A turn at almost every corner in Muzaffarnagar invariably leads to a group of farmers huddled together, sitting on wooden charpais, against their green and expansive sugarcane fields. The Jat farmers of the region see the UP elections as an opportunity to set right what they see as "wrongs committed on them".
But they are divided on what issue they are most upset about - the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence, the death of farmers at the farmers' protest or the constant struggle regarding sugarcane prices.
One section of farmers term CM Yogi Adityanath’s tenure as "unequivocally satisfying" praise the Narendra Modi government for "listening to them" and repealing the farm laws eventually.
"The law and order was horrible under the Samajwadi Party. But no thuggery is allowed here anymore."
It’s not until you mention the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that they open up about what they mean by 'law and order'.
Remnants of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar Riots
Bablu Malik, 37, is one such farmer. Born and brought up in the district’s Fugana village, Malik said he has never been more content with a government. "Everything is peaceful, no gunda-gardi," he claimed.
The 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar left over 60 dead and several displaced, followed by many arrests. The riots were said to be a moment of reckoning, in which the much celebrated ties between the Muslim and Jat communities came unraveled.
The BJP subsequently managed to win the Jat farmers' support in a significant manner– in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in 2017 UP assembly polls, and then again in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But the historic 2020-21 farmer protests, which lasted over 13 months, were seen as the perfect setting for the rekindling of the Jat-Muslim ties.
But for Bablu, and many others, the aftermath of the riots overpowers all else.
“More than 100 men in our village had cases against them. They were innocent but they went to jail. Their careers were ruined,” he said. Many were acquitted in the following years, but the damage was done, Bablu added.
Ram Kumar, another farmer, said that before 2017, in the adjacent Muslim-dominated Loyi village, “Muslim farmers would steal the harvest of the Hindu farmers.”
On being asked if he knew of someone whose harvest was stolen, Ram Kumar said that he doesn't personally know anyone who has gone through this and that he has only heard such rumors.
“Yeh mulle aise hi hote hai/ These Muslims are like this only,” Kumar finally proclaimed.
While the 2013 riots were limited to Muzaffarnagar, it is an essential district to study, because the violence and the murky politics around it had a spillover across Western UP. The Quint traveled through multiple villages of the district to understand whether the farmer protests were actually able to repair the Jat-Muslim ties, or if the BJP's brand of Hindutva politics continues to appeal to the farmers.
'We are Hindu First, Farmers Only Later': How the Politics of Mandir Still Appeals to Many
Like Bablu Malik and Ram Kumar, nearly every farmer The Quint met had participated in the landmark farmers' protest on the peripheries of the national capital. They haven't forgotten the tumultuous period, but have chosen to be forgiving towards the government.
"Yes, they made a mistake with the laws. But they took them back too. What else do we need? And they apologised also. Story over," Bir Sen said.
This is in sharp contrast to the farmers in Punjab, many of whom continue to remain opposed to the BJP.
Many such BJP-supporting farmers had their willingness to "forgive" the BJP stemming from one common place: admiration for the party's national politics.
"Modi ji has put India on the world map. His policies are about country-first, and individual-later," Pramod Malik, a farmer in Kandhla block said.
Malik then delved deeper into what he admires about the BJP. "They promised Ram Mandir and are now delivering on it. They have also promised mandirs in Varanasi and Mathura," he said.
"We are Hindu-first, and farmers only after that. This is a country for Hindus, so of course these things matter to us. The mandir is part of our religion, culture, everything," he added.
However, despite their unwavering support for the BJP, if there is one grouse they all have with the party, it is over the issue of stray cattle.
Stray cattle has become a massive problem for the farmers of UP in the last five years, with the Adityanath government's crackdown on slaughter houses and trading of old cattle. As a result, stray cattle is often found barging into the fields, and destroying the crops.
"Yes, this is a huge menace. No doubt. We have huge respect for the PM and CM, so we hope they do something about this soon. Our crops get destroyed every few days because of this. This is our only issue, and it's a big one," Vir Pal said. The other farmers sitting around him all agreed, in unison.
'Khalistani' Barbs, Low Crop Prices — What Stands to Hurt BJP?
There is also whole section of Jat farmers who voted for the BJP in 2017, driven by various motivations, but regret that decision now.
"They promised jobs, but I have been unemployed for all of the 5 years now. After Covid, job opportunities have only gotten worse," said 29-year-old Yash Balyan. In the previous elections, it is primarily the Jat youth that was said to have been enthralled by the promises of 'achhe din' and BJP's politics of mandir. "I also fell for those promises and that dream that was created for us, it was a huge mistake," Balyan said.
There are also many who voted for the BJP in 2017, but haven't been able to get over the Khalistani-Aatankwadi barbs thrown by members of the BJP at the farmer protests.
"One day, they called us Khalistani. Another day, they called us Aatankwadi. Yet another day, they called us Pakistani. Is this acceptable behavior?," asked an evidently upset Shiv Balyan, a 65-year-old farmer from Muzaffarnagar's Budhana. His brother, Chandrapal, agrees. "All this was very humiliating," he chimes in.
Many sugarcane farmers also cited issues of poor electricity and low prices by sugar mills as their biggest issue this election. At one field, 53-year-old Sanjeev Kumar was loading the sugarcane harvest on to the trucks, which would be taken to sugar mills. "Look at my hands, they work for 10-12 hours every day, but go back home with little earning. The job keeps getting more and more tiring, but the pay only keeps getting worse under this government," he said.
Hiccups in the SP-RLD Alliance, Muslims Allege 'Step-Motherly' Treatment
The Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Samajwadi Party have announced their alliance for the polls this year, hoping to bank on the perceived re-emergence of the Jat-Muslim ties. The RLD has historically been a farmers party, enjoying great respect and popularity among the community. Its founder late Chaudhary Charan Singh, a two-time UP CM and even the PM for a brief period, is still revered by the Jat community. Today, it's his grandson Jayant Chaudhary, who heads the party, and is seen sharing stage with SP's Akhilesh Yadav. Both parties have tried to frame the alliance as being a social coalition of sorts, playing on the nostalgia of the once-held camaraderie between the two communities.
But beyond the idealism of it all, the cracks began to show when the tickets for the first phase of polls— to be held in Western UP — were announced.
Six assembly constituencies lie in Muzaffarnagar, a district with 40 per cent Muslim population. And yet, not one of the candidates fielded here by the SP-RLD alliance comes from the Muslim community. This did not go down well with some in the community.
"We are admirers of the SP and RLD. But it is this kind of treatment that upsets Muslims. There are many worthy local Muslim politicians here, but they have just been ignored. The alliance should reconsider this, or they will suffer in the polls," said Shah Alam, a farmer.
The 'secular' parties and alliances, formed almost every election to defeat the BJP, are often accused of meting out step-motherly treatment to the Muslims. Not all from the community, however, agree with this sentiment.
Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, veteran leader of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), has been a torchbearer for the revival of Jat-Muslim unity.
Speaking to The Quint, at his residence in Muzaffarnagar's Jaula village, he said he is "fully backing" the SP-RLD alliance.
"I understand that some Muslims may be upset with SP-RLD for not giving enough tickets to Muslims. But they are mistaken. For instance, Shamli has a total of 3 assembly seats, and 2 of those have Muslim candidates fielded by the SP-RLD. So they aren't being unfair. They have to find a balance in order to get all the maths right," Jaula said.
"This isn't an election to choose an Imam to pray behind. This is an election for an MLA. So, even a Hindu candidate can make for a secular, egalitarian MLA. We must have faith," Jaula added.
Farmers' Heart Won't Soften, BJP will Suffer: Naresh Tikait
The BKU is an important entity in the upcoming polls. The union played a pivotal role in the farmers' protests, and their political allegiance this time around can make a significant difference. But the union has shied away from openly declaring its support to any party. Barring sharing a stage with Jayant Chaudhary in havans and mahapanchayats, and endorsing a few candidates of the RLD, there has been no unambiguous declaration of support. Speaking to The Quint, BKU leader Naresh Tikait had said this is because the "union wants to retain its apolitical nature."
But the BKU has taken political positions in the past elections. Tikait conceded that too. "There is no doubt that we supported the BJP in 2014, 2017 and 2019. But it was a mistake. They only exploited the support of the farmers, and misled Hindu youth with their politics," he said.
Tikait also insisted that the wedge that was driven between Jats and Muslims during the Muzaffarnagar riots has now been bridged. "We have worked aggressively to build bridges between the two communities. There is an effort from both our ends to not let any animosity grow again," he said, adding that "the farmers protest will definitely hurt the BJP in the upcoming polls."
"The protests went on for 13 months, over 700 farmers lost their lives in the process. The farmer community won't forget that so easily, their hearts won't soften," he said.
Muzaffarnagar will be going to polls on 10 February, along with 57 other assembly constituencies.