The never-ending communal-secular debate is back with a vengeance, following the tragic incidents in Muzaffarnagar and adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the past fortnight. The violence has already claimed more than 50 lives and rendered nearly 50,000 homeless. It all started with some unwanted sexual remarks or advances by men against a woman in a public place. This soon turned into full-blown communal riots that impacted several districts of western UP. Apart from the loss of precious lives, the riots have dealt a blow to the long-standing coalition of Jats and Muslims. Secularists attribute such a sorry state of affairs to the saffron brigade and the compact discs (CDs) of hate speeches of what they believe are doctored visuals. However, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sympathisers blame the politics of appeasement of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in the state. Some political commentators hold both the BJP and SP responsible for the riots. They argue that polarisation along religious lines suits both parties in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. But the question is why Jats and Muslims will help political parties in their political game, at the cost of sacrificing the goodwill they have enjoyed for decades. Political parties might not have conducted themselves well but they would not have been able to create problems if none existed. Sudha Pai, a leading expert on UP politics and professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the events cannot be the result of "purely identity politics" and economic issues do play a role. What are the economic factors that have created a rift? Jats have always been a dominant group in Western UP, thanks to their significant landholding and benefits of the green revolution. Muslims have been trusted allies of Jats since the days of former Prime Minister Charan Singh. The alliance worked well for both the groups, though in different proportions. However, experts feel the alliance has had its share of strains following the death of Charan Singh in 1987. "He was the one who kept it together and things started drifting after his death. Contesting claims by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ajit Singh to his legacy contributed to the rift," observes A K Verma, professor at Kanpur Christ Church College and part of many surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). He adds Muslims always had the number on their side but what gave them confidence was the improvement in their economic status. "The combination is getting reflected in their growing political clout. According to the 2001 Census, Muslims constitute more than 33 per cent of the population in 12 districts of Western Uttar Pradesh. Out of 77 assembly seats in this region, Muslim candidates won 26 seats in the 2012 assembly elections." While it is hard to establish the growing prosperity of Muslims in the region, the 2006 report of the Sachar committee that mapped the socio-economic conditions of Muslims gives some hint. It 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 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. "The share of Muslim workers in manufacturing is particularly high in states like Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, where the share is more than 25 per cent," the report says While the report does not give any data about growth rates in these sectors, it does say that between 1994 and 2001, the growth rate of employment was 7.7 per cent in the tobacco sector, 14.4 per cent in apparel, 9.4 per cent in auto repairs and 18.6 per cent in the electrical machinery sector. It might be safely argued that Muslim workers might have benefited from the boom in construction and auto sectors in the last 10 years, too. "Apart from the benefits accruing to Muslims because of the high demand for skilled labour in recent years, what has helped them in this region is their control of the fruit business. Most orchards in Western UP are either owned or operated by them and they supply fruit to cities like Delhi," says a Meerut-based analyst with Congress affiliation, who declined to be identified. Jats, on the other hand, have suffered because of the plight of the once-flourishing sugar mills in the region. Western UP was known as a sugar bowl of the state and Muzaffarnagar alone has as many as 11 mills. "The sugarcane policy has ruined the sector in the state," says Abinash Verma, director-general, Indian Sugar Mills Association. The state's sugar mills are estimated to suffer a loss of nearly Rs 3,000 crore in FY14. The mills also owe about Rs 3,000 crore to farmers. Apart from arrears, what has hurt the farmers is the low yield of sugarcane per hectare for the last 10 years. "One hectare of land would yield 55 tonnes 10 years ago. The yield remains the same even today at 55 tonnes a hectare," adds Verma. Incidentally, yield in UP has been a good 10-12 tonnes per hectare less than the national average. The sugarcane price has increased from Rs 115 a quintal in 2005 to Rs 165 a quintal in 2010. Since then, there have been three steep increases but farmers have not gained much because of the inability of companies to cope. Farmers used to get paid in November; now, they get their price for sugarcane with a delay of six-seven months. Experts say that farmers in this area are under a lot of financial stress. Is this a sign of stress, perceived or actual, that Jats have been demanding to be included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) list for reservation in education institutions and government jobs? "Jats demanding OBC status was unthinkable some 20 years ago," observes Pai. The erosion of the economic might of Jats has coincided with the relative prosperity of Muslims. "Jats increasingly find it hard to reconcile to the fact that Muslims can become their equals and in some areas, politics for instance, even exceed them. Hence, the tension, which is getting manifested in clashes," says the Meerut-based analyst. Shashikant Pandey of Agra University, however, argues such clashes cannot be viewed as a conflict between communities alone. "It is also a result of competing views within communities," he adds. Well-known social scientist Dipankar Gupta, has a different take on the recent clashes. He says the recent communal riots were the result of changes in the village economy that have brought the hidden tension. He also argues that with the invasion of the "city's idea of majority-minority", the old world has collapsed in rural areas. Now the question is: How will this rupture in the Jats-Muslims alliance and the recent riots play out in coming elections? Pai says Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party might turn out be a major beneficiary. "Nobody likes insecurity," she says, adding that contrary to popular perception, the BJP and the SP might not benefit from religious polarisation. "The country has moved much beyond 1991," she argues. The reports of hostile reactions of people towards UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav when he toured the riot-affected areas in Muzaffarnagar indicate it could be so.