Communal riots hit Saharanpur, otherwise a peaceful town in western Uttar Pradesh (known for its mangoes and wholesale garments trade), two days before Eid in July 2014. Shops were well-stocked and remained so for months as customers disappeared following the imposition of curfew and ensuing atmosphere of fear that followed the riots. It took a heavy toll on businesses in and around the area.
If Saharanpur riots, essentially an urban phenomenon, divided communities in the city, Muzaffarnagar riots that preceded it by a few months created fissures in urban, as well as rural areas. The cocktail of riots and the politics of extreme polarisation spooked serious investors and robbed traders and shopkeepers of even working capital to run their businesses. I have been visiting the region frequently and the common refrain among members of the business community is that economic activity never recovered from the after-effects of twin riots.
Religious Polarisation has Hit Businesses
Suppliers insist on receiving payment through cheques, and that too, they expect to be delivered to them in and around Delhi, as they are afraid of crossing Meerut to enter other areas of western Uttar Pradesh.Businessman owning multiple showrooms in Muzaffarnagar
I did not see much improvement in business activities in the region during my recent visit earlier this year.
Now there is a talk of ‘mass exodus’ of Hindus from some areas of the region. A BJP MP released a list claiming that 346 Hindu families have fled western UP town of Kairana fearing persecution from Muslims. Inquiries by several media houses and the state administration, however, did not find merit in the claims of the MP. Independent investigations have revealed that several families mentioned in the list are very much there, some migrated long ago for better opportunities as most of us do, and some names mentioned in the list are already dead.
Mass Exodus Tactic
But the matter was raised at the recently concluded national executive meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at Allahabad. And the signal coming out of the meeting is that the BJP is going to use the so-called persecution of Hindus in parts of western UP as a major issue in the forthcoming assembly elections in the state. This is to go along with the BJP’s espousal of the politics of vikas (development).
While the Prime Minister is expected to push the development agenda, a major section of the party is expected to use the so-called persecution of Hindus along with similar issues with a view to polarise voters.
Can development happen in the polarising atmosphere? The recent example of western UP suggests that either society can be polarised or it can pursue development. Both of them cannot happen at the same time.
Western UP’s economy used to have several pillars to rest on. Sugar and flourishing farms were prominent among them. Meerut’s sports, second hand automobile industry and upcoming education hub used to be other pluses. The proximity to the national capital region was another advantage. Districts like Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, and Baghpat used to be way ahead of other districts of the state in terms of per capita income.
Will Polarisation Work?
- With around 19 percent population, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are
a deciding factor in the forthcoming assembly elections.
- The Home Ministry’s reply, dated 25 February, shows that UP reported maximum number of communal incidents in 2015.
- Effects on economy due to riots in Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar are being felt in western UP – sugar and automobile industry badly hit.
- Even as BJP latches onto ‘Kairana exodus’, news reports indicate that families left town in search of better opportunities.
Economy Impacted by the Politics of Hatred
The series of riots and the politics of intensely competitive communalism has taken a huge toll on the region’s economy. One does not notice anything other than despondency in the region which once used to give hope.
A combination of factors, religious divide in the farming community being one of them, has pushed the sugar industry into a state of terminal decline. The education hub in Meerut is waiting for students and faculty. Trading links with other regions have been strained. And a divided farming community has lost its voice, resulting in utter neglect of the sector.
The politics of polarisation is both a cause and a consequence of faltering economy.
Can a booster dose of fresh narratives of polarisation result in some sort of vikas? As an electoral strategy, the BJP may be hoping to widen its support base by talking about achieving contrary objectives. But it is a high risk proposition. There is a danger of the rhetoric of vikas being subsumed by the politics of division.
(The writer is Consulting Editor, Business Standard, and contributes regularly to The Quint on politics and contemporary issues.)