Almost a week after communal riots claimed three lives in Saharanpur, senior Uttar Pradesh Cabinet minister Shivpal Yadav visited the town on August 3 to take stock of the situation. One of the items on his agenda was to meet 300-odd local representatives to get their feedback on how to restore normalcy. As the meeting was about to begin, Yadav reportedly wished to meet representatives from the Muslim community separately, ahead of the public meeting.
“We got the hint. How can a senior minister do something like this? It was a public meeting and by inviting members of a community for an exclusive interaction, he sent out a clear signal that others do not matter,” said a representative belonging to the Hindu community, who was also invited for the meeting. He did not wish to be named.
It is one of the several instances of perceived “bias” in the government’s approach being listed by the people from other communities (Hindus and Sikhs). They allege that there is a “blatant Muslim bias in the administration”. “Muslim boys can get away with anything. Police just refuse to register FIRs (first information reports) against them as there is an instruction from the top,” said a Sikh businessman.
The riots claimed three lives and left scores of others injured. Nearly 150 shops and showrooms too were gutted. Local trade organisations estimate that the potential loss to the business is to tune of nearly Rs 500 crore in part because there was curfew in place for 13 days. “After riots, the city had had long spells of curfew. Even after gradual relaxation in curfew, we saw our sales plummeting,” observed Sheetal Tandon, president of Saharanpur trade association, sitting in his hardware shop Ram Sons and Company surrounded by other members of the association. “Hotel occupancy rate, which was in the region of 65-70 per cent prior to riots, has dropped below five per cent now,” added Arvinder Singh, owner of Punjab Hotel.
Saharanpur, a part of relatively prosperous Western Uttar Pradesh, is home to nearly four million people, with Muslims constituting little more than 38 per cent of the total population. There are estimated to be around 50,000 Sikhs, a majority of them are involved in retail trade and hospitality industry. The city is famous for its wood carving industry, which, though in decline, is still estimated to generate annual business of Rs 500 crore. Another Rs 1,000 crore worth of business comes from garments. But the most flourishing business, according to local trade bodies, is that of slaughter houses. “From almost nothing a few years ago, slaughterhouses have become a huge business in the city now,” says Daljeet Singh Kochar, an advocate and a senior member of local trade association. There are estimated to be 10 large slaughterhouses in the city. The district is also famous for its mangoes, litchis and basmati rice.
Saharanpur, otherwise a peaceful district with no history of communal riots in more than two decades, went up in flames following a clash over a piece of land adjacent to a Gurdwara, which is very close to the local railway station.
Is the rupture in Saharanpur and other districts of Western Uttar Pradesh that has resulted in a series of riots in recent months the result of the perceived bias in the administration? A tour through the region though tells a different tale. The most common narrative about the Muslim community in the region is: In recent years, they have made immense economic gain and they have come to wield considerable political clout as well. “They have money in their pockets and they have considerable clout in the administration. This has given them licence to do anything and get away with it,” said the son of Veer Singh of Khedi Duddadhal village near Muzaffarnagar, sitting in his charpoy with villagers dropping by to take part in the conversation. Nearly 70-year-old Veer Singh, a respected figure in the surrounding area, is popularly known as Master Veer Singh. Researchers and journalists are often asked to meet the old man to get a sense of changing social dynamics in the region.
What explains growing economic clout of Muslims and why do they have considerable clout in the administration?
The Sachar Committee report, one of the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information on socio-economic status of Indian Muslims, offers some answers. The report 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 the 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.
While the report does not give any data about growth rates in these sectors, it does say that between 1994 and 2001, the annual 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. These sectors have done well in subsequent years as well.
Muslims are gaining prominence in Uttar Pradesh politics as well. While 56 Muslims entered the state Assembly out of the total of 403 in 2007, the number went up to 69 in 2012. And in the recent urban body elections, the community swept the polls, bagging more than 31 per cent of all seats as against their share in state population of less than 19 per cent. What is perceived as “bias” in favour of Muslims in administration is basically a reflection of their growing political clout.
Are the riots result of Muslim assertion that is being resisted by the traditional elite? A K Verma, professor at Kanpur-based Christ Church College, sums up the whole situation, saying Muslims always had the number on their side in this part of the state, what gave them confidence was the improvement in their economic status. “The combination of both is getting reflected in their growing political clout.”