West Uttar Pradesh is fast emerging as the new laboratory of Hindutva politics, where are being tested techniques of electoral mobilisation for their relative efficacy. These techniques entail undermining the traditional mechanism for resolving disputes, imparting national undertones to a contentious local issue, and harnessing religious identity to challenge numerical domination and paper over caste/class contradictions.
These overlapping themes underlie the decision to abort the agreement that the Muslims and Dalits of Nayagaon Akbarpur village of Kanth town, Moradabad, had hammered through negotiations. Communal tension had been sparked off in Nayagaon Akbarpur, which gradually spread to Kanth town and beyond, over whether or not the Dalits could use the loudspeaker installed at the Shiv temple in the village.
The Muslims argued the temple did not have the tradition of using the loudspeaker other than during the Mahashivratri festival. They claim this tradition was flouted when the Dalits installed a loudspeaker at the Shiv temple on 16 June to felicitate Kunwar Servesh Kumar, who had won on the BJP ticket from Moradabad.
However, the loudspeaker wasn’t removed at the end of felicitation ceremony. On 25 June, a meeting was convened at the Kanth town residence of MN Jabar Singh, a Jatav leader who had twice served as pradhan of Rustampur-Sherpur village. Both Singh and local police authorities tried to persuade the Dalits of Nayagaon Akbarpur village to voluntarily take down the loudspeaker, promising they would have it installed at a later date.
"Some Dalits argued, I suspect at the BJP's behest, that the loudspeaker would never be re-installed once it is brought down. Some of them were needlessly provocative. They told me that Muslims can bring it down if they think they can," Jabar Singh told me over the phone.
On the following day, 26 June, the local police forcibly removed the loudspeaker from the temple, spawning communal tension and goading the BJP into convening a mahapanchayat on 4 July for charting out a course of action. Apprehensive that the 4 July mahapanchayat could have severe consequences as a similar meeting in Muzaffarnagar had last year, the local leaders began to parley among themselves to resolve the dispute.
A day before the mahapanchayat—3 July—a meeting of over 1000 people was convened by the Kanth MLA, Anisurrahman at his residence in Nayagoan Qasimpur, which adjoins Nayagoan Akbarpur. Also present at the meeting were Kunwar Servesh Kumar and Satya Pal Singh, who’s the BJP MP from Sambhal. A six-point agreement was hammered out and duly signed, among others, by the two BJP MPs.
The six points on which the agreement had been reached were: a loudspeaker would be installed after Eid, on 3 August; that the loudspeaker would be played for 15 minutes every morning and evening after azaan, or the muezzin's call to prayer; that the loudspeaker wouldn't be played during Ramzan, but it can be in case a Dalit festival falls during that month; that the mahapanchayat wouldn't be convened on 4 July; that construction of the mosque in the adjoining Chedari Akbarpur, stalled because of objections raised two years ago, would be renewed; and that Dalits wouldn't drink liquor and loiter around in the streets of Nayagaon Akbarpur.
After the meeting dispersed, Anisurrahman said he received a call from Servesh Kumar saying the agreement wasn't acceptable to his people, who wanted the loudspeaker to be installed forthwith. The unilateral abrogation of the agreement also meant the BJP could convene the mahapanchayat. On 4 July, the district administration’s attempt to foil the mahapanchayat led to skirmishes in which the then district magistrate of Moradabad lost an eye.
Servesh Kumar confirmed to me the July 3 agreement. Asked to explain why the people rejected the agreement, Kumar said, rather gruffly, "How do I know why the agreement wasn't acceptable to them." However, The Hindu newspaper quoted the BJP MP saying, "It is not only about Dalits but the larger Hindu identity and about Hindu samaj. The Hindus in the vicinity of the village also need to be taken along because it is a matter of larger Hindu solidarity."
Indeed, nobody I spoke to described the conflict as one between Hindus and Muslims. Instead, they spoke of the conflict as arising from differences between Dalits and Muslims. Kumar’s statement to the Hindu also testifies to the BJP's interminable experiment at social engineering, of dissolving the caste identity of Dalits into the larger Hindu identity.
The BJP's attempt to bring the Dalits into the Hindutva fold also springs from the compulsions of assembly by-elections. The assembly constituency adjoining Kanth is Thakurdwara, which will soon have to elect an MLA in place of Servesh Kumar, who is now a Lok Sabha member. To magnify a local dispute is likely to yield rich electoral dividends. The BJP's task has also been rendered easier because Mayawati has already declared that the BSP wouldn’t be participating in the assembly by-elections.
Undoubtedly, the terms of the 3 July agreement is an expression of a social milieu in which the Dalits are not the dominant group, economically or numerically. As is true for most parts of rural India, the Dalits are unfortunately perceived less equal than others and suffer the ignominy of having to live under conditions which violate the fundamental right to equality. To have a social group regulate the playing of loudspeaker, or to demand an informal ban on liquor, are restrictions that would be unacceptable to the new Dalit consciousness.
But Jabar Singh, a Jatav himself, believes this analytical perspective ignores the reality of rural India. "In the past, all past differences were resolved amicably, through samjhauta (understanding). But this year the situation spun out of control because of BJP’s politics," he said. Singh thought the proscribing of liquor is justified because it is in their "inebriated condition they would take to playing the loudspeaker at a high volume".
In Nayagaon Akbarpur, Dalits constitute around one-eighth of its 4,000-strong population; all the others are Muslim. Till 1966, the residents of this village lived on the banks of the Ramganga river, and a devastating flood prompted one Bashir Ahmad Thekedar, a tau, or uncle, of Anisurrahman, to settle the Muslims in Nayagaon Akbarpur. Two years later, he invited the Dalits to settle here as well, providing them the incentives of ownership of small plots of land and/or assured employment as agricultural labour.
A few years later, the Dalits expressed their wish to build a temple, and Muslims contributed to fund its construction. About 15 years ago, they wanted to install a loudspeaker for the Mahashivratri festival and a collective decision was taken to permit it, as was the demand for taking out processions on Holi. Life in Nayagaon Akbarpur unfolded in all its bucolic and indolent charm.
"Suddenly, this February, after the Mahashivratri festival," said Anisurrahman, "they didn’t bring down the loudspeaker. It angered the Muslims; they wondered why the Dalits had taken a unilateral decision". On the complaint of Muslims, the district administration dismantled the loudspeaker, which was reinstalled on 16 June to felicitate Servesh Kumar.
In a sense, the 3 July agreement forged through the collective decision-making process reflects the attempts of the community to restore to their small world the social equilibrium of the past. The numerical domination of Muslims, as also their marginally better economic condition, perhaps had them perceive the assertion of Dalits as a sudden overturning of their social order. That this was happening under the BJP's aegis enhanced the suspicion of Muslims about the agenda of Dalits.
Jabar Singh imagined two contrary situations to argue thus: "Instead of Dalits, had it been the Jats, the Muslims wouldn’t have made such demands on them. But it is also true that had the Jats, not Muslims, imposed an unjustifiable term on Dalits, the BJP wouldn't have jumped into the conflict."
In other words, Kanth has provided the BJP an opportunity to magnify a local dispute to craft a narrative of the monolith Hindu community arrayed against the unreasonable Muslim community. Truly, in India, the apparent is rarely ever the complete story.
A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing September 2014.
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Updated Date: Jul 29, 2014 11:36:11 IST