ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Agrarian Transformation and New Sociality in Western Uttar Pradesh

Satendra Kumar ( is with the G B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.

Over the last three decades, rural western Uttar Pradesh has undergone rapid change. The ongoing changes in agriculture, the decline of Jat political dominance, and the rise of the marginalised caste–communities have changed socio-economic and political relations, and have produced a new sociality shaped by new technologies and changing land–labour relations.
The new sociality, which is a result of altering agrarian landscape, rural–urban dynamics and technologies of communication, mobility, and entertainment has provided fresh grounds for communalisation and communal violence.

The author thanks A R Vasavi, Peter R deSouza, Rakesh Pandey, and Michael Levien for their useful and constructive comments on this paper. Field research was conducted between September 2004 and August 2005, and revisits were made between January 2014 and June 2015 to the Khanpur and Pampur villages in Meerut and Muzaffarnagar districts respectively.

More than two dozen big and small incidents of Hindu–Muslim violence have been reported from different villages of western Uttar Pradesh (UP) since 2013.1 Many people have been killed and continue to lose their lives in ongoing communal violence.  In August 2013, a major riot broke out when a Hindu Jat girl was harassed by a Muslim boy in Kawal village, of Muzaffarnagar district. Competing narratives of this incident were floated and violence spread to Shamli, Baghpat, Saharanpur, and Meerut.2 The incident led to killings which forced thousands of people to migrate to urban neighbourhoods, while others found place in refugee camps where they continue to live.3 As a result, the socio-demographic structure of villages in rural western UP has changed forever. Villages are purged of their Muslim and Hindu presence.

In such cases of communal violence, the riots have occurred between Jats and low-caste Muslims. Most of these Muslims are from the artisan-service and labour-caste groups such as carpenters, barbers, weavers, and washermen. For generations, these artisans had been living with Jat farmers as an integral part of the village and agricultural economy. Despite a history of communal violence in urban areas, rural western UP has been devoid of such conflicts. It was so even during the 1992 communal riot. 

Popular media and political commentators have alleged that it is the handiwork of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva forces who have been trying to polarise voters on the basis of religion (Chaudhary 2015). By now it has also been proven that representatives of every party have been playing an active role one way or another in fuelling this ongoing communal violence. The most important question, however, is that if Jats and Muslims were living together peacefully as political allies for such a long time, participating together in kisan politics and the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) movement in the late 1980s, then why did a commonplace incident (such as the one in Kawal, Muzaffarnagar) trigger such a big riot in rural western UP? Village after village was engulfed in its flames, previously unheard of in this part of UP. Most importantly, these incidents have continued to occur and conflagrate into communal violence.4

The uniqueness of this ongoing communal violence is that the villages have been its epicentre, and it has proceeded from the rural to the urban. Moreover, it has permeated into everyday rural life and become a day-to-day affair. Why has the site of communal violence shifted from urban to rural areas in contemporary UP? What has changed in rural western UP?

I argue that the shifting of communal violence to rural areas cannot be understood without analysing the changes in agrarian economy and rural power structure over the previous decades. There seems to be a paucity of work, both in media reports and academic research on these specific aspects of the region. This article focuses on how the ongoing changes in agrarian economy, the decline of Jat political dominance, the rise of marginalised caste communities and religiosity over the last three decades have changed the socio-economic and political relations in rural western UP and have produced a new sociality. The emerging techno-mediated sociality, which is closely linked to and shaped by the new agrarian landscape, rural–urban dynamics, and technologies of communication and mobility, has provided a fresh impetus to communalisation and communal violence in the region.

Political Economy of Uttar Pradesh

Despite UP’s large population and its central position in national politics, it is one of the most socio-economically backward states (Jeffery and Lerche 2003).5 Uttar Pradesh’s population can be divided into three social blocs. First, there are the upper-caste Hindus, mainly Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias, who comprise roughly 20% of the population and dominate government jobs and landownership in the state (Hasan 1998). The second bloc, about another 20%, constitutes the Hindu middle castes, which include Jats, particularly the upper sections of this group, such as Gujjars, Yadavs, and Kurmis, which are categorised as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (Government of India 1980). The rest of the population mainly comprises Muslims (17%), Scheduled Castes (SCs) (21%), and Most Backward Classes (MBCs), whose share in the population is also around 20% (Government of UP 2001). Some of the Muslims and SCs are rich and can be classified as middle class, but the majority of them are poor and concentrated in informal sector jobs, working in extremely exploitative and insecure conditions.

While UP’s development record in terms of public health, education, and transport is dreadful, there are regional differences. The western part of the state fares well in many ways compared to other regions (Jeffery and Lerche 2003). Western UP, along with Haryana and Punjab, was the epicentre of the first green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It is located mainly between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, sugar cane and wheat being the main crops. While Jats, Gujjars, and Tyagis have dominated landownership in large parts of the region (Jeffrey 2010; Raheja 1988), SCs and Muslims are the numerically larger groups. Among the SCs, Chamars form the majority, being the single largest caste group in the state.

In this region, land reforms benefited the Jats, Gujjars, Yadavs, and Kurmis but made no significant difference to the lives of the poorer OBCs and SCs, especially in the rural areas. Between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s, private tube well irrigation, high yielding varieties (HYVs) of wheat and sugar cane, and new fertilisers increased the profitability of cash crops and strengthened the position of these castes, who were the main beneficiaries of the redistribution of the land previously held by zamindars (Jeffrey 2010; Michelutti 2008; Singh 1992). By the 1980s, the green revolution had produced an elite category of rich farmers across the country, including western UP (Jeffrey 2001; Rutten 1995; Upadhya 1988). The ongoing processes are visible through a detailed and longitudinal case study of two villages,6 which I now explicate.

Socio-demography of Khanpur and Pampur

Khanpur is located 30 km north of Meerut city in the Mawana block of Meerut district. In 2005, the village had 447 households and a population of 2,910 divided into 15 castes. Among these, two were upper castes (Brahmin and Bania), two SCs (Chamar and Valimiki) and 11 OBCs (Jat, Gujjar, Yadav, Gaderiya, Saini, Dhimvar, Lohar, Badhai, Nai, Dhobi, and Fakir). The Lohar, Badhai, Nai, and Dhobi are Muslim artisan-service castes. In 2015, the number of households increased to 530 and the population increased to 3,491. Historically, the village was part of Mir–Baraha, a socio-geographical region ruled by Muslim zamindars (Census of India 1931).7 In UP, during the land reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, large plots of land were transferred from the zamindars to their middle- and lower-caste tenants.8 Those who were already farming substantial areas of land on direct tenancy arrangements in Khanpur were from three castes—Yadavs, Gujjars, and Gaderiyas. While a few Gaderiyas became big- and middle-farmers, the Balmikis remained landless labourers.

Khanpur is well connected with a metalled road running to a town called Phalawada, which lies 3 km to the north-west. Phalawada is a small town, and nearby villagers depend on it for everyday household and farm needs. Phalawada has two inter-colleges, three hospitals, two petrol pumps, a police station, vegetable and grain mandis. A weekly cattle fair/market is also held there. Villagers walk and cycle to Phalawada. Many of the villagers from Khanpur work in Phalawada as labourers and run their small businesses. Some of them have a regular job there. Similarly, Khanpur is also well connected with Mawana, a tehsil (revenue) and block headquarter, located 9 km to the south-east. Mawana is bigger than Phalawada, and has four graduate and five intermediate colleges where young men and women of Khanpur prefer to go for education. Mawana also has a sugar factory which was established in 1934. Some of the villagers have been working in the sugar factory. So villagers have been exposed to town life for a long time. However, over the years, density of interaction with towns and cities has increased multifold and in multiple ways. In terms of day-to-day economic, educational, medical, and bureaucratic work, Khanpur is highly dependent on Phalawada and Mawana.

Pampur lies 15 km north of Muzaffarnagar city in the Morna block of Muzaffarnagar district. In 2005, the village had 511 households and a population of 3,370 divided into 17 castes. Among these, two were upper castes (Brahmin and Bania), two SCs (Chamar and Balmiki) and 13 OBCs. While other castes were common in both the villages, Jat along with the Muslim OBCs such as Darji (tailor), Julaha (weaver), Teli (oil presser), and Sakka (water carrier) also resided in Pampur. In 2015, the number of households increased to 635 and the population to 4,185.

Pampur is well connected with Muzaffarnagar city. Villagers use cycles and motorbikes to commute to Muzaffarnagar where hospitals, colleges and the court are located along with grain and vegetable mandis which are integral part of the village. Historically, the village was part of Sayyad–Baraha, a socio-geographical region ruled by Muslim zamindars (Census of India 1931). However, after the Partition many of them left for Pakistan and those who remained, suffered heavily from the land reforms which benefited the Jats immensely. Some other OBC castes such as Sainis and Dhimvars have not benefited much from the land reform in the region. Jats (120 households) owned more than 70% of the agricultural land in Pampur and is a dominant caste. While a few Sainis emerged as landowner farmers, the Balmikis remained landless labours. The artisan-service castes (Lohar, Badhai, Nai and Dhobi) depended on both modernising and integrating their traditional skills with the market or on unskilled daily wages.

Both villages have grown demographically. Outmigration has been rather slow. Even when the villagers go out to work or run businesses in nearby towns, they do not leave the village. Almost everyone has a pucca/cemented house. This is a very positive development in other nearby villages too and has become a common feature of the region. There was only one temple in Khanpur village, in 2015, two new temples came up. One of them was built in the Saini’s mohalla (neighbourhood) and another one in Dhimvar’s mohalla. All village roads have been bricked. In 2015, the Pampur village had four temples and three satang units of different urban-based religious sects such as Dera Sacha Sauda, Radha Soami, and Kali Kholi Wale. However, in 2005, there was only one temple and one satsang unit of Anandpur Sahib (locally, they are called Nangli wale) in Pampur.

The village boundaries have become fluid over the years with blurring of boundaries between residential area and agricultural land, or of one village from the other. Physical boundary of the village ended where the agricultural farms of the other village began. That was called the rakba (area) of the village. The rakba included all farmland, common land such as grazing land, forests and trees, as well as ponds. In 2005, Khanpur lost some of its rakba which meant that the farmland (around 50 acres) went to other villages. Farmers from nearby villages bought farmland in Khanpurs’ rakba. Further, in 2015, Khanpur again lost around 50 more acres of its farmland to outsiders. Many of the farmers whose land was acquired by the government in the National Capital Region (NCR) bought the 50 acres belonging to Khanpur. Most of these farmers were Gujjars and Brahmins. Some of them also bought houses but do not live in the village. They were non-residential farmers and gave their land on annual contract to the villagers, particularly to their kin. However, the rakba of the Pampur village expanded since some of the Jat farmers bought land in neighbouring villages and made intrusions into the other villages.

This intrusion into the village has also led to several long-term sociological and political implications. It has changed the cognitive, social, and physical boundaries of the village. These boundaries have become visibly porous, since “outsiders” now own land and houses in the village. Those who have bought land and houses are called bahar walle (outsiders). It is a derogatory term and is used to demarcate villagers from the outsiders, who have always been seen with suspicion and their presence in dispute resolutions have been avoided. However, entry of the new population has changed the social and economic dynamics of the village since some of the outsiders are rich. They have tried to influence the outcome of village panchayat elections, putting money into them or giving credits to poor and lower-caste people. The land compensations in Noida and Meerut also raised the land prices in both the villages and made land expensive for villagers to buy.

Agrarian Transformation

Jats have dominated landownership in large parts of western UP since at least the mid-19th century. They strengthened their economic position after the revolt of 1857 (which is also called the Sepoy Mutiny). The Muslims and Rajputs in UP, particularly in the western part, were great losers in terms of landholdings and land rights, and the British favoured Jats who consolidated their position from the Muslim tenants to landowners and zamindars (Stokes 1980). Later on, their political alignments with the British helped Jats economically. After independence, the Jats benefited immensely from the land reforms in western UP and emerged as an ideal example of entrepreneurial kisan or middle peasantry representing Bharat against India. Between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s, the introduction of the green revolution strengthened the position of Jats further. As landowners, they had been patron or jajmans to artisan-service and labour castes who are largely “backward” (Pasmanda) Muslims. The artisan-service castes are either landless or small and marginal landowners. After 1980, during the advanced stages of the green revolution, this region witnessed a drastic change in agrarian relations. The number of big- and middle-farmers declined rapidly, and the size of landholdings became smaller through subdivisions. A survey conducted in 2009 in the villages of Muzaffarnagar district shows that 90% of the farmers are small and marginal.9 A previous study conducted in two villages of the Meerut district corroborates this finding (Kumar 2016).

The neo-liberal economic policies, decline of state subsidies to agriculture, rising cost of farming inputs, growing stagnation in farm production, and ecological precarity—all have further weakened the position of Jat farmers. Agriculture is hardly a profitable or preferred occupation for most of the rural population. A study of Khanpur and Pampur villages shows that parents still showed a strong attachment to land but did not see agriculture as a suitable occupation for their children. The younger generation across caste groups disliked farming as an occupation. Only approximately 5% showed interest. Surprisingly, SCs and upper castes have shown no interest in agriculture as an occupation. Following the upper castes, the upper strata of OBCs showed little interest (8.4%). Among the lower, artisan-service, and other OBCs, the lower OBCs have shown most interest (10.4%). More than 40% villagers, across caste and class, wanted to have government jobs. While majority of the upper castes want to become professionals such as doctors and engineers, SCs prefer government jobs. Muslims have not shown much enthusiasm for government jobs; rather they are more inclined towards small businesses and urban jobs (Kumar 2016). Further, recent studies have shown that the jajmani system has nearly ended and labour relations have become largely contractual and temporary.10 Each family and household has one or two members who are earning their livelihoods outside the farm. The village economy has diversified with the coming up of multi-occupational households. More than 40% of the men work away from the farm and outside the village (Gupta 2015). Hundreds of people from each village work in nearby towns and cities, commuting to and from their homes. Commuting implies that a substantial number of villagers spend more time in urban sites than on the agricultural field. The daily face-to-face interactions among different communities and individuals, which used to take place either at the farm, village intersections, male sitting places (baithaks), and common ritual spaces for women, have declined. This has led to an increased distance between the villagers, particularly between artisan–labourers and farmers. Farmers who would depend on artisan-service castes for everyday services (such as repairing agricultural implements, hair cutting, and washing clothes) now either depend on new technology such as the iron or the washing machine or frequent the market in nearby towns for these services.

The leisure time, which used to bind villagers together through various leisure activities such as singing together during rainy season, or sitting and chatting during peak summer, has been reduced due to jobs/work in cities and towns. The relations of reciprocity and exchange have changed into competition. Competition has not only increased between castes, but also between families, brothers, and neighbours. The increasing competition has dramatic effects on rural social life and relationship. Independence from jajmani relations combined with universal suffrage and introduction of the panchayati raj institutions has created not only political competition between Jats and their clients, but has also changed their mutually dependent economic interests into competing ones. Vertical unity has given way to horizontal alliances between artisan, service, and labour castes (Srinivas 1962). In this changed landscape the caste system has given way to caste identity or cultural differences in which castes assert their identity.

The breakdown of the jajmani system has not only freed “kamins” or the artisan-service caste–communities from exploitative asymmetrical relations, but also provided employment opportunities outside the farm, in nearby towns and cities where new opportunities have emerged in the services sector. The new generation of blacksmiths and carpenters, born into the new political and economic conditions of the late 1980s and 1990s, has had the opportunity to look for a job outside the farm or village. In contrast to the previous generation, the generation of the 1980s and 1990s of artisan-service castes also attended school and college and learned the new values of equality and dignity through schoolbooks and exposure to the outside world through newspapers, television, and social media. Electoral democracy has been a good teacher, and a channel for lower castes and Dalits to assert their identity and rights through political parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Each election teaches people, particularly hitherto excluded groups, the value of each voter/individual vote.

Facets of change: Employment in the new economy has not only brought in cash, but also enhanced the bargaining power of young men of these artisan-service and labour castes. They use this cash to buy new mobile sets, motorbikes, trendy clothes, and other consumer goods. They also use their earnings to build pucca houses and invest in buying agricultural land. Some of them have become small and marginal landowners. Today, the young generation of artisan-service and labour caste is better off than their parents in terms of income, literacy, and access to public goods. Majority of the artisan-service caste households have pucca houses. Among the once marginalised Muslim communities, a small middle class is emerging in terms of income and lifestyle (Kumar 2016). Men either run small shops in villages or work in nearby towns and cities in the upcoming shopping malls and business centres as skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled labourers. Women take care of buffaloes and sell milk. Both men and women and their households depend on the market for everyday necessities. These households are inextricably connected with the wider economy. Further, they are more and more connected with their larger kin networks and religious communities through the use of technology such as the mobile phone, motorbike, and public transport. This emerging economic, social, and
political independence from the village system has changed the rural world dramatically and created a new sociality in which people are increasingly disconnected with their living village world and more connected with the wider socio-economic and religious world through mobiles, motorbikes, and televisions. Family, kinship, and obligation-based rural economy is transforming into an individual-centric economy based on skills and cash transactions.

In this scenario, the young generation of the artisan-service and labour caste differs from the previous generations in their attitudes and manners towards the Jat landowners on whom the former depended as landowning patrons. Some of the Muslims have not only become economically better off from the poor and marginal Jat farmers, but also get more respect at their urban workplace and in the villages. The new generation has started asserting their right to respect in the everyday dispositions from the Jat and other dominant caste patrons.11 This assertion by the marginalised creates tension which often leads to small skirmishes and conflicts. But, the disintegration of vertical relations and everyday face-to-face interactions between different caste–communities and individuals (who work in urban areas) and the growing disconnect from village society and its social norms have weakened the capacity of the village and rural society to absorb and resolve everyday conflicts. More importantly, it has also reduced the ability of Jats and other dominant castes to use their power to resolve conflicts in their favour. This growing assertion is not easily tolerated by the dominant caste–communities who have been facing political decline and struggling with the emerging agricultural crisis. Extending this further, the emerging property relations and rise of the Muslim middle class are posing a new threat to the Jat dominance.

Decline of Jat Political Power

The political and economic dominance of the Jats in western UP is well-recorded (Gupta 1997; Jeffery 2001; Kumar 2013). Chaudhary Charan Singh, the former Prime Minister and a farmers’ leader, organised the Jats along with other middle castes under the banner of kisan movement in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Middle castes such as the Jats, Yadavs, and Kurmis perceived themselves to be victims of social and political discrimination in the allocation of public sector employment, disbursement of Congress tickets to contest elections, and representation within upper echelons of the Congress party. The almost total dominance of upper castes across the Congress leadership prevented political change and democratisation of the political office (Hasan 1998: 132). Frustrated with the policies and practices of party leader C B Gupta, Charan Singh challenged upper caste domination in the Congress and resigned from the party in 1967 (Byres 1988; Jaffrelot 2003).

He subsequently launched the Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) in 1969, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) in 1974, and Lok Dal in 1980 (Duncan 1997; Hasan 1998). He also mobilised rich farmers and peasants on issues such as agricultural subsidies and remunerative prices, drawing heavily on populist imagery and slogans against urban bias (Byres 1988: 162). Such mobilisation and associated political strength provided the basis for the rise of the BKU in the Upper Doab.12 Under the leadership of a charismatic Jat, Mahendra Singh Tikait, the BKU undertook its first large-scale agitation in January 1987, in protest against a government-imposed hike in the electricity tariff on irrigation pumps. The Jats and Muslims worked together in this movement and set an example of secularism (Gupta 1997).

Charan Singh died in 1987 and kisan politics lost its force due to his narrow focus on upper and middle class farmers. Further, emerging stagnation in agricultural production and the introduction of neo-liberal policies (the first phase in 1984), which subsequently led to the slow decline of farm subsidies also had adverse effects on kisan politics. More importantly, kisan politics not only failed to form a border alliance, but also to address the demands and issues of landless farmers and labourers, including marginal farmers who came largely from low castes such as MBC, artisan-service, and Dalits. This failure gave impetus to the new articulation which had already been mobilising caste identity in politics more vigorously through the socialist ideology. The Socialists gave rise to identity and reservation politics at a broader level in north India. Since the 1990s, the cohesion and political strength of the landed middle and backward caste coalition within party politics in UP has eroded (Duncan 1997). Given its narrow social base, the mobilisation of the rich farmers under the BKU also saw a sharp decline during this period. The loss of political coordination amongst rural landowners since the late 1980s is connected to a process of greater democratisation in UP politics associated with the rise of the SP, the BSP and the BJP as major political forces. The Lok Dal was renamed as Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) by Ajit Singh, son of Charan Singh. The RLD gradually shrunk in Jat-populated districts.

In rural Muzaffarnagar and Meerut, however, it was the BKU which was the strength of Jats and the marker of their identity as “kisan.” The Jats could channel their interests and show their strength through the BKU. The decline of the BKU along with the RLD created anxieties amongst them. A major blow came in the 2012 UP legislative assembly elections when the RLD won only nine seats out of 403, and the number of the Jat MLAs (members of legislative assembly) was reduced to five in the UP Vidhan Sabha (Goswami 2013). Moreover, in the 2014 general elections, the party was totally decimated. On the other hand, the number of Muslim MLAs had risen to 68 in 2012 from 25 in the 1993 UP legislative elections. There was a steady rise in the number of Muslim MLAs in the UP Vidhan Sabha since 1993. However, no Muslim won a parliamentary seat from UP in the 2014 general elections. And, in the 2017 UP legislative assembly elections, the number of Muslim MLAs declined to 24. The majority of them are from artisan-service and labour caste–communities or non-Ashraf backward Muslims. In contrast to the early 1980s, a large number of Muslim (artisan-service caste) councillors and village heads have also been elected in the recently concluded panchayat elections in UP.13

Three decades ago, Muslim artisans and service castes hardly dared to contest elections against Jats. The emergence of new political parties such as the SP and BSP have given new voices and representation to the backward Muslims who were until recently treated only as a vote bank by the upper-caste upper-class Muslims. The political empowerment and the rise of the backward Muslims, particularly erstwhile kamins is rearranging power relations in western UP. In general, the Jats feel that they are losing political ground and power to Muslims and other lower castes which are being mobilised by the SP and BSP under the rubric of social justice. Such anxieties among the Jats have pushed them into desperate attempts at regaining political and economic dominance. This desperation in turn has provided new openings for the Hindu right-wing forces to advance its agenda.

Emergence of New Sociality and Communalism

Shrinking landholdings and constant failure of crops combined with the decline of political power, traditional status, and privilege (Jodhka 2015), have led Jats to search for new avenues of employment and new political alliances. Moreover, the decline in farm income has not only eroded the pride in “kisan” identity, but also the dignity of rural life asserted by the kisan politics under the leadership of Charan Singh and Mahendra Singh Tikait. Search for employment and work in the new globalised economy bring young Jat men into contact with cities, towns, and the emerging larger Hindu middle class.14 Through interactions with the middle class, they have been imbibing their taste, language, rituals, symbols, politics, and ethos. The new means of communication and transport increase the mobility of young Jat men, and integrate them with the urban and the emerging middle class culture. Changes in aspirations and identities forged by the new technologies of communication and entertainment, and mobilities have not only created an altered sociocultural landscape but also new rural subjectivities.

The mobility increased by new means of communication, all weather roads, transport, and new entertainment technologies have restructured the village, commingling the rural with the urban. The arrival of television, telephone, motorbikes, cars, compact disks, pen drives, mobiles, smart phones, availability of internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp have had a tremendous influence on socio-economic and political interactions. Moreover, supply of rural labour to the expanding urban service sector and flow of urban aspirations to the rural world have rapidly increased over the years. These material and cultural exchanges have integrated the rural and the urban more intimately than before. Moreover, the non-farm service sector has become an integral part of village and rural life. This movement and communication has not only created new ways of forging social and economic connections, but also provided spaces for different sociopolitical formations, and transformed the social and cultural worlds of people.

Most of the time, young men are found watching soaps on television rather than chatting in peer groups at common spaces or gher (male sitting place). Young men spend more time on mobile sets (smart phones) playing games, chatting with friends and unknown persons, forming online communities and networks, watching porn and other shows rather than interacting with elders and other community members. There is also a growing disconnect between the younger and older generations in terms of choices of entertainment, food, and clothes. While older generation still want to hear the melodies of the 1960s–1970s, folk songs such as ragnis, and saang (folk theatre), the younger ones are more inclined to enjoy Hindi and Punjabi Pop music. However, new versions of Haryanvi Pop have also hit the local market in a big way, attracting young and old alike in the same way. The consumption of branded shoes and clothes is attracting the rural youth in a big way and has become a status symbol. For the emerging rural middle class, it is a way to claim new status and to legitimise their economic and social mobility. Across caste for the rural youth, Valentine’s and Friendship Day along with bachelor parties have become new rituals and huge attractions. The emergence of this new culture has created a space for love affairs and pre-marital sex among the youth, which has created huge tension, conflict, and often violence in families, among the kin, and caste–communities in the villages. It has also fuelled honour killings (Chowdhry 2009). The exchanges between the rural and urban are not only material and cultural but also symbolic and social. The rapid urban growth and urbanisation have brought about the ruralisation of urban and urbanisation of rural at multiple levels.

