Muzaffarnagar 2013, Bulandshahr 2018; Why UP Burns Close to Polls

Why is Uttar Pradesh so susceptible to mindless provocations, more so around elections?

4 min read
Why UP is so vulnerable to communal flare-up closer to elections.

It looks like events in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr, resulting in heightened communal tension on the eve of Assembly elections in neighbouring Rajasthan, were meticulously planned. There was nothing spontaneous about it. Preliminary investigation hints at just that, subsequent attempts to paint a different picture notwithstanding. But why is Uttar Pradesh so susceptible to such mindless provocations, more so around elections?

We had Muzaffarnagar riots, one of the worst in recent years, rupturing uneasy calm in the communally fragile western UP. That was in August-September of 2013, to be followed by a number of communal skirmishes preceding the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

In fact, 2013 was a very volatile year, with nearly 18 percent spike in communal clashes across the country, and Uttar Pradesh accounted for close to 30 percent of all such cases!

Is UP’s sizeable minority population, perhaps seen to be too significant to be ignored, the reason? Or is the state’s very fragmented and highly competitive polity the villain? A state where a 30 percent vote-share generally becomes unassailable, communal polarisation is seen to be an effective tool to swing a few percent of votes. Hence the repeated attempts to stoke inter-religious passion ahead of elections.

But why do the people of the state become active participants in this overtly political game? Is inter-community jealousy the reason? Some data sets indicate just that.

Relative Political Resurgence of Muslims Before 2014

“The elections to urban local bodies (ULBs) in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in June-July 2012… signalled a surprise resurgence of Muslims in urban governments,” wrote well-known political scientist AK Verma while analysing the 2012 local body elections.

He added: “The proportion of Muslims elected to the UP state legislative assembly was 13.8 percent (56 out of 403 seats) in 2007, which rose to 17.12 percent (69 out of 403 seats) in 2012. In the parliamentary elections, the proportion of Muslims elected from UP was 13.75 percent (11 out of a total of 80 Lok Sabha seats) in 2004 which declined to 8.75 percent (seven out of 80 seats) in 2009. Given that Muslims constitute about 18.5 percent of the total population of Uttar Pradesh, the number of elected Muslim representatives in the state assembly and the Lok Sabha has remained lower than their population. However, in the recently concluded ULB elections Muslims have been over-represented in them, winning 31.15 percent of the total seats in the various ULBs.”

Improvement in political representation of Muslims in the Assembly and urban local bodies was perhaps a result of the growing economic clout of the community.

While we do not have definitive data on Uttar Pradesh, the national trend suggests as much.

The Size of Muslim Middle Class Has Grown Faster Than Others in Recent Years

Based on National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data, social scientists Sandhya Krishnan and Neeraj Hatekar mapped the growth of the new middle class, according to different social categories, from 1999–2000 to 2011–12. The authors had included all those who spend $2 to $10 (roughly Rs 130 to Rs 650) per capita per day in the new middle class. What stands out is the sharp differential in the growth in size of new middle class among Muslims and privileged caste Hindus.

According to the NSSO data analysed, while the size of the Muslim new middle class grew by a whopping 86 percent between 1999–2000 to 2011–12, that of the Hindu new middle class went up by an impressive 76 percent. However, the size of the new middle class of the privileged castes (meaning non-OBC, non-SC and non-ST Hindus) grew by a mere 45 percent in the same period.

Muslims Have Benefitted From Their Traditional Association with Non-agriculture Sectors

What explains somewhat better relative performance of Muslims in recent years? I had written elsewhere that “the Sachar Committee report, one of the most comprehensive and authoritative sources of information on socio-economic status of Indian Muslims, offers some answers. The report says:

“While the share of Muslim workers engaged in agriculture is much lower than for other groups, their participation in manufacturing and trade (especially for males) is much higher than for other SRCs (socio religious categories). Besides, their participation in the construction work is also high.”

The report adds that besides construction, the participation of Muslim workers is quite high in retail and wholesale trade, land transport, automobile repair, manufacture of tobacco products, textiles and apparel and fabricated metal products.”

Incidentally, while agriculture has seen very modest growth in post-liberalisation years, manufacturing and services (trade in particular) have grown at a faster clip. Since Muslims have traditionally been associated with non-agriculture sectors, they have reaped the benefits of economic reforms better than other communities.

This is the reason why the growth in size of middle class among Muslims has outpaced others.

Dilon ki Doori and Constant Communal Flare-up in UP a Result of Jealousy?

Relative political and economic outperformance of one social community may have disturbed the already existing social equilibrium, giving rise to suspicion and outright hatred at times. No wonder, we keep hearing despicable expressions being used while describing others in areas with a bit of a history of communal tension. “Inki aukat kya thi? Lekin ab inke bachche fancy bikes par baithkar malls jaate hain aur hamari ladkiyon se aanken ladate hain, (What was their worth? But their kids roam around in fancy bikes, go to malls and harass our girls),” a Hindu businessman had told me in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut a few years ago.

Such expressions, heard all too frequently in many parts of the country in general and UP in particular, are perhaps a result of the feeling of getting left out. A result of the feeling of relative deprivation perhaps. Fringe elements from both the sides have been all too eager to exploit this, providing the political class a tailor-made situation to exploit ahead of elections.

In Uttar Pradesh’s highly competitive politics, expected communal polarisation-engineered vote swing becomes all too profitable for political parties.

Hence the unfortunate recurrence of Muzaffarnagars and Bulandshahrs in the country’s most populous state.

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