Backward in Muzaffarnagar

A visit to the heart of the recent communal conflict in Muzaffarnagar confirmed two truths – that the rural, peasant Jat is polarized along religious lines; and that he is rudderless on how to progress in the 21st Century. The Jat gotra panchayats in Western UP and across the Yamuna in Haryana are controlled by status-quoist leadership, and their alignment with the Sangh Parivar has spread like a wildfire sweeping across a forest welcoming destruction.

The Jats are pitted against their own interests, which this obdurate community is often wont to do – they are head to head against the Muslims on whom they inter-depend for agricultural survival, they are increasingly aligned politically with the divisive thinking of the BJP which is using them for its ruthless political ends to gain political power in 2014 at any cost, and thanks to the crutches of job reservation the community is arrayed in self-defeating terms against the modern word that has beckoned them to progress for 30 years since their emergence as progressive peasants. Whether the BJP wins or the RLD does, the Jats lose.

Chaudhary Charan Singh

The Jats are a agricultural land owning, peasant community spread across Haryana, North Rajasthan, Delhi and Western Uttar Pradesh – they are numerically dominant in a limited number of districts in Western U.P., but they comprise a small 1.7% of UP’s 195 plus million population. The Jats were resurgent in the Seventies as part of Chaudhary Charan Singh’s rural alliance of the peasant Other Backward Castes (OBCs) along with the Yadavs (9% of UP’s population), and the sub 1% Gujjars, Tyagis, Kurmi, Lodh; and the numerically superior Muslims (18.5% of UP, and more than 30% in many West UP districts). Charan Singh was a peasant leader, painting an evocative picture of the hard working, small peasant oppressed by a self-seeking urban educated class comprised of the higher castes. He brought the OBCs together as a powerful political force for the first time in North Indian history, and the peasant communities amongst the Muslims were aligned with him as part of this unique combination of caste, class and religion. His grouse was economic, and so were the solutions he espoused in many well-argued books in his long political career that embraced legislation and advocacy of the peasant; while his political base was clearly caste and religion based. This conundrum – caste based politics that tried to subsume and transcend caste – was his most significant political strength, and his biggest hurdle to true greatness. He forged links of solidarity between disparate groups often arrayed in competition, and his personal incorruptibility, ability to deliver to his constituents and his clear rural ideology created a ferociously loyal base of followers across castes and religions who, since his passing, have been split unequally between Mulayam Singh Yadav (his long terms political protégé) and Ajit Singh (his son).

The Division Becomes Increasingly Complete

Congratulations, Sapa & Bhajpa. The Muzaffarnagar riots have turned out as you planned. It serves your interests to keep the Muslims socially, educationally, economically backward; and the once agnostic Jats more integrated into the Hindutva fold and vote bank. More masjids and Tablighi thinking; more temples, mindless rituals and superstition; and a sad loss of Insaniyat.

Tirath Mein To Sab Pani Hain

There is nothing but water at the holy bathing places; and I know that they are

useless, for I have bathed in them.

The images are lifeless, they cannot speak; I know, for I have cried aloud to them.

The Purana and the Qu’ran are mere words; lifting up the curtain I have seen.

Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience; and he knows

very well that all other things are untrue

The Songs of Kabir”, Translated by Rabindranath Tagore. 1915.

The riots troubled me no end since the fires first burned in September 2013  ( and I wanted to go and see for myself once the rawness settled down, and not manufacture opinions from secondary sources with their own axes to grind.

I am able to wade fearlessly into the Jat community with opinions that cause them consternation. I was born of Jat parents, the term having no meaning for me now other than as a statement of origin of nomadic tribes that migrated into North India from Central Asia millennia back; and as another term for a peasant nurturing the values of thrift, hard work, honesty, integrity, humor and a fierce commitment to securing the ways of nature. I like to believe there was a tribal past, pre-absorption by Hinduism, where community feeling was based on these shared values. More likely it was not, and my commitment to humanism is a result of education in a Jesuit school, marriage to a Muslim and my continuing attempts to understand Islam in India, a Masters in the US, and 25 years in the software services industry meeting people of many nationalities and realizing that the economic root of exploitation, and the desire to dominate the weak, is common to people across the globe. My antipathy towards the leadership of organized religions is balanced by compassion for the mass of followers, who after all seek that elusive peace and happiness in a life marked by suffering.

