The political experiment of the Mahagathbandan, a pre-poll alliance of former rivals the SP, BSP and the RLD, has introduced a new element in the electoral discourse of Western UP. The sweep by the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2014, following the 2013 riots, was a turning point in the relationship between the Jats and Muslims, two prominent communities who have had close historical links and lived side-by-side in harmony for a long time.
It was here in Western UP, now a simmering communal cauldron, that Charan Singh, a peasant leader of the middle-castes from Baghpat, built a successful socio-political alliance of the Jats and Muslims. That the epicentre of the 2013 riots, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, had not experienced a full-scale communal riot lasting many days until the 2000s, not even during the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid movement, barring once in Muzaffarnagar in 1988, is a testimony to the depth of that alliance.
The Jat-Muslim alliance became possible in Western UP in the mid-1960s because of the Green Revolution and backward castes mobilisation. The former created considerable prosperity among the big and medium-sized landowning Jat peasantry. The latter, simultaneously mobilised as a part of the backward caste movement, which swept these districts. Charan Singh was able to harness these developments and form the Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) in 1967, based on a coalition of the Muslims, Ahirs, Jats, Gujars and Rajputs (MAJGAR), that gave centrality to agrarian politics from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. The better-off Jats were the pivot and the Muslims, largely Muley Jats, actively participated in this mobilisation. This was possible because the BKD and later, the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), could build a base in western UP, where the Green Revolution had created a rich peasant class, and win elections.
Field studies in Muzaffarnagar in the late 1970s have shown that while the district was affected by forcible sterilisations during the Emergency, the fabric of social relations among Hindus and Muslims had remained intact. They had shared memories of common kinship relations in a distant past and could be found sitting on a charpai, sharing a hookah; social differences were accepted, there was little evidence of mutual recrimination and mistrust.
However, the MAJGAR has also been described as a “marriage of convenience” that lasted until groups within it benefitted. The Green Revolution plateaued in the 1980s and the agrarian crisis worsened through the 1990s, when liberalisation shifted focus to industry leading to a neglect of agriculture. Following Charan Singh’s death in 1987, the Jats lost political prominence. The Bharatiya Kisan Union formed by Mahendra Singh Tikait in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid agitation, declined in the early 1990s. The RLD, formed in 1996 by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh, though perceived as a Jat party, with Singh constantly shifting support from the BSP in 2002 to the SP in 2004, the BJP in 2009 and UPA in 2011, has little legitimacy among the Jats.
Despite the destruction of the Babri Masjid, relations between Jats and Muslims had continued to be harmonious. However, the earlier closeness was replaced by a creeping communalism as the aggressive majority community began to dispute the ownership of graveyard land, use of loudspeakers in mosques, and common land owned by Muslims. A new negotiated boundary emerged; Jats continued to employ Muslims as agricultural labourers, but social relations between the two communities deteriorated.
Significant changes within the Muslim community also contributed to it. Loss of land due to urbanisation and improved educational attainments pushed the younger generation to take up petty businesses or learn new skills such as plumbing, carpentry, masonry, etc. Social jealousy among the Jats at the new-found entrepreneurship of Muslims, some of whom had worked their fields, and a perception that they are being pampered by the state, contributed to worsening of relations. Having lost their economic clout due to the agrarian crisis, particularly non-payment of sugarcane dues, fragmentation of land, lack of employment and reservation, younger Jats took recourse to cultural machismo. Supporting a dominant force like Hindutva provided them psychological empowerment. By the time of the 2014 elections, the community had become highly vulnerable to communal mobilisation by the BJP.
It is against this backdrop that the SP, BSP and RLD is hoping to unite the Jats, Dalits, backward castes and Muslims and redirect the discourse to social justice, secularism and agrarian concerns. They may succeed in Western UP because of the agrarian crisis. But can it mean a return to older social relationships in a more fundamental manner? The rapid socio-economic changes, the 2013 riots and continuing efforts at communal polarisation make this difficult. Yet, there is regret, particularly among the older Jats over the riots and desire to renew old bonds. RLD leader Ajit Singh, in a recent interview, held that the Jats are once again seeing themselves as “farmers” and not so much as “Hindu”; the Kairana bypoll results being an indicator. Further, the agrarian crisis has brought agriculture to the centrestage of politics. He, however, agreed that a complete return to agrarianism of the past is impossible.
Thus, a victory of the Mahagathbandhan in Western UP has the potential to heal at least some of the acrimony of the last past years. While the current elections are important for the country, their real significance lies in the possibility of peace between two communities that have suffered in the recent past. The political scene in UP is pregnant with possibilities.
Sudha Pai is co-author of Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh (2018)