More than five years after communal riots between Hindu Jats and Muslims broke out in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, killing at least 60 people and driving out thousands of Muslims from their homes, Muslims in the region are preparing to vote for Ajit Singh, 80, a Jat candidate fielded by the Opposition alliance.

“Muslims ask me whom should they vote for in these elections,” said Mufti Zulfikar of Muzaffarnagar town and a respected member of the community in this western Uttar Pradesh constituency. “I tell them that they should vote for Ajit Singh. On hearing my response, they act surprised and ask whether it is ok to vote for a Jat candidate considering it was his community that was responsible for the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that led to several members of their community dead and displaced.”

Zulfikar tells them in response that venom is used as an antidote to treat patients with snake bites. “We are ready to forget the horror unleashed by the Jats in 2013 only because we feel completely marginalised under the rule of Narendra Modi, Yogi Adityanath and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” Zulfikar said. “If we have to defeat the bigger enemy, we will have to forget the horrors of 2013.”

Muzaffarnagar goes to the polls in the first phase, on April 11.

2013 riots

The 2013 riots polarised western Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, driving a wedge between members of the two communities who had largely lived together in harmony for decades.

In the elections that followed, the BJP’s Sanjiv Baliyan, a Jat who is an accused in the 2013 riots cases, won the Muzaffarnagar seat with a record margin of close to 4 lakh votes, and 59% of the vote.

Besides the deaths and the displacement of thousands of Muslim families, scores of Muslim women were also raped during the clashes. All of them are still awaiting justice.

This is the reason some Muslims in the constituency do not share Zulfikar’s pragmatism. They are resentful that the onus of protecting secularism in the country – of voting for the Opposition candidate to defeat the BJP – has been forced upon them. They ask how they can be expected to vote for a candidate whose community was responsible for creating an atmosphere of hatred against Muslims in an area that had seen peaceful relations between the two communities for years.

Ajit Singh is the candidate of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal grand alliance. He is the chief of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the son of former prime minister Charan Singh, one of the country’s tallest Jat leaders. The BJP has fielded Baliyan again, while the Congress has decided not to field anyone.

“It is still very much a Hindu-Muslim election,” said Mujassim, a young lawyer and a former Delhi University student, sitting in his office in the heart of Muzaffarnagar town. “The Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress are forcing us to vote for a Jat. Why should the family members of those who were killed, raped and forced to live in refugee camps vote for a Jat candidate?”

Muslims could still chose the None of the Above option or abstain from voting to express their dissent, said Mujassim.“Will Jats vote for Muslim candidates in other parts of Uttar Pradesh?” he asked, rhetorically. “The answer is no.”

There are some, however, who share Zulfikar’s pragmatism.

Residents of Muslim-dominated villages recall the days of Jat-Muslim bonhomie before the 2013 riots and say there is nothing wrong in voting for Ajit Singh if the aim is to defeat the BJP, whom they blame for spreading communalism in an otherwise peaceful part of western UP. They recall the development initiatives undertaken by Charan Singh and later by Ajit Singh.

“If Narendra Modi loses these elections, the Jat-Muslim bonhomie would return but for that we have to first defeat the Bharatiya Janta Party,” said Arshad Ali of Purbaliyan village.

Muslim villagers in Purbaliyan village in western Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha constituency. (Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

A political masterstroke?

According to local reports, there are approximately 16.5 lakh voters in Muzaffarnagar constituency. Muslims comprise about 5 lakh voters, Jatavs 2.5 lakh and Jats 1.5 lakh. The remaining 7 lakh voters belong to different Hindu castes including Other Backward Classes and non-Jatav Scheduled Caste groups, and are considered BJP supporters.

Political observers say the Opposition’s decision to field Ajit Singh as a joint candidate from this seat is a masterstroke that has changed the political equation on the ground. They believe if Muslims, Jatavs and Jats vote for Singh, Baliyan does not stand a chance.

This has worried BJP leaders in the area such as Umesh Malik, a Jat leader and BJP MLA from Budhana, one of five Assembly seats in Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha constituency. Malik is hoping that Ajit Singh’s candidature will lead to a drop in the number of Muslims who come out to vote, which could eventually help the saffron party.

“Ajit Singh’s candidature has certainly made it a tricky contest considering he still has a lot of respect among Jats,” said Malik. “However, we have the support of Other Backward Castes and general category Hindus. In addition, the success of the various schemes launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi should also woo supporters of other parties.”

Several BJP supporters are also hoping that Jatavs – the core voter base of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party – could vote for their candidate as they did in 2014, during the Modi wave. They believe that Modi’s popularity has strengthened not only among Jats but also among other castes following the February 26 Indian Air Force strikes in Balakot, Pakistan.

But as this correspondent interviewed dozens of voters across this constituency, it was clear that the only issue that mattered in this region, whose economy is crucially dependent on sugarcane, was caste. Issues like farm distress, unemployment and the Balakot strikes seemed to be secondary, if they were a factor at all.

A tractor carrying sugarcane in Muzaffarnagar. Sugarcane dominates the landscape of western Uttar Pradesh. (Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

What Jatavs think

Like Muslims, Jatavs in Muzaffarnagar are also resentful that a Jat candidate has been forced upon them. They view members of the Jat community as feudal and casteist.

“Jats still address us as chamars [a casteist slur] and continue to hurl casteist abuses at us and our community,” said Neel Kumar from Shainpur Kala village, who is planning to contest from Muzaffarnagar as an independent since there is no Jatav in the fray. “These parties are misleading Dalits and Muslims and the two communities should come together to defeat these Jat candidates. Neither Dalits, nor Muslims want to vote for Ajit Singh.”

