How not to handle a riot’s Aftermath

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House of horror CRPF jawans outside a gutted house in Lisarh village
House of horror CRPF jawans outside a gutted house in Lisarh village. Photo: Vijay Pandey

On 28 September, a group of eight Muslims from Meerut district in west Uttar Pradesh specially flew in to Lucknow, the state capital. It included an Islamic cleric named Maulana Nazeer, who is wanted by the police for allegedly inciting sectarian killings last month in another western district, Muzaffarnagar. That violence, the state’s worst in more than two decades, left over 50 dead and thousands uprooted from their homes and villages.

As an FIR names Nazeer for inciting mobs behind some of those killings, he should have expected to be arrested. Yet, a fear of the police was farthest from his mind as he landed in Lucknow. After all, he had come to meet UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who heads their Samajwadi Party (SP) that rules the state. Were father and son expecting the delegation? Even better. They had, in fact, invited it.

Such bizarre and sadly cynical politicking now characterises the government’s approach in handling the aftermath of the bloody violence. Making a bad situation worse, political considerations have snuffed out every chance for sound administrative action that is needed sorely to build long-term peace between the state’s Hindus and Muslims, who are badly polarised from the two-way murderous attacks that began on 7 September.

Behaving blatantly partisan, the government has arrested local Hindu leaders from the Opposition BJP for alleged rioting but refuses to book similarly accused local Muslim leaders, including two brothers, an MP and an MLA. Predictably, the BJP is having a field day. “The government slaps the National Security Act (NSA) against our leaders but treats the other accused as peace messengers,” says BJP state president Laxmikant Bajpai. “They are playing vote bank politics for Muslim votes and this is unacceptable.”

The government and the SP loudly protest the accusation, as the chief minister told TEHELKA’s Shoma Chaudhury in an interview published last week (We’ve Made Mistakes. But There Are Two Things I Will Always Be: Secular And Socialist’). But the message has gone out unmistakably that the government is biased towards the Muslims and against the Hindus.

The resentment is acute among the Hindus in the region that saw the violence. Even if it wasn’t intentional, pundits say the situation bespeaks of a windfall for the SP at the next Lok Sabha election that is due in less than eight months, with the Muslims expected to plunge for the SP to offset any Hindu consolidation in the BJP’s favour.

“Both the BJP and the SP are to blame for this cynical politics of polarisation,” says Arun Singh, national secretary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which has traditionally dominated the politics in the violence-hit region and holds five Lok Sabha seats in and around it.

The RLD is scrambling to stay politically relevant among the Hindus, who are ethnic Jats and its mainstay that the BJP is now aggressively wooing. “We are helping the innocent with both legal and political help,” says Singh. He dismisses the possibility that the Jats might flock wholesale to the BJP. “Jat sentiment in UP is not against the Muslims but the SP,” he says. “They won’t go to the BJP but continue to vote for the RLD.”

May be. But for now, Singh would do well to travel as this correspondent did this week through the violence-wracked villages of Muzaffarnagar. Jats everywhere are incensed that BJP MLAs Suresh Rana and Sangeet Som stand charged under the NSA, while Muslim leaders from the Congress, SP and the BSP have been let off.

Anger has amplified because district and police officers who tried to behave nonpartisan were wantonly transferred in a game of musical chairs. On 29 September, Senior Superintendant of Police (SSP) Praveen Kumar became the third chief of Muzaffarnagar police to be shunted out in little over a month. He had joined on 9 September and is credited with bringing the violence under control. But sources say he earned his political masters’ wrath by opposing their orders to make selective arrests of BJP leaders.

The transfer of four Hindu constables from Muzaffarnagar outraged the police. The Allahabad High Court stayed the transfers after the policemen alleged that top SP Muslim leader and UP minister, Azam Khan, was behind them. Earlier, the then Muzaffarnagar SSP Manzil Saini and District Magistrate Surinder Singh were transferred after the police detained 12 Muslim men as suspects in the killing of two Jat cousins on 27 August.

Khan is also accused of forcing the police to release those detained and then getting the officers transferred. Such mischief is now hardening the religious divide with non-Jat Hindus rallying to the cause. On 29 September, thousands of Rajputs and Gujjars defied prohibitory orders to gather at Meerut to protest BJP MLA Som’s arrest. “Rajputs, too, believe the government is falsely implicating Hindus,” says Kapil Som, a Rajput leader in Meerut. The Gujjars are upset as BJP MLA Hukum Singh, a Gujjar, is named in an FIR.

The police claim to be moving quickly to bring the guilty of the September violence to book. They have filed 203 FIRs naming some 700 people, accused variously of murder, rape, rioting, loot, provocation to cause riot, property destruction, and unlawful assembly. There are 52 cases of murder, five of gangrape, and three of molestation. Some 150 have been arrested. Another 700-800 unnamed people have also been made accused.

The number of FIRs will likely rise as the police processes hundreds of complaints from families in relief camps. Meanwhile, court hearings have begun in the six cases under the NSA, in which BJP MLAs Som and Rana are among the accused. The other accused include three Muslim villagers, two of whom are from the neighbouring Shamli district.

At Kutwa village under the Shahpur Police Station, 110 people have been named for the murder of eight Muslims. Hundreds of Jats living in villages falling under Fugana Police Station are named in various FIRs. The Jats accuse the police of randomly lifting names from voters lists. “Many don’t even live here as they work far away,” says Narendra Singh of Lisarh village, where 95 Jats are accused of setting fire to the houses of Muslims.

In Bahawadi village, hundreds of Jats have fled homes. Says Savita, whose husband, Deepak Singh, is behind bars: “He was with me, not out killing people. He has been wrongly arrested.” With no one left to tend their fields and cattle, the women have decided to hold Mahapanchayats in protest. Several Khap and political leaders have also threatened to launch widespread protests if those “unfairly implicated” are not spared.

Ironically, the most serious cases have hardly seen any breakthroughs. No arrests have been made in the five gangrape cases registered at Fugana, where 16 Muslims were killed in one of the worst episodes of violence. “The Special Investigation Cell is investigating the cases. We will act once they submit their report,” says Fugana police chief KP Sharma.

Elsewhere, the plight of the victims and survivors gets worse. Over 90 percent of the 50,000 rendered homeless in the violence of Black September are Muslims. In camp after camp, the refugees narrate horror stories that send a shiver down the spine.

Soni (name changed), 38, says that getting raped was so humiliating that she could not bring herself to tell her husband about it initially. Soni’s account starts with an attack allegedly by Muslims on a group of Jats returning from a Mahapanchayat on 7 September. She says about 50 men attacked her house at Fugana village the next day at 1.30 pm. “Some of them were my neighbours whom I have known for years,” she says.

Her husband and in-laws fled to safety but she was in the toilet and could not. “Six men took turns to rape me,” she says feebly. “Then they beat me up and set the house on fire.” Now, Soni lives in constant fear that newspapers will shame her by splashing her picture across their pages. On 20 September, her husband gave the police a written complaint.

Some 4,500 villagers from Fugana, Lisarh and Bahawadi have sought refuge at a relief camp in Loi village. Each family here is typically trying to settle down in a red-and-yellow tarpaulin tent, 8 feet by 10 feet. There are no toilets. Dogs and cattle roam the camp. Sagiran, 50, recounts how her daughter Sania, 5, was taken away by the attackers.

Cop out? BJP’s Suresh Rana (white shirt) has been slapped with an NSA case
Cop out? BJP’s Suresh Rana (white shirt) has been slapped with an NSA case. Photo: Pramod Singh

“We were running to seek shelter in the mosque and she was holding my hand,” Sagiran says tearfully. “In the chaos, she got separated. I turned back and saw the attackers taking her away.” Sagiran registered a police case. “But she is still missing,” she says. Praying is all she can do for her daughter’s safe return, while she tends to her 22-year-old pregnant daughter-in-law, Sameena, who gets neither a proper diet nor the medicines she needs.

At another relief camp at a madrassa in Tawli village, Mohsina, 50, is inconsolable. On 8 September, a mob attacked the Muslim homes in her village at Kharad. “We left behind all our assets and life’s earnings and have been living here like refugees,” she says. “It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we will not be able to go back to our homes where we spent our entire lives.”

The government’s efforts to convince the people that it’s safe for them to return to their homes and villages have not inspired confidence among the riot victims living in relief camps. “I will die here but won’t go back to my home in Kutwa,” says Shakir Ali, 38, who lost four members of his family in the violence. “I don’t trust the village pradhan or the local police officers who merely watched while we were being butchered.” He now lives at the Islamia Madrassa relief camp in Bassi Kalan village.

Shakir’s nephew Shahrukh, 19, a student, recalls how three days before the attacks, a group of Jats had stopped the evening azaan at the local mosque. “A group of 20-25 people interrupted the prayers,” he says. “Our sentiments were hurt but since we were just about 1,000 Muslims and there were 15,000 Jats in the village, we were cautious.” The next day, some Muslims overheard a few Jats talking about the Kawal incident. “We had an inkling of what was to come and called the pradhanpati (village pradhan’s husband),” relates Shahrukh. “But he assured us that there was no danger to our lives. On the evening of 7 September, we saw Jats gathering all around us. Until then we didn’t know about the attack on the Jats returning from the Mahapanchayat.”

Shahrukh recalls the last 10-12 hours when Muslims made distress calls to anyone who could help. “We repeatedly called the pradhanpati throughout the evening, suspecting that a Jat buildup was happening against us. We called up the SHO of Shahpur. They could have saved us. Instead, the SHO summoned a few young Muslims to the pradhanpati’s house where they were having drinks.” The SHO and the pradhanpati then admonished the Muslim youth for reporting against the Jats and asked them to go home.

On 8 September, around 8 am, more than 500 Jats armed with swords and sticks surrounded the Muslim houses. “We ran to our roof tops but to no avail,” says Shahrukh. “Some of those who managed to sneak out were chased down near the fields. My cousin Irshad was rushing his sister-in-law Gulistan and her four children to safety on a motorcycle when they were attacked with swords and iron rods. Irshad died on the spot, Gulistan was hit on the head and lost consciousness. The attackers didn’t even spare the children and wounded them too.”

His uncle, Shakir Ali, says it was only after they managed to speak to BSP MP Kadir Rana that the police came with some armed reserve forces and took them to safety at the Shahpur camp. On 16 September, Shakir met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he came to visit the camp. “The PM has said that the government is with us, but I still fear going back to my village,” he says.

A similar experience is shared by Maajid, 30, from Fugana village, who has been living in the Loi camp with his eight-month pregnant wife. “On the morning of 8 September, Jats openly announced that they would avenge the killings of 7 September,” he says. “Initially, we thought things would settle down as the police at Fugana had been informed well in advance. However, the SHO did nothing. In the next two hours, the Jats began setting our houses on fire. We were dragged out and beaten up mercilessly. I could hear women scream from inside the houses that were burnt.”

Here, too, the police’s role is questionable. “The police station is hardly 2 km from the village, but no one turned up until all the houses were burnt,” says Maajid. “They killed 16 people from my village. I managed to flee with my wife through the sugarcane fields.”

The distrust between the two communities is now a cause for another worry. While villages like Fugana, Lisarh, Kutwa, Kutwi and a few others are likely to become exclusively Hindu, others like Bassi Kalan and Kabirpur could very well become Muslim ghettos. Before the riots, these were areas where members of both the communities lived in relative peace and harmony, and now that fabric stands torn in a thousand places.

TEHELKA had a firsthand experience of the mammoth task facing the district administration to restore normalcy. On the way from Shamli to Muzaffarnagar, this team’s taxi broke down on a desolated stretch between Fugana and Loi villages. A few minutes later, two men on bicycles stopped to ask us: “Who are you and what are you doing here?” It did not matter to them that we were journalists, all they were interested in knowing was what community we belonged to.

Half an hour later, a CRPF patrolling party and a local homeopath helped get our car fixed. A day earlier, in the same area, a truck driver was killed by unknown assailants. Sub-inspector Jagpal Singh, in-charge of the CRPF party, told us before sending us on our way, “Don’t stop anywhere until you reach your hotel in Muzaffarnagar, unless security forces stop you.” Safety will take its time to return to Muzaffarnagar. Peace will only follow then.

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