Lost in Muzaffarnagar
Life in the camps following the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar.
“Bahut bura hua, a lot of wrongs were committed,” the auto driver told me as he drove me around Delhi.
He’d overheard my phone conversation with a friend on my impending visit to his home district in Muzaffarnagar. As soon as I hung up, he adjusted the rear-view mirror and changed his sitting position and started chatting with me. What he told me during that 45-minute ride set the tone for my Muzaffarnagar trip in early March this year.
“Bahut log mare, Madamji. Hindus aur Musalmaan dono. Musalmaan zyada. Us ek hafte mein log aise mare gaye, jaise mooli-gajar kate ho. Many people were killed, Madamji. Hindus and Muslims, both. More Muslims than Hindus. In that one week, people were killed like carrots and radishes are chopped.”
The auto driver, a Hindu Jat, said he had gone home on one of the days when the Jat-Muslim riots had peaked but had returned the next day, unable to bear the sight of his peaceful village in flames. “I could not take it. The way they were on a killing spree. That image of a girl crying out for her father, ‘Abbu, Abbu’, still haunts me. Bahut bura hua, Madamji.”
It is a sunny day in March, but some shawls and sweaters are still visible in the bustling town of Muzaffarnagar, known for its jaggery trade and illegal arms supply. Some distance away from the city limits, sugarcane crops stand ready to be harvested and loaded in trucks, trekkers or bullock-carts, all conspiring to slow down the road traffic. The general elections of India has just been announced, adding more urgency to the politically charged air, when a journalist friend of mine and I decide to tour the riot-ravaged district.
It was not strangers from a faraway land but neighbours from the same village who burnt down homes.
In September last year, riots between the Muslims and Hindu Jats left over 60 dead and 50,000 displaced (mostly Muslims) in the districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in western Uttar Pradesh. There is little clarity on what exactly sparked off the bloodbath. One of the more widely reported versions is that it all started when a Jat girl was ‘eve-teased’ by a Muslim boy. Two relatives of the girl killed the Muslim boy and then consequently the two of them, both brothers, were killed in retaliation by the Muslims. Revenge followed revenge and, aided by rumours and hate speeches from both sides, it led to the worst violence the state had seen in recent history. The Samajwadi Party (SP)-led state government came under criticism for inept handling of the situation, while other parties were accused of trying to add fuel to the fire.
It was not strangers from a faraway land but neighbours from the same village who burnt down homes. Women were raped by boys known to them and who lived in the same neighbourhood. Murders were committed sometimes in the presence of, or allegedly aided by, village leaders.
Droves of people fled their homes, babies in arms. They fled from not only the riot-hit villages, but even the less affected ones, fearing that violence could erupt anytime. A harsh winter inflicted more deaths, especially on the children in the camps. What initially seemed like a temporary flight turned out to be a permanent displacement for many who were forced to build new lives all over again. While some braved their way back, thousands still languish in the camps caught between the fear of fresh attacks and hopes of compensation.
Salim and Najma
Najma (name changed to protect the identity of a minor) is too shy to speak in front of her father-in-law, Mohammad Imran. She pulls the end of her pink-and-cream dupatta over her face and keeps to herself. But she was not shy when it mattered. She insists it was she who proposed marriage to Salim (name changed because he’s also a minor). “I had an entire life ahead of me. I could not just waste it like that,” says the 16-year-old, speaking freely after the father-in-law had left the room.
A tongue-tied Salim simply nods, muttering in barely audible words, “Iski izzat bachane ke liye maine isse shaadi ki, I married her to protect her honour.”
Do you love her? I ask.
Silence. The room consists of two charpoys at right angles, a steel almirah with a cloth cover, and Salim and Najma seated on two plastic chairs dragged in hastily from outside.
The teenagers – Salim claims he is 16-years-old but looks much younger – have been married since 25 January. He is a school dropout. Najma never went to school. He is a carpenter and makes ‘okay but irregular’ money. She has got a government job at the public works department and earns INR 11,000 a month. Najma is beautiful and rich. The job and a ‘huge sum of money’ – the Uttar Pradesh government announced INR 10 lakhs each and a job to the next of kin of the dead – she received as part of the compensation package for losing her first husband, Ershad, in the riots, sums up her wealth.
Najma was married for 15 days before the riots broke out. She had gone to visit her parents at their place and Ershad was supposed to collect her before Bakr Eid. “They told me he had met with an accident and had to be hospitalised. When I returned to Muzaffarnagar I was told how he was killed along with five other members of the family.”
Ershad, his father and uncle, and some other members of his extended family from Kutba were killed on 8 September. She and her in-laws spent two months at the Palda refugee camp before they received compensation and temporarily moved into the house of Mohammad Taufiq, a family friend in Shahpur, 23 kilometres from Muzaffarnagar town. In January, she married her dead husband’s nephew, Salim.
A group of young boys gather around us as we speak to the women in Palda. Some of them have missed their exams and are worried about their future. There are very few young girls around; most of them, like Najma, have been married off in the camps even before they touched the legal age of 18. Marriage is seen as security against molestation or rapes in the camps which bring ‘dishonour’ to the families.
Author and journalist Rahul Pandita is of the opinion that the promise of compensation wreaked havoc in the life of these girls. In just two mass-marriage ceremonies that took place in October 2013, 150 women, many of them underage girls, were married off, he reported in the Hindu on 21 June. After a compensation package of INR 1 lakh was promised by the state government to couples marrying in the aftermath of the riots, hundreds of families married off their daughters. But compensation was not to come in all the cases. There were instances of many girls being thrown out by their husbands accusing them of “usurping compensation money that they never got”.
It is girls like Samreen who will bear the long-term scars of the riots. These were girls who had just begun moving out of their homes and started going to school, challenging social norms.
At a refugee camp at Harsauli, we meet 10-year-old Samreen, who is giving her pregnant sister Shakira a break at the shop. A mother of three, Shakira and her husband set up the small stall some months ago, from where they mostly sell toffees and other edible items.
“Are you married? You came alone? Aren’t you afraid?” Samreen has a lot of questions for us. She does not go to school. She used to until the riots, before she was displaced from her home in Kudana village near Shamli. “I don’t want to get married early and lead my sister’s life. I want to go to school and, when I grow up, go to office, work. But we do not have a choice, do we?” It is a rhetorical question.
Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, a Delhi-based journalist who covered the riots, later tells me in Delhi that it is girls like Samreen who will bear the long-term scars of the riots. “These were girls who had just begun moving out of their homes and started going to school, challenging social norms. They have been pushed back into the confines of the veil and four walls. Whatever little progress that was made has come to naught.”
Nine little chicks
A shrill cry rends the air. Children stop their play and elders their work. Without a moment’s notice, a motley crowd gathers to watch the spectacle being played out at Harsauli. “That’s Zubeida beating her son,” says one as we look in the direction of the hollering. He’s watching the scene with the vague enthusiasm of a television-serial viewer – not overtly excited at what is clearly a regular phenomenon and yet interested in witnessing a possible twist in this episode of a long-running family soap.
Zubeida is hitting her child with a narrow plank of wood, probably yanked out of a discarded charpoy. A momentary loosening of her grip sets the eight- or nine-year-old scurrying off. She then gets hold of the younger four- or five-year-old. As her new target lets off a wail, the recently liberated one laughs at his mother from a distance. Her attention diverted, she hurls the plank, stones and other objects in the direction of her elder son with the desperation of the vanquished. The little one is let go of, but not without a slap or two.
“How many children does Zubeida have?” I asked one of the onlookers.
“One, two, three,” someone begins to count on his fingers. “I think it’s seven, or eight,” he adds with a shrug.
“She had left a hen and its newborn chicks in the care of her children and had gone to work in the nearby brick kiln,” says another. “She came back to find that all the nine chicks were missing. Possibly, some cat ate them up. The children are now being punished.”
“What will she do? When her husband will return home in the evening, she will be the one to get all the beating. It’s not one or two, but nine, well, nine chicks!” adds a woman in the crowd with empathy.
Camp life is telling on the dwellers, as is evident with someone like Zubeida, but they are in no mood to go back home yet.
Point of no return
“I’m not going back,” says the frail but vehement Akbari Khatun at the Palda camp. She lost three of her relatives, two brothers-in-law and a nephew (Ershad, whose widow is Najma), in the violence at Kutba village on 8 September 2013. “How can we go back to the same place where our people were so mercilessly killed? Our homes have been razed to the ground and god knows what has happened to our belongings. And the perpetrators are still roaming free. We cannot go back. We must be resettled somewhere else.”
In Harsauli, like in other campsites, the refugees have built permanent structures. Over 70 families moved in there after the September riots. Six months later, brick homes have replaced the tarpaulin sheets. However the seeming permanence hides a worrying uncertainty.
Seventeen-year-old Rokaiya takes us to her new house, a square structure of crudely stacked bricks. Her father Mohammad Amin is a worried man. The hawker who has not been able to work since his hernia operation is worried about how he will pay back the loan he took to build the house. The bricks and materials were provided against a promise that the payment would be made on receiving the compensation. However, Mohammad Amin, who came here from Bhajju, over 22 kilometres away, does not know whether he is entitled to compensation at all. The Uttar Pradesh government had announced a compensation package of INR 5 lakh each to the families displaced by riots, only under the condition that they would vacate the relief camps, not return to their village and seek to rehabilitate themselves elsewhere.
Amin’s debt has run up to about INR 60,000, of which INR 40,000 was needed for the bricks and the rest for materials. “Compensation is our only hope,” he says as we talk in the brick and clay kitchen space in the front of the house. “We are also victims.”
Many have accused the camp dwellers of squatting and their leaders of trying to grab government land. Some camp leaders have been accused of working for their own political and business interests and of using the refugees as pawns.
“As people got to know that there is money being distributed, people came to the relief camps in droves. There was such a surfeit of relief materials that many items, such as blankets, were being sold off in local bazaars,” Vikas Pawar, a lawyer and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party, tells us at a breakfast meeting at the Civil Lines residence of Sunil Singhal, a local BJP leader. The ‘illegal’ camp dwellers don’t want to go back, the BJP supporters argue, because they have nothing to go back to, other than their unpaid debts – most of them being landless workers.
