LISAD, Uttar Pradesh — Rajendra Mallik, a sugarcane farmer living in Uttar Pradesh, had prided himself for always voting on merit, never for a party or an ideology.
The Jat farmer was unconcerned when his family derided the Samajwadi Party as a pro-Muslim party when he voted for its candidate in a civic poll. He liked the candidate.
But the Muzaffarnagar riots in September 2013 changed everything. His village, Lisad, where Hindus and Muslims had lived peacefully for generations, witnessed the deadliest violence.
Thirteen Muslim men were killed in Lisad, and with the exception of one elderly man named Basheer, who refused to leave the home where he was born, the entire minority community fled and never returned. At least 60 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the religious violence. An estimated 60,000 Muslims were displaced.
It was after the communal riots that Malik decided to support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), voting, in 2014 and in 2017, on one issue alone: "the Hindu agenda."
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For the crucial Lok Sabha by-poll in Kairana today, however, the 31-year-old farmer has considered voting against the BJP for the first time since the riots.
"The Hindu agenda was the only thing that mattered to me after the riots. It is still closest to my heart, but I'm also angry with the government. I want to send a message," he said. "The situation of the sugarcane farmers has never been so bad under any previous government. It is time for the BJP to get a shock."
The situation of the sugarcane farmers has never been so bad under any previous government. It is time for the BJP to get a shock.
Lisad, like many villages across western UP, is in the throes of a sugarcane crisis.
Sugarcane mills in UP owe farmers Rs. 12,000 crore as of May. A record production of sugar in 2017-2018, almost 30 percent higher than the previous year, has led to a dip in sugarcane prices, making it harder for the mills to pay. Presently, representatives of the sugar industry say, the ex-factory sugar price of around Rs. 26-27 per kilo is Rs. 8-9 below the cost of production.
There is almost no family in Lisad that is not waiting for payment from the sugarcane mills. Most of them have not received the sugarcane they supplied between December and April .
Mallik says he is owed ₹5 lakhs by the sugar mills. "It was never so bad, not even under the Samajwadi Party government. There used to be delays, perhaps going back to a few months, but this time we haven't been paid since after November," he said.
There used to be delays, perhaps going back to a few months, but this time we haven't been paid since after November
In the wake of the sugarcane crisis, five years after the communal riots, the Jats of Lisad, may have turned against the BJP, and gone back to voting for the Rashitrya Lok Dal (RLD), the party, which, with the support of jats and Muslims, had once reigned in western UP.
Given that Ajit Singh's RLD is leading a joint opposition, made up of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress, which covers an estimated 62 percent of the electorate, the BJP cannot afford any part of its existing voter base withering away.
Rajveer Singh, a 41-year-old farmer, who is waiting for ₹4 lakhs from the sugar mills, said that his anger just might trump his loyalty to the BJP. "We want a little bit of change, we definitely want some change," he said. "In any case, it is just six months before the general election. We can send a message, without doing too much damage."
We want a little bit of change, we definitely want some change.
For the BJP, however, winning Kairana is a matter of prestige, especially after its by-poll losses in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, where the BSP and SP presented a joint opposition, and its failure to form the government in Karnataka after the Congress forged an alliance with the Janata Dal (United).
By-poll losses are largely responsible for BJP's reduced seats in Lok Sabha - 282 seats in 2014 to 272. In addition to Kairana, two by-polls are underway in Maharashtra, where the Congress and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have formed an alliance, and one is going on in Nagaland.
By-poll losses are largely responsible for BJP's reduced seats in Lok Sabha - 282 seats in 2014 to 272.
Singh's brother, Ranveer Singh, who was definite about voting for the RLD and not the BJP, this time around, said, "What has the BJP done for farmers? If it has done anything then we haven't felt it. It is time for change."
Hindu versus Muslim
Kairana's estimated 16 lakh voters are made up of upper caste Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) including Jats, Kashyaps, Sainis and Prajapatis.
While the alliance is targeting the votes of Muslims, Dalits and Jats, the BJP is aiming for the upper caste Hindus, the OBCs, and non-Jatav Dalits, who don't always vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party.
At an estimated 5.2 lakh, the Muslims are the largest chunk, and together with the Dalits, the Jats, and the anti-incumbency votes, the alliance hopes to capture nine to ten lakh voters.
The BJP, unless it has managed to make the by-poll into a straight Hindu-Muslim contest, is undoubtedly facing an uphill battle in Kairana.
I'm angry with the BJP, but I don't want to vote for a Muslim. I feel like I will go into the polling station to vote for the RLD but then I won't be able to vote for a Muslim.
