KAIRANA: From the locked houses with ‘for sale’ boards and the open drains from which a stench emanates, it’s hard to imagine that Kairana once nurtured a school of Hindustani music. This is the town in western UP that lends its name to the Kirana Gharana, whose prominent performers include Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and Sawai Gandharva. This is where the founders of the gharana melded the Hindu dhrupad style with the Islamic khayal. The town’s two major communities have lived by this warm metaphor of coexistence for centuries, even when communal riots rocked Muzaffarnagar, 40 km away, in 2013.
But today the Muslim-majority town is known not for its artistes but for the so-called Kairana Hindu exodus and the politics surrounding it. The votes have been cast in Kairana in this election and a shadow of sadness comes over the faces of people as they speak about the choices they have had to make.
BJP MP Hukum Singh would have you believe that there has been a flight of 350 Hindus families from here, but the people here say Muslims have gone too. Who wouldn’t? New Delhi is 150 km away and what’s left here? No law, no schools, no jobs. Who wouldn’t flee if they had a choice?
''You’ll be surprised to know there is not a single petrol bunk in Kairana, a town of 1.2 lakh people. Not a single factory!'' says Munawar Ali, a local leader.
Hukum Singh’s numbers tell a part of the truth. A total of 550 families have left Kairana. They include Muslims but a majority of them have been Hindus.
Munawar Ali says it’s not true that Hindus were driven out by the townspeople. More likely it was the complete lawlessness unleashed by gangsters like Muqeem Kala, who enjoys the support of the Akhilesh Yadav government, he says.
Muqeem Kala is a crime lord in the classical UP tradition. He faces 14 murder cases, and is accused of killing three Hindus and 10 Muslims, the local police say. He was arrested in October 2015 but manages his empire from jail.
You hear a different story from the Hindus of Kairana. Saurab Singhal is a lala (trader) who has a business in the market area of Kairana, and he remembers the day his brother was shot dead. On the evening of August 16, 2014, Vinod Singhal was sitting in his kirana store when four men entered and one of them pulled out a pistol and shot him dead. Only one of them has been arrested, months later, and the remaining are still at large.
''Yahan khali goonda gardi hai. Sarkar bhi support karti hai criminals ko. Hum log nikaley jaa rahe hain'' (it is complete lawlessness here, the government supports criminals and our community is being driven out),'' Saurab Singhal says.
Vindo Singhal’s was a classical extortion killing. The goons wanted Rs 5 lakh from him and he refused. But the dead man’s brother draws a different inference. “The real reason is something else. It was to terrorise the trader community and force them out of Kairana. Over the years, the population of the other community has crossed 85 per cent,'' Saurab Singhal says.
Even as the lala speaks, two Muslims join the conversation. ''This is false. All of us are fed up with the gangs. They’ll kill anyone for money. It is not limited to one community,'' says Muhammed Sarib Khan, who runs a cloth shop in the same market.
While opinion differ on the trigger for the exodus, communal relations in Kairana are at peace with each other. This, local residents say, is because both populations hail from the Gujjar community. ''We blame each other and we argue, but we never get into a fight,” Sarib and Saurab seconds it.
That’s charming but the young people of Kairana aren’t waiting to see if it’s true. I met Anand, a young man in his twenties, whose father runs a medical shop in the main street of Kairana. The elder man has no doubt that ''goonda gardi bahut badh gayi hai” but for the young man it’s the lack of prospects that is the more galling. ''There are no hospitals, schools or colleges. If I want to go for an evening outing, there is no place. We are deciding to move to Delhi. I’m persuading my father to move,'' the young man said.
A town with no hope is always likely to lose its youngsters. In that respect Kairana may not be too different from the hundreds of hinterland towns that are being deserted by young people in search of a more exciting life. But in this doomscape, it is the shadow of Muqeem Kala looms largest.
He hails from the village of Jaanpura, and he started his career in crime as an apprentice in the then kingpin’s gang. Jail terms punctuated 30 cases of looting, robbery, murder and extortion across Shamli, Dehradun, Panipat and Baghpat districts. Just the kind of career graph that tends to win goons a cult following in UP.
It was BJP MP Hukum Singh’s outcry about the Kairana exodus that brought national attention to this forgotten town. He released a list of 350 families who, he alleged, were driven out of Kairana. The subtext of the message was that the Muslim majority was forcing the exodus. Indeed, the population figures of Kairana as per the last census put the population at 89,300, with 80.74 per cent Muslim and 18.34 per cent Hindus. However, the non-BJP parties say the exodus is more due to Muqeem Kala’s crime wave and the lack of opportunities here.
As might be expected, the present election spins around axis of the exodus issue. And in this too Hukum Singh figures prominently. The political battle in Kairana is being fought by his daughter Mriganka on the BJP’s side and his nephew Anil Chauhan, sporting RLD colours.
The daughter naturally has Hukum’s heart but it’s the nephew who is popular. Chauhan used to be by uncle’s side and fought on the BJP ticket from Kairana in a bypoll last year. He lost by 1,100 votes to the Samajwadi Party’s Nahid Hassan.
This time around, Hukum dumped Chauhan for his daughter and the nephew switched over to the RLD in a replay of the Sharad Pawar story. Chauhan has the support of many BJP workers. ''When Hukum Singh came out with the exodus theory, Chauhan was by his side. Now in the RLD, he is dismissing it,'' says a BJP supporter of Mriganka.
For the people of Kairana, exodus is on their mind. Many wait with ‘yeh ghar bikau hai’ graffiti scribbled on the walls of their house. Who would buy a house in a town with no music?