A bypass separates Meerut Cantonment(and city) from Pallavpuram and the highway leading to Rishikesh. I wait patiently for the bypass to arrive while sipping my all-time favorite Shikanji(lemonade) from Jain Shikhanji, a restaurant made famous by the same drink, that I have left a couple of miles behind. I am quite familiar with this route on the Delhi- Meerut highway, which encompasses various towns on the way like Ghaziabad, Muradnagar, and Modinagar. I frequented the route as a child, to visit my grandmother in Meerut, and it was much before the city became a part of the larger National Capital Region(NCR) .
Meerut has changed a lot over the years, from a small town, now it is on the cusp to becoming a smart city. Meerut is a classic example of the “emerging India story” and there is ample evidence to prove this fact. The city has grown on an exponential scale, especially in the real estate sector, as land has become more expensive over the years.
However, just as Meerut has grown, so has India and the myriad problems associated with an emerging Third World Country (TWC). Interestingly, land (Zameen) along with gold (zar) and women (zan) have been considered as symbols of honor in this country for over millennia. Landed assets have been procured by members of different religious and cultural communities for centuries, and buying and selling of land has been practiced for years.
Acquisition of land has been traditionally viewed as positive or a token of power by people, as it augments the material and tangible wealth associated with an individual or a family. Thus, financial transactions for acquiring the landed property has always been encouraged throughout the course of our history. Though the privileged elite has always had more access to this tangible asset, women in rare cases also got access to it. During the Gupta period, Prabhawati Gupta had access to the landed property and stridhana(jointure) at the same time. Mughal period is also replete with similar examples.
At no point in history, however, did the exchange of landed property acquire the kind of religious overtones, that it has come to acquire now. Terms like “land jihad” did not even exist and “land” was viewed only as a tangible asset and a symbol of wealth. But today, the situation is grave and only a few in the country are taking note of the existing realities. Indians have a deep sense of regard for personal property and consider it a valued and substantial asset. Right from the farmers who have fought for their maati(land) to the elite land holding zamindari (land-owners) classes, the ownership of land has been an integral part of the Indian psyche.
As a matter of act, it was Nandigram and Singur agitations that propelled Mamta Banerjee to power in West Bengal in the beginning of this decade. It is deeply distressing to know that contemporary India is living a ‘dual existence’. On the one hand, India is emerging as an economic powerhouse and making its presence felt on the global stage, while on the hand, the people of India are finding it hard to make ends meet. Social reform is divorced from political and economic reform, as the country makes it foray into newer and greener pastures.
India has traditionally maintained a “principled distance between religion and politics” for the longest time and professed and propagated its own variant of secularism. However, the situation is changing every minute in this country, especially in the run up to the general elections, as both the dominant political parties, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) fight for votes . Both the parties have a strong hold on the demographics and are leaving no stone unturned to strengthen their traditional vote base. The INC has lost its support among the urban middle class or the “aspirational India”, and is now trying to woo the minorities again. The BJP on the contrary, is trying to strengthen its vote base among the Hindus and the Scheduled Catses, by bringing them together against a “perceived other”.
This kind of politics based on complex permutations and combinations is not new to India, where caste based voting has decided the future of political candidates time and again; but it is the infusion of the religious overtones that has the potential to leave a blot on India’s secular credentials. India has moved away from Nehruvian socialism and Gandhi-an idealism, a long ago, and now is ready to have its ‘own tryst with destiny again’, and this time the results could be quite different.
The division on the basis of land is just the tip of the iceberg. Acquisition of land for development has become the norm these days. The new bullet train between Ahmadabad and Mumbai is likely to encroach upon territory that includes a flamingo haven and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which happens to be the natural home of the leopards. The proposal for the bullet train involves diversion of 3.2756 ha of forestland from the Thane Creek Flamingo Wildlife Sanctuary and 97.5189 ha of land close to the boundary of the forest’s protected area. Moreover, farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra are opposing the bullet train project as well.
Incidents like the ones mentioned above in the future might expose the inherent schisms that have always existed beneath the surface in India. The ‘land jihad’ episode in Meerut a while ago may not have caused the necessary stir in the media but it indicates the lull before the storm. Small scale incidents in communally sensitive areas like Meerut must not to be pushed under the carpet, because it is quite evident, that such small scale incidents have often led to the rise of major communal conflicts by inflaming the passions of many emotionally sensitive people.
While it is urban India that will see the economic progress, rural India might witness the breaking of already fragile societal bonds among different religious communities. The process has already began and the cracks have started surfacing. It is time that we identified the crevices and worked on them before it is too late. The media also needs to take note of this trend and exercise more responsibility, by bringing the true facts out.