The RLD has zeroed in on the BJP's Achilles heel by asking farmers whether they care about "Jinnah or ganna?" It refers to communal tensions surrounding the portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, which has been hanging in Aligarh Muslim University since 1938. It triggered violent protests, last month.
In his address in Kairana, last week, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath appealed to all Hindus to vote for the BJP irrespective of caste. "People will be coming to you, someone with a caste slogan, some with an identity slogan, some with a farmer slogan, some will say Ganna or Jinnah," he said. "We will work for ganna, but we will also not allow a portrait of Jinnah."
Mallik wants the ganna crisis resolved, but he also wants Jinnah's portrait removed from AMU. "It could have been left alone, but now that it has been raked up, his portrait should go," he said. "Having it displayed in the university is an insult to our soldiers."
The one thing that made Mallik and Singh reluctant about voting for the RLD was that it had fielded a Muslim candidate: Tabussam Hasan.
Hasan, who won the Kairana seat in 2009 on a BSP ticket, is the mother of Nahid Hasan, the current MLA of Kairana. In 2009, Tabussam Hasan defeated BJP's Hukum Singh. Singh's daughter, Mriganka, is contesting against her.
"Before the 2013 riots, it didn't matter to me whether a candidate was Hindu or Muslim, but it does now," Mallik said, last week. "I'm angry with the BJP, but I don't want to vote for a Muslim. I feel like I will go into the polling station to vote for the RLD but then I won't be able to vote for a Muslim."
"I really wish they had picked a candidate from any other caste," he said.
I feel like I will go into the polling station to vote for the RLD but then I won't be able to vote for a Muslim.
Rajveer Singh, the farmer, who faces the exact same dilemma as Mallik, said, "I'm angry with the BJP about the sugarcane, but I am angrier at the Muslims about everything."
His brother, in an exasperated tone, said, "You are not voting for a Muslim, you are voting for Ajit Singh. Will you remember that?"
In the past, the RLD had managed to successfully transfer Jat votes to Muslim candidates, but that was before the Muzaffarnagar riots had so deeply polarized western UP.
But given that Muslims were an estimated 5.2 lakh voters, Sudhir Panwar, a farmers activist who contested the 2016 elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket, pointed out that no party - with the exception of the BJP - could ignore Muslims.
"They (opposition) are indirectly fighting the 2019 election in 2018. They are telling Muslims that we fielded a Muslim despite the objections from Jats," he said.
Whether the RLD has managed to get Jats to vote for a Muslim, Panwar said, would gauge Ajit Singh's appeal and ability. "A testing ground for 2019," he said.
They (opposition) are indirectly fighting the 2019 election in 2018. They are telling Muslims that we fielded a Muslim despite the objections from Jats.
While there is no love lost between the Jats and Muslims, there is also a lull in hostilities.
Even as they were agonizing over voting for a Muslim candidate, both Malik and Singh talked at length about how much they regretted the flight of the Muslims from their village. It has cost the Jats both economically and psychologically.
The absent Muslims, who filled the roles of carpenters, farmhands, manual labourers, electricians, ironsmiths and welders, are sorely missed by the Jats, who now end up paying double for getting the same services from outside the village.
There are many Jats who remain convinced that their village had been cursed after the bloodshed. They talk about the animals that started dying, especially calves, a few months after the Muslims left. Those who have family members charged for rioting, murder and attempt to murder, have been living in a constant state of fear for their loved ones.
"A few hours of violence has cost us so much. The village had changed forever," Malik said, adding that he did not participate in the violence, "It makes me sad to see the empty houses."
Singh said, "It never should have happened."
A few hours of violence has cost us so much. The village had changed forever.
But when the village was debating whether to bring back the Muslims, Mallik was against it.
"It's too late. It would have been too complicated, too messy, and too dangerous," he said. "Remember, there are still people with cases against them."
A family split
The issue of pending criminal cases against the Jats has also divided the community over the RLD and the BJP.
Those who are only concerned about the sugarcane crisis have been inclined to vote against the BJP, while those who have to worry about criminal cases believe it safer to vote for the BJP.
The BJP had vowed to withdraw all "false" cases related to the riots if voted to power, and the Adityanath government has been making good on its promise.
The question of voting against the BJP has divided some families right down the middle.
In the Mallik family for instance, his father has been determined to vote for the RLD and instructed his family to do the same. Mallik's dilly-dallying has irritated him.
Meanwhile, Mallik's 21-year-old niece, a college student, who believes the law and order situation has vastly improved in the past year, had decided to stick with the BJP.
Garima Mallik wants to safeguard the "Hindu agenda."
"I have nothing against Muslims, but I feel they cause trouble wherever and whenever they get the chance. When the BJP is in power, they stay in control, they stay in limits," she said.
When the BJP is in power, they stay in control, they stay in limits.
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