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 …continued »