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September 9, 2013: 23:30 IST
For almost a fortnight now, Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh has been convulsed in communal violence.

Clashes have left at least 19 people dead so far. The toll could be higher as several people are reported missing. It was an incident of sexual harassment that apparently provided the spark for the conflagration. An inflammatory video uploaded on the Internet that fuelled ugly rumours and incendiary speeches by politicians of different political parties seem to have kept the communal cauldron bubbling.

The government’s deployment of the army as well as paramilitary forces has put a lid on the violence for now. However, there is concern that the tension will spread across the state. Uttar Pradesh has witnessed a large number of communal incidents over the past year, forcing the government to impose curfew at various times on 22 of the state’s 70 districts. This is worrying.

Home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde recently revealed that while 412 incidents of communal violence occurred all of last year, 451 incidents have happened over the past eight months alone.

Contrary to the general perception that communal violence is spontaneous, studies show that this is largely engineered, planned and orchestrated. Thus, communal violence isn’t inevitable but can be prevented. What is more, incidents of communal violence in India are mostly an urban phenomenon, with such violence happening in some cities more than others. A comparison of cities that are prone to communal violence with those that have been relatively peaceful reveals that the latter are rich in inter-communal associations.

While state-initiated efforts to build peace committees have prevented communal violence in several neighbourhoods in Mumbai, civil society, too, must pitch in more substantially. Uttar Pradesh, which boasts of a rich Hindu-Muslim heritage and culture, will benefit immensely from such efforts.

Importantly, the Uttar Pradesh government needs to act to restore public confidence in the police. Religious minorities perceive the police as prejudiced against them and acting in a partisan manner. Instead of taking concrete steps to improve the image and functioning of the police force, the Akhilesh Yadav government’s approach is to mollify the conservative Muslim clergy with handouts. With a general election round the corner, parties will be looking to polarise society. If Yadav doesn’t act to address the issue now, the communal situation could slide out of control.

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