//Communal Riots in Uttar Pradesh

Communal Riots in Uttar Pradesh

24 September 2014

by Badri Narayan

After the 1990s, communal incidents in India have spread to rural areas, and they occur on a smaller scale, but with much larger frequency. In this strategy, the making of a communal consciousness requires a string of communal moments that produce and reproduce communal polarisation directly and indirectly. The Bharatiya Janata Party, backed by the cadres of the Sangh Parivar, holds an advantage in this communal game in Uttar Pradesh, while the other parties are forced to play it for fear of further losing their voter base. Post-election communal clashes in UP have occurred around constituencies going for assembly by-polls soon. This trend is only going to harden by the time the assembly elections take place in 2017.

Badri Narayan ([email protected]) is with the G B Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad.

India’s democracy exerts constant pressure on political parties to mobilise people for electoral purposes. Electoral mobilisation is often based on evoking emotive issues such as religion, language, caste and parochialism. Development and other rational issues also get transformed into emotional issues because of the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, and the growing expectations of the people.

A study of the history of electoral mobilisation in India would show that religion and caste have always been the most effective issues for mobilising people. Indian political parties have often used the issue of caste to stop religious mobilisation, and the issue of religion to stop caste mobilisation. In the 1990s, both the politics of communal hatred, which emerged around the demolition of the Babri masjid, and caste politics, which emerged after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, were strengthened. Since then, communal politics has been used to neutralise caste politics, and religious politics to defuse caste politics. Caste feelings often remain active even after being submerged in the cauldron of religion, and the rise of middle- and dalit-caste identities work against communal politics. These two are not always opposed to each other, and work together to take a complex form for electoral mobilisation. Thus, both caste consciousness (jati bhav) and communal consciousness (sampradayik bhav) are necessary for political parties, depending on their electoral compulsions. Often caste and communal consciousness join with politics to become aggressive – in its outer and inner forms, in its form and content, and in its process and consequence.

The politics of emotive issues and identity politics introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Sangh parivar in the 2014 parliamentary elections was born of a mixture of the “desire for development and communal consciousness” which shattered the dichotomy between communal and caste identity in Indian politics and society. The BJP understood that communal politics by itself would not succeed, and it had to be linked with the desire for development in the minds of the common people. It successfully combined these two elements while devising a strategy for mobilising people of all castes and communities, including Muslims. If the promised development does not happen, disillusionment will set in quickly. This would limit the degree to which the BJP can succeed in communal polarisation in the future, just as it did in Muzaffarnagar and Moradabad.

Phenomenon of Small Riots

Communal riots do not occur; they are engineered, and the people engineering them have motives that usually have to do with political mobilisation and elections (Amar Ujala 2013). If one studies the history of the forms of communal riots in the post-Independence period, one finds several changes in them over time and space. Putting aside the riots that reflected communal moments at the time of Partition, historians and social scientists have always considered communal riots as an urban phenomenon. However, in post-liberalisation India, communal riots have been spreading to villages as well.

The second change is that there used to earlier be big communal riots at large intervals, but now under a new strategy for reaping electoral gain, different religious groups are mobilised by creating communal moments through small communal conflicts and riots over a long period of time. Through this, communal consciousness is made a continuous presence, not a momentary one. In this strategy, the making of a communal consciousness requires a string of communal moments that produce and reproduce communal polarisation directly and indirectly. Political parties try to exploit these small riots or communal moments, and arouse and sustain a communal consciousness through them. Through these small riots, they also want fear to grow in their target oppressed group or opposed group. This accumulation of fear takes an aggressive and vicious form at the time of elections in the name of saving a community’s honour or avenging its humiliation.

Bigger riots need long-term preparation for the making of a communal moment. This includes collecting arms and ammunitions, and making pyramids of multiple tensions between communities. Given the pyramid of tensions, even playing loud music or throwing stones may erupt into big violence. However, for small riots, one does not need long-term preparations, and waiting for or engineering a pyramid of tensions (Rai 1998: 61). They may erupt because of an immediate small issue, which is fuelled by political forces who politicise it. In the visual media and newspapers, their mobilisational impact multiplies and influences both the quarrelling communities, sometimes across a region and state. This is further aggravated by an alert and active communal consciousness among the people. Thus the impact of small riots is no less than that of big riots, but the political parties inciting them are not subject to as much criticism.

