Muzaffarnagar has not yet forgotten the 2013 riots. Will Akhilesh Yadav pay its price in UP elections?

In September 2013, 140 villages of Muzaffarnagar were burnt in the Hindu-Muslim riots

Who would have forgotten the Muzaffarnagar riots that took place in 2013. Just a year before, the sultan of Samajwadi Party Akhilesh Yadav had assumed charge as the Chief Minister after a sweeping victory in Uttar Pradesh. Five years later, as he campaigns to contest the assembly polls again, his popularity Lui village, and others near Muzaffarnagar is still unparalleled.

Akhilesh gained limelight after he led student protests against the Mayawati regime in 2008. Overcoming the barriers of caste politics that his Samajwadi Party was famous for, Akhilesh was a young leader who rode to popularity on the formula of technology and development.

Akhilesh might very well have been the face and voice of UP’s youth. But for a state that has for years been voting along caste and communal lines, the real voter base of the SP was the Muslim and Yadav community.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the SP was one of the prime factors that brought about calm after the turmoil over Babri Masjid, giving Mulayam Singh Yadav the name of “Mullah Mulayam”. In the politics of castes and religion, he proved to be the hero of the state’s Muslims while Mayawati projected herself as the saviour of the backward castes.

But soon after Akhilesh took charge of the state, the Hindus and Muslims that remained peaceful for over the years came face to face with each other. Hindu-Muslim riots were witnessed in Muzzafarnagar district on the western borders of the state. In September 2013, 140 villages of the district were burning. The area that remained silent even during the Babri Masjid riots was now up in flames.

But even now, riots victims are still singing praises for Akhilesh. The Samajwadi Party had suffered severe criticism for poor handling of the situation and also for having instigated violence to polarise the Jats and Muslims – the two largest communities in the area. After the riots, a survey in 2014 revealed that about 45 per cent of the people of UP blamed SP for the riots while 13 per cent blamed the BJP.

Three years since, the scene is different. Even the victims who did not receive any compensation from the SP government are backing Akhilesh for the UP elections.

The protection the party extended to its long-time loyal Muslims won their hearts, but the Jat community which was also affected by riots was left highly disappointed. Many like Dharamveer Singh, a Jat landlord, say they will vote for Narendra Modi. “SP did nothing for Hindus. Hindus had also died in the riots. They did not get anything),” says Singh adding that many Hindu boys are facing false allegations of having molested Muslim women.

Jats and Muslims are both involved in the most famous jaggery business, where the former are landlords and traders while the latter are involved in farming sugarcane on the Jat-held lands. Though earlier the religious backgrounds of jaggery producers barely held any importance, the battle lines are now clearly drawn. While Jats can’t stop praising BJP for the recent demonetisation decision, the Muslim farmers say they are still suffering due to lack of cash.

As landlord Dharamveer Singh talks about the Jat and Muslim equations, he says “this time the election is just a competition between Hindus and Muslims.