Everybody Loves a Good Riot

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But for a slew of security barricades manned by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), a reserve force in Uttar Pradesh, Kawal is that typical north Indian village with its cemented, but broken roads and shops encroaching on public land. The better-off, its landowners and traders, live in tastelessly built brick houses. The poor cramp the used-up hutments in the outback. India’s multi-religious ethos is reinforced as you enter the village: a Hindu temple for Lord Ram near the entrance sits adjacent to a mosque. With Muslims outnumbering Hindus 55 to 45 in this bustling village of 45,000 residents, old-timers across the religious divide swear they have never had any friction among them, their peace never broken by dogmatic extremism.

The young, however, are another matter. On 27 August, according to local accounts, two Hindu Jat cousins allegedly stabbed to death a Muslim youth of Kawal because he allegedly stalked the school-going sister of one of them. In retaliation, a group of Muslims allegedly beat the cousins to death. Before a week had passed, this jungle justice had spread across Muzaffarnagar district, of which Kawal is a part, and adjoining areas, too. Sectarian violence has claimed 50 lives and counting. Thousands are homeless. The city of Muzaffarnagar has seen its worst violence in decades.

“There were signs since the past 15 days that the situation has the possibility of going out of hand but the state government did not pay any attention and now we have a free-for-all,” says Jayant Chaudhary, Lok Sabha MP from Mathura and the son of prominent Jat leader, Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh. “It is only the state government that is to blame for the current crisis.”

The sordid violence has swivelled the spotlight right back on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who shockingly failed to anticipate, block, thwart or even control the violence quickly enough. Indeed, Yadav’s 18-month rule since his Samajwadi Party spectacularly won power in the March 2012 Assembly election, has been characterised by misgovernance, charges of corruption, worsening crime and repeated sectarian violence. Caught between the warring factions of his uncles, one of whom virtually owns the allegiance of the party’s muscled cadres, Yadav has either been criminally ignorant of the realities of UP or been actively complicit in it.

A senior official in Lucknow says the government’s response to the violence illustrates the cluelessness of Akhilesh’s leadership. “One could have understood the government’s failure to act had the violence flared up within 48 or 72 hours of the first incident,” the official told TEHELKA, requesting anonymity, “but in this case, violence erupted 11 days after the first incident. Why did the administration allow both sides to make hate speeches over these days? What was the Local Intelligence Unit (LIU) doing?”

Officials say Yadav did not seek regular briefings about the situation on the ground. And when he was briefed, he lost interest within minutes and went back to reading BlackBerry phone.

The jury is still out on whether the BJP — which is desperate to revive its fortunes in India’s most electorally influential state ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha polls — had a role in orchestrating the violence or simply jumped on to the bus once it took to the road. But what many find appalling is that the state government failed to assess the mood of the Hindus in the region even after the BJP, which claims to espouse their cause, called a successful shutdown of Muzaffarnagar on 5 September to protest the Jats’ killings.

Administratively, too, the state government failed miserably in preparing a cogent response to the crisis. On 28 August, Muzaffarnagar’s Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Manjil Saini was inexplicably shunted out. His replacement, SC Dubey, arrived in style in a helicopter along with UP Additional Director-General of Police (ADG) Arun Kumar, who is in charge of law and order. Obviously, the new man in could hardly get a feel of the ground before violence erupted on 7 September after the Jat assembly.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Dubey, too, was replaced five days after taking over. The new incumbent, Praveen Kumar, had earlier served the district in the same capacity during the rule of Yadav’s predecessor, Mayawati of the BSP. “It is scandalous that the violence spread so much,” Kumar, known for being a tough police officer, told TEHELKA within minutes of assuming office on 10 September. “Rumours have spread all across.”

Also, Surendra Singh, district magistrate (DM), Muzaffarnagar, was transferred. The new DM Santosh Yadav, considered close to the chief minister, too had been the DM of Muzaffarnagar during Mayawati’s rule. He bluntly told TEHELKA: “Muzaffarnagar city hasn’t had communal tension in a long time. We have to tackle the situation soon.” Sure enough, by the evening of 9 September, 1,600 firearm licences had been cancelled.

In a sign of “too little, too late”, the state government announced it had asked retired Allahabad High Court judge Vishnu Sahai to probe the violence and submit a report in two months.

Unsurprisingly, a fear of sectarian violence pervades Ground Zero. Potholed roads from Muzaffarnagar city stretched the 15-km journey to 45 minutes when TEHELKA went to Kawal. Muzaffarnagar SP Ashok Tripathi, currently tasked with keeping peace in the curfew-bound village, had warned that the villagers may not take kindly to a “private” vehicle cruising around. Entering on foot, it takes not even minutes to breathe in the sectarian hatred and fear that splits Kawal.

The three-metre-wide lane separating the temple from the mosque is hardly walkable. Hindus and Muslims pray in their halls of worship, but the gates to both are opened only just so a devotee can sneak in. Behind the mosque is the house of Shahnawaz, the alleged stalker of the schoolgirl, whose brothers killed him before they were murdered. Fearing for their lives, Shahnawaz’s family has long fled the house.

Some 3 km away, on the fringe of Kawal, lies Mallikpura, a tiny hamlet of about 15 families of Hindu Jats. Ravinder Singh, 50-year-old father of Gaurav, 18, one of the cousins killed on 27 August, has revenge farthest from his mind. “I am sad that people are killing each other elsewhere. I do not want this,” he says. He says what happened was “unfortunate” and he only wants a “fair” police investigation in his son’s killing. “You are the first journalist from New Delhi to reach me,” he says, as a toddler plays in his lap. This is the son of Sachin, Singh’s sister’s 24-year-old son who, too, was lynched along with Gaurav. “I hope you will carry my message to those who matter.”

But “those who matter” have rather pursued an anti-peace agenda since the cycle of tragedy began. On 30 August, Lok Sabha member from Muzaffarnagar, Kadir Rana, a Muslim from the main Opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the state, reportedly made incendiary speeches before calling on top district and police officials to give a memorandum of demands. The police later filed criminal charges against him.

On 31 August, the Jats of the area gathered and demanded quick police action against the Muslims who killed the Jat cousins. When none was forthcoming, they called a Bahu-Beti Bachao Jat Mahasabha — a mammoth assembly to “save” the daughters and daughters-in-law — on 7 September. Shockingly, even though the Muzaffarnagar district administration imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC in the entire district, it still allowed the mammoth gathering to go ahead as scheduled.

More than 100,000 people attended the assembly that met on the grounds of the intermediate college near Kawaal where Gaurav’s sister — the one who Shahnawaz allegedly stalked — is enrolled. It was now the turn of the Hindu Jat leaders to make hate-filled speeches. Around 5 pm some Muslims allegedly attacked tractor trolleys bringing Jats home from the assembly. Survivors told TEHELKA that the attackers, who ambushed them near a canal named Ganga, wielded local firearms and machetes.

“They stabbed many among us and threw the bodies in the canal,” says Dharam Pal, a Jat returning from the assembly. “They put the tractors on fire, too. I ran to save my life.” Ironically, the Ganga canal separates the Hindu and the Muslim parts of a village named Jauli. Pal says several policemen stood nearby but “when I approached them, they said they did not have orders to act”. Blood-soaked clothes, slippers and tractor headlights at the site bear testimony to the killings.

On 11 September, three dead bodies had been reclaimed from the canal’s waters. Officials say as many as 11 people may have been killed in the attack.

It was mayhem time now. An hour later, 20 km away, embers turned into a full fire in Khalapur, a crowded Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in the old part of Muzaffarnagar. Hindus and Muslims fought pitched battles, throwing stones and firing arms, killing, among others, Rajesh Verma, a reporter for IBN7, a Hindi news channel.

For the next three days, sectarian violence continued unabated not just across Muzaffarnagar, but in the adjoining districts of Shamli and Baghpat, too. What added fuel to the fire was the fact that the district administration remained clueless, even as the district police, 16 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), one company of the Rapid Action Force (RAF), 14 companies of the PAC and, subsequently, eight columns of the army were deployed. The backlash of the violence was so severe that several hundred Jats as well as Muslims fled their villages.

Shariq, 24, took shelter in a half-constructed house along with 300 other Muslims after his cousin and uncle were stabbed to death on the night of 8 September. “Many local Muslim leaders came to meet us and asked us to return,” says Shariq. “But even they were unwilling to guarantee our safety.” The tragic picture is much the same on the other side. Bagesh, 35, a Jat, fled his home when Muslims attacked his village the same night. “My family has never had a fight in the village. Yet the Muslims killed our brothers,” he says. Two of his cousins are missing. “The administration, it seems, is saving the Muslims.”

At the Muzaffarnagar District Hospital, a Muslim villager appearing to be in her mid-20s, lies on the bed with grievous head injuries. A mob of Jats killed her 35-year-old brother and seriously wounded her three-year-old son, Mehrana, who now fights for his life. “They came inside our house and killed my uncle,” says Tauheed, 6, Mehrana’s cousin, who is an eyewitness to the case. An ambulance has just brought in a 50-year-old village woman named Salma with a bullet in her leg.

Minutes later, Shamim, a 35-year-old Muslim man, was brought in from another village in an unconscious state. His cousin Irfan, who brought him to the hospital, says a group of Jats attacked them when they were returning after shifting their family members to a safe house. “I managed to flee but Shamim fell off his bike and was beaten black and blue,” says Irfan. Sumit Kumar, a transporter who was shot in his leg during “indiscriminate” firing from a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, says he least expected that the violence in the remote village would spill over to the city. “There were too many gunshots being fired from that direction of Kidwai Nagar,” he recalls.

The misery of the victims was compounded by the fact that only 16 government hospital ambulances were available for the entire district. A private vendor who runs 11 ambulances refused to risk his services, citing a prior agreement with the government that allows them to go off road in a “law and order situation”. “Despite our repeated requests to the administration, this couldn’t be resolved,” says Ashok Aggarwal, chief medical officer, Muzaffarnagar. At the hospital, 25 doctors, 10 pharmacists and 15 nurses are about all the staff dispensing medical care. Most victims, he says, were shot, or stabbed or attacked with hard objects.

Predictably, the violence has been hijacked by political one-upmanship. Civil Aviation Minister Singh, who heads the region’s dominant political party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), and his son were stopped by the police from entering the disturbed area. A similar fate befell BJP leaders trying to get in. The violence has shaken Singh, who has successfully based his politics on the identity of being a Jat, overriding the Hindu identity, a mainstay of the BJP. The violence has triggered intense speculation that Chief Minister Yadav’s Samajwadi Party — which champions the cause of the Muslims — and the BJP are looking to consolidates their respective votebanks.

Naturally, this would only come about at the expense of the RLD, which has rigged up substantial support from Muslims, too, and Mayawati’s BSP, which currently represents Muzaffarnagar in the Lok Sabha. Arun Pundir, a national secretary of the RLD, blames the BSP and the SP for the violence. “Had the local police in Kawal used a strong hand, the situation would have been in control,” he says.

Mufti Zulfikar Ali, Muzaffarnagar’s leading Muslim cleric, says, “the RLD will lose heavily as the Jats have finally shifted to the BJP”. Ali accuses the district administration of facilitating it with a view to polarising voters on sectarian lines in the next General Election. “Although it remains doubtful whether the SP will benefit from the communal divide,” he says.

Indeed, the disenchantment among Jats with Ajit Singh began in 2011, when after the death of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, his son Narendra Tikait started the process of Hinduisation of the BKU, which alienated the Muslim farmers from it. Says four-term MLA from Baghpat, RLD leader Kokab Hamid: “This violence has caused a huge strain on the traditional Jat-Muslim social coalition in western UP that has existed since the 1857 sepoy mutiny.”

According to Taslim Rahmani, National Secretary of the Welfare Party floated by the Jamaat-e-Islami, the SP is desperate to regain the Muslim votes it lost to the BSP in western Uttar Pradesh over the years. “A large number of Muslims voted for the BSP in 2007 and 2012 Assembly polls and the 2009 parliamentary polls.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the violence may well have brightened the BJP’s electoral chances. In the eye of the storm is BJP MLA Hukum Singh, who has been charged with contributing to the violence by making hate speeches at the Jat assembly. The FIR also names BJP legislators Sangat Singh Som, Suresh Rana and Kunwar Bharatendu, as well as former Congress MP Harendra Malik, along with BKU leaders Rakesh Tikait and Naresh Tikait for inciting violence. However, Hukum Singh says the case against him is a “desperate act” of the UP government to frame him.

“Instead of accusing me for my so-called provocative speech, the district administration should explain how 1.5 lakh people were allowed to gather despite prohibitory orders,” he says. “Why did the administration allow thousands of vehicles and tractor trolleys from Haryana, Delhi and the neighbouring districts of UP to enter Muzaffarnagar?”

Defending himself, Singh says he spoke for only two minutes at the Jat meet and did not name any community or religion in his speech. On the other hand, he claimed, the DM and the SSP had both caused the situation to worsen by being on the stage at a meeting called by Muslim leaders elsewhere in the area and attended by some 20,000 people. “Kadir Rana, Congress leader Saiduzzaman and SP leader Rashid Siddiqui had made highly provocative speeches on 30 August,” says Singh. “The police lodged an FIR against the BSP MP and the Congress leader. Why did they spare the SP leader?”

But political watchers, as also BSP and Congress leaders, have been speaking of a possible deal between the BJP and the SP to let the violence occur and polarise the votes. This speculation revived after SP president Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister’s father, told journalists in Agra that the BJP legislators won’t be arrested until the retired high court judge had submitted his inquiry report. “The SP is committed to fighting against communal and fascist forces,” he thundered, but failed to answer why the state government allowed the Jat assembly to take place.

Indeed, the cadres of the BJP as well as of its ideological parent, the RSS, have gone into a hyperdrive to cash in on the situation. Their presence in the Jat-dominated areas has shot up. The RSS website put up a highly incendiary report blaming the Muslims for the violence.

RLD MP Jayant Chaudhary is convinced that the SP and the BJP are in lock step over this round of violence. He points out that some 8,000 paramilitary personnel were deployed to prevent a “nonstarter” rally that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a BJP affiliate, had called last month in Ayodhya town. “But when hate SMSes and posters began circulating in western UP, the state government chose to look the other way. This shows that both parties are in it together,” he says.

To be sure, the SP and its government came in for all-round condemnation from Muslims, including from within it. Top party leader Azam Khan, who is the urban development and minority affairs minister, and is in charge of Muzaffarnagar district, slammed the government’s ham-handed response to the crisis. “Instead of waiting for instructions from Lucknow, the DM should have exercised his discretion and prevented the people from other states from reaching Muzaffarnagar for the Jat assembly,” he says.

On 11 September, the vice chancellor of the Islamic seminary of the Darul Uloom at Deoband near Muzaffarnagar, Maulana Abul Kasim Nomani, demanded that the CBI probe the violence to fix responsibility. On 30 August, some students returning by train to the seminary were attacked by Hindu zealots, who looted their belongings and shaved their beards off. “If this fire is not doused immediately, it will lead to serious consequences for India’s secular polity,” says Maulana Arshad Madni, president of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, a platform of Islamic scholars.

But the September madness is not a random occurrence. In March, the government had told the Legislative Assembly in Lucknow that 27 incidents of sectarian violence had occurred in its year-long reign. “It is so obvious that the violence is part of a clear design by the SP to mobilise the minorities’ votes,” says Vivek Kumar, associate professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They are in cahoots with the BJP.”

But such a cynical political strategy, if indeed it is the SP’s strategy to orchestrate sectarian violence to reap Muslim votes, would not succeed this time, according to political scientist AK Verma of Kanpur’s Christ Church College. “The SP is committing harakiri in its zeal to capture Muslim votes,” he says. “It may well alienate its Hindu supporters from different castes in western UP.”

Indeed, locals say they are fed up with the continuing violence in the twin districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which was carved out of the former in 2011, for several months. In June, a gangrape of a Dalit woman took sectarian colour because her rapists happened to be Muslims. Because the police failed to act, the locals saw it as a manifestation of the pro-Muslim attitude of the SP. Earlier this month, Dalits and Muslims came to blows elsewhere in Shamli after the murder of a sanitation worker.

Rumours play a crucial role in fomenting violence. On 11 September, officials rushed to a village on rumours of dead bodies surfacing but found them to be false. On the night of 9 September, a power cut in Shamli town panicked both Hindus and Muslims who thought they were about to be attacked. This led them to fire shots at each other’s areas. Swords and firearms were later recovered from the homes of both Hindus and Muslims.

While the horizon appears smudged by the smoke rising from the sectarian fire, it is instructive to return to Kawal, the village where it all began, “We have seen peace after the first killings of 27 August,” says Shamim Akhtar, an elderly Muslim who is part of the village peace committee set up after those killings. “Violence is now elsewhere.”

With inputs from Ashhar Khan

virendranathbhatt@gmail.com
deevakar@tehelka.com

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