Lakh Bawdi, a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district, 20 km from Muzaffarnagar town, is surrounded on three sides by harvest-ready fields of sugarcane as high as the average Indian, and a pond on the fourth. The joke in north India is that there is no better place to hide an abducted person than in a harvest-ready sugarcane field.
This harvesting season, however, the cane fields in Lakh Bawdi are throwing up tales infinitely more sordid. Like the partially decomposed, half-naked body of a woman found recently. It won’t be the first—more corpses will emerge as the harvesting season progresses.
Lakh Bawdi was among the villages most affected by the sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in September, the others being Lisad, Phugana, Kutba-Kutbi, Kirana, Budhana and Bahawdi.
It’s a scene etched firmly in Abid Khan’s mind. “It was 7.30 in the morning,” recalls the 35-year-old from Lakh Bawdi. “A group of young men stopped outside our house and asked us to run away if we wanted to stay alive. We ran to Billu Pradhan’s house for help.” He is referring to Sudhir Kumar, the elected head of the village, better known as Billu Pradhan.
Openly distressed A refugee camp in Jhola
Lakh Bawdi has a total voting population of 9,500; most of the village’s 1,200 Muslims live beyond the fields, in an area locally called pallipaar, working as agricultural labourers, carpenters, washermen, butchers, tailors. Sugarcane farming, the primary occupation here, is the preserve—and the privilege—of the land-owning Hindu (and a handful of Muslim) Jats.
Billu Pradhan’s is a sprawling mansion. We are constantly asked “not to leave” the pucca road while seeking directions to it. The road’s fairly new, the only metalled one in the village, and ends at the pradhan’s house.
Billu Pradhan’s house has a well-manicured garden; neatly trimmed rose plants line its entrance. Three tractor trolleys are parked to the left, five buffaloes are tied on the right. The building has a separate visitor’s room, with charpoys and hukkahs—markers of Jat identity. There’s a big courtyard in the centre, the one Abid is talking about.
Around 30 people, including Abid’s mother and other women from the village, had come here that morning. Abid himself, along with 50 others, including his grandfather and uncle, had taken the route to safety the pradhan had suggested. Except that a mob awaited them there. “My grandfather and uncle were killed in front of my eyes. Me, my father and other family members ran into the sugarcane fields to hide,” Abid recalls. Frantic, he’d called the police on the mobile. “They arrived, but only at 12.30 pm, four hours after everything was over. Around 80 people from my village had been killed by then,” he says. They found Abid’s grandfather’s body on September 8 itself; his mother’s naked and mutilated body was found a day later, in a store heaped with dung cakes. That very day, Abid left for the makeshift camp in Loni in Ghaziabad district, 40 km from the national capital, along with the rest of the family members.
It may be difficult to corroborate the number of dead Abid quotes, but testimonials of several refugees from the village, now in the 16 relief camps in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts, leave no doubt of the gruesomeness they encountered.
It’s raining the evening we reach the Idgah camp in Kandhla in Shamli district. A town dominated mostly by Muslims, the refugee camp is being supported largely by donations from locals. Several heaps of donated clothes lie soaked in muddy pools in the compound of the mosque as we enter. Over 12,000 people from the riot-affected villages have taken refuge here. When the rooms in the madrassa couldn’t accommodate them, tents were set up. Except that when the rains came, water leaked through the tents and forced people to stuff themselves in the madrassa’s corridors.
Women occupy the first and ground floors. Sitting with a group of old women is Shabana, a thirtysomething from Lakh Bawdi. The left side of her face is dominated by a giant black-and-blue bruise, and she sits there, medicines given by the camp doctor in hand, the women around her exhorting her to take them. What happened? “My house was burnt, three buffaloes were burnt too and my two sons are missing,” she says, in a tired and practised answer. What’s her name, what are her sons’ names, what happened to her and how did she escape? Again, the same mechanical answer. “My buffaloes were burnt too.” Shabana is too traumatised to provide any immediate answers. After a full hour of reassurances and demonstrated empathy, she recounts what happened to her on September 8.
“They came at eight in the morning, a group of 20 men. I was cooking while my husband, a washerman, was about to leave for work. As soon as we heard the commotion, my husband, two sons and I fled. Even as we were running towards Billu Pradhan’s house, we saw our house being set on fire.” It was in this mayhem that Shabana lost track of her two sons. The couple reached Billu Pradhan’s house and were taken inside the gated compound. “Within half an hour, a group of men from the village entered the compound and attacked us. They hacked my husband right before me.” Was she attacked? Shabana is quiet. I try again. This time, her voice a whisper, she says, “They stripped several of us. Took our honour.”
They first beat them with batons, then stripped them and brutally sodomised them. The men were stripped and simply chopped into pieces. Shabana and several others were thrown out, naked, an hour later.
“I and two other women hid behind a house,” she says. “I don’t remember what happened after that, except that a man from this camp gave me his kurta. He must be here. He is wearing a shirt,” she tells me, seeking him out with her eyes in the water-logged fields the balcony overlooks.
The plundered Sakira, at the Islamabad camp in Shahpur
She and other women were rescued in the trolleys Haji Wajid Hasan, chairman of the municipal corporation of the Kandhla block, sent off to the neighbouring villages. “They didn’t have clothes,” says Khurshida, a woman from Kandhla. “None at all.” Locals like her collected clothes from the neighbourhood that very evening. Shabana’s two sons, Tahir, a student of Class 5, and Shahid, who was in Class 2, are still missing. It has been three months.
“My husband was old and a tuberculosis patient,” she tells me. “We thought Billu Pradhan had been the head of the village five times and would help us.” Ajiman and Almiyat were attacked with a sickle on the neck within 15 minutes of entering the pradhan’s house. Sabra looks away as her eyes well up with tears. And your daughters? She purses her lips tight and shakes her head, refusing to say more. When I persist, the tears roll down her cheeks. “How can I tell you?” she says, looking at Saju, her 12-year-old. She then takes me aside, to the extreme corner of the compound. “If I tell anyone, who’ll marry Saju?”
A deep breath and fresh resolve later, she continues, “They first pulled my elder daughter and stripped her. Two boys dragged her to the ground and took turns raping her. Then they grabbed my second daughter and hit her private parts with batons. She started bleeding and was pushed to a corner. They then proceeded to assault the other girls.” “Aapa was engaged and would have gotten married today,” Saju tells me later. That day, when the gates were opened after an hour, Sabra rushed out with Saju and others into the jungles close by. They had to walk a whole day and night to reach Kandhla where the volunteers of the camp there came to their aid. This is where she found Rashid, her elder son, who on that day had gone looking for help, and who is out again today, to the Loni camp in Ghaziabad to look for his two sisters who have been missing since that morning at the pradhan’s house.
It is important to note that the first response at any of these camps to questions of sexual violence is immediate denial. In Gangeru, a small town in Muzaffarnagar district dominated by Shia Muslims, the Arabia-Islam-Hudru-Islam madrassa has provided refuge to over 400 people from the 21 villages nearby. When asked if any of the women here had reported any cases of rape, Mohammed Sanaullah, the head of the seminary, tells me candidly, “Women have been raped and tortured, but it is my sincere advice to forget them. The families of these women will disown them if they come to know that they have spoken about it.”
When I reach the Gangeru camp, a group of women is sitting around Sabiha, who gave birth to her third daughter three days after reaching this camp. I asked them if they knew of any cases of sexual violence, and they all replied in unison, “We fled before it happened. But we know of other women who were brutally raped.” This attribution to other women when talking of sexual violence is consistent across camps. “In Islam, rape is treated like adultery,” Manzar, a local lawyer from the district, had told me earlier. “The women will not talk for fear of being accused of adultery.”
However, even as I am leaving, twentysomething Shama follows me. “How did you know women had been raped,” she asks me. “Women at the other camps told me,” I respond. “It’s true,” she says. “It’s painful to pee and take a dump. I can’t even tell the camp doctor. The women in the camp have given me herbal medicine.”
Shama’s husband Iqbal and his younger brother Tahrir were both killed in Lakh Bawdi on September 8. Her husband ran a horse carriage for a living; it was found burnt at the house when they went there for a visit later.
“I went to Billu Pradhan’s house with my six children,” she recounts. “They twisted both arms of my three-year-old daughter and threw her. They were young boys whom I had fed so many times in my house. When I ran to rescue her, they thrashed me with a baton, then used it to rape me, as they did to four or five other women.”
Pieces of a life Inside the Idgah camp at Kandhla
Shama’s sister Shazia, who has been standing 100 metres away so far, joins us. “Don’t tell anyone about it.” Once Shama and her children were thrown out of the pradhan’s house, they and Shazia, with her seven children, fled. “The men and women from the village watched her naked, bleeding, crying, but no one came forward to help. The women we had assisted during childbirth on several occasions also looked at us blankly,” recalls Shazia.
Her voice is still charred. “When the gates of Billu Pradhan’s house were unlocked, I had no clothes on me. My husband and daughter had hid in a jute sack under a charpoy. We all ran as the Hindu boys chased us. But somehow there was news of the police reaching the village. The boys turned back,” she says, wending her way again through the nightmare, her unslept, baggy eyes turning red. “The police came only two hours later. When we asked them for protection, the police officer tried to arrest my husband for inciting violence. We carefully stepped back and took the way to the highway through the jungles. We later took a trolley that was carrying several other Muslims from our village.” Mehraz is now in the Loni camp and does not want to return to her village ever.
Sun has set 70-yr-old Allah Banda, at the Idgah camp in Kandhla
Another camp, another horror story. This time it’s Rubeena, in her early 20s, at the Malakpura camp. “There were loudspeakers, Bollywood songs blaring out of them, while they were raping us,” she says. “Some boys were also playing the dhol (a local drum), outside the gate.” Rubeena’s cheek has been bitten off, badly. That morning, her mother had asked her to leave for Billu Pradhan’s house along with her younger sister. She told her she would follow with the rest of the family. “Two men held me by my arms as they bit several parts of my body. Three men raped me then, one after the other,” Rubeena tells me, her expression blank, voice emotionless. Rubeena’s parents and the rest of the family have been missing for the last three months. She also says two women from her village were made to dance naked in the mosque. Has she registered a complaint about what was done to her? “Please don’t tell anyone,” she urges. “How will I live in the camp if I do complain?”
The mosques in the villages stand burnt, vandalised. Ask about the charred Muslim houses in the village, and the stock response is, “They set their own houses on fire for the compensation.” “Hindus respect their culture,” the women add. “They can never dishonour any woman.” Ruling Samajwadi Party leader Pramod Rana told villagers, while addressing them recently, “If the Muslims come back, cooperate with them, but tell them you can’t protect them.”
Billu Pradhan has been absconding since the week after the riots. When we contacted his wife, she refused to talk about the incident or his whereabouts. Till date, only six cases of gangrape and five of rape have been registered. And the list of complainants does not even include the testimonies of Shabana, Mehraz or the others in this story. Based on what the nine women we spoke to have told us, close to 19 women were killed, abducted, raped or sodomised that morning at Billu Pradhan’s house.
Last week, after the body of a half-naked woman was found in Lakh Bawdi’s sugarcane fields, UP state women’s commission chairperson Zarina Usmani confirmed sexual violence on women during the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat, Saharanpur and Meerut districts. In an open letter, she urged “women to come forward and register their complaints”. “A majority of the (victimised) women are from the weaker sections and are being threatened to stay silent,” she said. UP home secretary Kamal Saxena, when asked if women had been raped and molested during the riots, said, “No woman has registered a complaint with the police. The police can take action only after getting complaints.”
Patriarchy and communalism. They colluded, once again, on the morning of September 8. At the house of none other than the village head. Billu Pradhan.
(The names of all the rape victims have been changed.)
By Neha Dixit in Muzaffarnagar; Photographs: Narendra Bisht
I am from Shamli and would like to give an idea of things from a local perspective (Thread Bared, Dec 30). There is no doubt about the polarisation here. The main person responsible for the poisoned air of suspicion is Azam Khan, who made use of the police machinery to encourage polarisation. Next in line are the Samajwadi Party, BJP and Congress local leaders of the area. No culprit has been punished from either side. Innocent people lost their life and honour while the people responsible fled immediately after the incidents. A lot of innocent Hindus died while returning from Kawal but the revenge against innocent Muslims has been far more brutal. It was a bloody game by SP and Azam Khan which it lost in the end to the BJP, but the biggest loser is my area where I foresee segregated localities as a reality for the next decade. Think about people like me who have studied/played/lived with Jat as well as Muslim friends since childhood. As SP is now sure that Muslim votes are not coming back in the area, they have abandoned the camps as well, where children are dying regularly. Why isn’t the media highlighting this more and more, 24 hours a day? Where is the Supreme Court? Other people hide their guilt/helplessness by believing in the false narrative that “refugees are not going back as they want compensation”.
Sachin Kumar, Shamli
I am totally stunned.
Oh. Pained is a small word to describe how I feel. My knees are trembling, eyes welling up with a mixture of disgust, embarrassment, frustration.... Is this how we intend to take our country forward? Such incidents will create so much hatred that it will take decades for things like these to settle. Spirituality, not religion, is what we need for our salvation; more harm has been done to humanity in the name of the latter. It has created schisms, hatred and this.... We need to be humans first before thinking of ourselves as Hindu or Muslim. I have no words to sympathise with the victims. Words have lost meaning.
Hemant Jain, on Facebook
How can one justify crimes against innocent humans? People who get killed in riots—Hindu or Muslim—are innocent victims of a bloodthirsty mob, put to death even though they haven’t committed any crime. Rather than justify such acts in the name of other riots elsewhere and fanning the flames of hatred, such acts should be unequivocally condemned. Otherwise, one could well burn in the very flame that they may be fanning.
Zishan Khan Sowdagar, Chennai
No Hindu or Muslim is responsible, it is the government of UP that has failed to protect its citizens by failing to deliver exemplary punishment to the criminals.
Afroz Javed, IIT Madras
Neha Dixit—“respect” for the justice you are doing to your profession.
Maulik Agnihotri, IIT Kharagpur
Behind the cloak of religious and national identity, we have forgotten our humanity. Most of us are not humans anymore as we no longer feel, think or act with our conscience. I don’t know what we have become collectively.
Arun Aindrilla Chatterjee, on FB
This is not just about Hindu or Muslim. It is about lust, power, greed and dominance. We seem to be reliving the days of the Partition here. Hate only breeds further hate. It’s a vicious circle. Fanatics in any religion or caste inciting violence have to be dealt with sternly. This medieval culture can have no place in 21st-century India and needs to be stamped out forthwith.
Ashish Jain, on FB
This isn’t about Hindus and Muslims. This isn’t about Indians and non-Indians either. This is about the torture, victimisation and helplessness of women. Yet, more than that, this is about rape of humanity. And this will go on and on until we learn to rise above casteism, religious fanaticism, racism etc and make ‘insaniyat’ our ultimate aim while responding to any inflammatory stimulus.
Mohd Abdul Aziz, on FB
If only we had the rule of law and justice was provided to everybody, irrespective of caste, creed, status or religion. I know this doesn’t mean anything but still if it can assuage some anger of my Muslim brothers and sisters—my deep and sincere apology for the actions of my co-religionists.
Prakash Mishra, on FB
These are spine-chilling stories! What was the Akhilesh government doing? What is it doing now? They can pin the blame of the riots on the BJP, but what stops them from managing the relief camps, where children are dying of cold and hunger? Does being ‘secular’ free them from all obligation of providing governance?
Kiran Bagachi, Mumbai
How many repeats of the Partition riots will India see?
Vijay Chawla, on FB
Someone tell me, which animal world are we living in?
Kakarla Jayaraman, on e-mail
When you see Manzar the local lawyer next time, tell him that in Islam rape is not treated like adultery, it is considered ‘hirabah’, a crime of violence. These women have been through a lot, let their voices not be muffled in the name of scriptures.
Vibhu Sinha, on FB
Islam doesn’t treat rape and adultery as the same. It is the sick society which does so.
Firdaus Jahan, AMU
I find the last part of the article misleading in the sense that to an uneducated reader, it would seem that Islam itself treats the rape victim as a wrongdoer. And this I say and bring forward only because I know of people who believe that reading this article. In their minds, as in the minds of so many others, being a victim of rape is equated to a person who has committed adultery according to Islam. This is as far from the truth as possible. In fact, in Islam, the punishment for anyone committing rape above puberty, minor or not, is death. That’s how straightforward the stance on rape is in Islam. The behaviour of the people regarding the victim can be accredited to various factors such as social practices, culture, lack of education, pressure from social establishments, etc, but cannot be blamed on Islam itself at all. As a window into something vastly alien to most, I feel this distinction ought to have been made clear in the article.
Abdullah Usman, Delhi
The punishment for rape may be death, but proving rape is almost next to impossible in countries where the Sharia law is in force. In most Islamic countries, a woman needs to provide four male witnesses to prove rape, failing which it is treated as adultery, which again is punishable by death in Islam. Other evidence such as bruises and semen traces are not taken into account. Islam, per se, may not subscribe to or specifically demand these procedures. It doesn’t matter what Islam is, how Islam is practised is the point. And that is a problem because of the extraordinary punishment meted out: death. So the writer is right in saying that a rape victim is treated as an adulterer in practice, though it may not be the case in theory.
