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Muzaffarnagar Riots — Clutching at FIRs

Published: June 25, 2014 12:30 IST | Updated: June 23, 2014 15:05 IST

The victims of the still live in abysmal conditions in relief camps with no hope of or rehabilitation. By AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA IN Shamli

TWO powerful dust storms this summer left in tatters Anisha Begum’s tent—thin tarpaulin sheets borne by two weak bamboo sticks. It had been her residence ever since she and her family were forced out of their village, Phugana, after riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, last September.

With two young children to take care of in the absence of her husband who is working somewhere in the south of India, the 26-year-old is braving 40-plus °Celsius. The heat is the last thing on her mind. “I can bear the heat but not my fears,” said Anisha while she searched for a bunch of papers amid a heap of dirty clothes. The papers, as it emerged, were three copies of the first information report (FIR) she had filed at her village police station accusing some lumpen elements in her village of vandalising her house.

“They robbed us, destroyed our property… they had come to kill us. We escaped empty-handed, leaving behind our cattle and jewellery at home, and took shelter at the police station where we filed this FIR,” Anisha recounted her traumatic experience of September 2013. “How will we go back home now? They know we have filed an FIR against them. They are roaming around freely in the village waiting for us to return so that they can take their revenge. We will never go back but we don’’t know where else to go,” added Anisha.

Overwhelmed by a sense of fear and insecurity about the future, Anisha derives comfort from the fact that she is not the only one to have gone through the trauma of being uprooted from her native land. With Anisha, there are thousands of Muslims from disparate backgrounds, being forced to take shelter in the relief camps that mushroomed soon after the riots in western Uttar Pradesh. And for thousands of them, as a result, even 10 months after the riots there is no choice but to stay in temporary tents since they have lost all their properties in the riots.

The FIRs that they had filed against the rioters are their most important possession now. Some also flash their Voter Identity Cards. Since September, many Islamic organisations, non-governmental organisations, government bodies and political leaders have showed up at the camps. They believe that the FIRs or identity cards are probably the only legal documents that will establish their place of residence, and help them win some compensation to start their lives afresh. “We have lost all hope in the U.P. Police. Perhaps, people who come here from Delhi can help us,” said Saleem, a resident of Malakpur relief camp in Kairana.

There are at least 14 relief camps, some privately funded and some unfunded, in the Kairana block of Shamli district, adjacent to Muzaffarnagar. These camps are located on a piece of panchayat land in the Muslim-dominated villages of Kairana, between fields bearing the newly sown rabi crop and a 14-kilometre stretch of the Yamuna that flows along the region. Amidst the greenery, these camps come across as deserted ghost towns from a distance, but, as one goes closer, one realises that they are places where a host of people live in abysmal conditions. The camps lack proper toilet facilities, water and electricity supply, so the riot victims rely on the mercy of the villagers for their daily supplies. Severe malnourishment, along with bouts of dysentery and malaria, have become common among children in these camps. Sunstroke is something the residents have become used to.

With a Muslim population of almost 90 per cent, Kairana was the safest territory for people who were forced out of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut, Baghpat and other districts of western Uttar Pradesh. “Where else could we have gone? We realised that if we die, we may get some land for burial here. In our own villages, our dead bodies would have been fed to animals,” said Md. Sajid.

Sajid’s comment indicates the volatile situation in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. State government records acknowledge only nine villages (six in Muzaffarnagar and three in Shamli) as riot-affected, thereby making the residents of only these villages eligible for relief and compensation. However, the riots that occurred in these nine villages had repercussions for others too. Throughout western Uttar Pradesh, Muslims left their homes in fear. And in most cases, their fears were not misplaced.

“Our village did not see any fight but the Jats moved around with weapons in their jeeps to scare us. They openly passed snide remarks about our women and threatened to rape our sisters. Our relatives asked us to leave the village as soon as possible. Every Muslim we knew in other villages was on the run too. We too ran away in the middle of the night,” said Qayyum, a resident of Hanifa village in Meerut, who is now in Barnawi relief camp.

