SARDHANA, Uttar Pradesh -- It was a frantic final day of campaigning for Sangeet Som, the self-appointed guardian of Hindutva in western Uttar Pradesh. Racing against time on Thursday, the firebrand of the Bharatiya Janata Party went from one village to the next, his white Innova car moving at breakneck speed on the highway and the narrow roads snaking through vast sugarcane fields. The sitting lawmaker from the Sardhana constituency in Meerut district met people at their homes and in small chaupal gatherings under big trees.
The Election Commission had set 5:00 pm on Thursday as the deadline for all campaigning to end in the 73 constituencies voting on 11 February, the first phase of the U.P. Assembly elections. This included Sardhana, famous for its handloom bedsheets and a Catholic Church built by Begum Samru some two centuries ago. She was a Muslim who converted to Christianity.
With the clock winding down, Som's aides informed this reporter that it would be impossible for him to take out time for an interview. His aides said that the 39-year-old leader from the Thakur community, prone to triggering controversy, had avoided the media in the crucial run up to the election.
It was in the village of Nangla Rathi that Som spoke to HuffPost India, outlining why "law and order is an even bigger issue than development."
Love And 'Love Jihad'
On the need to create the so called Anti-Romeo squads, promised in the BJP manifesto, Som said that it was to counter the menace of what he and the BJP have termed "Love Jihad." In a room packed with villagers of Nangla Rathi, Som said that "Love Jihad" is an "organised crime" to convert Hindu girls in western U.P. to Islam, funded by the Arab countries.
On how "Love Jihad" worked, Som said that a Muslim would pose as a Hindu in order to lure a Hindu girl. She would find out the truth only after getting married. "When a boy loves a girl that is love. When a boy lies to a girl and loves her that is jihad. His name will be Hafiz Saeed and he will say his name is Rahul. He will tie a kalava (red thread) around his wrist," the BJP leader said.
"The girl marries the boy and then discovers it is all a lie. His name is Imran. He said that he does service in a factory but he actually sells meat from a thela. This is Love Jihad," he said.
On how the Anti-Romeo squads would be formed, Som said that the nitty-gritty would be decided "once the BJP government is formed in U.P." "It won't be private," he said.
When a boy loves a girl that is love. When a boy lies to a girl and loves her that is jihad.
Proof of 'Love Jihad'?
The fear that Muslim men were systematically targeting Hindu women was at the heart of the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in 2013. The religious violence claimed over 60 lives and displaced 55,000 people, ripping apart communities which had lived together for centuries. The polarisation contributed to BJP's clean sweep in western U.P. in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The story which spread like wildfire through the countryside was of Shahnawaz, a Muslim boy, harassing a Hindu girl from Malikpura village in Muzaffarnagar. Shahnawaz was killed by Sachin and Gaurav, her brother and cousin, in the town of Kawwal. An angry mob then lynched the two Hindu boys. It later emerged that the death of the three boys was not linked to any specific instance of harassment, with the Hindu girl in question saying that she did not know any Shahnawaz.
Som was booked for allegedly circulating a fake online video which showed two men being lynched by a mob. The local police registered a case against him for promoting enmity on religious ground. While the Modi government upgraded his security cover to 'Z' category, the second highest in the country, the state police is yet to charge him.
On Thursday, Som said that he received about 15 cases of "Love Jihad" from all over western U.P. in a month, with panic-stricken parents calling him at midnight and in the early hours of the morning.
When this reporter asked Som if he had any proof of Arab countries funding "Love Jihad" in western U.P., Som said how else could one explain Muslim men living beyond their means. "Have you ever thought about it, a boy who is a hawker, how does he roam around on a Rs. 5000 bike, he has a Rs 20,000 mobile phone, he wears Rs. 3,000 jeans. How is someone who earns Rs.200 everyday getting all this. This should be investigated, this is the funding that is happening from outside," he said.
