The Refugees of the Republic: Communal Carnage in Muzaffarnagar

[The article first published in Torture, a human rights journal's. Can be accessed in issue no 05-06, Vol 02, December 2013.]

They live in relief camps. All they have to survive against the biting cold is a plastic sheet. Luckier ones have got cots, thanks to the communitarian support offered by their religious organizations. They have seen their children and the elderly dying. They have left their graveyards behind and bury their dead kith and kin in new, makeshift cemeteries. They, more than 60000 even by the most conservative estimates, did not always live in these camps; they had brick houses and property back in the villages they have been hounded out of.

They are the victims of the worst violence that rocked western Uttar Pradesh, districts Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, and Bagpat in particular, in September 2013. Ironically, the area had not seen any violence even during partition in 1947 because of unique historical and cultural ties people belonging to minority and majority religion have here. It was a strange place where Hindus and Muslims were divided by religion but united by caste. You had Hindu jats, and Muslim Jats. You had Hindu Ranas and Muslim Ranas. And these ties were really strong. They were. Period

The violence had started in the second week of September, but it was long in coming. It had followed a very disturbing pattern in that it was eerily similar to the Gujarat riots of 2002. It started with rumour campaigns vilifying Muslim men sexually and harassing Hindu women, thus compromising the honour of the whole community, a fact which found no mention in any of the subsequent police complaints. This slowly developed into a well orchestrated social media campaign, including fake videos of purported Muzaffarnagar Muslims in the act of killing Hindus, videos which in reality depicted murderous Afgani Talibans.

The actual violence started with two Hindus killing one Muslim youth over an alleged harassment and then getting lynched by others in the village. Taking advantage of the incident, local MLAs of the Bhartiya Janta Party, a right-wing Hindu nationalist group, jumped into the fray and organised inflammatory Hindu cast-based meetings in late August last year. Muslim hardliners belonging to BSP and Congress contributed their own share in the campaign by organizing their own meetings the same day. The campaigns were successful. Sporadic incidents of violence had started taking place and they culminated in the mayhem that erupted on September 7, 2013. Violence spread like wildfire and nine Muslin-minority villages, including Lisad, Phugana, Kutba-Kutbi, Kirana, Budhana, Bahawdi, and Lakh Bhawdi, were worst affected with Kutba-Kutbi witnessing eight murders. Victims recount calling the police who refused to come to help while mocking the attacks as “bursting of firecrackers” and suggesting them to do the same.

Most of the villagers were saved later by the Central Reserve Police Force and the Army, which were deployed in the area, and taken to relief camps organised by Muslim majority villages and organisations. Having failed to protect the minorities, the state government once again abandoned them to their fate and provided no help whatsoever. Faced with severe criticism, the state government later offered a lump sum compensation of INR 500,000 to people in riot affected villages on the bizarre condition of never returning to their villages, an act that was questioned by the Supreme Court of India.

The state government only decided to offer compensation to the residents of only those villages where murders had taken place and counting all others as “not hit by riots” even when Muslims had to flee those villages facing serious threats and attacks, their settlements having burnt down completely. Four months after the violence, the police have largely failed to arrest and prosecute those responsible for the attacks, including brutal cases of rapes and gang rapes, 13 of which have been registered. The failure to act by the police in rape cases has forced other victims into silence. These developments have forced the community to marry even their underage daughters for protection. Local camps have witnessed hundreds of such marriages.The visit to these relief camps was an encounter with refugees within their own republic. It was meeting people carrying scars that would never heal. They will not as even time cannot heal the scars inflicted on a people by those who always believed to be part of. These scars, written on the bodies of the survivors of Muzaffarnagar riots in sharp pen, are all one gets to see in these camps. There were some 44 of these relief camps until December. Then the state government ordered the demolition of the camps in order to mask the humiliation of not being able to stop children dying of cold.

