Thana Bhawan, Sardhana & Kairana: It's a Hindu-Muslim decision as voting starts in UP
It's almost 8 PM in the evening, the villagers in Bhadeh are still waiting for BJP's candidate from the Thana Bhawan constituency to turn up. "He was supposed to come at 5 pm," one of them remarked, in the dark. It has been a long power cut. Alongside, some of Suresh Rana's partymen have parked their SUVs.
"The programme is going haywire because of pressure. He cannot afford to upset any voter at this point. So he has to make a stop each time there is a request," one of Rana's aides told this reporter as we waited for him.
"There are 78,000 Muslim voters in this constituency. We have to make sure they are not able to impact this election," he explained.
This statement pretty much sums up the situation in several constituencies which include Thana Bhawan, where Suresh Rana, an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 and the sitting MLA is contesting, Sardhana, where Sangeet Som, also an accused in the same riots is the BJP candidate, Kairana where sitting MP from Shamli, Hukum Singh's daughter Mriganka Singh is contesting the polls.
All three candidates face stiff challenge from Muslim candidates - in Thana Bhawan they are the Muslims fielded by the RLD and the BSP.
In Kairana it is Nahid Hasan of the SP whom the locals insinuate for shielding the criminals, while in Sardhana, Som is battling it out with BSP's Imran Qureshi, the son of the meat trader Yaqoob Qureshi, who shot to infamy after announcing a reward on the head of the Danish cartoonist who drew Prophet Mohammad.
Clearly, with such polarising figures in the fray, the campaign in these constituencies has the expected communal overtones.
"The BJP candidates are out to ensure that the Muslim candidate doesn't win while the Muslims want the BJP to lose," one local explained.
With the Jats drifting back to the RLD and Mayawati's BSP regaining it's foothold, at least among the Jatav voters, BJP's strategy focuses on the consolidation of the other OBCs and MBCs. And it seems to be working.
As a BJP functionary Dhoom Singh put it, "Three out of the 36 Jaatis may not be voting for the BJP but rest of the 33 are firmly behind the party."
Meanwhile, Suresh Rana has arrived in the village and is addressing a small gathering. His brief speech has the usual keywords - Pakistan, SP leadership flaunting skull cap, Azam Khan etc He attacks the Congress on how it put Hindu Sadhus like Asaram in jail, and the SP for "picking up random names of villagers and accusing them of taking part in the riots".
"Under patronage from the Samajwadi Party, some people have spread tremendous fear. All those goondas who were born because of the SP-BSP nexus will be thrown out," Rana told this reporter.
"There are allegations that you say things which polarise the elections?" this reporter asked him.
"It's not about polarisation. It is about issues. I speak the truth, which anyway, has to be said. I speak the truth; if people think it is communal language, so be it," said Rana.
Meanwhile, the Muslims in Thana Bhawan are confused after both the BSP and the RLD fielded Muslims, and the SP fielded a Jat.
Like Liyaqat in Bhadeh village said, "We will wait and decide the night before depending on which candidate seems to have more chances of winning."
However, a large section of the majority community is convinced that Rana will win. He won the last election by just a margin of 250 votes. "This time it would be over 10,000," said his aide.
"It is a tough election since Jats are emotive about the Lok Dal," he added as a caveat.
If the Muslims rally behind the RLD candidate or Professor Sudhir Panwar of the SP - it could dent Rana's chances.
"The contest in Thana Bhawan j is between Rana and Rao Waris of the RLD. Rana has the support of most of the upper caste voters and almost all the OBC's," said Sunil Kumar, who made it a point to tell this reporter that he was a Brahmin, in Pukhta Garhi village.
In the Harijan quarters of the Badeh village, Kumar's statement gets reinforced.
As this reporter made his way out of the village, Dharampal Prajapati pulls him aside - "The Jats may not vote for the BJP as they did in 2014. But all other communities including us, the Prajapatis will vote for the BJP," he said.
"If Muslims were displaced in the riots, several hundred Hindu boys are also in jail. Isn't it the same thing?" he asked.
In the village, several Jatavs and Jats too spoke in the support of Rana. "It is usually a Hindu-Muslim election here," they said.