The phenomenon of small riots needs the eruption of a series of low-key communal conflicts, and through them a constant reproduction of communal consciousness. This is more suitable for political forces to harness communally mobilised votes. A cadre of a communal organisation asked me during an interview, Agar kam mehnat, loss and investment me jyada fayada ho raha ho to kyon bara risk le? (If there is more profit with less effort, loss and investment, why should we take a bigger risk?). This does not mean that small riots may not turn into big communal riots, but that in the absence of long-term preparation, it is difficult to transform them into big communal riots. In the past, communal moments used to lose their effect after a few days. But the small riots stretch communal moments over a long duration.

According to an investigation by the Indian Express, police records show that more than 600 “communal incidents” or small religious conflicts took place in Uttar Pradesh (UP) after the Lok Sabha elections, between 16 May and 25 July 2014. The largest number of riots, 259, took place in western UP. In the Terai region, 29 clashes took place; in the Awadh region, 53; in Bundelkhand, six; and in eastern UP, 16 (Express Investigation Part I 2014). A further analysis of the statistics shows that the regions where most of the communal riots took place are the constituencies where assembly by-polls will be held very soon. For example, in western UP, polls are due in five seats; in the Terai region, in two seats; in the Awadh region, in one seat; in Bundelkhand, in two seats; and in eastern UP, in two seats. The roles of political classes and parties are clearly evident in these riots.

Political Economy

In western UP, where polls are due in five seats, 259 riots took place, while fewer riots took place in the regions where polls are due in fewer seats. However, the proportion of riots i
s much higher in western UP than in other regions. This implies that the socio-economic and political ground of the region is conducive for communal riots to occur.

Western UP is the most developed region of the state. It reaped the maximum benefits of the green revolution and came to be known as Harit (green) Pradesh. However, the benefits of the green revolution were not spread evenly, and were confined to a few castes. The region is steeped in feudalism, and prosperity widened the gap between various castes and communities. Jealousies and anxieties spawned by uneven development further increased existing feudal pride. The gap between Hindu Jats and the Muslim (Mulla) Jats significantly increased after the green revolution. The percentage of Muslims in this region is the highest in the state. There is no parliamentary constituency where they are less than 20% to 25%, and in some constituencies, they are more than 40%. Muslims here are not a passive community, but highly active and aspiring. They are trying hard to increase their space and visibility in the region.

If we analyse the nature of the small riots that took place in western UP, we find that most of them were conflicts for dominant visibility, that is, to establish domination over other communities. Several of them were over trivial issues such as the volume of loudspeakers. As many as 120 of the 600-odd communal incidents were triggered by clashes over the use of loudspeakers (Express Investigation Part II 2014). Although loudspeakers and religious festivals do not have any direct connection, all religions use them to assert their identity and “dominance of visibility”. The Calcutta High Court banned them many years ago, but it has not yet been implemented. Far from being an assertion of freedom, the use of loudspeakers shows a greater tendency to spread anarchy and hurt the feelings of other communities. Other trivial reasons for the communal incidents were arguments over who should be served first in a local eatery; the use of a public latrine by one community; the grazing of cattle; the cutting of a neem tree; collisions between children riding cycles; and minor motorcycle accidents (Express Investigation Part IV 2014).

Political Parties

In this scenario of small riots, the BJP and the Sangh parivar enjoy the strongest position. The members of the parivar, such as the Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are much more active in this part of UP than other parts. The spread of trade and commerce has played an important role in the expansion of different branches of the RSS, which is trying to promote the cultural dominance of Hindutva. Immediately after Independence, the Arya Samaj was active in west UP and it played a very progressive role. But when this declined, the Hindutva mindset took over. The dalit community in UP was particularly influenced by the Arya Samaj, which later became the cause for bonding with Hindutva.