“We do not want to go back. They attacked our mosques and desecrated our holy Quran. They did not leave anything.” Desecration of religious places seems to be the scar that haunts them most. It must as it seemed to have been part of a well hatched conspiracy of humiliating these people. Riots, after all, are not new to India. Neither is the large scale violence which has broken down the very fabric of social harmony; but what stands out and distinguishes Muzaffarnagar from many other riots is the glaring sense of humiliation and belittlement that was inflicted on the Muslim victims.

The following is the pain that echoed out of 12 year old Ruby of Lisadh, currently sheltered in Gadhi Daulat, narrating the killing of her grandparents. The trauma inflicted nonchalance on her face that looked much older than her face was numbing in itself, calmness in her voice  that seemed almost rehearsed because of her tale being told to many of the visiting journalists and social activist could send shivers down anyone’s spine. She recounted:
“What is your name?
“Which village you belong to Ruby?”
“So why did you come here (Gadhi Daulat) leaving Lisadh?”
“Because of fights?”
“Fights? With whom?”
“They cut my grandparents to pieces.”
“Cut your grandparents to pieces? Who did this?”
“Jaats.” (Hindus)
“Had your grandparents done anything wrong?”
“No. they didn’t. They were thrown into a canal.”
(in Yamuna river, others added)
“In the canal? Will you go back to your village in Lisadh?”
“No. I am scared.”

Think of a 12-year-old having internalized brutal violence almost to the extent of normalcy and one would realize that this is the hurt and humiliation that has made the community decide never to go back to their villages. I remember Khurshid Ali, a retired school teacher from Kutba village whose nephew Qayoom was killed in riots. I remember the hurt in his eyes while recounting the incident. He seemed to be as much distraught by this loss of faith as by the actual killing of eight people including his own nephew in the violence.

“They used to call me tau (uncle), I have taught them. How can they do this to me?”

He had asked me in a plain, calm voice. The quest for the answers to this question exposes the distinctiveness of Muzaffarnagar riots, the first rural riots that ever took place in North India. The anonymity of urban centers offers a sense of “othering” the enemy. Village life does not offer this luxury. Everyone knows everyone there. Everyone interacts with everyone there. Will it not make killing people you know for decades difficult? It will, and this is why riots rarely take place in rural areas. They did in Muzaffarnagar. This is what has broken the very trust of the victims. Riots here are not only about killing. They are also about betrayal, injustice, and the targeting of a minority community. Hasina, an elderly lady of Fugana village currently living in now demolished Loi camp echoed the same sentiments.

“Will you go back to Fugana if peace returns?”
“No. Never. Our mosque is destroyed, so is Madarsa (religious school). What will we go back for? 56 houses, they burnt 56 houses of ours including my son’s. Nothing is left.”
“Nothing is left?”
“Nothing is left; tell me what we would go back there for?”

This is also what reminds one of the Pogrom in Gujarat more than a decade ago. Both of those “riots” were manufactured ones. Both of them saw the minority community being the main victim with heavy losses against almost none to the majority. Both of them saw the minority community being abandoned by the state authorities. Both of them started with mobilizing majority religion for political gains. Both of them spread to villages with the police looking the other way and refusing to intervene in most of the cases. Camp after camp, people recounted how they were abandoned by the local police as well as the politicians. It is not for nothing that people in all camps report of getting escorted to safety only by the Army and the paramilitary forces, Central Reserve Police Force in particular. People, in fact, accuse local police of siding with the rioters reinforcing the similar distrust shown by the minorities for the local law enforcement agencies across India. A woman in Basi Kalan camp had this to say

“I called police when trouble started in the morning and told of them of the attacks. They said that Jats are bursting firecrackers and you too should do the same. Police did not come till evening. Finally military came (CRPF according to other witnesses) and brought us here.”

Narratives are similar in all cases. That the administration did not respond for many hours despite their pleas around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, and in the evening the Army took them in trucks and either asked them where they would like to be dropped or dropped them off at a close relief camp where other families had begun to pour in. Most of them continue to be in relief camps since then with heightened distrust for the police.

The reasons of this distrust run very deep. To begin with, the very composition of the Police forces across India is highly biased for the majority and the minorities are severely underrepresented. National Crime Records Bureau’s data show that total representation of Muslims in police forces is a meager 6%. Take the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir out and it dips to even lowly 4%. Dismal training marked by lack of any specific attempts of sensitizing the police personnel towards sectarian faultlines exposes them to a permanent bias against the minorities, a fact repeatedly proven by the minorities calling for withdrawing police and deployment of Army during riots.

Unfortunately, the state government which rode to power on the basis of minority votes has come across as the biggest betrayer. Its role has been faulty at many levels. It did not act in time when panchayats (public meetings) were being held and highly venomous speeches inciting violence were being made. Once the violence started, the government showed a criminal dereliction of its duty to protect the minorities by not ordering all-out action against rioters. Then it waited for deployment of Army. Finally, it failed to show even a token of sympathy for the victims; forgetting to provide at least basic amenities to the survivors, it went into a denial mode, accused the victims as conspirators trying to bring embarrassment to the government, and ordered demolition of relief camps.

There was no explanation given whatsoever, except that the lands occupied by homeless, riot affected people were government lands. Forced out of even those dilapidated camps, many of them moved to locations even more dangerous and unfit for human habitation. Loi is a case in point where many of the poor families have moved to land close to a pond that was quite a health hazard for the people living in that camp and also a risk for children who were in the camp. The government seems least bothered for the victims. It has claimed that many of the riot affected people have received their compensation and have gone back to their villages.  Even a cursory look at the ground reveals this lie. The people whom we visited in seven camps four months after the riots must not have gone exclusively invisible to the government.

Further, the criteria for compensation are rather strange. To begin with, monetary compensation of 5 lakhs was given to only those families where a member had died. Similarly, in cases of loss of property, damage, or injury, compensation was given to the concerned family. However, rather than considering the family as a single conjugal unit, the government chose to consider all those sharing one hearth as a family, irrespective of the number of units that normally made up that family, thus making the already meager compensation get divided across generations and siblings. Further, no compensation was given to those who fled from their villages fearing or surviving attack. As a result people from the villages like Kheda Mastan, where houses were burned down and minority members attacked, are struck off the compensation lists because “no murders took place in their villages”. The claim was rubbished further by the heavy presence of people not belonging to villages officially recognized as riot affected. Further, the very fact that we did not find a single relief camp belonging to any sections majority community busts the myth that it was a riot and not a well orchestrated attack on the minorities.

The last but weirdest aspect of the compensation scheme was the clause that those who have received their compensation should not return to their villages or else they would have to forfeit their compensation. Consequently, not only the basis of doling out compensation was flawed, but the government also effectively prohibited communities to return to their ancestral lands and go back to their earlier lives. In this context then, the razing down of relief camps resulted in hundreds of families stranded with nowhere to go.

The condition of all the relief camps is not the same. For one, in certain areas, the Pradhans (local leaders) are sympathetic to the victims and have proactively tried their best to make arrangements for people to cope with the severe cold. Some have given shelter to women in their houses, while others have arranged for part of their own lands to be used as accommodation. In a stark contrast to this, there are certain camps where the local leaders are either hostile or non-cooperative and thus the condition of the camps are much more dismal with no amenities whatsoever. In general, one could witness that these camps had tents made of cloth which offered little or no protection from the cold or the rain which accompanied it. Further, all that they had was a light cloth strung bed, one for each tent.  Think what protection could this offer when the temperature dipped down to 0.3 degrees centigrade on the eve of the start of my visit and the conditions were only worsening. The relief camps are not the only evidence of the large scale displacement and fear of the community. From Basi Kalan to Malakpur, many of these people used newly established graveyards with their near and dear ones buried, including many children and the elderly.

