Poles Apart

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For those who had shelter under a permanent roof, the thunderstorm that hit many parts of western Uttar Pradesh in the evening was a major relief from the heat and dust of the summer. But those who were left homeless after the riots spent the night holding on to the poles that held up their tents. At 9.30 am the next morning, in Basi Kalan village, 12 km from Muzaffarnagar town, poles lay scattered everywhere as the people of this refugee camp, comprising 175 households, tried stoically to rejig their uprooted “homes”.

Some of the kids played around a borewell that was dug just 15 days ago. Elderly men gathered in a makeshift teashop set up by Yakub, who had been a manual labourer in what must have felt like a previous life. Equipped with a small television set, Yakub’s shop is where these men meet every day to rehash the same tired, cynical conversations. The camp’s 600-700 residents have no toilets, schools or access to medicine. Not even paracetamol. To attend nature’s call, the women have to walk far into the nearby forest.

“Last night, the thunderstorm sent our tent flying,” says Nawab Saifi, 41. “We spent the entire night trying to put it back together.” His wife Asiya was sleeping when the storm struck, the pole holding up their tent fell on her head. Saifi’s family of nine, with three children under 10, had to brave the rest of the night without shelter, not knowing how much worse the weather might get.

All the residents of this camp originally belonged to Kutba and Kutbi villages, about 8 km from the camp. Eight Muslims were killed in Kutba. Despite the residents swearing to vote for the “cyclewallah party” (the ruling Samajwadi Party), voter identity cards for the camp have yet to arrive.

“The government has always been run by Hindus. Even (SP chief ) Mulayam (Singh Yadav) is a Hindu… Everyone saw but nobody did anything,” says Younus, 55. “We have to live this hellish life. We know what every political party has done, where they have failed. The BJP has bought out the media. The world can say what it wants. But I hope Mulayam becomes the prime minister.” A call of “Inshallah, cycle hi chalegi (By Allah’s grace, the cycle will win)” breaks out from the crowd that has gathered around us.

Despite the brave face they had put on for us journalists, we had our doubts. There had to be some people among the victims of the September riots who knew how terribly ineffective the Akhilesh Yadav government had been in providing relief and ensuring the safe return of the villagers to their homes. Nobody wants to return. Some residents in the camp who have received compensation of Rs 5 lakh from the state government have bought tiny plots of land nearby. They hope that once they begin to earn money, they will be able to build pucca houses.

“It’s a broken bond,” says Anwari, 50, who lost four men in her family to the riots. “Vaapas nahi jaa sakte. Taqdeer hi phoot gayi. Taqdeer hi phootni thi (We can never go back. Our fate is cursed. Our fate had to be cursed).”

A few feet away from Anwari’s tent, young men in their 20s sit under a tree playing ludo. Unemployed and clueless about their future, they too, like the rest of the camp, dream of leaving and settling elsewhere. Some even speak of wanting to go to Delhi to study.

Even as the Muslims displaced by the riots prepare for a new life, in Kutba and Kutbi — their former homes — there is an unmistakable air of jubilation. In Kutbi village, where almost every household has a BJP flag fluttering on the rooftop, the Jats wear the fact that no Muslims were killed — despite eight murders in neighbouring Kutba village — as a badge of honour. With more than 2,500 voters in the twin villages, the Modi wave is palpable.

“Apne aap aag laga kar bhaag gaye saale. Humara naam likhva di. Mera bhi naam likhva diya (They torched their own homes and fled. They named us all, including me, in the FIRs),” says Pradeep Mistry, 38, about the 50-odd Muslim families who fled Kutbi. “Both villages will vote for Dr Sanjeev Baliyan (the local BJP candidate). He is a good, educated man. Dangon ke time pe humhaara saath diya (He helped us during the time of riots),” he adds with a wide grin on his face.

“Ab ki baar Modi sarkar,” shouts Pavan Kumar, a BJP worker, who declares that all 84 villages of the Baliyan Khap will vote for Modi this time.

