Asthan village in Pratapgarh district, which falls in Kaushambi (SC) Lok Sabha constituency, is a microcosm of a state mired in a continuum of violence since the Samajwadi Party (SP) assumed power in 2012.
Just as curfew in the riot-hit town of Kosi Kalan in Mathura was lifted, the spectre of violence moved to Pratapgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh on June 23, 2012. The murder of an 11-year-old Dalit girl, allegedly by four Muslim youths including a 13-year-old boy, escalated tensions in this village, ultimately leading to the destruction of all Muslim houses (52) in Asthan.
After days of curfew, Muslims returned to Asthan and were given Rs 5 lakh as compensation to rebuild their homes. Senior state leaders visited the village to survey the damage and offer support, but overlooked the family of the murdered girl, much to the chagrin of the Dalit community here. In the end, the only leader to visit the victim’s family was VHP leader Pravin Togadia, who told them Hindus should stick together in times of distress.
And they have. Less than a month away from elections, Dalits here, once supporters of Mayawati, claim they will teach her a lesson and turn to the BJP. With a stamp of approval from Asthan’s Dalits, the BJP has been quick to drum up support from across the constituency. “This episode has left not only Asthan’s population but this entire area affected. The SP calls us communal, but they help only one community. This election will witness history. Even Mayawati’s core vote bank has deserted her,” said Santosh Patel, the BJP’s Kaushambi district president.
Meanwhile, the Muslims says they don’t feel “safe” under the SP government.
According to the victim’s mother, the girl had left home on the evening of June 22. “She came back from school and went to the other side of the village to meet her friends. When she did not return after a few hours we raised an alarm and went to look for her. We could not find her but we noticed four boys from the Muslim quarter running back to their homes,” she said.
Asthan village comprises a Muslim quarter with 52 houses, an upper caste hamlet a kilometre away to the east, and the largest sub-village to the north with 200 families, including Yadavs, Brahmins and Dalits.
“The next morning we found my daughter’s body. She had been strangled and left in the wilderness. We immediately registered an FIR.
The police rounded up the four boys but did not arrest them, keeping them in the police station as if they needed protection,” she said.
On June 23, as the victim’s funeral procession ended, hundreds of villagers gathered, seething against police inaction. “The police had done nothing and the people were angry. Some men collected rocks and sticks and attacked the Muslim quarter,” said a neighbour of the victim.
By late evening, the Muslim quarter was surrounded by an irate mob who pelted stones and set ablaze every house they chanced upon. “We were on the roof throwing stones back at them, but there were too many people. We made calls to the police, district administration and local political leaders, but to little avail. The police came three hours later, after every single Muslim house was torched, including the masjid,” said Kalim Khan, a resident.
In fact, Asthan’s problems began a month before the violence, when Nizam Ansari’s wife Reshma won the local pradhan elections. It was the first time that a Muslim had become the pradhan of a village where the community accounts for just a fraction of the population.
“We stitched together a coalition of different communities who voted for us. But this seemed to anger those in power. From the day we won, we knew something untoward would happen,” said Ansari.
After the violence, Ansari and 51 other families fled their homes for 10 days and only returned under heavy police escort. “The government then opened a new police outpost just outside our hamlet and permanently stationed a provincial armed constabulary (PAC) company here. Some days later, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Azam Khan visited us and gave us compensation of Rs 5 lakh to rebuild our houses,” he said.
Hours after the compensation was announced, resentment spread. “They get new houses, money, police protection and visits from senior leaders. What did I get? I was alone here with my youngest son. My husband and older sons work as labourers in Haryana and were not even here. Am I not human? Did my daughter not die? Nobody even came to offer condolences,” said the victim’s mother.
Weeks later, she did get a visitor. The VHP’s international working president Pravin Togadia. “The police refused to let him in first. He had to leave his vehicle far away and walk here. He told us of Hinduism and that we should stick together as Hindus if we were to survive,” said the victim’s brother.
A question about Mayawati angers the victim’s mother. “Mayawati? Mayawati? We have always voted for her but what has she done for us? For Hindus? Everybody only talks of Muslims. This time let the elections come, if she thinks we are Dalits and will blindly vote for her, she is mistaken,” she said.
The SP is quick to deny any sentiments of anger. “This has always been a peaceful place. That incident was an aberration and nobody is even talking about it this time,” said incumbent MP Shailendra Kumar. Hoping to secure a second win, he is pitted against the BJP’s Vinod Sonkar, BSP’s Suresh and Congress’s Congress: Mahendra Gautam.
However, residents of Asthan’s Muslim hamlet differ. “Asthan’s violence was only one among many in UP. I do not think Muslims are safe under this government. Let the elections come, we will see,” said Mohammed Arif.