Speaking to women at the camp it was clear that they had additional problems to deal with. There are sanitation facilities in these camps with the single exception of Malakpur. In many of the camps there was no easy access to drinking water, thus making it difficult for families to live on a daily basis. Further, many of the young girls were married in the fear of sexual violence. A few women who were pregnant either delivered in the camp itself or managed to reach the nearby hospital with the help of social workers who now work at these camps. Again, the role of the local leaders and the proximity to medical centers play a crucial role in women receiving basic care during childbirth. But even in cases where women did manage to have childbirth in a hospital, they were soon discharged, making it difficult for the infant to cope with the cold conditions and lack of proper facilities in these camps. Many children under five were reported to have pneumonia. In order to protect them from the cold, members of a family took turns in holding the baby next to the bonfire to create some warmth. Saharana, a young mother from Mukkredi now living in Malakpur camp delivered a baby girl two months ago. Her daughter has been with pneumonia several times and was undergoing treatment even at the time of our visit.

“Since when are you in the camp?”
“4 months.”
“So the daughter was born here only?”
“Did any government midwife came? Or doctor?”
“No. We had called for a dai (traditional midwives).”
“So you called for one. There was no assistance from the government health services.”
“No.Nno one came.”
“But tell me one thing, such a small child, she is living in this camp in such biting cold.”
“Ya, she has gotten down with pneumonia several times. 2-3 times.”
“2-3 times?”
“Yes. She is sick even now. Even now she is under treatment.”

Another scar haunting the victims is the sexual violence committed on the community. Many of such cases were registered with police but no action has been initiated in any of them. This has resulted in the community going into a silence because of the patriarchal ideology of their honour having been compromised first by the actual sexual assault and then “shaming” of the community by complete police inaction. Sarvari of Lisadh puts it in perspective.

“There was this case of gang rape in our village. It got reported to the police. Nothing happened. The rapists still roam freely and mock the victim. Better to keep shut then than shaming your family and the community further.”
Relief has been the focus of much of the communitarian intervention in Muzaffarnagar. The pattern of relief distribution varied from camp to camp where people carried bags of relief material back to their tents. In Loi, for example, individuals were given a sack each consisting of basic relief matter to subsist on for the next few days.

The only positive story that came from these camps is the perception of no imminent threats of further riots or assaults in the camps are villages, though there is still a lot of fear regarding mobility. So while people seem to be in no apparent danger in the camps where they reside, they do feel threatened if forced for any reason to go in the vicinity of Jat villages, and also when they are away from their camps. This results in men not being in a condition to take up livelihood opportunities and children being forced to avoid school. In fact most of the children we spoke to had discontinued their education as there was a perpetual fear of a strike again by the Jats in the schools or if the children were seen in the vicinity. The only possibility then was to enroll them in a school near the relief camp, if any. It is apparent then that the current relief alone cannot be a long standing solution for the future. There seems to be no other way for communities to restore their faith in the system and reclaim their lives.

The collective trauma faced by the community is apparent despite best of the attempts to seek a sense of stability. The state and the civil society cannot let it go unaddressed, it must not. And for that, the focus must shift from relief to rehabilitation, from denial to justice and reconciliation. Only at a very high cost, the future of democracy, can a state abandon a community and force it to deal with the sense of helplessness, humiliation, and grief only at very high costs for future democracy.

The only consolation is that among all these stories of horror, there is one of tremendous hope. The community is in quest for justice, not revenge. Wasim Akram Tyagi, a young journalist working very closely with the victims told the same to us repeatedly.

We want justice, not revenge. Hindus and Muslims have lived here as brothers, not only in metaphorical sense but really, as caste brothers tied by blood relations. Justice will restore those ties.”

The same hope has been flourishing on Ruby’s face. Our interview had not ended with inquiries on her grandparents killing; I had asked her about her schooling and she was resolute in her decision to resume her studies.

“Did you go to school in your village?”
“I will study again. In Kandhla (A Muslim majority town nearby.)”
We, the state and civil society together, have failed her community once. We cannot afford to fail her again.