In a prescient foreword to late politician and writer Rafiq Zakaria's book Communal Rage in Secular India
, nobel laureate Amartya Sen had a thought-provoking paragraph analyzing communal riots in India. He wrote "Everyone has many identities, related not just to one's religion and community, but also to class, occupation, language, gender, political inclinations, and so on. When I was growing up in Bengal in the bloody 1940's, I remember being struck - even as a child - by the fact that the victims of the riots overwhelmingly came from the same class, even when they belonged to different communities or religious groups." The book in concern was Rafiq Zakaria's much lauded analysis of the Gujarat riots of 2002. A riot which has been much dissected like the 1984 riots, with the victims awaiting justice.
Circa 2017, one of the country's most politically significant states, Uttar Pradesh, is now voting and the undercurrent amidst the development cacophony is clearly religious and caste-based polarization. I am writing this column days after the most polarized districts of Western UP like Muzaffarnagar and Shamli have cast their vote because the purpose of this column was not to influence the voter but to put on display the shameful apathy of our so-called secular leaders.
The Samajwadi Party and Congress are contesting the UP polls as an alliance
Two days before voting in Muzaffarnagar, a district which witnessed one of the worst communal riots in the last decade, Amnesty India released a press note which was significant. Among other things which pointed to a lax attitude of the Akhilesh Yadav administration towards the Muzaffarnagar victims, it said, "The Uttar Pradesh government has failed to expeditiously investigate and prosecute the seven cases of gang-rape filed after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and deliver justice...Over three years after the riots, there has not been a single conviction in any of the cases. Despite changes to India's laws in 2013 requiring trials in rape cases to be completed without unnecessary delay, trials have proceeded extremely slowly. The state government and successive central governments have also failed to adequately protect the survivors from threats and harassment - which in some cases led to them retracting their statements - and to provide adequate reparation."
Yet, as UP votes, neither the Congress, which is an ally of the Samajwadi Party, nor the Lalu Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal which has been vocal in its support of the Akhilesh government in the last five years, questioned the Chief Minister for his inability to administer justice. It is important to remember that these are the same leaders who demanded justice from Narendra Modi for the 2002 victims in the name of secularism.
In 2013, when the Muzaffarnagar riots displaced at least 50,000 people and took 62 lives, it was Akhilesh Yadav who was the Chief Minister of the state. Yes, the riots polarized Uttar Pradesh and helped the BJP with a landslide victory in the general election the next year. But does that give Akhilesh Yadav the right to be indifferent to those seeking justice, especially the women who were raped and are now pleading for justice in courts? Like Modi who was the chief Minister of Gujarat when the riots killed at least thousand and landed families in relief camps, Akhilesh too could do little to stop the killings and rapes in Muzaffarnagar.
Communal riots tore through the western Uttar Pradesh town of Muzaffarnagar in 2013, leaving more than 60 people dead and thousands homeless
As I travelled through Baghra, Budhana and Jansath tehsils in Muzaffarnagar, where Muslims form roughly 45 percent of the population, I met people who were scared at the prospect of the election. They feared that with BJP leaders including party president Amit Shah bringing up the Ayodhya issue and the alleged Hindu exodus from Kairana
, there could be a return of communal tension in the state. They feared for their women and children, but had nowhere to go.
More appalling was the fact that the very people who were most affected during the Muzaffarnagar riots, who had lost their property, were willing to give Akhilesh Yadav another chance as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. And they had their reasons. First, they believed that Mayawati had chosen to ignore their plight and shown no interest in getting them justice. Some believed that in the case of a fractured majority, Mayawati could help the BJP return to power, as opposed to Akhilesh Yadav, who had allied with the Congress. Their primary interest in supporting the Chief Minister who sat through their plight was to stop the BJP from assuming power, as it was the BJP which allegedly instigated and benefited from the riots. Akhilesh Yadav, who took on his father by his own confession to clear the Samajwadi Party of thuggery, has shown a weak spine when it comes to justice for the women in his state, whose stories of abuse silence Akhilesh Yadav's tall claims of inclusiveness. That the Muzaffarnagar victims are willing to give him a chance only to keep the BJP at bay should be a source of tremendous embarrassment to Akhilesh Yadav, who is spinning the cycle of secularism" in Uttar Pradesh and looking to return to power. To quote from the Amnesty report again: "In three cases, survivors identified and named the men they said had raped them in their First Information Reports, but then retracted their statements in court. Some of them later admitted that they had been compelled to do so after facing pressure and threats to their safety and that of their families, and a lack of adequate support and security from the authorities."
BSP chief Mayawati has traditionally done well in Western Uttar Pradesh
These documents are part of the public domain, like many others which highlight the plight of the women and displaced children of Muzaffarnagar, and it is highly unlikely that both Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav are not privy to them. So when both leaders who are looking at a possible assembly victory as their big ticket for 2019, look the other way while campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, how different are they from those they slot as the epitome of communalism, like Modi and Shah?
In a month's time, Uttar Pradesh will have a new government, and irrespective of who assumes power, Akhilesh Yadav will have to carry the baggage of being an inefficient leader to the victims of Muzaffarnagar. And his political rivals could tell him that it is not moral baggage that's easy to live with. (Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is the author of 'Gujarat Files', a book on the politics of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in Gujarat.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.