Onto Muzaffarnagar

These are said to be the first riots to have infected the rural fabric in West UP. My intent was not to find on whom to lay blame or castigate one or the other for the riots, but to understand current Jat community thinking in the aftermath of the conflict. In any case, data proves that the Muslims in Muzaffarnagar villages were the ones who suffered most in terms of the dead and those displaced from their homes; so there was no need to further probe who is the oppressor.

I have often wondered why the social and political leadership amongst the Jats in the wide geographic swath – ranging from Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Bareilly, Moradabad, Meerut, Bulandshahr, Ghaziabad, Mathura, Aligarh and Agra – has not urged the community to educate itself as the true long term cure for backwardness. I wrestle why the leadership fights for reservation as OBC as the only solution to backwardness, why there is no effort at setting up schools and colleges of caliber and leapfrogging other backward rural communities on the back of agricultural income invested in education of the intellect and the soul.  There are enough educated, erudite, professional role models amongst the Jats who have progressed beyond their caste roots, and can be held as ideals, but these remain in the background and in their stead regressive leaders remain in the fore. Short-term populism wins over at the cost of a long-term transformation of the community; and it without doubt the nature of their leadership who has an interest in the status quo.

In the early morning of a cold February day, I left Gurgaon to visit a village at the heart of the conflict. The drive took a quick 2 hours and a half on the highway well past Meerut, but a hour and fifteen on the last 30 kilometers as the potholes were to be seen to be believed on this rural stretch. This is the famous agricultural belt that feeds India with sugar, and huge trucks carrying enormous loads of sugarcane tortuously navigated the non-existent roads; and I wondered as my Jeep hit another 2 feet deep crater. I wondered if this horrible infrastructure is one of the causes of increased social tension. The peasant has no roads to take his produce to the markets, and the money earned by the state government is spent in other parts of the state – some say 70% income from West UP, and only 20% is spent here. In this highly politically literate area, no one has data to back opinions (the government obviously fudges it, and no legislator has either the time or capability to ask intelligent questions) but everyone paints floating visions of a conspiracy to eliminate Ajit Singh by Yadav badshah Mulayam.

Cleansing and Character

The entire population of Muslims had fled the village in October itself, at the start of the riots. Unlike the Jat converts to Islam – Moole Jats, peasant cultivators with land holdings and a robust self concept like the unconverted Jats – the 1,000 plus Muslims in this village were low castes: carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers, petty shopkeepers, landless laborers. Today, their homes are deserted and not one Muslim remains behind. Not one. I can only imagine the violence, but the impact on the minds of those who stayed behind cannot be underestimated.

Now that I am farming in the peasant traditions of my ancestors, it was not difficult to connect with Pradhanji whose home we reached, past the eerily deserted homes of the Muslims at the edge of the village, after navigating narrow village lanes. I had taken the precaution of bringing along two other Jats from the area as insurance, with instructions to not share that I was Ch. Charan Singh’s grandson.

At Pradhanji’s home, where a cow chewed the cud under the peepul tree in the spacious and shaded courtyard, we also met with Masterji. Both are educated, one a BA and lawyer, and the other MA and retired head of a school. Both have large land holdings, one with over 10 acres and one with over 5 acres – great wealth in a region where most land holding peasants own less than 5 acres. These rough hewn men, pillars of the village community, were in their sixties, tall, robust and healthy neither looking a day above fifty. Both were gracious in their hospitality – tea, sweets, namkeen, milk – and surprisingly open in their conversation, and in their prejudice. Perhaps because they were sharing thoughts with a fellow Jat, they could not quite believe I would think different. When it dawned on them during the course of my 3 hours there that I was in disagreement, they were bemused at what they thought were my theoretical statements about amity and co-existence. They welcomed me to stay as a guest for a couple of nights, to really understand how disastrous these Muslims were.

What would they have said had they known that I employ 4 Meo Muslims and 1 Dalit (the cook, at that) at my farm in Faridabad, Haryana?