Ajmal-ur-Rehman of the Muslim Voice of India, an NGO working for the welfare of riot victims, rubbishes the charges. “The violence was restricted to about 15 villages, but over 100 villages got affected and people fled fearing similar outbreaks. Such was the impact,” he tells us as we drive to Sanjhak, some 10 kilometres from Muzaffarnagar town. “People are scared to go back. They fear retribution. They’ve battled extremely difficult conditions in the camps. It’s not easy to live in the camps, yet they feel safer here. It’s not fair to cast aspersion on them by saying they’ve fled homes lured by compensation.”
The relation between Hindus and Muslims was never this bad in western Uttar Pradesh, both the Jats and the Muslims told us. “Itna man kharab nahin tha, There was not so much ill-feeling earlier,” said Pawar, who is legally fighting cases slapped on ‘innocent Hindu boys’. “There were socio-economic differences but people of both faiths co-existed peacefully. Without Muslims our business is not possible.”
Most employees of the Hindu businessmen are Muslims, most workers in Hindu Jat-owned factories are Muslims, and most agricultural labourers employed by Jat landlords are Muslims. There was always a cordial, if sometimes strained, relation between the two communities, we are told.
Muslims constitute about 36 percent of the population in the district which has over 60 percent Hindus. The landed community of the area is predominantly Jat, while the Muslims are either landless or agricultural labourers. Many Muslims also migrate to other cities for work and send money back home, in an attempt to raise the socio-economic status of their families.
This election is about voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Jats. It is about revenge and protecting honour.
The Jats and Muslims are known to have even jointly voted for the same party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, in the past. In fact, one perspective on the riots is that they were fuelled by political parties that saw gains in disrupting this political unity and cashing in on the divided Jat and Muslim votes. There is now a clear political divide among the electorate of Muzaffarnagar on religious lines. The polarisation was never so pronounced before.
Having sown the seeds of hatred last year, the politicians were back six months later to reap the benefits when harvest came in the form of elections. And what better tool to reap the gains than a ‘revenge’ motive?
“This election is about voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Jats. It is about revenge and protecting honour.” This was Amit Shah, the then-general secretary of the BJP and a close aide to Narendra Modi, speaking at an election campaign rally on 3 April in Muzaffarnagar. “A man can live without food or sleep. He can live when he’s thirsty and hungry. But when he’s insulted, he can’t live. We must seek revenge for the insult heaped on us.”
Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, the BJP candidate from Muzaffarnagar, made no bones about it either. “I will not talk of development, this is not the time to talk development,” he was reported in the media as saying during his campaign trail at Durganpur. “It is about swabhiman (self-respect), not sadak (road). The verdict from this area must be one-sided. You know what to do. There is nothing more for me to say.”
Balyan, a Jat, was charged with inciting mobs with his inflammatory speeches in the run-up to the riots in late August and early September last year for which he was jailed for 27 days. Out on bail, he pleaded for votes on the plank of religious prestige.
On the other hand, Azam Khan, the minister of Minority Affairs in UP and a prominent Muslim in the Samajwadi Party, sang no different tune in his campaign speech a couple of days before the election. “The country must not to be given in the hands of a murderer… the murderers of Muzaffarnagar should be avenged by pressing the button.” Earlier, a sting operation by the media had revealed Khan’s complicity in fuelling the September riots by ordering the police department to favour one community over the other.
“Vote I will”
Muzaffarnagar voted on 10 April. BJP won the elections in the district with a whopping 59 percent vote share (the nearest rival managing less than 23 percent). Nationally, the party swept to power with a historic landslide victory, bagging 282 (330, with its allies) of the 543 elected seats of the Indian Parliament. The new Prime Minister Narendra Modi anointed Sanjeev Kumar Balyan the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food Processing Industries.
Muzaffarnagar had almost a 65 percent voter turnout on the poll date. Many braved a journey to their riot-ravaged villages which they had fled in the wake of the riots.
“Why do you want to vote?” I ask the riot victims. It was a ‘politically-engineered riot’ that completely changed the lives of thousands. “You must be really optimistic to still trust these politicians,” I tell the gathering, a little cynically, at a madarsa in Sanjhak. The last day for the enrolment of voters is close by and a number of people have queued up at the application centre at a nearby school in order to transfer their names from the villages they fled to the new areas they have migrated to.
“We have lost the faith in the political class, but not on the political system,” says Rehman of the Muslim Voice of India. “The elections are the only resort for the victims to voice their protest against the riots.”
“Vote, I will,” Mashroofa Khatun tells me at the camp in Harsauli, minutes before Zubeida stages her child-beating drama. “They need to be taught a lesson.”
“Who are they?”
“Those people who got us into this.” Mashroofa will not elaborate. “We trusted them and look where they’ve got us into. They need to be taught a lesson. Vote, I will.”
Bilkis Khatun, sitting beside her, echoes her. “I will also cast my vote. It is my duty.”
~Anuradha Sharma is a Calcutta-based freelance journalist and writer. She covers politics and culture in Southasia. She tweets at @NuraSharma.