Generally speaking, communal riots don’t just occur. They are engineered. Those engineering them are usually guided by political mobilisational and electoral interests. A study of the history of the forms of communal riots in post-Independence India seems to reveal that if the riots that erupted during Partition are ignored, communal riots are a phenomenon that occurs primarily in urban spaces. However, since the early 1990s, communal riots have started spreading to villages. And, while earlier there used to be large-scale communal riots after long intervals, a new strategy to reap electoral fruit appears to be developing where different religious groups are being mobilised by creating communal tension through small conflicts. This means communal consciousness is not momentary but always present, which seems to be more politically profitable.
Most communal riots in Uttar Pradesh after Independence have taken place in central and western UP. There are several reasons for this. After the spread of the Green Revolution, western UP, which reaped its benefits, became the most developed and prosperous region of the state and saw a decline in feudal-, caste- and religion-based conflict. It was thought that the advent of modern agricultural techniques would also modernise social and cultural life. But this did not happen. The region’s prosperity was confined to a handful of the population, widening the gap between various castes and communities. The anxiety resulting from uneven development exacerbated the sense of feudal pride that already existed in this region. The gap between the Hindu Jats and the Muslim Jats significantly increased after the revolution.
Simultaneously, money and muscle power and regional political forces have weakened the agencies of riot control, like the police, and created a parallel state in western UP. The percentage of Muslims here is also among the highest in the state, and there is no parliamentary constituency where the proportion of Muslims is less than 20 per cent. In some constituencies, it is above 40 per cent. Muslims, therefore, are not a passive community. They actively aspire to create more space for themselves in the region’s development. Several centres of trade and commerce, involving small-scale industries like lock-making and brass work, usually run by Muslims, have developed in places such as Meerut, Moradabad and Saharanpur. This has strengthened the region economically but also led to increasing tensions between the two communities. Also, the RSS appears to be much more active in this part of UP, which has contributed to making it a breeding ground for communal riots.
After the 1990s, the expansion of the BSP strengthened caste politics in the region. Bahujan-Dalit politics had posed a great challenge to the dominance of both Jat and Hindutva forces. Communal consciousness has always been a powerful political weapon for controlling caste consciousness. The BJP and other Hindutva forces could be active in this region because they believe that Jat caste consciousness and Hindutva communal consciousness will together decrease the political spaces of the BSP and the SP.
The state is scheduled to hold assembly elections in 2017. I believe that, until then, there will be continued instances of small and stray communal riots. These riots will most likely be engineered in order to politically mobilise both Hindus and Muslims in favour of different political parties. An important part of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva strategy appears to be to weaken Muslims electorally, which is possible only when a large population of Hindus form a strong political group. Not just Hindus, but Sikhs, Arya Samaji reformers and the small section of Christians, now being called “Hindu Christians”, are being brought together to form a “Maha Hindu identity” and blunt the effectiveness of the Muslim vote. This is probably what happened in the recent Lok Sabha elections. In such a situation, political space for the Muslim community will greatly decrease. If this model is successful then, like the Chinese community in Indonesia and the Turkish community in the Netherlands, both of which are politically passive, Indian Muslims will also be rendered invisible and may, under pressure, merge with the majority political will. Hopefully, however, the complexities of Indian society will not permit such politics to continue for too long.
The writer is professor, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad