Muzaffarnagar, with a population of less than half a million, has a 49 percent Hindu and 47 percent Muslim population. The Jats and Muslims have always fought battles together. Mediapersons reporting from the area recollect the days when, during many farmer agitations under Mahendra Singh Tikait in the early 1980s, Muslims offered namaaz and the Hindus prayers at rally sites.
The people of the area, who till now took pride in the 'Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb' (syncretic culture), are numbed into silence.
Faced with hunger, fear and the heavy security presence, the district elders stand at the cross-roads of a never before religious divide that poses a "scary and uncertain future", admits a senior official with his roots in the region. "We have grown up in the area and it is indeed a sad development," the official, who pleaded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, mused to IANS.
The National Highway 58 that passes through the city wears an abandoned look owing to the curfew and the only people around are the men-in-khakhi, swarming in their thousands. The jaggery and other trade centres at the Naveen Mandi are deserted and business is suffering. A city with the highest agricultural GDP in the state is now in the grip of communal tension, residents say.
Mirza Arshad Beg, a trader, told IANS over the phone that in the tough communal situation in the state in the 1990s the city was by-and-large peaceful and the developments of the past few days have even taken him aback. "I always took pride in the social cocktail the city offered but no more," he said, sounding very crestfallen. Old timers endorse Beg's contention that in the past, the city has been very "peaceful and amicable".
Eighty-year-old Yagya Dutt Sharma, who hails from Shamli but is settled in Lucknow, said he felt sorry that the people of the area, who fought the British in "one voice" since 1857 War of Independence are now fighting with each other. A retired government servant and a writer, Sharma said people in the area have always been 'akkhadi' (sharp tongued) but good at heart.
Another official hailing from the same area said though small-time communal flare-ups have happened at times, never has the tension reached the countryside. This time, things are different, he rued while pointing out that growing population in both communities, and to a certain extent "one-sided policies" of the state government have triggered things to some degree.
The people are angry and feel the state government has done precious little to contain the "seeds of communal politics in the region". When the government of the day comes across as being biased and-out-and-out tilted toward one community, how long can the other side hold back, questioned one resident.
A businessman in the area too squarely blamed the Akhilesh Yadav government for being "blinded by vote-bank politics. This government is talking of big ticket investments coming to the state. How and why will it come with such incidents," he questioned, adding that even small-time traders like him are doomed in such situations.
Rajeev Sirohi, a schoolteacher, called for peace and said that efforts need to be made to restore normalcy in the area. "What has happened is behind us but I urge political parties to realize that their vote-bank politics is in nobody's interest."
Shailesh Kumar Chauhan, also from western Uttar Pradesh, and currently on a three year assignment in the US, told IANS: "The developments were frightening."