There was no guarantee that Ajit Singh will stay with the Opposition if he became an MP, added Kumar. “If he is given a ministerial berth [in the event of a BJP victory in the general elections], he could easily switch sides,” he said.

A BJP leader, who was earlier with the Bahujan Samaj Party, claimed that his efforts to convince Dalits to support the saffron party in Muzaffarnagar have failed. According to him, Dalits, particularly Jatavs, will vote for Ajit Singh since Mayawati has extended him her support.

“Even during the highly polarised election in 2014, Bahujan Samaj Party’s Kadir Rana won nearly 23% votes largely because of Jatav support,” he said. “Back then, the Muslim vote was divided between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is not the case in these elections.”

According to him, just like Muslims, Dalits too have suffered tremendously during the five years of Modi’s rule. He said incidents such as that in Una – when four members of the Dalit community were flogged by cow vigilantes for skinning a dead cow in 2016 – is etched in their memory.

“There is still a strong perception amongst Dalits that the BJP is working towards ending reservations, which could see them turning out in large numbers to vote for [Ajit] Singh despite his caste,” he said. “Moreover, Muzaffarnagar witnessed violent protests during the April 2 bandh, which has further strengthened Mayawati’s support base in the region.”

The April 2 bandh had been called in 2018 by Dalit organisations to protest against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. At least nine people were killed in the violence that broke out that day.

Jats gather at the Baliyan-dominated Kakada village in in western Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha constituency. (Photo credit: Aakash Bisht).

How will Jats vote?

As Muslims and Dalits, however reluctantly, seem to be throwing their weight behind Ajit Singh, which way is the Jat vote likely to swing?

In Soham village of Muzaffarnagar district, which witnessed violent clashes between Jats and Muslims in 2013, Jats are divided between Ajit Singh and Baliyan. While the younger generation is likely to vote for Baliyan, the elderly back Ajit Singh.

“Whatever political power Jats have is because of Chaudhary Charan Singh,” said Harpal Singh, a resident of Soham village. “How can we then betray his son who could be contesting his last election.”

He added: “If Ajit Singh would not have contested from here, Baliyan would have won with a similar margin that he had won in 2014.”

Singh said Modi is a great leader and that he would vote for him in a bigger election. When his companions reminded him that the upcoming elections are the biggest elections in India, he said: “If that is so, my vote is with Chaudhary [Ajit Singh] sahab.”

A joke doing the rounds in Muzaffarnagar district is that ever since Ajit Singh’s candidature was announced, older Jats have been dreaming that Charan Singh has appealed to them to save his son. “We had defeated Charan Singh from Muzaffarnagar in 1971, it is time for some praschyatap [remorse],” said Ravi Chaudhary, a BJP supporter in Soham village.

Like Muslims, some Jats also recalled the bonhomie between Jats and Muslims prior to the 2013 riots, recalling that both communities were considered to be Charan Singh’s support base.

Some older Jats in the village even admitted that members of their community were to blame for tensions between Muslims and Jats. “We were responsible for what happened in 2013,” said Babloo Chaudhary, adding that BJP leaders such as Baliyan instigated mobs to target Muslims.

“Such incidents keep happening in western UP where people are killed in petty fights,” Chaudhary said. “Once the police arrests the culprit, it is over. However, in 2013, BJP used one such incident to make it a Hindu-Muslim issue.”

He was referring to the 2013 riots that were sparked by a motorcycle accident in Kawal village in August that year, which led to the murder of a young Muslim man and the subsequent murder of two Jat men. The situation subsequently spiralled out of control.

A few kilometres away from Soham village, several Jats had gathered outside a house in the Baliyan-dominated Kakada village to discuss the political situation in the run up to the elections.

“This is a Rashtriya Lok Dal bastion and riots changed the caste equation here,” said Chandrapal Chaudhary. “Riots were orchestrated by the BJP and Samajwadi Party to finish off smaller parties like the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Our leader is Ajit Singh and we will do everything to make him win.”

Another Jat, Roshan Chaudhary, scoffed at Modi’s projection as a strongman. “Indira Gandhi broke Pakistan into two and they keep talking about a small air strike,” he said. “They do not talk about sacrifices of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi.”

He added: “Has anyone from families of Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley or Rajnath Singh been in the military? Have any of their family members died at the border? Our family members have. We know what it means to lose a family member.”

Sukhbir Singh, a Jat villager at Kakada village, in western Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha constituency. (Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

Close fight?

Political analysts predict that the election for the Muzaffarnagar seat is likely to go down to the wire.

Local residents say Ajit Singh has a slight edge over his rival as 8.5 lakh of the constituency’s 16.5 lakh voters are with him, with the rest behind the BJP.

“Elections are all about vote share and we have a combined vote share of Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal,” said Ajeet Rathi, district president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

Rathi referred to the 2018 bye-election in Kairana – a politically-sensitive village in neighbouring Shamli district – which Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate Tabassum Hasan won by a margin of nearly 45,000 votes. This was possible because she had the backing of the other Opposition parties.

“If Ajit Singh could help the mahagathbandhan [grand alliance] win in Kairana, Muzaffarnagar is about him fighting the elections,” said Rathi.

Also read:

Muzaffarnagar riots: ‘We had been brothers until yesterday. Where did this hatred come from?’

Three years after Muzaffarnagar riots, gang-rape survivors face death threats, trial delays