Ikramu Abdul Aziz stares hard at the house he has just been given. It has a room, a small yard, a bathroom next to the gate. His wife Dilshan pulls him to a corner and they whisper as she points to the thin steel doors, the single window and the non-functional toilet.
Aziz’s was among 85 families who fled their homes during the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 and were on March 28 given new houses by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the Delhi-based organisations of imams, at Bhagonwali village, some 10 km from Muzaffarnagar city. Click for more election news
“She is relieved but not very happy, I think,” says Aziz, “The house that we abandoned in 2013 was at least twice this size and had windows all around. But we live in a world where I cannot even get a house on rent, forget buying my own.”
That year, as a wave of violence spread across the region, Aziz, Dilshan and their two children escaped in the dead of night from Sisauli village in Muzaffarnagar, leaving behind everything: school books, ID cards and, most importantly, newly stitched clothes.
“I am a tailor and all I know is stitching clothes. All my clients were in Sisauli and they drove me out. I had to start afresh,” he says, adding that the family moved to a relative’s house in Muzaffarnagar for a few weeks before shifting to rented homes across the district. “During the 2014 elections, I was shifting from one house to another and could not vote. This election, I will make it count. We all will.”
But while Aziz will still vote in Muzaffarnagar, the 2013 violence displaced thousands, many who still cannot vote in their original constituencies.
Like brothers Qayyum and Shakeel Basheer. They are originally from Phogana village in Muzaffarnagar but after fleeing their homes, shifted to a rehabilitation colony in Nahid Colony, which falls under Kairana seat, where they are now voters.
The Muzaffarnagar violence and its aftermath may have changed the demographics of the region forever but six years on, the shadow of the riots still looms over all eight seats in western UP — Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Bijnore, Kairana, Ghaziabad, Meerut and Gautam Budh Nagar. But added to political mix now is a slew of new issues that have emerged since 2014, when the BJP won all eight seats — from a sluggish farm economy that stems from sugarcane arrears to the stray cattle menace which has wiped out crops, the SP and BSP joining forces, the Congress refusing to back the SP-BSP gathbandhan, and the BJP attracting young and first-time voters.
The first phase of polling across Western UP on April 11 may well set the trend for the remaining 72 seats in the state, all of which will arguably decide who forms the government. The significance of this region can be gauged from the election blitzkrieg in the region — the PM kicked off the Phase 1 campaign with his rally in Meerut on March 29 and the gathbandhan will launch theirs in Deoband on April 7, with the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) Akhilesh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Mayawati and the RLD’s Ajit Singh addressing their first joint rally.
Congress factor, fear of split votes
“Azhar Masood’s son-in-law comes to Saharanpur and speaks his language. Should someone who speaks Masood’s language be allowed to win from Saharanpur or should the symbol of development and security, Raghav Lakhanpal (the BJP candidate), win?” Adityanath had said without naming Imran.
His remarks drew widespread criticism from Opposition parties but a BSP leader from Saharanpur calls it “tactical”. Explaining that the BJP stands to benefit, he says that the Muslim votes, which would have gone to the “winnable” Muslim gathbandhan candidate of the BSP who would have anyway got the Dalit votes, will now, after Yogi’s comment, be split. “See, Imran is locked in a three-way contest with Lakhanpal and the gathbandhan candidate Fazlur Rahman. Yogi’s remarks against Imran will now move some Muslims towards the Congress,” he says.
He also admits the tactic has worked in the past. He points to the 2014 campaign, when Imran had threatened to “chop” then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi “into pieces” and ended up polling more than 4 lakh of the seat’s 12 lakh votes, eventually losing to Lakhanpal by more than 60,000 votes. The BSP’s Jagdish Singh Rana came third with around 2.3 lakh votes.
Muslims in Saharanpur account for close to 6 lakh votes and Dalits for around half of that. Without support from both communities, Saharanpur, leaders admit, is impossible to win for any of the non-BJP candidates.
According to a Congress leader, the party — and Imran Masood — still enjoy the support they got in 2014. “It is clear that Imran has the support of the Muslim community. The smart thing for the gathbandhan would have been to give us BSP support. But instead, the gathbandhan has nominated a Muslim candidate who is bound to split votes,” he says.
Also in Saharanpur is the Harora Assembly seat, from where BSP chief Mayawati made her debut in 1986. She lost that year only to win the seat in 1996 and again in 2002. Almost two decades later, the BSP is still strong in the region but amid a challenger.
Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar Azad is from Chutmalpur, just a few kilometres from Harora. Here, locals say the Bhim Army has thrown its weight behind Imran.
Devi, a sanitation worker, says, “A few days ago, some men came to the village and said we must make our vote count and that maybe BSP was not the correct choice. I have always voted for Behenji, I don’t know what they were talking about.”
The Bhim Army did not confirm or deny the tacit support to the Congress. The organisation’s national president Vinay Ratan Singh told The Sunday Express, “Our mission is to stop the BJP and Modi. We will support candidates who can defeat the BJP.”
Incidentally, the Bhim Army’s tilt towards the Congress came days after Congress’s East UP general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra met Chandrashekhar in a Meerut hospital.
According to a BSP functionary, the Bhim Army’s influence is limited. “Nobody is stronger than Behenji here. We will wipe out the BJP,” he says.
But in Saharanpur and elsewhere, this fight to “wipe out the BJP” repeatedly comes up against the fact that the non-BJP votes face a certain split, given that the Congress is not part of the gathbandhan and is fighting on its own in all seats in the region, except two — Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, where RLD leader and a partner in the BSP-SP alliance, Ajit Singh, and his son Jayant are contesting.
In Bijnore, for instance, the Congress has nominated former BSP strongman Naseemuddin Siddiqui against the gathbandhan’s Malook Nagar, a Gujjar leader, and BJP’s sitting MP Bhartendra Singh, a Jat.
Considering Muslims account for around 30 per cent of Bijnore’s electorate, the BSP believes the Congress is out to sabotage its campaign. “The Congress has fielded strong candidates where the gathbandhan candidate is from the BSP — in Saharanpur and in Bijnore. With a Dalit and Muslim combination in these seats, we would have been unbeatable. But now it is an uphill battle,” he says.
Congress leaders deny the charge. “In constituencies where we can win, we will nominate our own. This is not about sabotaging the BSP, but defeating the BJP,” says a Congress leader in Muzaffarnagar.
But there’s more. The Congress’s recent announcement that if voted to power, they would initiate a minimum income scheme, giving Rs 72,000 a year to the poorest 20 per cent of households, has fired up its cadre.
Across Muzaffarnagar, Bijnore and Saharanpur, the scheme has sparked interest, particularly among BPL families. While Monu Jatav in Muzaffarnagar’s Bopa village wonders if such a scheme is even possible and if she will be eligible for it, Khurshida Begum in Badwana and Ravindra Nishad in Shamli town say Rs 6,000 a month, in addition to work under the MGNREGA, will only help their households.
The SP, however, believes the Congress’s presence will help the gathbandhan by splitting the BJP vote. “In Kairana, both the Congress’s Harendra Malik and the BJP’s Pradeep Choudhary, are Jats. So the Congress will split the BJP’s Jat votes,” says an SP leader. In Kairana, Tabassum Hasan, the sitting MP who defeated Mriganka Singh in a bypoll in 2018 after the death of BJP MP Hukum Singh, is contesting on an RLD ticket for the gathbandhan.
A generational divide
The complex theories, calculations and mud-slinging have the BJP elated that the Opposition narrative of jobs, demonetisation and the economy — which had started gaining momentum — have had to make way for the tried and tested formulae of caste, community and religion.
A BJP district leader says, “We already have the development plank with PM Narendra Modi. This infighting will only help. And with the Balakot air strike, our cadre is energised and vote base is strong.”
