Since the Lok Sabha elections this year, Uttar Pradesh has experienced numerous communal riots. It has been described as a “tinderbox”, with incidents being sparked off by disputes over the use of loudspeakers by mosques, temples or public facilities. Many of these conflagrations do not lead to full-scale riots, which suggests that they are being ignited and then carefully managed. These incidents seem to be a continuation of electoral politics in the state, as they have been occurring largely in western UP, which holds half of the 12 assembly constituencies due for by-elections in November — MLAs from these constituencies were elected to Parliament in the Lok Sabha elections. The roots of such tensions lie in the manner in which caste and communal identities have developed over the last two decades, shaped by the electoral strategies of parties keen to win elections and dominate the state’s politics.
It is worth noting that the social base of the SP and BSP, the two strong, identity-based state-level parties, cuts across the Hindu-Muslim divide. This was a distinct advantage in the 1990s. After the decline of the Congress — the party representing the upper and lower castes, as well as the minority community — in UP, the SP and BSP filled the vacuum. The waning of the BJP after the destruction of the Babri Masjid also helped these two parties win support from sections of both the majority and minority communities, making UP largely free of the communal virus.
Since its inception, the SP has depended on the support of the backward castes, particularly the Yadavs, and the Muslim community in UP. During the Babri Masjid agitation in the early 1990s, Mulayam Singh Yadav stood by the Muslim community and gained its support. However, in the 2000s, with the decline of the BJP in UP, the state witnessed the growing assertion of a strong Muslim identity. At the same time, the alliance between the Jats and Muslims in western UP had gradually weakened, resulting in communal clashes — Muzaffarnagar was a recent example of this fraying. The Muslim community now tended to vote for the party that promised not just protection, but also maximum representation in government. Its support to the SP in the 2012 assembly elections helped the party gain a majority, which prompted the SP leadership to strengthen the relationship by giving representation to important Muslim leaders, placing them in powerful positions in the government and bureaucracy. This higher visibility and growing assertion began to crowd out moderate Muslim politics in UP. But the failure of the SP leadership to prevent the Muzaffarnagar riots, the collapse of law and order management and the poor handling of the relief camps alienated many Muslims just before the 2014 elections.
Since the late 1980s, the BSP has also attempted to garner the support of the minority community, in addition to its core base, the Dalits. In contrast to the SP, this support has come from the more backward sections of the Muslim community in eastern UP. Since the mid-2000s, the party, following its “sarvjan” strategy, has tried to create a Dalit-Muslim-upper caste alliance. Hindu-Muslim “bhaichara” committees were set up in several towns to strengthen this alliance and the party has many Dalit and Muslim leaders, especially in the rural areas and smaller towns. The sarvjan strategy, however, alienated a section of the Jatavs, who felt that, despite the fact that the party had gained a majority in 2007, it was the upper castes and not the Dalits who had benefited the most. Muslims continued to support the BSP, though some sections rooted for the SP, leading to the defeat of the former in 2012. In 2014, the Muslim community, particularly in western UP, backed the SP and the BSP, but multi-cornered contests meant this could not be translated into seats.
The revival of the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in UP, and the overt and covert communal campaign in the run-up to the 2014 elections, carried out with the help of the RSS, has once again created a divide between Hindu and Muslim communities. The impact of the communal campaign on the election can be gauged from the fact that all the BJP leaders who were implicated in the Muzaffarnagar riots, and subsequently given tickets, won their seats with large margins. The riot-affected areas that voted in the first phase registered high polling rates and gave the BJP some of its biggest victory margins in UP. The BJP’s attempt to communalise Dalits already unhappy with Mayawati’s sarvjan experiment and the backwards with the SP, now viewed as largely a Yadav party, also worked to a large extent in the 2014 polls. This has had an impact on both the SP and the BSP, weakening their local leaders’ ability to intervene in communally charged situations. In the highly polarised atmosphere that has emerged since the polls, particularly in western UP, the Muslim and Dalit leaders of the BSP are finding themselves on different sides of the communal divide, and in rural areas, clashes have been reported between the two. Both find it difficult to make decisions and end up aligning with their own communities. These developments reflect the cracks in the BSP’s once successful social engineering. Mayawati’s insistence on continuing with the sarvjan strategy, despite the defeat in 2012, has set the party at a disadvantage. Similarly, the SP, currently the ruling party, is finding it difficult to bridge the divide between the Muslims and Hindus, particularly the backwards and Jats in western UP.
The communal divide is the end product of attempts by parties to mobilise support along social cleavages, with little regard for the way it splits the social fabric of the state. The BJP, after its stupendous victory in UP this year, seems to be aiming for a situation where law and order breaks down completely. This would necessitate early assembly elections, and win the BJP a key state in the Indian Union.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University