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Chronicle Of Death
It’s difficult to miss the giant hoarding of Mulayam Singh Yadav as you leave NH-58 to turn left towards Muzaffarnagar. The Samajwadi Party leader lords over the road, deserted at present because of the curfew in its riot-hit parts. His commanding presence is in sharp contrast to a blatant abdication from the state government run by his party. In religious violence the past week between Jats and Muslims that took 38 lives in less than 36 hours, it failed to control things at all initially—some would argue deliberately. As the city nears, the fear, anger and insecurity are palpable. It’s writ large on every face that peers out of narrow street corners, windows, rooftops. This western UP district HQ, normally a sickly-sweet sugarcane sink, is still a live bomb.
Her face marked by shrapnel wounds, Khairunnisa was lucky to have survived. Seated next to her injured daughters—Azra and Aqsa, five and 10 respectively—at the district hospital in Muzaffarnagar, the 35-year-old recounts the violence her village, Bahawadi, witnessed on the afternoon of September 8. “A mob of more than 30 attacked our houses. This was when most of the men had gone out. They killed my brother-in-law, Dilshad. Some of us women and children hid inside the kitchen but they broke the doors and fired at us. My niece Iqra was shot in the head and died. They slit my elder daughter’s stomach.”
The victims are from both sides of the religious divide. At the morgue in the same hospital, 70-year-old Dharampal is busy trying to identify his brother’s body among the dead in the feeble light of his mobile phone torch. The stench of the rotting bodies doesn’t make him flinch, but unable to find his brother, he is reduced to tears. He narrates how he and his family were attacked by Muslims near Purwalian village on their way back from the Jat mahapanchayat on August 7. They found themselves suddenly ambushed by men who jumped out of the adjacent sugarcane fields to block their way. “They killed our men and threw the bodies in the canal. Our tractors were burnt and many were injured,” he tells Outlook.
“It seems like planned violence. These riots are a success of Hindu and Muslim extremists and a failure of the UP government.”
What began as an isolated incident of a Muslim boy allegedly accosting a Hindu girl in Kawaal village on August 27 took an ugly turn as the girl’s two brothers thrashed the Muslim boy to death and were in turn killed by irate Muslim mobs. Before the police could contain the isolated incident, communal passions had been inflamed. The relationship between Hindus and Muslims in these parts has of late been uneasy over loose talk of ‘love jehad’ and cow slaughter. With an eye on the 2014 election, the BJP lost no time stepping in as the ‘saviour’ of Hindus. The SP, on the other hand, allegedly chose to look the other way in the initial crucial hours to let Muslims get a taste of what could be in store for them if they did not vote for them.
Only a couple of weeks back, Outlook had reported on the rise in communal unease and incidents of low-scale religious violence in western UP (Knifing Rampur, Sep 2). These fears have now been fully realised in a game where communal instincts, political interests and lawlessness came together to create the ‘perfect, made to order’ riot.
The bloodbath played out essentially for 36 hours, starting on the morning of September 7 and lasting till the night of September 8. Riots are normally an urban thing; this time the violence travelled deep into the hinterland in Muzaffarnagar, and scarred villages even in the surrounding districts of Saharanpur, Meerut, Baghpat and Shamli. The initial hours were the toughest for the authorities. “Policemen were helpless; there was stone-pelting and firing by both communities in their dominant areas,” says a senior official from the district. “We hadn’t seen such use of arms and organised guerrilla warfare before.” The state police and the paramilitary forces did the usual holding job on the ground but the situation was brought under control only when the army was called in. As a top army officer put it, “Had we been late by another few hours, the death toll would have been in three digits.” That still remains a possibility as bodies being recovered from canals, sugarcane fields and adjoining forests could well take the final toll well beyond the official figure. In fact, even two days after the violence, the army rescued 150 Muslims from Kamalpur village and three elderly Muslims from Kutba.
To a casual eye, things seem almost normal in the city. But look carefully and you can see the smoke still coming out of burnt houses and mosques and torched vehicles. Several Muslim households are still empty, except for the livestock left behind. Shaukat Mohammed, 38, says he can never think of going back to his village, Kutba. “I’ll die here (in Basikalan, a Muslim-dominated village five km away where he has sought refuge). We are left with nothing; my relatives were killed brutally by those who had been our neighbours for decades.”
“We admit there could have been objections about the speeches. The primary source of these videos needs to be investigated.”
Eight people died in Kutba, including Shaukat’s brother. But they couldn’t even be buried in their native village. Lying in the morgue for three days, they had begun emitting a foul stench, forcing relatives to cover their faces at the funeral and for some to throw up. Seven bodies were buried in Basikalan on the night of September 10, under the strict vigil of the security personnel. The eighth body, of 40-year-old Momin, was found in the sugarcane fields five km away from Kutba, buried next to the others, exiled in death from their village. “This is what they have done to us; the dead can’t even be buried in the village they were born in,” says Basikalan resident Ishtikhar.
