MUZAFFARNAGAR, India — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new junior minister for agriculture, Sanjeev Balyan, is a first-time officeholder famous for precisely one thing: After two Hindu men were killed in an altercation with Muslims in his district last summer, he rallied crowds of angry young men from his caste, urging them to protect their own kind.
At the time, the police listed Dr. Balyan, a veterinarian, as one of 14 politicians who addressed a crowd that was armed with bamboo clubs and sticks. Their report summarizes the politicians’ message in blunt terms. “Wherever we will find people belonging to the Muslim community, by killing them, we will get our revenge,” the report says.
A week later, mobs of armed Hindu men descended on local villages, leaving around 60 people, mostly Muslims, dead and prompting tens of thousands of Muslims to flee their homes. Dr. Balyan, who had been jailed before the violence, was charged with incitement.
As he campaigned to become prime minister earlier this year, Mr. Modi assiduously avoided religious issues, hewing to the economic growth platform that carried him to a landslide victory. In his early days in office he has tried to set a conciliatory, centrist tone, and some of his decisions since taking power have disappointed his far-right backers.
So it is curious to find Dr. Balyan in such a high-profile post, unless you consider the raw math of political payback. On the heels of an ugly episode of religious polarization, Dr. Balyan won election to Parliament in a landslide, delivering this sugarcane-producing region in the politically vital state of Uttar Pradesh into the hands of Mr. Modi’s center-right Bharatiya Janata Party for the first time in 15 years. His presence in the cabinet is a reminder that stoking such divisions remains a way to win votes, something that Mr. Modi still needs to do in order to build up a team of regional allies in the coming months and years.
“You see,” said Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst, “it is one ballgame to win an election and an entirely different ballgame to run a country like India.”
The violence that tore through the Muzaffarnagar district last August began with an ordinary quarrel. Gaurav, an 18-year-old Hindu man from the Jat caste, was eating in a marketplace. A 24-year-old Muslim cloth merchant on a motorcycle asked him to move his bicycle. He refused, according to Gaurav’s father, Ravindra Kumar.
Sharp words were exchanged — and the Muslim man slapped Gaurav, who returned later with a group of relatives. In the brawl, the cloth merchant was fatally stabbed, and Gaurav and his cousin Sachin, 24, were beaten to death, their bodies sprawled on the dusty, bloodstained road.
By the next day, political parties had gotten involved on both sides, demanding that the guilty parties be arrested. A Muslim member of Parliament from a lower-caste party attended the last rites for the cloth merchant, according to Mohammad Irshad, a local imam. Though the Bharatiya Janata Party was not traditionally strong in the region, high-ranking officials became regular visitors to the Jat areas, making the three-hour journey from New Delhi.
But the true local champion was Dr. Balyan, 42, whose father is a Hindu activist and farmer from a nearby town. Divendra Singh, a cousin of the dead Hindu men, said Dr. Balyan managed to remove the names of several relatives, including Mr. Singh, from the criminal complaint about the Muslim man’s death.
Alok Priyadarshi, Muzaffarnagar’s rural superintendent of police, said that the authorities were prompted to take action after a group of 14 politicians addressed a gathering of thousands of men armed with sticks, four days after the deadly brawl, which “turned the situation from bad to worse by whipping up passions.” Of the 14, 12 were affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Anshul Panwar, 31, a farmer who said he attended the gathering, described “such immense anger amongst the Hindus around here,” and recalled that Dr. Balyan “was talking like the rest of the leaders, that we must do our all to save the honor of our daughters and sisters.”
Dr. Balyan and the other leaders were detained several days later in what the police described as a preventive measure. In June, investigators submitted charges against them for “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion,” and disobeying and obstructing public servants, said Manoj Kumar Jha, who headed the investigative team.
In an interview in his new office in New Delhi, Dr. Balyan played down the importance of the charges, which he described as “the kind of case which can be slapped against anyone for political reasons.”
He said he bore no responsibility for the violence because it broke out when he was in jail.
If he had not been behind bars, he said, “I would have tried my best to make sure the riots didn’t happen.”
The weekend after the gathering brought another huge meeting of Hindu men — and a burst of violence. Groups of men armed with machetes and clubs coursed through the streets of Kutba Kutbi, Dr. Balyan’s home village, some chanting “Go to Pakistan, or go to the graveyard,” said Muslims who fled the village that day.
They set fire to the mosque and Muslims scattered, some taking shelter on their roofs and others plunging into sugarcane fields. As Muslims fled the village, “We saw body parts lying about,” said Mohammad Shahid, 29. Eight men and one woman were killed in that one village, residents said, listing out the names.
Indramani Tripathi, a top civil official in Muzaffarnagar, said, “I have never seen anything like it, and I hope and pray I never see such a situation again.”
None of the village’s Muslims have returned to their homes. Though Hindus from Qutba occasionally pass through the new Muslim settlement, they do not stop, and the two groups regard each other with cold distrust, braced for new violence. Mohammad Jafar Siddiqui, 32, grimaced when asked about Dr. Balyan’s new post.
“For his role in shedding the blood of innocents,” he said, “he was rewarded with a ministership.”
Discussions of last September’s riots have been, to a great extent, eclipsed by the seismic political events of the spring, when the Bharatiya Janata Party made a stunning showing in Uttar Pradesh, winning 71 out of 80 parliamentary seats.
But voters in Uttar Pradesh were not exactly swept up in the Modi wave, with 62 percent of them saying they would have voted for the B.J.P. regardless of its leader, according to the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. Indeed, in his campaigning Dr. Balyan often explicitly departed from Mr. Modi’s centrist message.
“I will not talk of development; this is not the time to talk development,” he told one crowd, in April, according to The Indian Express. “The verdict from this area must be one-sided. You know what to do. There is nothing more for me to say.”
Asked what had caused this major shift in voting patterns, virtually everyone in the Muzaffarnagar district pointed to the riots. And political analysts, searching for an explanation of why Mr. Modi had selected a junior minister with such a controversial past, reached the same conclusion: The position needed to go to a Jat, and he was available.
On a recent afternoon, Dr. Balyan’s father, Surendra Singh, was lounging on the veranda of his farmhouse in Qutba with a group of friends. They swelled with pride as they discussed the new minister. “This boy is fast in his work like a cheetah,” said one man. “He is as swift and agile as a cheetah.”
To a question about the B.J.P.’s victory, Mr. Singh responded cheerfully.
“Let me tell you a small story,” he said, and launched into a detailed narration of Gaurav’s death, which he said had set off the chain of events that culminated in his son’s election. It wasn’t hard to get details, since Ravindra Kumar, Gaurav’s father, happened to be sitting beside him.
“There was total polarization — the Hindus were on one side, and the Muslims were on the other side, and it worked in his favor,” Mr. Singh said. “Because of what happened to that family, the Hindus united. And for the next 100 years, we will make sure this remains a B.J.P. bastion.”
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