Villagers near Muzaffarnagar seem set to break all easy assumptions about caste and community in this election.
It started with a murder in August 2015. A dispute between Shias and Sunnis in the village of Khirwa Jalal, about 20 km from Meerut city in western Uttar Pradesh, led to the death of a man called Zahid. The police believe that the murder was the result of a political dispute between the two groups. After Zahid’s nephew filed a complaint, the police rounded up several people, including Mohammed Irfan, the man who was tipped to be the next village pradhan, or chief.
A few months later, when the panchayat elections were held, Irfan’s wife Begum Nayyer won the polls hands down. However, she is just a rubber-stamp authority. Irfan’s brother, Mohammed Irshad, is pradhan by proxy, and takes all the decisions, which his sister-in-law then signs off on.
Khirwa Jalal is a Muslim-dominated village in this part of western Uttar Pradesh. It is part of Siwalkhas Assembly constituency, which, in turn comes under Baghpat Lok Sabha constituency. Of the village population, while Sunnis have about 3,500 votes, Shias have 800 and Jats and Dalits have approximately 1,800 and 500 votes respectively.
The composition of this village is representative of the complexity of elections in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh. This is especially apparent in the western part of the state, is considered to be a distinct political entity as compared to other parts. Jats are a distinct and numerically significant community in several districts this area – the Baghpat-Baraut-Muzaffarnagar-Shamli-Meerut belt. Most residents here are either landowning farmers, or work in farms.
This region goes to the polls on February 11, the first phase of the seven-phase Assembly elections.
Like elsewhere in India, each community in Khirwa Jalal village has certain assumptions about the other. For instance, Jats view Muslims as a single, homogenous entity. They believe Muslims will only vote for a Muslim candidate.
However, it is not as simple as that.
The divide between Sunnis and Shias in this village because of the 2015 murder has meant that the Sunni community has decided to support Yashvir Singh, a Jat candidate of the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate, who is also supported by the Jats of the village.
This is because Sunnis perceive the Shias to be close to sitting MLA Ghulam Mohammed of the Samajwadi Party who is up for reelection.
Thus both Jat and the majority of Muslim voters here are consolidating behind the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate.
The Rashtriya Lok Dal was founded in 1996 by Ajit Singh, the political heir of Chaudhry Charan Singh, one of the tallest Jat leaders, who briefly served as prime minister between July 1979 and January 1980. The party had a strong presence in Jat-dominated districts of western Uttar Pradesh because of the loyalty of Jats towards Singh and his successors. In past elections, the Rashtriya Lok Dal was a strong contender in every constituency in this region, either winning the seat or emerging a close second.
But the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots changed things.
As the ruling Samajwadi Party scrambled to contain the riots and arrested several Jat leaders, Ajit Singh’s silence on the matter angered Jats. This, coupled with the “Modi wave” of the 2014 general elections, saw Jat-dominated areas in this region turn away from the Rashtriya Lok Dal and vote for the BJP en masse.
Anger at BJP
But things are no longer the same. The furious messages being sent across by BJP workers via WhatsApp to woo Jat voters in the region indicates that the party is aware that it is losing the community’s support.
In village after village in this region, the Jats are angry at the BJP.
“What has the BJP done for the farmers since it won the elections in 2014?” asked Rajendra Singh of Bijrol village on a cold February evening. “No one other than the RLD has ever thought about the farmers. Before 2014, we did not believe in any divisions between Jats and the Muslims. We were all farmers with the same problems. The BJP came and divided us and we are paying a heavy price for it.”
This statement is repeated in other Jat villages.
Nearer Muzaffarnagar, in the village of Sohram, Balyans, the dominant sub-caste of the Jats, are also keen to back the Rashtriya Lok Dal because they feel betrayed by the BJP.
“This village saw a lot of firing during the riots,” said Dariyo Singh Balyan, sitting under a giant photograph of the old farmer leader Mahindra Singh Tikait, who stormed and occupied Delhi’s Boat Club in the 1980s, seeking assurances for farmers from the Congress government at the Centre.
Farming costs up
The farmers here alternately grow sugarcane and wheat. With input costs for farming like fertilisers, electricity and seeds having escalated, most farmers here feel that the procurement price of sugarcane is no longer remunerative. At the same time, payments from sugar mills have been delayed due to demonetisation.
