UP 2014, like Punjab 1947
This article appeared in the Indian Express on 12 Sept 2014
Not long ago, while working on a history of undivided Punjab, I found that in 1914 that vast province was seen as the subcontinent’s hope for economic progress and inter-communal understanding. Yet, in 1947, both halves of divided Punjab saw carnage that no part of the world should witness.
Recent events in Uttar Pradesh should caution Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others that this state, with its immense population, may now be drifting towards a tragedy the nation must never allow again. The Punjab tragedy involved the Empire. On February 20, 1947, London announced that it was about to leave all of India including Punjab, without saying who would inherit the province.
Either “the existing provincial government” would take over, said Her Majesty’s Government, or another arrangement that “may seem most reasonable” would be made. That word triggered two things. One was a Muslim League-led mass movement, which in a fortnight forced out the province’s coalition ministry, led by Khizar Hayat Khan of the rapidly declining Unionist Party but mainly sustained by the Congress and the Sikhs. The other was the creation of separate militias, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, to force the future of different parts of Punjab.
After the killings in early March 1947 in the towns and villages of Rawalpindi and Multan, Lieutenant General Frank Messervy, the region’s top British officer, recorded his shock that “the normally chivalrous and decent Punjabi Muslim peasant” had been “aroused to such frenzied savagery”, and added: “There has also been a widespread desire to rid many areas of all Sikhs and Hindus, entirely for ever.”
Messervy had identified ethnic cleansing, but the Empire in retreat chose to look away. While London was focused on the safe return of India-based soldiers to Britain, there were elements in the Empire that did not mind an all-out conflict between Indians. Five months after Messervy wrote his note, the great bloodletting of August-September 1947 took place. A major incident, now entirely forgotten, had also occurred in western UP. In November 1946, a number of Muslims were massacred in Garhmukteshwar, not far from Meerut, Muzaffarnagar or Moradabad.
There is a global context for UP’s current tensions too. The supposed civilisational war between the West and Islam, and the emergence of fanatical groups like the ISIS, are directly relevant to the 40 million or more Muslims living in UP. Also of relevance to UP’s Muslims is the national and provincial context. From India’s ruling establishment, which includes the RSS and other workers/ warriors for Hindutva, two distinct and conflicting suggestions have emanated: build and burn. Construct bullet trains, bathrooms, bank accounts for the poor, bright cities and so forth — this is Prime Minister Modi’s call. The other appeal, voiced by many in the ruling establishment though not in the government’s name, is for polarisation and an apparent readiness for violence, but a violence that justifies itself as a reply. In their script, the initiators of violence are always, without any exception, Muslims, even though almost always, a majority of the violence‘s victims are Muslims.
Where Hindus are a clear majority but Muslims a substantial minority (as is the case in UP and some other places), polarisation-riot followed by heightened polarisation-bigger riot is a sequence that has fetched electoral benefits for the BJP. However, riots interrupt and reverse growth.
Not only would the BJP like to have its own government in UP, the party president, Amit Shah, has said he wants the party to command more than 50 per cent of the state’s vote. But are elections won for presiding over a burning state?
Already, UP has seen localised ethnic cleansing, which the state’s SP government seems unable to prevent or rectify. UP’s police has frequently appeared to be out of its depth in coping with acts of violence. The civilian administration also seems helpless. And the state’s secular political parties seem lost on how to deal with the BJP’s provocative — and electorally promising — strategy of focusing on a supposed “love jihad”.
Yogi Adityanath, the BJP MP from Gorakhpur, has tried to relate violence in different parts of UP to their Muslim percentage. But the question can also be posed: how should UP’s 40 million Muslims respond to a Lok Sabha from which they are totally excluded? Not one of the 80 MPs from UP in the current Lok Sabha is a Muslim, a whitewash that has not occurred before.
Among the many voices reaching these 40 million Muslims are those of the ISIS and similar groups, who push the line that the West, backed by India and Israel, is out to get the world’s Muslims, and that the latter must hit back.
A large factor in Punjab’s 1947 tragedy was the inability of politicians to engage with the Other. The Indian National Congress in Punjab was in effect only a Hindu party, and also only an urban party. As for the Muslim League and the Sikh parties, these groups did not even pretend to be interested in persons outside their communities.
Today, few Hindu politicians in UP openly ask for Muslim votes, and few Muslims for Hindu votes. As is true of UP today, Punjab in 1947 contained a large number of decent citizens who easily outnumbered the bad guys. Many saw what was coming but did not or could not intervene. Citizen groups did not protect lines of communication across communal borders, or between communities and the police.
Are UP’s good citizens asking themselves what they can do to help? Lest we forget, independent India solemnly assured equal rights to all, irrespective of caste, religion or class. But since the stakes are so high, Prime Minister Modi, who represents a UP constituency, and Home Minister Rajnath Singh, a former chief minister of the state, must also intervene. Bringing on board Mulayam Singh, Mayawati and others with influence, they should convene a “save UP” roundtable, where exercises to burn are identified and abandoned.