The Sangh parivar does not have any intellectual or moral dilemma about spreading communalism through their concept of Hindutva. They are trying to enforce their logic in the name of protecting Hindu religion and culture from so-called “foreign invaders” (Muslims). Since communal riots are a seasonal feature for the Sangh parivar, its members such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Hindu Yuva Vahini, Vidya Bharati, Bajrang Dal, and other small Hindutva social reform groups are well trained in the game of inciting riots. They can spark off a riot anytime and anywhere. The bigger leaders of other parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Congress have to themselves engineer riots since they do not have trained cadres for communal politics. The BJP has recently been working on the politics of linking the desire for development with a desire to create a “Maha Hindu identity” through communal mobilisation, and has reaped great profit from it.

For the SP, BSP and Congress, communal riots are now a no-profit game because Hindu polarisation has cut their Hindu base and marginalised them. All the three have to obtain a share of the remaining, mainly Muslim, votes. They are thus compelled to play the politics of communal mobilisation. To reply to the BJP, the SP mobilised Muslims in UP, and the Congress also took advantage of it when there was the possibility of linking the caste vote bank with the Muslim vote bank. In the new political scenario, when the Yadav base of the SP, the dalit base of the BSP, and the urban and upper-caste votes of the Congress have moved towards the BJP, the communal game is a losing one for them. At the local level, it is possible that these three political parties may gain some advantage, but that will happen only if their Hindu vote banks remain intact and Muslims vote for them. Since all three parties are struggling for a share of the same set of Muslim votes, they participate in riots because of a compulsive fear that they may lose the remaining Muslim votes as well. Thus there is anxiety about their political base, which is under threat.

Like in the fable of the snake and the mongoose, the BSP is neither able to swallow the situation nor ignore it because the communal mobilisation of the Sangh parivar is creating dalit-Muslim tensions. A ninth of all communal incidents since 16 May 2014 were dalit-Muslim confrontations (Express Investigation Part III 2014). One such incident took place between in Katauli Kala in Azamgarh district on 4 August 2014. A minor argument over widening a village road led to a violent clash, leaving eight people injured, even though there was no history of tension between the two communities (Express Investigation Part III 2014). The dalit vote of the BSP, which was strong in western UP, is being lost. The party’s politics of forging a link between dalits and Muslims is now in crisis. If it tries to bring Muslims under its umbrella, dalits might go their own way, and if it sides with dalits, Muslims might break away. That is why Mayawati is unable to take any action.

The inciting of communal riots in regions where dalits are in a majority is a part of the long-term Sangh parivar strategy of converting them into foot soldiers of the Hindu upper castes. Its vision of Indian villages is one where upper-caste Hindus govern, while the dalit castes are imbued with brahminical values. They should willingly function as soldiers of the upper castes and fight battles on their behalf. For this, the growing chasm between the upper and lower castes should be reduced, and social harmony has to be restored (Narayan 2009: 42).

The small riots will continue to take place before the 2017 assembly elections in UP. There will also be a marked effort to spread them to places such as eastern UP and Bundelkhand. If the SP is unable to reduce the growing communal space in UP society and politics through its state agencies, the BJP will have an advantage, while the others will have none.


Amar Ujala (2013): “18 sthalon par sadbhav bigarhne ki ashanka”, “Kaushambi ke 20 netaon ke pratinidhion par hai ATS ki nigah”, Allahabad, Pratapgarh, 24 September.

Express Investigation Part I (2014): “Over 600 ‘Communal Incidents’ in UP since LS Results”, The Indian Express, 5 August.

Express Investigation Part II (2014): “My Loudspeaker versus Loudspeaker”, The Indian Express, 6 August.

Express Investigation Part III (2014): “Dalit-Muslim Divide Deepens, Goes Rural”, The Indian Express, 7 August.

Express Investigation Part IV (2014): “Fighting Kids to Dhaba Bill: Takes Little to Keep Communal Pot Simmering”, The Indian Express, 8 August.

Narayan, B (2009): Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation (New Delhi: Sage).

Rai, V N (1998): Combating Communal Conflicts (Allahabad: Anamika Prakashan).

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol – XLIX No. 37, September 13, 2014