Travels of a political pilgrim: Be it Kairana, Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh, India is headed towards multiple 'Partitions'

The nature of the partition need not always be territorial. India is heading towards multiple religious partitions in the midst of its cities and regions.

Tufail Ahmad February 21, 2017 16:11:06 IST
Travels of a political pilgrim: Be it Kairana, Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh, India is headed towards multiple 'Partitions'

Editor's note: Uttar Pradesh is home to India's sixth largest Muslim population according to the 2011 Census, a figure whose magnitude is amplified when viewed in the context of the sheer expanse of the state and its Byzantine linkages of identities and communities. Such an examination is rendered all the more urgent considering Uttar Pradesh is now in the thick of a tumultuous election. To understand the mind of its Muslim community — its anxieties, aspirations and animating impulses - political commentator and journalist Tufail Ahmed set off on the road, sending us dispatches from its far corners. Firstpost will chronicle his travels in a multi-part series. The following is the sixth part of this series titled 'Travels of a political pilgrim'.

In my recent writings, I have advanced the argument that India is headed towards another Partition. "It will never happen again," is an instant reply from most who read about it. But my conclusions are rooted in an understanding that ideas are more powerful than bullets. Ideas, originating from religion and culture, shape the political behaviour of communities. India was partitioned long before it became acceptable to divide it in 1947. In this travelogue, I will look for signs of the same across Kairana, Muzaffarnagar and Aligarh.

On the morning of 19 February, I reached Kairana, 124 kilometres from New Delhi. Just before Kairana is a town called Shamli, which has consistently figured in Pakistani Taliban's literature over the past decade, for its role in jihad against the British.

Meanwhile, Kairana has been in the news recently over allegations of a gradual exodus of Hindus. This phenomena was rejected by many liberal editors and Left politicians, while was used as a poll agenda by the BJP in the ongoing UP Assembly election.

Near the town's court premises, I walk up to a shop and ask for a cup of tea. I am aware of the fact that it is a Hindu-owned shop. "If the Samajwadi Party wins, the remaining Hindus will also leave Kairana," the teashop owner says, mostly talking to himself. As I introduce myself, he shows me a copy of the Hindi daily Amar Ujala, pointing to a headline: Inhi wardaton se paida huwa playan parkaran (The exodus process was a result of these incidents).

Travels of a political pilgrim Be it Kairana Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh India is headed towards multiple Partitions

Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala's 19 February edition. The headline reads: The exodus process was a result of these incidents. Firstpost/Tufail Ahmad

Muhammad Ali, UP chief of religious group Ahrarul Islam, claims that about a quarter of all Muslims in Kairana are involved in criminal activities, involving drugs, thefts, liquor, prostitution, manufacturing guns and rangdari (extortion). Such criminality is not found among Hindus, he says, and adds that martial law needs to be imposed in Kairana.

On being asked if the army should be deployed wherever the Muslims are in majority, the cleric responds: "Unlike Kashmir, the difference is that Muslims in Kairana will actually welcome the army." Both Hindus and Muslims are affected by rangdari, he says.

At Begumpura Bazaar in the town, Varun Singhal runs a kirana store. An armed policeman, deployed by the Indian state, sits next to him; and a garlanded photograph of his brother Vinod Singhal hangs on the wall. Vinod was shot dead in 2014 for refusing to pay rangdari.

"The remaining Hindus will also leave. It is only a matter of time," he says, pointing out that another Hindu in the area had sold his business and was migrating to Panipat. Varun's is not the only business where the Indian state has been forced to deploy armed policeman for protection.

Travels of a political pilgrim Be it Kairana Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh India is headed towards multiple Partitions

Hindu businessman Varun Singhal is provided with armed security to run his kirana store at Begumpura Bazar in Kairana. Firstpost/Tufail Ahmad

While the criminals demand extortion from members of all communities and murder people for diverse reasons, it is predominantly the Hindus who have suffered in Kairana. It is true that there are cases of Muslims, such as Dr Asifa, leaving Kairana due to extortion demands, but most of these cases have happened in the months after Hukum Singh, the local MP, raised the issue of the exodus of Hindus.

There is a belief amongst many in the area that incidents of rangdari against Muslims were engineered to kill the argument that only Hindus were fleeing.