Pradhanji had the distinction of having given shelter to a couple of Muslim families for a night till they were handed over to the police to be safely escorted out of the village. He did this out of his sense of responsibility, he said, to Insaniyat. But he had no sympathy for their actions and way of being. Here his grey eyes flashed with anger, and we were off of the next couple of hours on a trail of half-truths and misunderstandings that have been formed into strongly held opinions by a majority of the non-Muslim communities in West UP. Surprisingly, though, our engagement was civilized. They listened to my thoughts without interruption, and they put forth their views in calm, measured khari boli. It was a far cry from drawing room conversations in educated Delhi, where the middle classes scream their thoughts at each other across an impassable divide of political alignments; but with very little knowledge of Bharat.

Pradhanji asked me if I knew that there was no “character” in any community in this area other than the Jats? The Muslims were backward and lived in hovels, with parents and sons with their wives sleeping in one room and going at it in the night (What was left to the imagination was the unspeakable and vicarious horrors of communal sex). And did I know that they married their cousins? What values can a community hold if a boy is encouraged to marry his sister? And who is a minority in Muzaffarnagar to be pampered – the Jats with 20% of the population, or the Muslims with 40%? Did I know a Muslim has many wives and many children and they will soon replace the rest of the communities? He compared his own self, and Masterji and myself with only one child each with these large families. Were we (included by default, I was one of them) not destined to be overwhelmed? For good measure, now that we were talking about backwardness, did I know about the complete absence of a work ethic of the Dalits in the village; who were happy to sleep all day in a drunken stupor than invest in a hard days work?

A religious bigot who believes in the stereotypes spread by the Hindutva brigade seems to have replaced the humorous Jat who got a kick out of ribbing the stereotypical fellow Jat, as well as the Bania and the Brahmin.

It is well documented by many scholars of which I quote Alaka M. Basu (from Unravelling the Nation: Sectarian Conflict and Secular Identity. Eds. Kaushik Basu & Sanjay Subrahmanyam) that “polygamy is slightly higher in the Hindu’s (5.8% compared to 5.7% among the Muslims)” and “….women in polygynous union have fewer births than women in monogamous marriages.” And “… every man who has four wives is leaving three men unable to have only one” and that “religious fertility differences are narrowing”. Most of the higher fertility of the Muslims – and yes it is higher, though falling – is due to social-economic depression of the Muslims and lower female education, and fertility will doubtless reduce as this backwardness is dispelled.  In J&K a Muslim majority state, Basu tells us, the fertility rates of the Muslim is lower than that of the Hindu.

Recollect the many stories over the years about Jat Khap Panchayats (and, to be fair, those of all other OBC and high caste groups in North India) opposing marriage within a gotra (a Malik cannot ever marry a Malik, or a Mann marry a Mann; and so on). For a Jat, marrying their gotra ‘sister’ is a social evil that cannot be countenanced, even if the common ancestor went back 500 years and the ‘sister’ after 20 generations is no longer really related. The opposing polarity between these two communities on the approach to marrying cousins and other cultural differences needs an inculcated ability of living with others who live differently, of co-existing. How will that happen if exceptionalism is the norm in the education system, and only the Hindu form of nationalism (and that too the singular Hindutva variety) and their culture being true for India?

The cause of the fear in the Jat community is their inability to adequately respond to change and modernity due to their weak education – and here I mean not only the quantity (12th grade or College) but the quality of education imparted (pedagogy, teachers, infrastructure, books, computers) and the social content i.e. how modern-liberal is the worldview imparted? The fear also comes from an accelerated breakdown in contemporary social structures in the village; movement by an increasing number to the town and city and resultant loss of traditions replaced by Hindutva rhetoric; and an existentialist threat to their traditional occupation of agriculture where the terms of trade are heavily weighed against them and alternative professions do not exist.

The Aftermath

Pradhanji and Masterji were clear that they were for punishing the guilty, but wanted a ‘fair’ enquiry – whatever that means. The administration, they said, was captured by the Muslim leaders of the Samajwadi Party (‘Ajam’ Khan) and they were convinced that a free investigation is not possible. I tend to agree with them, as the atmosphere is simply too heavy with politics and Mulayam Yadav does not want the truth out, he just wants to close this chapter and get on with the elections. Not surprisingly, Mulayam Singh has not yet visited the Muzaffarnagar riot hit villages. Masterji repeatedly stated that there has been no rape in the village – yes, there was arson, looting, violence, destruction of property – but no rape, no chance of it. In any case, what kind of a community is this that tomtoms rape – no self-respecting woman would stand up and accept she had been violated; so this was reason enough to suspect the accusers. In reality, the riot hit have filed many cases of rape against village youth.

