My heart was seared by the words and images of communal violence in rural Muzaffarnagar in September 2013, and a part of me died when I heard and lived the stories of horrific destruction and the unbelievable and mindless cruelty of peasants on fellow peasants and neighbours. Increasing divisions of caste and religion have destroyed the togetherness that farming has traditionally brought – there is more in common between the communities of rural UP than they (in their small and inward mindedness) imagine. Food, language, clothes, local architecture and the rhythms of nature bring them together such that they belong nowhere else, in no other country, on this planet but together. I hold on to the stories of hope where a brave Jat landlord helped shelter and protect terrified Muslim families, women and children from marauding groups of villagers of his community. I will play my part to help heal these divisions between brethren of agriculture, knowing fully well that something has changed forever. People need a friend to lean on in the aftermath of a cyclone.
Jat and Muslim; panchayat, politician and minister; policeman and bureaucrat are all complicit – each in a way unique to the failed state of Uttar Pradesh. These were the first communal riot to engulf the rural areas of West UP since people remember; areas that always remained violence free (if not tension free) when the nearby urban areas were lit up in communal flames. These riots are seminal in another way – they signify a near final breakdown of the bonds of peasant agriculture and a rural identity based on shared peasant and agriculturist economic interests – across caste and religion – crafted over 5 decades (1935-1985) by Ch. Charan Singh. The leadership space thus vacated was under threat by caste and communal forces these past three decades since his demise in 1987, as seen by the growth and superimposition of alternate identities of Hindu and Muslim by the BJP and the SP (who lost the mandate of the Jats to RLD, but retained the massive Yadav and Muslim peasant support base of Charan Singh). Make no mistake, the responsibility of these Muzaffarnagar riots lies with the large number of Jats and the Muslims who participated – ‘outsiders did it’ is a cop out. But many others are complicit – a visionless, weak and increasingly ineffective Jat leadership in the RLD; scheming and plotting BJP card holders wanting to increase their hold on the Jat community; Muslim leaders of a similar ilk from the SP desiring to control the Muslim vote; and a paralyzed Chief Minister and administrative apparatus that failed the innocent. It was a perfect storm.
Peasant togetherness has retreated in the face of commercial agriculture and the destruction of a millennia old way of rural life; and the natural aggressive impulses of the dominant Jats (out of proportion to their numbers) is driving them into mindless darkness. The Jats need to rethink their place in agrarian society as it transforms to urban and semi urban, as their coercively dominating ways are challenged by the downtrodden rising to increasingly seek their future through education. When will they see the light, and who will show it to them as those who lead are themselves blinded by personal aggrandizement.
The Jat community in UP has visionless leadership, fragmented across multiple political parties and increasingly belligerent, feudal and intruding caste panchayats. A fragmented and internecine combative leadership has not been able to create or provide a development and economic vision of the future. Absence of such a positivist leadership that rallies the community around a progressive future will cause more tension in the villages as they increase in prosperity by selling their land holdings – a focus on liberal (as opposed to solely job oriented) education in schools and colleges, a revolution in the emancipation of their women, and an entry into the a world of liberal thought and action. Where is this leadership?
Indeed, these riots are a natural culmination of a long process of degradation in rural civil life – Western UP agrarian society is wealthy in parts, with enormous income disparities, caste ridden as ever, feudal and seeking domination of the weak, leaderless, and without a model for economic, intellectual or cultural progress (“where is rural society headed? What is progress? And what are the economic & cultural models and measurements for such progress?”). The irony is this degradation and deadening of sensibility afflicts all agrarian castes and religious communities in West UP in a democratic manner.
I am horrified by the loss in life, homes and property of a backward, impoverished and futureless Muslim community in rural Muzaffarnagar, a cultural and economic situation they share with their brethren in other parts of prosperous Western UP. A majority of those killed in these riots were Muslim, which gives rise to a reasonable conclusion that they bore the brunt to Jat ire as a result of the girl-boy root of the conflict. It matters little who and what started the killing to those who died, to those who lost their livelihood and homes, to those who lost hope and are now living a life of hate and mistrust. And where is the progressive Muslim leadership who educates their children, emancipates their women, and provides access to new ideas? Alas, the situation of the Muslim leadership in West UP looks even worse than that of the Jats.
Solutions can be found only if agrarian society led by a selfless leadership interacts across castes and communities and debates the problems and seeks solutions from the people. Can peasant agriculture be retained as a way of life in increasingly wealthy Uttar Pradesh, where wealth is measured in acres of land for sale not for cropping? Where is chemical farming and the resultant poisoning of the soil taking the land and its people? Is education a focus for those who are now wealthy thanks to this chemical-commercial farming? What kind of education do the many private ‘English medium’ schools and the government schools provide? Are teachers in these schools free from a communal and casteist attitude, and can they be guides for the children under their care to help them grow into broad minded, tolerant young adults? And where are the jobs allied to and outside agriculture? What do young people do – they are educated enough to be aspirational and not want to work on the land, and illiterate enough to not to be of any use to the few jobs cornered by the urban educated. Why are there no job opportunities created around agriculture related small and micro sectors, around the villages and census towns? Why is there no entrepreneurship funding and micro financing for women and unemployed youth from rural communities? What about handicrafts made by self-help women groups? Organic farming and distribution of organic products to the cities, specially the consumer rich NCR? Rural tourism for the city folks?
No one debates the way agrarian society should develop, and what is the end game of development other than making money at all costs. Commerce is king, and everyone is happy to exploit the people, keep them under domination; especially leaders who should be showing the mirror to their flock and taking them on a path less trodden.