“Look, this election isn’t really about voting for your MP,” said former Union minister Sanjeev Balyan. “It is about bringing Prime Minister Modi back again.”

Balyan, the MP from Muzaffarnagar, was addressing an election gathering of 100 people – mostly men wearing white dhotis and turbans – in a square in Naghori village here in western Uttar Pradesh. He made no mention of the September 2013 riots that got him political fame, as 62 people – 42 Muslim, 20 Hindu – were murdered. Balyan firmly cast his lot with the Hindus.

The polarisation that Balyan, 46, had effected did its job last time, so he made Modi his primary sales pitch. Many BJP leaders believed that the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, with Balyan at its epicentre, turned the tide for the party in Uttar Pradesh, delivering it 71 of 80 seats, its best performance in India’s electorally most important state. Its ally, the Apna Dal, had also won two seats.

In the aftermath of the riots, more than 50,000 people – mostly Muslims – fled their homes and had to move to the town of Shamli in the neighbouring district of Kairana.

Balyan was charged with disobeying curfew orders, using criminal force to deter public servants from doing their jobs and wrongful restraint. He is still fighting these cases in court. But the polarisation between Hindu and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar helped him win, beating his nearest rival from the Bahujan Samaj Party by a margin of 4 lakh votes.

Balyan was rewarded and made Union minister of state for agriculture in 2014. Two years later in 2016, his portfolio was changed to water resources, and a year later he resigned from the Union cabinet.

Despite his patchy track record and the cases he is still fighting, the BJP calculated that Balyan would possibly be able to consolidate Hindu votes yet again and named him the candidate from Muzaffarnagar constituency.

After the rally in Naghori village, Balyan sat in the drawing room of one of his supporters, before a table of cashew nuts and savouries, and talked plainly about what happened during the Muzaffarnagar riots.

First, as someone fighting cases in court, he was cautious.

“I want to clarify first of all that my party had absolutely no role to play in those riots,” he said.

What about the role he played in the riots?

“If circumstances like those arise again, I will stand up and do my bit again,” he said, referring to local attitudes. “Where I come from, we believe in giving an eye for an eye.”

That a parliamentarian and former Union minister was making a statement admitting to violence and ignoring the law was not an aberration. It is the fulcrum around which politics in Muzaffarnagar moves, as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath confirmed during an election speech in the district on April 8.

“It was Sanjeev Balyan who was fighting for you and even went to jail,” said Adityanath.

Balyan and Adityanath’s approach is connected with the economic distress of the region and the consequent availability of young men.

Foot-soldiers are available

Before the 2014 election, said a local BJP leader, requesting anonymity, violence was stoked to win votes. In August 2013, a local fight erupted between Jats and Muslims over the alleged sexual assault of a Muslim girl.

It spiralled after two young Jat men were killed by Muslims – seven were convicted in February 2019 – and a Muslim killed by Hindu Jats. But the state stepped in and imposed a curfew. At this point, Balyan, a local Jat leader at the time, played a key role as a self-styled “protector of Jat pride”.

In defiance of the curfew, he and other BJP leaders from the area called for a Jat mahapanchayat or a grand council of Jats on September 7, 2013. Slogans were shouted at this public gathering of Jats from across western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana: “Muslims have only two sthans [places], Pakistan or kabristan [the graveyard].”

The disregard for the law, said political scientist and Uttar Pradesh watcher Sudha Pai, who has spent much of her professional life studying the state’s communal and caste politics, comes from a historical downward spiral of Uttar Pradesh’s economy and Muzaffarnagar within it.

“The bottomline,” said Pai is “a total breakdown” of law and order, which is true for not just the BJP but other parties in the state.

“Coupled with the lack of development, this has meant that there are a large number of men without jobs available as foot soldiers,” said Pai, the author of Everyday Communalism, published in 2018.

When the farm sector and local industry dwindled, politics shifted to carving out caste and community based vote banks, which are easier to tap, said Pai. But this time, there are concerns beyond communal polarisation – sugarcane, for instance.

The politics of sugarcane

Muzaffarnagar district is primarily an agricultural zone: 26.02% of the workforce are cultivators and the remaining 78.03% agricultural labour, according to the Muzaffarnagar district census handbook of 2011.