Economic betterment and access to new technology have given a new dimension and consciousness to caste and religiosity and to its public expression. Increasingly, villagers are inclined to watch spiritual and religious television soaps and interact within their kin, caste, and religious networks and communities beyond the boundaries of the village and the nation state. For instance, QTV and Peace TV are quite popular among the Muslims in this region. Through different programmes, these television channels teach one how to become a good and pious Muslim. Young Muslims who work in Gulf countries call their parents and friends in the village and share their experience of being Muslims there.15 Exposure and connection to the wider world through work networks and media images have given a new sense of Islam to the youth of the new generation of artisan-service caste. They articulate the world order and progress in ways different from the Hindu youth. Samshu (28, Nai (barber) caste) expressed his views saying: “Bhai jaan, Dubai is better than America. You can get everything in Dubai. Buildings are even taller than New York.” Further, he said, “Dubai is more developed than America. Salaries are better than our India.” Samshu’s experience of the Muslim world (Gulf) instills confidence in him given his low caste and low economic position in rural UP villages where he had been repeatedly subjected to the discrimination not only exercised by upper-caste Hindus but also by the Ashraf Muslims. His Gulf experience also equipped him to counter the hegemonic American images of development and power which demonised the Muslims across the world. These global connections and local discriminations have generated contradictory changes and effects in rural western UP, particularly among the Muslims. Aspirations of economic and spatial mobility go hand in hand with religious inclinations.

A Rise in Religiosity

In the last three decades, backward Muslims have become more religious and are exhibiting (pan-Islamic) religious symbols at public places. According to artisan-Muslim respondents, more and more men and women participate in Tablighi Jamaat, a religious movement. Jumman (57), a Nai told me: “Saal bhar main ak bar Jamaat main jaroor jaate hain” (Once in a year, I definitely try to join and serve in the Jamaat). Anis (42), a Fakir agricultural labourer shared that: “Jab se Jammatwale aane lage hain, tub se main daadi rakhane laga hun aur roj dohpahar ki namaj bhi padane jata huin” (After coming into contact with the Jammat’s preachers, I started keeping beard and offering prayers in the mosque every day). The ideas, norms, and practices of the Tablighi Jamaat have affected the public presence of the Muslim identity in significant ways (Ahmed 2013). People of Jamaat keep connections across villages, cities and countries through social media and exchange ideas regularly. They imagine their community beyond village. Many Muslims have increasingly been asserting their presence in public spaces by keeping beards without moustache, wearing a long kurta with short pyjamas and a white skull cap that are observable markers of a typical Islamised identity of a male Muslim in the region. More number of women can be seen wearing black burkas in villages. The increasing visibility of the green minarets of mosques in villages makes the Muslim presence assertive and significant. Every year, more Muslims are becoming inclined to take the pilgrimage to Mecca. In both villages, we found more people who plan to go for “Hajj” and were actively saving money for this pilgrimage. Providing subsidies and special assistance to the religious journeys have become both public and political spectacles.

Simultaneously, an increasing number of Jats are shifting away from their Arya Samaj roots and joining religious and spiritual sects such as the Dera Sacha Sauda, Radha Soami, and Kali Kholi Wale (Lord Krishna’s incarnation) which are urban and have spread to rural Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, and western UP. With the agricultural and village festivals on the decline, they are embracing Hindu rituals and festivals such as Navaratri, participating in kirtans, religious meetings and functions organised by member-groups of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Jagrans and Mata ki Chowki, which was purely urban shows, are now organised in villages (both in Khanpur and Pampur).

During our interviews villagers said that while the frequency of ramlila and saang performances (folk theatre) have declined, shows of Jagrans and Mata ki Chowki have increased. The artists for these shows come from Meerut, Mawana, and Muzaffarnagar. Amongst the Jats, television channels like Astha have become quite popular. The phenomenon of Deras and Babas and the increasing number of their followers in rural Haryana and Punjab have been well-recorded (Jodhka 2014, 2017). Villagers in this part of India are seen either travelling together to Deras in Sirsa/Nagli Sahib/Baes or regularly attending the weekly satsang. Jodhka (2017) calls it “mobile religiosity” which seems to produce a new sense of community among the members of these congregations. This new community has global imagination through media and social networks. For instance, WhatsApp groups of different Deras connect their members with each other in different villages, cities and countries—a global community in making. This gives them a sense of security being a part of bigger world and social relations, particularly in the wake of disintegration of village caste-based dependencies. As mentioned before, the breakdown of jajmani system has led to weaken the sense of collective-village identity (however, hierarchical) and common spaces. This ongoing disintegration coupled with economic insecurity and the increasing sense of individuality draw more and more villagers towards religious and Dera-sect congregations or in the public religious spectacles of kawad yatra.

More and more Jat youth in Khanpur and Pampur villages are taking kawad yatra, the annual religious pilgrimage to Haridwar. It has become one of the biggest public religious spectacles in which individuals and families of different castes participate in different ways and capacities. For example, during the kawad yatra period, this is 15–20 days in the month of August, rich individuals along with caste associations put up pandals or camps for kawad devotees for rest and entertainment in order to make their journey comfortable and bearable. Many times these camps are supported and financed by the RSS. During a calendar year about two to three crore Kanwariyas perform this holy journey. During the kawad yatra, the world of rural western UP is transformed dramatically. One can see people, mostly youth, thronging the roads and villages, wearing saffron and chanting Bum Bum Bhole and Har Har Mahadev. The RSS and its sister organisations attempt to convert this crowd into Hindutva warriors (and votes) through literature (booklets and pamphlets which provides textual reinterpretations of the great Hindu tradition of this local festival and its connection to the pan-Indian Hinduism). These organisations also provide compact disks of popular, religious songs and music for consumption by villagers. The increased interactions with the wider world have changed the Jat’s sense of caste and religion which are gradually shaping each other. One can observe a growing intensification of pan and fundamentalist religiosity among both Muslims and Hindus in the region. Following this, the Jats are becoming a part of the larger Hindu identity and emerging middle class. They are forming an online global community through the website such as “,” where the Jats across the world imagine themselves a community with some middle-class moorings.

The emerging agricultural crisis and the decline of kisan identity have further pushed Jats to demand reservations. Further, the desire for a dignified place in the new economy and dreams of an urban life enchant the aspirational young Jat men in such a way that the Hindu middle-class identity becomes ideal for them in neo-liberal India. By recruiting young Jat men and tapping into their aspirations, the Hindu Right is not only trying systematically to replace the Jats’ traditional authority at the village level, but also replace the RLD and deflate its leadership as a regional political force. In the 12th (1998) and 16th (2014) Lok Sabha elections, the Hindu Right attempted to replace the RLD and registered its strong presence by defeating Ajit Singh, the RLD chief in the so-called Jat bastion, Baghpat.16 Placing aspiring Jat men at the helm of sister organisations such as Bajrang Dal, Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal, and Hindu Raksha Dal, the Hindu Right has reaped considerable benefits. Frustrated with their inability to enact their power as jajmans in changing village spaces, or assert politically due to the decline of the RLD, and socio-economic reasons discussed above, Jat youth are becoming the harbingers of the Hindu Right’s agenda. The Hindu Right has visibly helped them regain their power.17


Everyday incidents such as harassing women in public places (Kawal, Muzaffarnagar), or inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are not new or unique to western UP.18 However, ongoing structural changes and disintegration of collective caste- and village-based ties, and the emerging new rural landscape gives them a new twist and enables newer interpretations. Shifting village economy from agriculture to rural non-farm service linked to the urban has changed inter-caste jajmani relationships. Diversification of rural economy combined with ongoing democratisation has given space to artisan-service caste groups to assert and compete with Jat farmers for political power and over public space. In this scenario, the young men of artisan-service caste demand equality and invoke constitutional and democratic rights in day-to-day interactions. This growing assertion and questioning the status quo creates the potential for violent conflicts between patrons (Jats) and clients (the artisan-service castes). Violence erupts as Jats forcefully attempt to regain their previously unquestioned authority. As the old mechanisms of caste-based social-control have declined, the position of Jat youth is directed increasingly by criminality and mob violence. Earlier, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Jats also responded violently to the Dalit’s assertion during the formation and rise of the BSP. At present, the face of the “Other” and the target of violence is not the Dalit, but the artisan-service (backward or Pasmanda) Muslims in the guise of women’s honour, cow protection, and patriotism. A rise in public religiosity or “mobile religiosity” adds a new dimension to it.

Apart from this, the state and the police have not kept themselves abreast with the emergent sociality as we have seen its abysmal role during the Muzaffarnagar and other riots. Impartiality of the state and police has been questioned time and again. In this ambience, the right-wing Hindutva’s rhetoric and discourse of good governance, corruption-free politics, promises of development to educated unemployed youth, and an articulation of a strong Hindu nation have given new hope to the despair of the Jat farmers and the emerging rural middle class. Common place incidents of violence, increasing in number, quickly flare up into communal riots as the fissures along caste and religious lines are becoming augmented and reified with the changing economic and political scenario.

At the same time, the emerging “techno-mediated sociality” (increasing interaction on social and mass media) has reduced face-to-face interaction and common spaces substantially. This mediation also “augments the public space” (Castells 2012) by affording repeated circulation of images that get reinforced as reality (virtual). The combination of the former and latter has created avenues/chinks for the external (Hindutva) forces to mobilise villagers against each other. It is hard to separate caste-based violence from communal (religious) violence in the context of western UP, since this communal violence and its discourse is also orchestrated by a resurgent Hindu Right at the wider national level. I therefore conclude that focusing on technological mediations to analyse cultural changes allows us to understand the shift of the epicentre of recent communal riots from the urban to the rural. This leads us to further interrogate the emerging rural subjectivities in interaction with these technologies in such a way that the regional as well as the political and economic factors of caste and religious identity are not discounted.


1 A report released by the Inspector General, police office, Meerut, in December 2015. Data has also been collected by the author from the General Register (diary) of different police stations from Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Ghaziabad.

2 In this case, the cause of this rioting alternates between a traffic accident and harassment of a Hindu Jat girl.

3 Officially, 62 people died. However, unofficially more than 100 deaths have occurred. Most of the displaced people are Muslims.

4 The language and name of riots keep changing. Recently it has been enacted in the name of love jihad, women’s honour and cow protection as seen in Mohamadpur (Meerut, 2014) and Bisara (Dadri 2015).

5 The earlier categorisation of “BIMARU” (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan and UP) has been changed to BIU (Bihar and UP), since MP and Rajasthan have shown some signs of development and improvement. UP is still considered a site of “backwardness.”

6 During the colonial period, a group of revenue villages in Sardhana estate under Begum Samaru acquired a cultural connotation as Mir–Baraha (Mir–Wada in local parlance) as they had been under the Mirs, a Muslim high-caste zamindari. This part of Meerut district was also known as Mithawasa (literally, “sweet belt”).

7 In order to get a broader picture, I also followed marriage, kin, and work networks in neighbouring villages. Additional fieldwork in the same villages was done for my postdoctoral research between 2010 and 2012. It involved living in the village and collecting data through participant observation, interviews, semi-structured questionnaires, and a household survey. Besides, in 2014–15, 100 long interviews were conducted across caste, class, gender, and age group in order to get a comprehensive picture of socio-economic and political change in the villages and the western UP region. The name of the villages has been changed. This article uses insights from the Kanpur and Pampur village studies and analyses the changes in agrarian economy and shifting communal violence to rural areas.

8 The Muslim zamindari system has had a huge impact on the present agrarian structure of the village. The zamindars were not keen cultivators and, therefore, the transfer of land was easier under them than under the bhaichara system. During the process of the abolition of the zamindari system and the enactment of a ceiling on the size of landholdings, large plots of land were transferred to the OBCs from the erstwhile Muslim zamindars (Joshi 1965).

9 ICSSR, New Delhi, 2009 survey report on minorities in Muzaffarnagar district.

10 Jajmani refers to the inter-caste exchange of labour for agricultural produce and protection. In this system, castes specialising in particular occupations rendered their services to other villagers, particularly landowners, in return for an annual or half-yearly wage paid in kind (Raheja 1988; Wiser 1936; Wiser and Wiser 1930). The decline of the jajmani system and the rise in non-farm employment has been noted in many parts of India, including Gujarat (Breman 1993), western UP (Gupta 1998; Jeffery and Jeffery 1997; Jeffrey 2001), Rajasthan (Mendelsohn 1993) and Tamil Nadu (Harriss 1991; Harriss-White 1996).

11 Frazer (1996) spells out that the discourse of social justice, once centred on distribution, is now increasingly divided between claims for redistribution, on the one hand, and claims for recognition, on the other. Increasingly, too, recognition claims tend to predominate.

12 This movement was organised in 1978, but came to prominence in 1987 in western UP.

13 Amar Ujjala, 17 January 2016, Meerut Edition. The data from the district panchayat offices, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar support the Amar Ujjala report.

14 A large section of the new middle class support and sympathises with the BJP and identity with the ideology propagated by the RSS.

15 Over the 10 years my study in two villages shows that a large number of Muslim (artisan-service) young men from rural areas migrated to the Gulf for employment.

16 The BJP fielded Sampal Shastri and Satyapal Singh against Ajit Singh (RLD) in 1998 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections respectively, and Ajit Singh lost to them in both the elections. Jat young men voted against Ajit Singh defying the dictates of their elders. Young men expressed their dissatisfaction and anger against the RLD and its inaction. Young Jat men felt that the RLD failed to live up to its promises.

17 In the 2014 Sanjiv Balyan, a Jat won Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha seat with a record margin. Jats regained the Muzaffarnagar seat after 15 years.

18 During my PhD fieldwork in the rural Meerut and Muzaffarnagar (2004–05), and later revisits in 2010–12 and 2014–15, I have recorded dozens of incidents in which Jat men harassed Dalit and lower caste (including artisan-service and labour caste) women commonly, but not the other way round. These incidents were not even registered or discussed outside the villages. Many times women did not raise their voices against these harassments. Even when they raised the issue, the Jats resolved these incidents within villages and did not allow the low- and artisan-caste people to go outside the village and complain. However, this picture has changed now to some extent and low-caste men start questioning the behaviour of Jat men.


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Updated On : 5th Jul, 2018


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