The riots resulted in the death of around 100 people but displaced more than a lakh. They proved to be the best way to grab land. Most of the people in the relief camps claimed that their houses had been destroyed and whatever little land they had were encroached upon. The landed people (Jats in this case) ended up with more land at their disposal after the riots. The affluent among Muslims managed to buy land in Muslim-majority areas and start their lives again. However, the poor, landless families are left with no choice but to stay in the relief camps. Western Uttar Pradesh presents an ahistorical image at present. A region in which every village had an almost equal number of Muslims and Hindus is now strictly divided along religious lines. One can easily identify every village as a Hindu village or a Muslim village. With riot victims reluctant to go back to their own villages, the demography of the region seems permanently transformed.

Sense of victimhoodThe Jats, on the other hand, are a happier lot. For the first time, they have voted out their traditional party, the Rashtritya Lok Dal, in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Ajit Singh, the son of the legendary Jat leader Charan Singh, and his son Jayant Singh suffered massive losses in the recent parliamentary elections. The BJP won all the 10 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh owing to a Hindu consolidation irrespective of caste and communities. Significantly, the results reflect the communal polarisation and the deep “Hindu sentiment” that has now crept into the area. “All these years, we voted only for Charan Singh’s party. But it did nothing of benefit to us. It fielded affluent Muslim candidates and made us transfer our votes to them. Do we not have the right to represent ourselves? The BJP was the only party that fielded Jat candidates from here, so we voted for it,” said Sonaram Baliyan, a Jat Pradhan in Muzaffarnagar.

This notion of Hindu victimhood is deeply entrenched in him, and reflects the general sentiment of the Hindus of the region. “The so-called secular parties wanted to give reservation to Muslims too. At a time when we should enjoy the benefits of reservation, they wanted to field Muslims against us,” said Baliyan. A similar thought was echoed by Amit Shah, who was in charge of the BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, at a Jat mahapanchayat in Shamli just a month before the election. When asked about the displacement of Muslims in his own village, Baliyan said that they were free to come and settle down there but added that he and his community would not tolerate their dabang (lumpen) nature any more. In the absence of Muslim agricultural workers, he has hired migrant labourers to work in his fields at a much lower wage rate, a trend that is fast becoming popular in western Uttar Pradesh.

In such a scenario, the riot victims dread the thought of going back to their villages. Western U.P villages look like ghettoes divided on religious lines. However, the riot victims fear that the State government will eventually ask them to evacuate the panchayat land on which the relief camps are located. In fact, a few residents claim that the district administration has been asking them to go back to their villages. Consequently, people are slowly moving out of the camps but not to go back to their villages but to nearby cities where they can rent a place and work. Some of them have taken to construction labour and are working in brick kilns. The camps look deserted now. Only women, children, and the elderly inhabit many camps because men have gone to cities looking for work.

Political gamesBoth the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are trying to make inroads into these camps. The relief work, too, is motivated by these concerns and is even affected by political rivalry. “The State government used to send milk and medicines to the relief camps on condition that the community remain loyal to the S.P. The supplies stopped coming when the government came to know that the residents of the camp were drifting towards the BSP,” said Md. Shabbir, a resident of Malakpur camp and a supporter of the BSP. A local leader of the S.P., however, denied the allegation and told Frontline that the medicine supply was still going on but the milk supply was stopped as many residents had left the camp.

The extent of the Muzaffarnagar tragedy cannot be measured in numbers. The State government, however, has shown little imagination in addressing it. Without a proper rehabilitation policy and with poor implementation of a formulaic compensation policy, the State government has not been of much support to the riot victims. It is in this context that some Islamic charity organisations have been funding the rehabilitation of these people. In one such case, some Islamic organisations have agreed to fund construction of 300 houses, a high school, and a masjid for the riot victims in Dabherikhurd village of Kairana. A resident of the village, Haji Dilshad, has donated 27 bighas of land for this purpose. However, the district administration has stalled the construction of the houses and has asked Haji Dilshad to furnish affidavits of the allottees first. Such bureaucratic troubles, residents of Dabherikhurd say, are common when the rulers do not see any significant political gains from giving relief.

In western Uttar Pradesh, both Muslims and the Hindus traditionally identified themselves by their caste rather than their religion. However, the riots have foregrounded their religious identity like never before. Today, people are united more by religious brotherhood than anything else. The riot victims see no assurance of justice and the perpetrators fear no punishment. The political equations that have unfolded in recent times have given the Hindu majority socio-economic supremacy. If the state remains apathetic to such demographic transformation and the plight of riot victims, the problems of the people in the region may reach unimaginable proportions.

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