Som said that he received about 15 cases of "Love Jihad" from all over western U.P. in a month.
At least two cases which local leaders of the BJP have projected as "Love Jihad" since the Muzaffarnagar riots have turned out to be false. In August 2014, a Hindu woman came forward with the allegation that she was forcibly converted to Islam and gang-raped at madrassas in Hapur, Meerut, and Muzaffarnagar. The woman said that she was confined for three days at the madrassa in Muzaffarnagar, where she found other women to be shipped to Dubai. Two months later, the woman retracted her allegations, saying that she had gone with the Muslim man willingly. She also alleged a threat to her life from her parents.
In another case touted as a case of "Love Jihad" by BJP leaders, last year, a Hindu girl from Meerut eventually told the Allahabad High Court that she had embraced Islam of her own volition and married a Muslim boy in her village
Meanwhile, survivors of the gangrape in the Muzaffarnagar riots have been waiting for justice for more than three years, with the ruling Samajwadi Party government failing to deliver justice to seven women.
Out of Step?
While the tallest leaders of BJP claim to be campaigning without a hint of communal polarisation, a handful of local leaders in western Uttar Pradesh continue to highlight issues such as cow slaughter, 'Love Jihad' and the Ram Temple. Instead of speaking out at rallies, polarizing messages have been confined to smaller gatherings, and circulated via Whatsapp messages.
In the past two years, Som has protested against "Love Jihad," cow slaughter, and made several controversial remarks in the aftermath of Dadri lynching. How Sardhana votes will be a decisive answer to whether Som has missed the pulse of this Assembly election, and if he is out of step in pushing an agenda of polarisation.
When Som left the village, residents of Nangla Rathi told HuffPost India that they heard about cases of "Love Jihad" in other parts and the talk quickly turned to the development record of the candidates. While Som told this reporter that Rs.1,300 crore worth of development works were completed in his constituency, there were some in Nangla Rathi who expressed dissatisfaction.
Tilak Ram Upadhyay, a BJP supporter, said that he had only seen the lawmaker twice in his village in the past five years. He praised, instead, the "development work" of Samajwadi Party candidate Atul Pradhan. On whether he would vote for Som again, Upadhyay didn't reply. "I think development has become the biggest issue nowadays. You are going from village to village, what are you hearing," he said.
I think development has become the biggest issue nowadays.
There is little doubt that Som faces stiff competition from SP's Pradhan, widely regarded as development-oriented and close to Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. The Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded Imran Qureshi, the son of Haji Yakub Qureshi, who announced a Rs. 51 crore award for the death of the Danish cartoonist who had made a caricature of Prophet Mohammad. Som had beat Yakub in the 2012 Assembly polls.
Som, however, is hoping for a split of the Muslim votes between Pradhan and Qureshi.
Local observers say enthusiasm for Som has waned. Earlier in the day, Som was kept waiting for at least ten minutes for more people to join the sparsely attended meeting called by Dalit leaders. "Some brothers are still on their way," the anchor announced, sounding anxious.
What Som said at the meeting remains a mystery because this reporter was asked to leave the "private" gathering. But words such as "bahu-beti" (daughter and daughter-in-law) could be heard even at a distance.
During our conversation, Som said that defending "women's honour" was of utmost importance to him, while challenging this reporter to show even one case of "Love Jihad" against a Muslim. "If you think what I'm saying is communal then I don't know which way you want to take our society. You don't think it is a crime to lie to a woman and marry her," he said.
While the BJP leader claimed to be the guardian of women's honour in western Uttar Pradesh, it is Begum Samru who symbolizes religious tolerance and women power in Sardhana. The imposing church she built in the early 19th century stands down the road from Som's office. The Muslim woman who converted to Christianity ruled the principality well, leaving it strong and prosperous.
In front of the church, sits Nisha Anne selling all kinds of accessories from her cart. Not only does she sell crosses, but symbols from all religions. "Well, why not. People of all faiths come here," she said.
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