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Muzaffarnagar riots: Do the SP or BJP really stand to gain?

What played out in Muzaffarnagar last week was the politics of communal polarization, but who really makes the biggest gain?

Reporting from one of the impromptu ‘refugee camps’ in Muzaffarnagar, The Indian Express reports that there are thousands of Muslims living under what appear to be the flimsiest of tarpaulin tents – families who lived in pucca brick and cement homes now scrounging for rations and living in fear. These families, squatting on an open field in Malakpur village in Muzaffarnagar, are among the 25,000 Muslim families estimated to be living as refugees -- not in some desolate war-torn border but in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, not even 200 km from the National Capital Region.

According to this report in The Indian Express, there are at least 3,200 people are here, as per records. There may be over a couple of thousand in addition.

"We don't even know whose land this is. But there is food, water and security here. There are many here who used to live in pucca houses. But for now, a thin piece of cloth separating us and the sky and each other is the only protection we have," Altaf Khan from Shahpur is quoted as saying in the report.

The riots in Muzaffarnagar were unqiue because for the first time it was centred in villages. AP

The riots in Muzaffarnagar were unqiue because for the first time it was centred in villages. AP

There is, on the one hand, the deprivation these “refugees” are suffering and, on the other, as Mukul Kesavan points out in this edit in The Telegraph, the portrayal of the BJP as ‘default broadcaster of Jat grievance’ against what they consider to be appeasement of Muslims.

There have been reports suggesting that, as evident from its complete inaction in the build-up to the violence, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh appears culpable. If there was indeed a diabolical plan to fan the flames and then come to the rescue of its core constituency, that may have failed.

As Kesavan writes, “It’s obvious that the Muzaffarnagar violence was a disaster for the Samajwadi Party, it was a coup for the Sangh parivar and the BJP. The inspired opportunism of the BJP in the aftermath of the August 27 killings amounts to a kind of evil genius. To encourage the holding of a Mahapanchayat in the face of prohibitory orders in a charged communal context, to have four of its MLAs make speeches stoking-up an armed crowd in the name of Hindu unity, to upload grotesquely violent videos online that had nothing to do with the August 27 killings to incite communal violence, to use the Jat community’s anxieties about its womenfolk to boil the communal pot, make it clear that Hindu consolidation is the main entrée on the BJP’s menu this election year.

So, while Modi’s pitch to India may be surajya (good governance) and a Gujarat-style focus on development, in Uttar Pradesh – in whose 80 Parliamentary constituencies the fortunes of 2014 will be decided - the BJP appears to be pitching its hardline Hindutva.

Writing in The Indian Express, Ashutosh Varshney says the Muzaffarnagar riots depart from the norm of communal riots in several ways.

For one, it was centered in rural areas.

Pointing out to the dataset constructed by him and Steven Wilkinson for the period 1950-1995, he says rural deaths accounted for only 4-8 per cent of all Hindu-Muslim riot fatalities. In that sense the Muzaffarnagar riot was a departure form the norm, as were the major rural riots in Bhagalpur (1989) and Gujarat (2002).

Varshney quotes Wilkinson in arguing that communal riots are rare when the state government’s biggest constituency is the minority vote.

To keep the minority vote intact, the government would use its might to stop or contain riots. The Samajwadi Party runs UP's government; it depends heavily on Muslim support, yet riots took place, killing a large number of Muslims,” he writes.

In fact, the reported 100 riots in Uttar Pradesh since Akhilesh took charge appear to suggest that his government may woo minorities but is “unwilling, or unable” to stop communal riots.

This returns the argument to whether the riots were indeed a “diabolical chessboard strategy” that spiraled out of the SP government’s control. In the Malkanpur refugee camp and other camps, Muslims have not had very kind words for the SP government. In fact, they heckled and booed Akhilesh when he visited them after the violence was quelled.

Varshney then deals with the BJP – fourth in UP in 2009 with only 10 Parliamentary seat victories, but over 50 seats in 1996 and 1998. According to him, the earlier performance was purely due to the polarisation over the Ayodhya temple issue. While the Muzaffarnagar riots may point to a similar strategy for the 2014 elections, it is unlikely given their Prime Ministerial candidate has campaigned on development and governance, the BJP would want to lose votes by being the communal party it was in the 1990s.

While the obvious loser in this case would seem to be the Samajwadi Party, the accusations against the BJP won't do it any good when its PM candidate already faces his fair share of allegations over treatment of minorities. As Varshney says, communal violence isn't easily controlled and the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate could tell the party's local leaders in Uttar Pradesh, its stains can take even longer to fade.