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India Elections Diary: Muzaffarnagar

Elections seem to have further divided the communities in Muzaffarnagar which witnessed Hindu-Muslim riots last year.
Last modified: 7 Apr 2014 16:15

Between the flashes of development and long stretches of poverty, western Uttar Pradesh displays everything that is not right with India's policy-makers.

The northern Indian state sends 80 members to country's parliament, making it literally the Waterloo of parliamentary elections.

Two hour drive from country's capital, New Delhi, took me to Muzaffarnagar, a centre of sugar production in western Uttar Pradesh. The town witnessed Hindu-Muslim riots last September in which about 60 people were killed and thousands were rendered homeless.

Both communities, with almost no history of conflict, now live separately in the wake of the violence, and riot victims - mostly Muslims – have refused to go back to their homes. They are now settling permanently in and around their relief camps.

The agricultural town, which goes to polls on April 10, has become the nerve centre of communal divide, with political parties exploiting social fissures for electoral gains.

In many ways the town reflects the very complex map of India's democracy.

Roads here are in bad shape, houses are mostly thatch-roofed or crippled for the want of attention and infrastructure is dismal. This is in sharp contrast to Noida, a bustling city in the same region.

Muzaffarnagar is a fertile plain full of sugarcane farms, and villages dot on the side of its bumpy stretch of roads.

Political parties here are busy campaigning in cars, motorbikes, tractors and jugards (a wooden cart for passengers powered by a huge diesel engine tucked at the front).

State of politics

On every street, the banners and pamphlets cover the mud-squashed walls, rusted gates and tree trunks, clearly revealing the party affiliations they have.

In Kakda, a Jat dominated village, flags of the opposition BJP are mounted on rooftops. Its Muslim residents emptied out of the village after the September riots.

"We will vote for (Narendra ) Modi because BJP offers us security. He also has a policy for farmers," SP Singh, an educated man in his early 50s, said.

When I asked him "security" against whom?

"Against communal tension," was his reply.

BJP here has given tickets to Sanjeev Ballian, accused of participating in the deadly riots, a stark reminder of the state of politics here.

Jats, a farming community, blame the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in the state for the unrest that was sparked by the killing of two Jat youths and a Muslim man on August 27.

Muslims say it was a planned rioting to flare Hindu sentiments ahead of polls.

"We don't have time to think who will do the development and who will give us jobs. For us, it is security of our lives which comes first," Momina Begum, 40, tells me at Dalda shelter camp, whose house was burnt down by the rioters.

She said she would vote for the SP as it has given her some compensation.

Muslim vote-bank

Others who haven't been compensated want to vote for Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) led by Dalit leader Mayawati.

And with prominent Muslim leader Shahi Imam Bukhari throwing his weight behind the Congress party, the so-called Muslim vote-bank, remains largely split.

Most of the 50,000 Muslims, who fled their homes during the September violence, have not returned. Many of them are languishing in relief camps with almost complete absense of basic amenities.

As the late afternoon sun started to heat up the dusty camp, some young girls stood in a queue outside a makeshift toilet, walls of which are made of thin cloth.

The filth of open drains starts to smell more intense under the blazing sun. The men, who could no longer beat the heat inside the tents, gather under a tree, while women find space in the corner.

Elections seem to have further divided the communities who want to forget the past, but daily political rallies keep on reminding them of their identities.

"In the past I have seen many elections rallies in Muzaffarnagar, but this time around party supporters of all shades are giving it a communal colour," Pherao Singh Chanderi, 65, of Chanderi village, said.