This is sugarcane country in a state that accounts for 43% of India’s sugarcane cultivation, according to the Uttar Pradesh sugarcane and cane development department. Muzaffarnagar is Uttar Pradesh’s sugarcane epicentre, but the sugar mills currently owe farmers over Rs 11,000 crore, according to government data referred to in a 2018 parliament question. The payment issue appears to be the leading local political problem here.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s cane development study outlines the problem: on average, a sugarcane farmer needs to make 53 trips every year to sugar mills for various reasons, including price inquiries and when she or he is likely to be paid.

Source: Sugarcane Information System, UP State Sugarcane Department

This tedium has economic and political implications, as growing protests by cane farmers in the last few years indicate.

In addition, sugar mills face the same predicament that manufacturing units across Uttar Pradesh do. Of 31 states and Union territories, Uttar Pradesh has the lowest percentage of electrified villages, the second-lowest per person consumption of power. About half of rural Uttar Pradesh still awaits electricity, according to 2017 government data.

Balyan and the cane failure

It was perhaps to address the sugarcane concerns of many of Balyan’s 6,53,391 voters that he was made Union minister of state for agriculture and food processing. That did not alter the predicament of sugarcane farmers, who sell their produce to mills and are not being paid the arrears the mills owe them.

Balyan admitted as much. “I raised a storm in my party, in the government repeatedly, saying sugarcane farmers must be paid their dues within 14 days of the delivery of cane to mills [as is the law],” he said. “But I wasn’t able to deliver on that. This is a fact.”

A veteran BJP party leader from the region, who did not want to be identified, summed up what he thought of the region’s persistent under-development and the continued faith his party has displayed in Balyan for 2019. “Western UP has been turned into a factory of Hindu hate, and that is what Sanjeev Balyan owes his political origin to,” said the leader.

Without Hindu-Muslim issues, the lack of development would make voters put their faith on caste and community-based politics, the pattern in Uttar Pradesh over the last two decades.

The proportion of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar is 41.3%. In 2014, Balyan defeated the Muslim candidate from the Bahujan Samaj Party, Kadir Rana, a man who was also accused of stoking violence in the Muzaffarnagar riots. In the previous elections in 2009, Rana had won this seat. If Muslims voted en-bloc, then the violence in 2013 prompted various Hindu castes to consolidate around Balyan.

This time however, with no new polarisation to fall back on, Balyan admitted it was going to be “difficult”, especially with a formidable opponent in Jat leader Ajit Singh, founder of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. So, the battle for Hindu votes will be a Jat vs Jat contest.

Balyan hoped his past efforts to consolidate Hindu votes around a projected fear of Muslims would tide him over.

As he left the rally, his supporter, Nirantar Singh emphasised the idea. “We don’t want the Talibanis back here,” he said referring to the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party alliance that many of Balyan’s supporters see as supporting Muslims and, therefore, Balyan the protector of Hindus.

A new generation of hate miners

Whether or not Balyan wins the seat again, it is clear that the template for Hindu politics in Muzaffarnagar district has been set and the next generation of political aspirants are copying this formula.

This was apparent in a town like Shamli, the place where Muslims displaced from the violence of 2013 in Muzaffarnagar re-located. The ramshackle town is 28% Muslim, double the national average of 14.3%, has potholed roads, patchy electricity and a near-absent drainage system in most residential areas.

In a such crowded shanty called Kaka Nagar lives 25-year old Bajrang Dal activist Vivek Premi. Up a flight of stairs in a living room flanked by two diwans, a large hairy rat paced the room as Premi spoke of how he worked as a Hindutva activist – leading a cow protection group, a love jihad group, a temple protection group – and his overall full-time career as a Hindu vigilante.

If Balyan is hoping to cash in on communal politics in this election, Premi is building a Hindutva base for the next generation.

As part of the long term vision of the Sangh Parivar, a collective of Hindutva institutions that includes the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the muscular Bajrang Dal.

Once the ground work is done, the political wing, the BJP, cashes in on the catchment of Hindu consolidation. Balayan’s politics is immediate. Premi’s – as he acknowledged – is long-term.

Premi comes from a trading family. His father owns a jewellery store in the Shamli market. His grandfather was a freedom fighter. “Working for the country” is a sort of inheritance, said Premi, eyes shining.

He came by his nationalism at a Bajrang Dal training camp that he first attended when he was 12. “I went there because of the physical training and exercise,” Premi said. “And then I was informed about the state of the nation.”

“Islamic terror is growing across the country, sometimes in the name of love jihad at other times as a land jihad,” said Premi. “So many cows are slaughtered every day.”

Love jihad refers to the conspiracy theory floated by Hindutva supporters, which claims that there is a campaign by Muslim men to court Hindu women merely so that they can then convert them to Islam.

From this generalised indoctrination Premi said he was motivated to be part of specific campaigns, such as the 2013 Sangh Parivar campaign against India’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government; including a belief that it was breaking the Ram Setu, or Adam’s bridge, a rocky link to Sri Lanka, used – as mythology says – by the Hindu deity Rama.

Premi went around Shamli displaying what he said were stones from the Ram Setu and talked about what he had heard – that the United Progressive Alliance government intended to break the Ram Setu. This work gave him recognition in the Sangh and he was gradually given the official responsibility of indoctrinating students from schools and colleges across all of western Uttar Pradesh.

“Of course, I can’t get official permission from the school principal to talk to kids,” Premi said. “But as soon as it’s chutti time [when school gets over], the gates are open. I stand outside and introduce myself and two or three students gather around. And I tell the about the state of the nation and the need for this kind of nationalism.”

Premi’s work also includes spearheading a cow protection group. Premi and his followers have divided Shamli district into six WhatsApp groups by geography. Car mechanics and chai stall owners are now Bajrang Dal informers.

This is how it works.

As soon as an informer spots a truck carrying cows on the highway, they alert Premi or one of his team mates. The WhatsApp groups alert the nearest Bajrang Dal member and a team gets on to the road to stop the truck – illegally because they have no legal authority.

They also ask the truck driver to display his permit. If he does not have one, they call the police and hand him over. The fact that this vigilante force works like a parallel administration and has become an integral part of the politics of Shamli does not surprise anyone any more.

Premi said “cow thieves” needed “to be taught a lesson” and that he has on occasion beaten up a few Muslim offenders to set an example. “I did use a belt to beat up a man who stole calves,” he said.” “There was a government with a different ideology then. A government that allowed Muslims to get away with their lawlessness. That filled me with anger.”

“When two or three miscreants are skinned alive, then they will know not to kill cows,” Premi said, grinning, his face full of pride.

On another occasion, this vigilantism was used to prevent a Hindu girl from dating a Muslim man. When asked if it occurred to him that this is not a crime, Premi stammered over his words. “Errrr haan,” he said. “But it is against our social norms and so we are firmly against it.”

Premi is not an isolated vigilante in Shamli. As the BJP insider previously quoted explained, there is a connection between Balyan’s political rise, the faith the BJP has shown in him despite an arguably poor performance in two ministries, and the politics of Premi.

Political scientist Pai, whose book explains the Hindu vigilante phenomenon, said that this time around, the predicament of this Jat-dominated belt is more complex than 2014.

In 1992, buoyed by the movement to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya and the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Jats voted predominantly for the BJP.

“By and large, the Jats of Muzaffarnagar may not mind being anti-Muslim, but they are not that comfortable with the destruction of a place of worship,” said Pai. “Also, Muslims work as labour on farmland owned by Jats. So when things return to normal [unlike the Babri demolition or the Muzaffarnagar riots], they will ultimately have to decide what they are going to do.”

Regardless of who wins, Pai said, there is a long-term template of communalism that has now been set in this part of India’s most populous state. However, much depends on which way the votes go this time.

“If the...SP-BSP [Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party] alliance wins, that template could get buried,” said Pai. “A new normal may get created. But if Modi wins, it will make UP more communal. That’s why UP is so significant this time. It’s the mother of all battles.”

Muzaffarnagar appears to be the barometer of that battle.

This is the second of a six-part series exploring the Hindu vote in UP. You can read the first part here.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.