Many believe the communal incidents in the region were strategically timed ahead of the panchayat polls

“This man was killing cows near the mandi. He’s a cow murderer. Listen to what we have to say! If anyone else is caught slaughtering cows, this is what we will do to them.”

This provocative line suddenly popped up on WhatsApp in the last week of June, accompanied by a video clip of Bajrang Dal activists in Shamli assaulting the “cow murderer”. As it went viral on the social media, communal tension in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar — the districts devastated by deadly riots exactly two years ago in August 2013 — rose, interrupting the fragile peace.

This was just the beginning.

Communal clashes began to be reported from different parts of western Uttar Pradesh, even from towns that had been peaceful in the recent past like Saharanpur, or those outside this region such as Faizabad. Starting mid-June, around 20-odd small and big incidents have been reported, coinciding with the start of Ramzaan and later, Kanwad.

The spurt in communal incidents that broke the relative calm of the region, many here believe, were strategically timed ahead of the panchayat polls, scheduled for later this year. Just as the clashes of August 2013 led to the emptying of villages, and communal polarisation followed by a clean sweep by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections here last year.

This time, the BJP and the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) are expending their energy on these local polls, hoping its results will set the stage for the Assembly polls slated for early 2017.

The riots here began in the last week of August 2013, after the murders of Shahnawaz and Sachin and Gaurav, residents of Kaval and Malakpur villages, triggered off a series of hate speeches by Jat and Muslim leaders to their respective communities.

Earlier this year, when two boys on motorcycles, one a Dalit and the other a Muslim, crashed into each other in Deoband, hundreds of people came on to the roads, pelting stones and opening fire. In another incident in Meerut, when a local farmer parked his trolley on farmland belonging to someone of another community, the incident swiftly turned communal. In both cases, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and the police had to be called in.

Local BJP activists told The Hindu this was “inevitable”.

Even though the police took prompt action and arrested the Muslims reported to have started the fight in Deoband, Dalit youth continue to highlight alleged instances of the State government’s pro-Muslim bias. Topping the list of instances is how a senior SP State Minister got police officers transferred to “save” Muslim rioters during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. “Riots would have been controlled had the officers not been shifted by Azam Khan [a senior SP leader],” said Vivek, a Valmiki youth in Deoband.

It is the internalising of such grievances that makes the BJP confident that wherever Dalits constitute less then 40 per cent in Muslim-dominated towns and villages, they will vote for the BJP. “If polarisation takes place, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will not get Dalit votes. No Valmiki or Dalit is a Dalit now. All of them have become Hindus,” a BJP leader told The Hindu in Shamli.

Such has been the lasting impact of the Muzaffarnagar riots that for a majority of the Hindus here, the SP Government is “anti-Hindu”.

In the first week of July, Satbir, a youth from the OBC community of Kashyaps, sitting outside a mosque in Meerapur Assembly constituency’s Bhumma village, was killed by two people from the same village.

As the alleged killers were Muslim, Satbir’s family expressed its lack of confidence in the local station house officer (SHO). The SHO was called back to police headquarters and the Muslims in the village, outnumbered by the Hindus, were forced to take shelter in the mosque.

As the situation grew increasingly tense, local BJP MP, 2013 riot-accused and now a Central Minister Sanjeev Baliyan, arrived, accompanied by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)’s Sadhvi Pragya. So inflammatory were the Sadhvi’s remarks that even the State BJP chief distanced himself from her statement.

The BJP, says Shahid Manzoor, Labour Minister in the SP government, wants to neutralise the anger and disillusionment of the local Hindu farmers, largely Jats, against the Centre. “In May, everyone in U.P. was criticising the Modi government for remaining silent on the sad plight of farmers and sugarcane growers. Now the BJP wants to counter that. The easiest way is to communalise the environment.”

So tense is the situation now that even a small fight can spark off violence.

The alleged attack on riot victims in Kutba village on Saturday and violent attack on a prominent Muslim cleric by Bajrang Dal workers on Friday worked to enflame the already polarised communal tempers of the region.