“Modi tells us that he has sent us money but Akhilesh [Yadav] is delaying the payments,” said an elderly Jat farmer in Sohram village, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim during election rallies that the Samajwadi Party government was not delivering central grants to its beneficiaries. “But what stops Modi from sending the payments directly to our bank accounts? After all, if he can start Jan Dhan Bank accounts and send money directly, why can’t he send out money to us as well.”
The farmer added: “The BJP used the riots to gain ascendancy here, and now that our people are facing cases, they have pushed off and left us to our fate. We never fought the Muslims until 2013.”
The procurement price for sugarcane is a sore point.
Most Jat and Muslim farmers recollect that the only time the price went up was during Mayawati’s reign as chief minister from 2007 to 2012.
“She raised it by Rs 40 per quintal,” said Rajendra Singh. “No leader has ever done so much. That is why we must support the RLD [Rashtriya Lok Dal]. Ajit Singh may not become chief minister, but like his father [Charan Singh] he will speak for us and he is one of our own. We must ensure his people win.”
But in that case, why not support Mayawati instead?
The response is that the Dalit leader raises none of the issues important to them.
One of the WhatsApp messages being forwarded to the Jat community speaks about how the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal abandoned them after the 2013 riots, and of how the BJP stood by them.
But that argument finds few takers.
The BJP’s radio jingles also holds up the Muzaffarnagar riots as an example of the abysmal law and order situation in the Samajwadi Party-ruled state.
But most people here smirk at such messages.
“We all know who created the riots,” said Amit N, a young Jat, who lives in Baraut, Baghpat, while preparing to head to the fields to tend to his crop. “In 2014, our fathers were very angry with us for abandoning the RLD, Some even stood with lathis [wooden sticks] at home, ready to hit us for voting for the BJP instead of RLD. But many of us won’t make that mistake any more.”
The other refrain among the old and the young is to forget Muzaffarnagar and remember BJP-ruled Haryana, which saw riots last year by Jats demanding that they be included in the Other Backward Classes category, and thus be eligible for reservations in government jobs.
A Jat mahapanchayat held in Kharad village in Muzaffarnagar district on January 8 decided that the community would not vote for the BJP this time, and the khaps, or village councils, have been entrusted with the task of ensuring that the message reaches all members of the community before the elections.
A video of a BJP leader asking all other Hindu castes to isolate Jats is also doing the rounds on WhatsApp. This counters all the forwards being sent by the BJP in one stroke.
The fact that the BJP has fielded complete outsiders like Avtar Singh Bhadana, a former Congress MP from Haryana, as a candidate in Mirapur constituency in Muzaffarnagar district, has led to further anger against the saffron party.
“We will teach the BJP a lesson,” mutter many young Jats quietly in village after village.
Another refrain in the villages in this area is: “Where is Satyapal Singh [the MP from Baghpat]”. Many allege that Singh, former Mumbai police commissioner, has not been visible in the constituency.
All this is an indication that though different consolidations are taking place, none of them seem to favour the BJP right now.
Back in Khirwa Jalal, these consolidations throw up more surprises. Take Dalits, the majority of whom belong to the chamar sub-caste in this village. Many were once dedicated supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party. But this time, they are a divided lot.
“Look at our corner in the village,” said Sewa Ram, as he gathered around Jats sitting on a wooden cot discussing politics. “Mayawati has not managed to do anything for us. Instead, many of us are with the BJP.”
“Or with the RLD,” piped up Lal Sigh, also a Dalit, who has moved away from the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Back at the village chief’s house, Mohammed Irshad is using his position as as proxy pradhan to pick households that will be the next beneficiaries of the Union government’s ambitious toilet-construction programme under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Under this scheme, the government has sanctioned Rs 12,000 per beneficiary to enable them to construct a toilet in their homes.
Irshad had a village voters list to guide him.
“Look at the list of people I am ensuring get toilets,” said Irshad. “They are not only Muslims but also harijans [Dalits].”
Ask him who he is supporting, and he mentions Yashvir Singh, the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate.
The defacto pradhan of Khirwa Jalal village, Mohammed Irshad. (Photo credit: Saikat Datta).
This article was first published on Scroll.in