"Rana has a very different image in the region. And the region is yet to come out of the shadows of the 2013 riots," explained Kumar.
Polarised and how
Similar sentiments are echoed for Sangeet Som, in Meerut's Sardhana constituency.
"We will ensure it becomes a Hindu-Muslim election and Som manages to win. If Qureshi were to win the polls, our daughters will not be able to even step out on the roads," said Ramphal Saini in Milak Majra Teherki village of Sardhana.
The narrative of the Muslims targetting Hindu girls, which led to the Love Jihad campaign of the BJP, has been diluted, but still exists in the minds of many.
"Atul Pradhan of the SP is a very good candidate, but from a bad party. Only the minorities get scholarships and pensions from the Samajwadi government," Saini said.
Pradeep Jatav, meanwhile, echoed similar views as he readied to weigh the sugarcane lined up in several trucks outside Daurala Sugar Mills. "Pradhan is a good candidate but from a bad party. Muzaffarnagar episode is still fresh in our minds," he said.
Sushil Chauhan, from the Milak Majra Teherki village, meanwhile, is more reasonable.
"Pradhan has excellent relations with all sections of the people. And has been active too. But if the Muslims are seen to be rallying behind Qureshi, it could lead to a counter polarisation in favour of Som," he said adding how the BJP's candidate, a Thakur, has an advantage in support from the 24 Thakur-dominated villages, locally called the 'Chaubisi'.
In 2012, the elections which Som won, Pradhan had secured 48,000 votes while Yaqoob Qureshi bagged a little over 50,000 votes.
In this election, Pradhan's hopes of winning rest on the Muslim voters, many of whom, like Yasin Mir, a former Pradhan are voting for Qureshi.
"Muslim vote will get divided. The Ansaris are voting for Pradhan," Mir said.
Figuring it out
Like Rana, Som too is a very polarising figure.
"Till the time Som is our leader we can sleep in peace," Saini pointed out.
"In my village, there are Thakur households on the other side. Whenever Som would come he would always avoid the main road of the village which passes through the Muslim quarters," says Saud Khan from the Kulanjan village.
"Till the time Som is here, he would ensure there is some communal disturbance or tension. If there were none, he would manufacture," said Joseph, who runs a cart, outside the beautiful Sardhana church, a protected monument.
"He must be taking this road at least five times in the day, even then you can see the condition," Joseph said pointing out to the road which leads to the Church. Som's office is barely 200 metres away.
Law & order
In Kairana, the epicentre of the 'exodus,' after allegations by the BJP that the crime rate has forced a huge number of members of the majority community to migrate, the locals are not too enthused with the attention the town got in the media.
However, they do accept that the area faces a severe law and order problem. Many complain that the criminals, the most notorious of them Muqeem, a Muslim, enjoys patronage from the local MLA - Nahid Hasan, of the SP.
"We cannot say it out openly. But we see with whom the criminals mingle with and how they get help," said a doctor, whose clinic is not too far from Hasan's residence.
Kairana made it to the front pages of the dailies after local MP Hukum Singh raised the issue of the exodus. His daughter Mriganka, is the BJP candidate from the constituency.
"He raised the issue because he wanted his daughter to contest," said Rampal, a shoemaker from the Jatav community. "People left for better job opportunities," he said adding how Babuji, as Hukum Singh is known as locally, may find it difficult to swing the votes in favour of his daughter.
"His close relative Anil Chauhan who fought on the BJP ticket with his support is now contesting on an RLD ticket," Rampal said. Rampal's views are echoed by local Muslims.
As MLA Hasan finished addressing the locals at the Mughal Garden Banquet Hall, extorting to how the BJP is communal and a threat to a community, he is mobbed by the crowd.
"The exodus claims were fabricated. He wanted to create a divide among the locals," Mohd Yaseen, who migrated to Kairana after the riots, told this reporter after Hasan left with his entourage of SUVs.
"The Muslims are all up supporting Hasan," he claimed.
Even here, this could lead to a counter polarisation in Singh's favour.
"Kriya ki pratikirya to hoti hai," (Every action has a reaction) said Ramesh Dhiman, who runs an automobile showroom. "All the communities will gang up eventually in support of Babuji," he said.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen