The Munawwar Camp, a few kilometres from Kairana town, consists of little more than 20 ramshackle tents made of plastic, cardboard and rods. The sole public convenience here is a tube well, around which the encampment has been built. A channel in the mud acts as a drain for the whole camp, carrying away a dark grey scum to the road; residents leap across it while carrying out their chores.

Located in the Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh, the camp houses Muslims displaced in the 2013 riots that took place in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar. Attacked by powerful Jats in their village, these lower caste Muslims are unable to go back to their homes, fearful of more violence.

For such an obvious failure of government, however, the refugees in the camp were surprisingly sanguine about the Samajwadi Party-led state administration. “Nahid Hasan [the Samajwadi Party MLA from Kairana] has given us this land to stay on,” said Sharfuddin, a refugee at the camp. “He was the only person to help us out after the riots. We will vote for him and Akhilesh.”

At the Munawwar Camp, Shamli district, Sharfuddin's terrible living conditions do not deter him from voting Samajwadi since he is grateful he has a place to stay at all.

Running riot

Sharfuddin wasn’t alone. Everyone at the camp was clear about voting for Samajwadi Party. This is a surprising development given that just three years back, the party had been criticised for a failure of law and order in allowing the riots to take place at all.

In 2016, a report by social activists Harsh Mander, Akram Akhtar, Zafar Eqbal and Rajanya Bose sharply indicted the state government for their role in the violence. “Most of the cases of murder in which the accused were listed as ‘unknown persons’ were closed without a charge-sheet or trial. There was enormous pressure on the victims to rescind on their statements,” read the report titled Living Apart: Communal Violence and Forced Displacement in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.

Earlier, in 2015, the Justice Vishnu Sahai commission had blamed the police and bureaucracy for allowing the violence to take place unchecked. In 2014, an enquiry report had listed individual instances of how the police stood by as Muslims were attacked.

Relief work

The Samajwadi Party has, however, sought to deflect criticism by announcing compensation for the Muslims affected in the riots. The state government announced a scheme where Muslims displaced by the violence would be awarded Rs 5 lakh per family. Later, an amount of Rs 15 lakh was declared as compensation for the families of people who went missing during the riots.

The state administration has also built rudimentary structures for refugees, who are too scared to go back to their own villages, in Muslim-majority areas. In Palda village, Muzzafarnagar, Yunus Jamaluddin, a riot victim from the Saifi carpenter caste, said he will vote for Samajwadi Party. “They built me a house,” he said, pointing to a few ramshackle pukka structures at the edge of the village. “For that I am grateful to Akhilesh.”

What about the compensation that he was entitled to? “We haven’t got it but we got the house. I am happy with that for now,” grimaced Jamaluddin.

Akhilesh: development man

Apart from the burning issue of the riots – which affects only Muslims – broader issues such as economic development also attract young members of the community. After Narendra Modi’s skilful use of the development platform in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the mantle of development has actually been rather successfully adopted by Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh in this Assembly election.

In Harsauli village, Muzaffarnagar, a young group of Muslims Jats are quite clear that they are fans of Akhilesh Yadav. “Akhilesh has put in schemes like the 108 helpline to call an ambulance and mobile police vans,” said Luqman Chaudhary, 22. “The police is also less cruel towards us, they don’t hit us for no reason, there’s nearly 20 hours of power everyday and we have got laptops.”

In Bassi Kalan village, Muzaffarnagar, Mohammed Junaid Khan, 19, from the upper caste Pathan biradari, was clear that even if the Samajwadi Party had split, he would have gone for Akhilesh Yadav. “I like him a lot because he has done a lot for this area. He is dynamic,” said Khan, breaking into a grin.

From a family of land-owning Muslim Jats, Luqman Chaudhary likes Chief Minister Yadav for what he thinks is Yadav's focus on development.

BSP non-starter

Part of this Samajwadi support is driven by the fact that Muslims see no other alternative. On the ground, it is quite clear that Mayawati’s offer of a Dalit-Muslims alliance has failed in western Uttar Pradesh, driven by real social tensions between Muslims and Dalits. Dalits and Muslims live cheek by jowl in the state and often have to jostle for the same – tiny – piece of the pie.

In Muzaffarnagar town, a Muslim functionary of the Bahujan Samaj Party railed against his own party for not making space for Muslims. “Jatavs treat the BSP as their ancestral property. We are made to feel like servants,” complained the worker who did not wish to be identified, fearing disciplinarily action.

He was also dismissive of Mayawati’s strategy to nominate 97 Muslim candidates, the highest by far of any party in the fray. “MLAs in the BSP have no power, so what use is it voting for a Muslim? In the BSP, all power lies with behenji,” he argued.

Yunus Jamaluddin, a refugee from the 2013 riots, is content with voting Samajwadi after they resettled him in a Muslim-majority village.

Hobson’s choice

In Muzaffarnagar’s main market, Shah Noor runs a shop that sells shoes. He was annoyed with the BSP because he accused Dalit Jatavs, the party’s core base, of voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. “If they can betray us like this, how can we trust them this time?” asked Noor.

In Bassi Kalan village, Gulzar Khan was also angry with Mayawati for not saying anything about the 2013 riots. “Nobody from the Bahujan Samaj Party came to visit us, nobody said anything in our support and now they want our votes,” said Khan, a former headman of the village.

In Muzzafarnagar town, Qazi Asim, a property dealer, was clear about the tough choice facing Muslims. “We know that the Samajwadi party allowed the riots to happen but what can we do? Even Mayawati has not empathised with our plight. At least the SP has said something after the violence, has come out in our support” argued Asim. “Ham log dangon par hii atke rahe to jaayenge kahaan? Hamen SaPa ka kirdar bhoolnaa hii padegaa.”

“We can’t dwell on the riots,” he argued. “We don’t have a choice: we’ll have to forget the Samajwadi Party’s role [in the riots].”