"A small wound becomes a big wound, spreading to the whole body," observes Sudhir Chaudhary, a journalist who sees a dangerous mix of politics, religion and demography. "Even a minor case cannot be registered against Muslim criminals by the police in Kairana, who work under pressure from the ruling party MLA Nahid Hussain, the patron-in-chief of the local criminals."

If the police were to act against Muslims, a mob will lay siege to the police station. "The problem is that when the community's population becomes big, police come under pressure of Muslim mobs," says Chaudhary, adding that a purely criminal issue becomes a Hindu-Muslim issue in which no action can be taken against Muslims.

Chaudhry notes that extortion was systematically demanded against owners of cinemas and other Hindu businesses over the years and "when a dozen such cases happened, people realised that the town was being emptied of Hindus."

Earlier Hindus and Muslims lived together peacefully for years, so what changed? "The population of Muslims rose," responds Chaudhary.

In the nearby town of Muzaffarnagar, I met a group of doctors. One of them says, "If the police have to arrest a criminal hiding in the Muslim locality of Muzaffarnagar, they cannot do this. If they try to enter the locality, they will need a battalion of cops."

This behaviour of Muslim localities is not unique or limited to Muzaffarnagar, and becomes consequential when the population is as high as in Kairana.

In Muzaffarnagar, senior journalist Amir Ansari, who now runs a computer training institute in the Muslim locality of Khalapar, says that during the 2013 riots, the Indian army arrived like farishtas (angels), thereby preventing lots of killings. Ansari has devised his own response to vande matram (I praise the motherland), which he calls vande eishwaram (I praise the God) because, he says, Muslims cannot worship land.

Vande eishwaram very effectively incorporates the idea of Ummah, the global Muslim nation. Ansari notes that the GT Road in Muzaffarnagar divides the city between Hindus and Muslims, with the west of the road consisting of Muslim areas such as Khalapar and the eastern side being a predominantly Hindu area.

"Three partitions have occurred in India so far," Ansari says, adding that the 1947 was the first, the second being the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition in Ayodhya in 1992 – causing an intellectual partition between Hindus and Muslims – and the third partition happening after the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.

"As a result of the Muzaffarnagar riots, the batwara (partition) expanded to nearby villages. In a single village, Hindus and Muslims are living separately," Ansari notes, adding that be it Muzaffarnagar or Delhi, the educated Muslims were moving away from the Hindu-dominated areas. Hindus, too, he adds, do not like to live in the Muslim-dominated areas.

Before travelling to Muzaffarnagar, I met journalists Hasan Khalid and Naveen Patel in Aligarh. "Aligarh Hindustan-Pakistan banta ja raha hai (Aligarh is becoming India-Pakistan, i.e. a boundary line between Hindus and Muslims in the city)," says Khalid.

Over the decades, Hindus and Muslims have isolated from each other because of riots. Patel remarked that many Hindu families were leaving the localities around Babri Mandi in Aligarh. "In 11 years of my journalistic career, I haven't come across cases of Muslims migrating to other places (due to insecurity)," Patel claims.

The nature of the partition need not always be territorial or define international borders. India is heading towards multiple partitions in the midst of its cities and regions.

Conversations with various people across western Uttar Pradesh point to the ministry of home affairs (MHA) as a possible source of these 'partitions', thereby posing a direct threat to the integrity of India. Although these divisions are rooted in the political behaviour of a religious community, almost everyone sees the root of these partitions in the failing rule of law.

Part One: Separatism and integration among Muslims in the time of Uttar Pradesh elections

Part Two: Secularism versus communalism at election time

Part Three: Is rise of religiosity on AMU campus a precursor to another 'Partition'?

Part Four: Should taxpayers be funding AMU’s imams, muezzins, theology department?

Part Five: How bridging religious, worldly knowledge gap can reform Muslim education

Part Seven: Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Part Eight: Farangi Mahal, once a bastion of Islamic education, looks to regain lost glory

Part Nine: Understanding the Shia-Sunni Muslim divide in the country

Part Ten: Government must address 'minority' syndrome which causes social conflict

Part Eleven: Mubarakpur sits at the junction of Islamic doctrinal sects divided by Taqleed

Part Twelve: Madrassas play key role in inducing orthodoxy among Azamgarh's Muslims

The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif

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