Two hours west of Muzaffarnagar town in a landscape of sugarcane fields and brick kilns is Lisarh village, the home of Baba Harkishen, the head of the Gathwala khap, one of the most influential Jat khaps in this region.
Their presence extends to about 200 largely Jat-dominated villages, making them an important bellwether of western Uttar Pradesh (UP)'s shifting political winds in the aftermath of the riots.
For years, they have been voting for the Lok Dal. As Rajinder, Baba Harkishen's son told me, "we are bhakts of Charan Singh". By extension, that meant an endorsement of Charan Singh's fabled Jat-Muslim alliance, a coming together of two of the most dominant communities in western UP. This also meant the Jats occasionally voting for the Lok Dal's Muslim candidates.
The political alliance was broadly in synergy with a certain social equilibrium. Lisarh has about 3,000 Muslims (to about 12,000 Jats) who work the fields and brick kilns of the Jats, in addition to other forms of employment such as cloth weaving.
But on September 7, the Gathwala khap presided over a mahapanchayat billed as a "Hindu bachao, biwi-beti bachao sammelan" (a meet to save the Hindu's and the women of the family).
I asked Rajinder why they went. The Gathwala khap is said to be fiercely individualistic, and had skipped two previous mahapanchayats on the same issue.
He said it's because they couldn't ignore the simmering anger building up amongst the Jats against the Samajwadi Party (SP) government's pro-Muslim actions, of which, the Kawal episode was the most recent example, a reference to the two Jat boys who killed a Muslim youth in the village of Kawal because he was allegedly harassing their sister. In turn, a Muslim mob beat the boys to death. The police failed to act against the Muslims, allegedly because of political pressure that angered the Jats further.
The reality of Kawal is more complex but the Gathwala khap is not interested in nuances. The unspoken deeper anxiety amongst the Jats is of a threat to their status in the social hierarchy since the SP came to power. "Muslims are favoured over Jats at the local police station" is a common refrain, an uncanny echo of upper-caste grievance against the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for Dalit favouritism.
Kawal, it appeared, was the match that lit the tinderbox.
There were helping hands to fan the flames. The Modi-Amit Shah posters dotting the countryside may call for a "Nai soch, nai ummid" (New thinking, new hope), but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh seems to have opted for Ayodhya-era messages of grievance and recrimination. Sharing the dais at the mahapanchayat with the Gathwala khap were four BJP MLA's. All of them made fiery calls for Hindu unity. One of them, Sangeet Som, has been jailed for circulating a fake video of the killing of the two Jat boys. Som's supporters went on a rampage in Meerut this weekend, raising tensions in that district.
On the way back from the mahapanchayat, the Gathwala khap - like several other Jat convoys - were attacked as they passed through Muslim-dominated villages. The next day they allegedly attacked the Muslim section of Lisarh, burning it to the ground.
The Muslim survivors of Lisarh are in Jhola, a Muslim-dominated village functioning as an informal refugee camp. They claim that Baba Harkishen and Rajinder egged on the mobs, and that the Jats burnt the dead, so that no trace was left.
Rajinder denies this, claiming no Muslim died in the village, and that the Muslims had set fire to their own homes to claim compensation.
He says, from now on, no Jat will vote for a Muslim candidate from any party. I ask Rajinder whether this means the Gathwala khap is tilting towards the BJP. "Not necessarily," he says, "but there is a bhawna, a sentiment, in that direction. At least someone is speaking up for the Hindus."
And who is speaking up for the Muslims?
As Mohammed Momin, an elder from Jhola told me, the village voted heavily for the SP in the last elections. But they are angry with the state government because of the riots. "If we get justice," he says, "then it is a comeback for the Samajwadi (Party). If not, we will go with the Congress."
This is only likely to push Muslim politicians from the region, hardly icons of model governance, into further feeding the narrative of victimology and special treatment. Muzaffarnagar's MP, for instance, is the BSP's Kadir Rana, who faces prior charges of murder and rioting, but has reinvented himself as a quasi-religious messiah. He has gone underground after giving a provocative speech at a meeting on August 30 in Muzaffarnagar town, ostensibly organised as a counter to the Jat mobilisation.
The state government has booked him for inciting hatred. And yet Mulayam Singh Yadav had no qualms in announcing recently that every thana in UP will have a Muslim policeman.
There are immediate political gains to be harvested in the aftermath of riots but the demographic shifts are long-lasting and terrible. Jat-dominated villages such as Lisarh may now be permanently emptied out of Muslims, who are applying for plots of land in the Muslim-majority villages that are at the moment serving as a temporary home. "We will try to bring the Muslims back," says Rajinder, "but if they don't want to come, that is their choice."