Gulf money, with which the new generation has started taking to modern education. Further, their inclusion into the OBC category has helped them find public employment. Contrast it with the Jats whose struggles to be included as OBCs remain unfulfilled.

The overall status of Pasmanda Muslims has improved. This is reflected in their enhanced representation in the rural and urban local bodies of Uttar Pradesh. Almost every third seat (over 31%) in urban local bodies is represented by Muslims. In the urban local bodies (2012), 'the highest Muslim representation (53.5%) is in Ruhelkhand where Muslims account for 34% of the population.' Bijnor falls in the Ruhelkhand area of Uttar Pradesh.

Sadly, India is witnessing a resurgence of more and more religious strife. The need of the hour is to strengthen the criminal justice system to punish the rioters and bring about deterrence against the sickening recurrence of such hatred and violence.
When vote-hungry political parties appear to gain power only through violent communal polarisation, a concerted assertion from civil society is badly needed.

(Mohammad Sajjad, who teaches history at Aligarh Muslim University, is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur.)

1) दैनिक जागरण जी, बिजनौर का सच क्या है?
2) बिजनौर : ‘वो अचानक घर में घुसे… और फिर सबकुछ ख़त्म हो गया’
3) बिजनौर सांप्रदायिक हिंसा में चार लोगों की हत्या के लिए अखिलेश सरकार जिम्मेदार- रिहाई मंच



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