Udhav Naig, on FB
Such brutality on ordinary, defenceless citizens can only be termed as bestial. If the SP government is not taking any action against the perpetrators, then either it’s criminally negligent, or morbidly afraid of losing elections or just plain complicit: perhaps all of these. And pretty much all the major political parties seem to be among the culprits: SP, BJP and Congress. Also, the tendency to trivialise these crimes armed with banal and selective statistics of past communal violence is deeply disturbing. No amount of past statistics and convoluted logic can justify the absolute lawlessness we are witnessing in our midst. If we claim to live in a state which is based on the rule of law and not something resembling a medieval feudal society, then we must track and punish the guilty rather than let every minor incident spiral into a revenge-killing cycle.
Amit Thakur, Tokyo
Such a shame! I couldn’t stop my tears reading it. I feel there’s nothing wrong in opting for a corrupted secular government to a progressive communal one. God save our hypocrite democracy. Where criminals are running free, threatening the very essence of my country.
Kanthi Kumar, on FB
I’m speechless.... Where has humanity gone? The whole thing is barbaric beyond words.
Srishti Manocha, on FB
And to think his detractors used to derisively call him ‘Maulana Mulayam’ once for espousing the cause of Muslims. Secularism, he has always maintained, has been an article of faith with his party. Yet, his son’s government has been remarkably short in helping Muslim victims of the riots.
J. Akshobhya, Mysore
Such a pity politics should be played upon the human body and that one group of citizens should treat another like this. Worse, no action is taken by the authorities. Our very silence promotes violence to the extent of bestiality.
Betty Cyril, on FB
Why do we see everything through the perspective of religion rather than plain, old-fashioned humanity? This mindset is making us regressive!
Yajiv Krish, on e-mail
What an abominable shame. There is no excuse for rape, murder and looting, irrespective of what religion the victim belongs to. Hope the Indian state will punish all these criminals swiftly as per law.
My blood boiled after reading this story. How can humans be so insensitive and barbaric? They say that you can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of an Indian. This may soon change. The more I hear about such stories, the more I want to disassociate myself with India. But I know running away is not an option. We need to let our government know that they are accountable for every single life lost; people are not just statistics.
Rajat Verma, Singapore
Eeshwar, Allah, sab hain ashiq tere naam ke; to phir kyun yeh jhagde Rahim aur Ram ke?
Ameen Ahmed, Bangalore
Articles like your cover story on the victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots only increase hatred between communities (Thread Bared, Dec 30, 2013). I know the Indian press is free and our government doesn’t interfere with the same, but that doesn’t mean exposing stories which become a black mark on our society. I am marking this copy to the Press Council of India and the Chief Justice of India to issue some guidelines to the press.
If I were the Prime Minister of India, I'd give Licensed Pistols to all riot victims in India.
>> Gopal Menon’s documentary The Killing Fields of Muzaffarnagar, that was screened at St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad on Tuesday
What has the world come to? Have the good times come back? A documentary critical of both our home grown Hitler as well as Goebbels is being screened right in our own Berlin, and the fascist govt is not taking any action against it? Contrast it with the alacrity with which Congress had the book on Sonia banned.
The sickos shall need to manufacture some outrage soon. Maybe they can pay some guys to shout slogans, or issue some threats, or throw a few stones. Shall help it stay in news.
The Killing Fields of Muzaffarnagar
Gopal Menon’s documentary The Killing Fields of Muzaffarnagar, that was screened at St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, shows incidents behind riots in Muzaffarnagar, pointing out that riots were instigated by right-wing Hindu politicians after Gujarat minister Amit Shah was sent to UP for Lok Sabha elections. The 50-minute documentary showed lives of riot-affected families living in refugee camps. The Supreme Court has taken into cognizance Menon’s documentary as one of the five DVDs submitted to the apex court by petitioners seeking justice to show the incidents of riots.
After the screening, Menon told this newspaper, “Muzaffarnagar has a history of keeping peace. There was not a single clash reported in the wake of the Partition or during the Babri Masjid demolition. However, a small motorbike accident between two boys of two communities led to such a big riot? All local politicians who called for sabhas before riots were in the Shah’s shadow. The riots were manufactured by them to settle their feet in UP before elections.”
The documentary has live footage of panchayat sabhas, with politicians inciting communities. Menon said, “We’ve also spoken to a local group prepared in UP called ‘Narendra Modi Army’ that was one of the most active groups that committed atrocities on Muslims during the riots.”
Who was the ruler of UP? Secular to the core. Then why this happened?
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