It was Basikalan, in fact, that was the ground zero for the conflict. A group of Jats had stopped here on the morning of September 7 on their way to a mahapanchayat at Nagla Mandor. Shouting slogans like ‘Musalmanon ka ek sthan, Pakistan ya Kabristan’, they reportedly chopped the beard of an effigy dressed in Muslim clothes and whose stomach they stabbed with swords repeatedly. Someone apparently threw a stone in retaliation, and the communal tinderbox was well and truly lit.
There are more than 20 villages from where Muslims have been forced to flee or have been resettled by the administration to prevent further rioting. “Our prime focus is to ensure there are no further clashes beyond this and that the belongings of those who left their homes are recovered,” says Rajesh Srivastava, ADM, finance, of Muzaffarnagar.
However, people like Sanjeeda Begum and Lateefan, both in their late 50s, don’t want to return to their village Bhudana, where they say they have “lost everything”. Like most others who don’t have relatives, the couple has sought shelter in a madrassa. The administration is providing them with medicines and food. At Tawli village, where Imran from Kaharadgaon has taken refuge, he voices what all affected Muslims are feeling: “We live in fear. There is no one to take our complaints at police stations either.”
“Muslims are losing faith in SP. How can they assure us this won’t be repeated when Modi and Amit Shah are the face of the BJP?”
But the increasing presence of Muslims in the villages, even if as victims, is generating equal fear and mistrust among the Hindus. In village Paladi, the mostly SC and OBC Hindus—who form 20 per cent of the population—are a worried lot. They often hear gunshots at nights. “We have adult girls, newly-wed brides. We are very frightened. Unable to sleep at night, we stay on the rooftops and remain alert. Though there has been no violence so far, anything can happen,” says 65-year-old Rayhati Devi. The villagers admit that some people from the BJP and other Hindu organisations have visited them in the past but deny that they have come to check on them in the last couple of days. “Why have they been sheltered in the villages?” asks Paladi resident Sanjay Saini. “Why not camps for them? Anger and numbers together could lead to violence. We demand daily patrolling in our village. Also, why doesn’t the police search every household here, be it ours or theirs?”
Back in Kutba, tension begins at the very entrance to the village. Even having a beard arouses suspicions in Hindu-dominated areas. As soon as the car carrying the Outlook team entered Kutba, a group of youngsters fled immediately. It took several minutes to convince the locals that the visitor was a journalist. There is anger among the Jats. “They molested a girl from our community and then killed her brothers. What should we do? This government is blind when it comes to Muslims. They didn’t even listen to us,” says Brahma Pal Singh of Kutba. Adds Yogendra Singh, a farmer whose fields lie between his Jat-dominated village and a Muslim one, “We can’t go to our fields. The fear of being killed by the people of the other community has put us under self-imposed house arrest.”
Rumours of the missing and possible dead are only adding to the panic. Social media apps on mobile phones, in fact, fanned the flames rather than do any good. It is not uncommon to find people having Facebook, WhatsApp and WeChat on their phones. Taufiq in Shahpur village, in fact, asks me if I’ll add him on my Facebook page.
“Our prime focus is to ensure that there are no further clashes and that the belongings of those who have left homes are recovered.”
Muzaffarnagar rural SP Kalpana Saxena told Outlook, “While following up on the information regarding clashes and dead bodies, many calls turned out to be wrong and simple rumours.” It has also been convincingly established now that the video of two youth being lynched which went viral on WhatsApp is from another time and place. When asked about the alleged role of BJP leaders in spreading inflammatory video clips, state BJP president Lakshmikant Bajpai said, “The primary source of these videos should be investigated.” He blamed the SP for all the communalisation and asked why videos of inflammatory Hindu meetings are leaked but not of similar Muslim gatherings.
While the attacks were launched from both sides, the majority of the dead are Muslims, a clear setback for Mulayam’s consciously cultivated image of “protector of Muslims”. “Muslims are losing faith in the SP,” says Arshad Madani, president of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind. “How can they assure us such incidents won’t be repeated, especially when Amit Shah and Modi are the face of a party and ideology in the state?” Ironically for the SP, both the Muslims and the Jats are blaming the state government for not ensuring their safety and appeasing the other side. “The riots were pre-planned by the BJP workers,” says Mohammed Arif Siddiqui, local SP leader and chairman of the Shahpur town area municipal body. “This is a complete failure of intelligence, police, local administration and the state government.” The Hindus, especially the Jats, on the other hand, are reinvoking ‘Maulana’ Mulayam, saying they have lost faith in his government.
So, how did things spiral out of control? Both sides see a conspiracy and planned action from the other side. “Despite section 144 of the CrPC being imposed, Muslims assembled in large numbers at Shaheed Chowk after Friday afternoon prayers at the Fakkarshah mosque on August 30,” says Sanjeev Kumar, a resident of Muzaffarnagar’s civil lines area. “The DM and ssp went there to receive a memorandum from them. What a mockery of law and order!” A local official told Outlook that there were no directions from Lucknow to stop the mahapanchayat and that the administration was under political pressure. As Syed Shah Alam, the Muslim leader from Muzaffarnagar, put it, “It looks like a planned violence. These riots are a success of the Hindu and Muslim extremist forces and a complete failure of the Uttar Pradesh government.”
By Panini Anand in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh