India’s large population and the sheer size of its economy often hide just how poorly the country performs on human development indices. For instance, Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most-populated state, has a human development score that is less than that of Bangladesh, Nepal and even war-torn Iraq.

Given this, one would think that the ongoing Assembly elections would only be about progress and change. Not really. Oddly enough, the single biggest campaign controversy in this politically-crucial state has revolved around the macabre topic of cemeteries and cremation grounds.

On February 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off talk of graveyards at a rally in Fatehpur where he attacked the Samajwadi Party-led government for what he claimed was its policy of funereal discrimination.

“Gaon main qabristan banta hai to shamshaan bhi banna chaahiye,” Modi said. If there is a graveyard in a village, there should also be a cremation ground.

Later, on March 1, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Sakshi Maharaj took this thought further. “Graveyards should not be built at all,” he argued. To back up his proposal, Maharaj claimed – with considerable imagination – that there are no graveyards even in Islamic countries and that those countries followed cremation as the standard practice.

Muslim appeasement?

Accusing its rivals of Muslim appeasement has been the staple of BJP politics no matter that research has shown Muslims to be one of India’s most disadvantaged communities. The BJP has regularly attacked the Samajwadi Party government for allegedly favouring the minority community in matters as diverse as power supply and laptop distribution under a government scheme. Yet, even with this background, its latest refrain on graveyards and cemeteries seems odd.

The BJP’s graveyard politics reflects social tensions sparked by the Uttar Pradesh government’s efforts to build boundary walls for all graveyards in the state in order to stop encroachment. This was part of the Samajwadi Party’s manifesto in 2012. In Uttar Pradesh’s 2016-’17 Budget, the government allocated Rs 400 crores for this scheme. While the plan aims to cover 90,000 graveyards, it has only achieved a fraction of that target so far. Construction of boundary walls around graveyards is complete in 5,314 locations and is underway in 1,121 locations.

The building of walls around graveyards has led to scores of small skirmishes between Muslims and a variety of Other Backward Classes and Dalit Hindu castes who had encroached upon that land, and were forced to move off as a result of the new boundary walls.

Communal polarisation

Graveyards are visible symbols of the presence of the Muslim community. This means that the boundary wall issue gives the BJP an easy point of attack. On the ground, communal polarisation helps the BJP electorally, thus the graveyard scheme is a natural target.

For instance, in Jaroda village, close to Muzaffarnagar town, the boundary wall scheme has led to Jatav-Muslim tensions for the past two years. The construction of the wall has meant that parts of the cemetery being used by Jatavs is not accessible to them any more. Jatavs constitute over 56% of the Dalit community in the state, and are traditionally seen as supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party whose leader Mayawati belongs to this community.

Although the issue has hit the national headlines only recently following Modi’s comments, the BJP’s charge against graveyards has been on for some time now. In January, BJP MLA Sangeet Som and an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, told the Hindustan Times, that: “SP has made boundary walls for graveyards, why have they not made it for crematoriums and Ram-Leela grounds?”

Similarly, over the past year, the BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan, a member of Parliament from Muzaffarnagar, has been on a crematorium-building spree. Balyan, also an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, is now a Union minister. He has spent the Local Area Development funds he is entitled to as a member of Parliament on building separate crematoriums for Dalits, Gurjars, Jats and Brahmins in Muzaffarnagar.