There was some chance of reconciliation, I was told, (I wondered how the beaten & scared can sit across a table to ‘reconcile’ other than to cave in) but it had all been defeated by the filing of rape charges under criminal portions of the police code. The lives of these young men would be devastated, for who would marry them with a criminal case against them? In any case, the village were on alert and no policemen allowed into the village to make arrests. If they did come with force, blood would flow. Then, and I heard this from many, Muslims in the riot affected villages get 5 Lakhs from the government to sign off their right to return to the village in exchange for the compensation; so many people had made false statements and had obtained their money and moved on.

In this atmosphere, where everyone has an opinion and no one has the facts, it is clear that insaniyat has suffered terribly and the wounds of the deep cleavages between communities will remain raw for decades. The aftermath is segregated Hindu Muslim villages, which by itself lead to more misunderstanding and increase the real and imagined spaces between the communities.


I returned on the potholed roads, reminded of neglect of the development of the region as a cause of social tension.  But that did not hold to explain the horrific violence and widespread destruction of an entire ecosystem. The socio-economic backwardness of the Muslims is not addressed by their leadership, or by the leadership of the state government and the administration. The Jats are bought over by the forces of Hindutva obscurantism, and are moving from a rural peasant community where formal religion played a peripheral role to being the vanguard of the campaign to embrace a movement that teaches an exclusivist religious nationalism. Unless an alternate vision can come to their rescue, majority of the rural communities in West UP seem lost for some time to Hindutva.

Naya Shivala (New Temple)

I’ll tell you the truth, O Brahmin, if I make so bold

These idols in your temple – these idols have grown old.

From them you have learned hatred of those who share your life,

And Allah to his preachers has taught mistrust and strife;

Disgusted from your temple and our shrine I have run,

Now both our preachers’ sermons and your old myths I shun.

In shapes of stone you fancied God’s dwelling-place: I see

in each speck of my country’s poor dust, a deity.

Come, let us lift this curtain of alien thoughts again,

And reunite the severed, and wipe division’s stain:

Too long has lain deserted the hearts warm habitation;

Let us build in this homeland a new temple’s foundation!

And let our shrine be taller than all shrines of this globe,

With lofty pinnacles touching the skirts of heavens robe:

And there at every sunrise let our sweet chanting move

the hearts of all who worship, and pour the wine of love:

Strength and peace too shall blend in the hymns the votary sings,

For in love lies salvation to all Earth’s living things.

“Naya Shivala”, Mohammad Iqbal (1873-1938)

I stopped at one of the many Kohlus on the way back, the local jaggery making crushers, and bought gifts for my farm hands back in Faridabad, and for home. After all, Muzaffarnagar produces the sweetest Gur and Shakker in India.

About Harsh Singh Lohit

Health, peace and harmony for all
This entry was posted in Communalism, Rural Village Life. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Backward in Muzaffarnagar

  1. anando says:

    what can i say? very moving obviously. why are you on the fringes harsh. we know the state, we know that we must wrestle to get it back. and then set it right. it will need us at least 10 years to make that happen. and aren’t we just at the right age for it before we resign to our physical disrepair? call, let’s speak sometime. be well all of you.


  2. Ruchi Singh says:

    Very insightful, ground realities are tough to stomach.
    Thanks for sharing Harsh. I liked ‘Songs of Kabir’.


  3. No offense meant but if a “humorous jat” can so easily be taken for a ride by the Hindutva brigade and become a “religious bigot”, then the blame should squarely lie with the jat. Why blame the devil… err, I meant Hindutva brigade? Ask your folks to do some soul-searching. Don’t blame others. I am brahmin but I’ll never vote for Modi. Makes me superior to jats? Of course! 🙂 In fact, talking of soul searching, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you asked lower caste Muslims in your ancestral village to do the same. Too much buck there too. Cheers.


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