But on the ground, particularly among farmers, the BJP’s Balakot air strike narrative is a double-edged sword. Take Om Pal Singh in Bijnore’s Raipur Berisal village. “I will not keep quiet if I am told about this air strike, armed forces or Pakistan again. The Army’s job is to protect the borders and give Pakistan a fitting reply and they are doing that well. Who are you to crow about it?” he says, adding that many of his relatives serve in the armed forces. “It is our sons who serve in the Army and defend the country; not politicians. Their children are in air conditioned rooms. We give food and our sons protect the land. Do not tell us about the military, it is demeaning to us and to the Army,” he says.
A Jat sugarcane farmer, Om Pal says the government has let the farmers down. “We voted for this government. But for five years we have not been paid our dues. The government pays the sugar mills but not us,” he says.
Asked about this anger among its traditional voters, many of them Jats who form about 15 per cent of the population in Western UP, a BJP leader says they are not worried. “It is true that some farmers are angry, but not all. Moreover, it’s not about community or caste votes. This time, the voters are different,” he says, indicating that the party’s poll plank of development and national security will counter other biases.
According to latest data compiled by the Cane Commissioner’s Office in Lucknow, dues that sugar mills in UP owe farmers now totals Rs 10,074.98 crore. As The Indian Express reported, of this, Rs 4,547.97 crore or over 45 per cent is due from mills in six of the eight constituencies going to the polls on April 11.
Such is the sentiment in the region that PM Modi referred to cane payments in his Meerut rally. “I assure you that CM Yogi Adityanath will get all your payments done very soon,” he said, accusing the earlier BSP and SP governments of misrule.
A few km away, in Bhokaredi village, Kripal Singh, also a Jat cane farmer, echoes Om Pal. As Kripal complains about not being paid dues from mills for several weeks now, his son Manoj, who is travelling with him to the main market to buy new water pipes, disagrees. “But papa, this election is not about sugarcane; it is about the nation and security,” he chimes in.
His father raises his hand as if to land him a mock blow, “You are young, you know little of these matters….”
“But I voted last time and I will vote again. My vote is for the PM. See how he handled Pakistan, which is encroaching on our land. He has stamped out corruption. Desh ke hith mein vote dena hain, desh ke liye (We have to vote for the country’s interest, for India),” says Manoj, dressed in jeans and T-shirt.
Kripal says his son knows little, particularly since he does not work on the field. “He works in a mobile shop. He does not know about the realities of farming. But he will vote with his heart. I cannot stop him,” he says.
According to Manoj, most of his final-year BCom classmates think like him. “We now have 24-hour electricity compared to just eight hours during the previous SP government. This is the development we need. We know what we have to do. I may be only 23, but this will be our country soon. We must decide the course,” he says.
His father shakes his head. “We have 24-hour electricity but the power tariff for our irrigation pumps and tubewells have almost doubled. Between the two, I prefer cheaper power for the farm. But you only want to charge your mobile phone,” he says.
In UP — like elsewhere where an analysis of Election Commission data by The Indian Express showed that the average number of new eligible voters is over 1.15 lakh per constituency — this 2019 election might just upend all traditional wisdom of election politics, which has until now sworn by the sure-shot formulae of caste and community. Like in the case of Kripal and Manoj, this election might even cleave through generations and their loyalties.
In Malhendi village of neighbouring Kairana constituency, Suresh, who wants to be identified only by his first name, says his father has not spoken to him for days.
“My father says we are Dalits and must vote for Mayawati. Why? What has she done? I will vote for anyone I want,” he says.
A farm labourer, Suresh, 25, says he is yet to make up his mind on voting, but indicates that “desh hith (welfare of the country)” and “vikas (development)” will help him decide.
But there’s something that’s gnawing away at Suresh’s mind. Last year, his 23-year-old neighbour was arrested for social media posts against Modi and Adityanath. “Last year, my friend was angry that stray cattle had eaten away all his crop. He went to the field one morning and realised it was all gone. He was so angry that he made a video criticising Modi and Adityanath, and was arrested. These arrests are bad, par yeh toh UP sarkar ke galti hain, Modi ki thodi hain (but this is the UP government’s fault, not Modi’s),” he says.
The 23-year-old’s uncle says the younger generation has little patience. “They are all hotheads. My son will not listen to me anymore. When they are happy, they are very happy and when they are angry, they are very angry. We had a meeting last night and decided the Dalit basti must vote for BSP, my son though refuses,” he says.
Just a few km away from Malhendi, in Kudana, the same demographic group believes otherwise. Vipin, 21, who has cleared all the tests to join the UP police, says, “Only Behenji speaks up for us. Any Dalit who thinks otherwise is either uneducated or watches too much TV. They only show lies on news these days. In our village, go and survey and you will find that most people have given up their cable connections.”
His neighbour Naveen agrees. “How can anybody forget April 2 (the Bharat bandh called by Dalit groups against the alleged dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act). We were attacked brutally by all those who are BJP voters. That was unforgivable. Dalits will show their power this time,” he says.
Both have come to attend a public meeting in the village that includes Kairana’s RLD candidate Tabassum Hasan’s son Nahid Hasan. Yogendra Singh, a campaign coordination functionary, says, “Nahid is an MLA and everybody knows him well. We have split the constituency in such a way that between the mother and son, they will cover most villages in the constituency.”
Asked about the Congress fielding a candidate in Kairana, Singh is not concerned. “There is a Congress candidate but the question is who will he help and who will he hurt? Maybe he will take away Muslim votes, but then again he is a Jat, maybe he will attract that BJP vote base,” says Singh.
Hasan also refers to the Muzaffarnagar riots and reclaiming “honour”. “In 2013, the world heard about Muzaffarnagar in horror. In this election, we must reclaim our name. You must help by voting out those who caused the riots. This will send a message across the country,” he says.
Bisara fights its own shadows
About 150 km away in Dadri — Gautam Budh Nagar constituency — another village fights to reclaim its own honour. There were no riots here, but in 2015, 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq was beaten to death in Bisara village on September 28 on suspicion of cow slaughter.
Niranjan, a former Armyman, says the village is yet to recover from that lynching. “If only elders were around, we would have stopped those boys. Now Bisara is spoken of as a curse,” he says.
According to a shopkeeper, who requested anonymity, young men and women from Bisara have found it difficult to find jobs. “There are many private companies around this area where all our youth were employed. Once this happened, slowly they were sacked. The companies said they did not want trouble-makers in their midst,” he says.
Akhlaq’s house stands abandoned in Bisara as is his brother’s. They moved out in 2016 and vowed never to return. “See, people mix a lot of issues. We are not happy at all with the BJP candidate here (Union Minister Mahesh Sharma) but will vote for Modi. He will bring people in line. If not for Modi, maybe we would not have voted at all. Why should this Akhlaq incident be tied to politics? That has nothing to do with elections,” says a farmer, requesting anonymity.
Back in Muzaffarnagar, RLD chief Ajit Singh takes the stage at a public rally in the city. “In 2014, the slogan was har har Modi, har ghar Modi. I have a new slogan for you: hai hai (down down) Modi, bye bye Modi.” Before the RLD chief’s speech, Bisara does find a mention, as it does in rallies across the region. “Remember Bisara. They killed a man. And now cows are roaming free, eating up all the crops. Nobody wants to transport cows fearing gau rakshaks. The gathbandhan is the only choice to bring sanity back,” says an SP leader in his address.
His speech is limited to a few minutes and most of that time is spent in the new sign-off that echoes across western UP: “Jai Hind, Jai Bharat, Bharat Mata ki Jai, Jai Samajwad, Jai Bhim, Jai RLD, Jai gathbandhan.” A rare gathbandhan of slogans.