In a Jat household, where we are welcomed with a glass of rich buttermilk, a group of men speak of Muslims with the same scorn heard everywhere in the village. “They are waiting for the election to get more compensation. Once they get more money, you will see how they will all come back,” says a villager. The Jat cab driver from Muzaffarnagar town, who was driving the TEHELKA team around, agreed.

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At Lohi Gaon camp, more than 20 km from Kutbi, the stories are similar. More than 400 Muslim families left Fugana village after two men were killed and seven women raped. The rains battered the tents here too. The support for the “cyclewallah party” is so strong that some of the residents use SP posters as extra cover for their skimpy tents. Eleven of the nearly 400 children who live in this camp have died, nine of them were below five years old. With a pond nearby — a breeding ground for mosquitoes — residents, who are certain of spending at least the rest of the year in this camp, will have to cope with malaria and possibly dengue. More will die.

With the sun beating down, most men and women are resting in their tents. The children play games with whatever they can find around them substituting for toys. Officials from the Fugana branch of Punjab National Bank are here to verify the antecedents of the account holders, as Muslims fear returning to the village because “the Jats misbehave”. In contrast, Muslims in Lohi village pleaded with their Hindu neighbours — who make up 20 percent of the residents — to stay back and they did.

On the day we visit, Shameena is mourning the death of her husband, who succumbed to a heart attack just the day before. “Javir had not found any work for days,” says Shameena’s brother-in-law Mustaqeem. “Yesterday, he struggled to breathe. The ambulance took two hours to reach despite the hospital being just 10 km away. To make matters worse, their names were not entered in the government survey of people eligible for compensation. So, while families who got compensation have at least managed to buy a plot of land close by, she will be left destitute.” Shameena’s is one of 20 families in the camp who are yet to receive any compensation.

Lohi Gaon camp also houses rape survivors. Tahira (name changed), 35, says, “Four Jat men, who I had seen since my childhood days, did this to me. None of them have been arrested… We used to have a two-storey house. My husband was a cloth trader. Who thought we would end up in a slum?”

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Rape is one charge the Jats of Fugana deny as loudly as they can. “Yahan pe murders huwe, maante hai. Ghare bhi jale. Rape nahi kiya (Murders happened, we admit. Houses were set on fire. But nobody was raped),” says a young man, in a gathering of village elders. Some of the vociferous insistence is a result of fear among Jats about the punishment under the new rape law. Camped around a hookah, it was otherwise a relaxed afternoon until Tehelka turned up, asking questions. This reporter’s goatee was regarded with suspicion and the men answered defensively and grudgingly until they relaxed when they heard a Hindu name. Fugana, which has about 6,000 voters, swears by Modi, except a 100-odd families, who the Jats claim will vote for the BSP or the SP.

“Our MP does not have a reputation. We don’t know him. We are with Modi,” says Om Prakash, an elderly man, who adds in a thick Jat accent: “Woh Kashyap ho, ya Sonar ho, ya Kumar ho, ya Chamar ho, NaMo NaMo NaMo hai yahan pe. (It doesn’t matter whether he is a Kashyap, Sonar, Kumar or Chamar. NaMo is the only thing that matters here).”

The group of men who have gathered share an odd sense of pride and guilt when it comes to Muslims and what happened in their village during the riots. Some of these men did indeed stop the Jat mob from burning down all the mosques in the village. “Relationships will not mend. To this day, they (Muslims) come here to work. They hunt on our fields. It’s sad that they still don’t trust Hindus,” says one of the men, a Hindu in that otherwise Jat gathering. Om Prakash intervenes. “Hum Jat dharmanirapeksh hai (We Jats are secular by nature). When Babri fell, mosques in Jat villages were safe,” he says.

Unlike most riot-affected areas in the rest of India, the Muslim households that were stoned or burned have been left undisturbed in Fugana since the families left. There has been no illegal squatting or occupation. The bada masjid, portions of which were burnt, is still standing.

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Jwala camp, 10 km from Lohi, has toilets, a school and some pucca houses as the housing meant for employees of the electricity boards have been given away to the refugees. The camp has more than 450 families with more than a thousand children. Ten kids died during the winter, along with three elders. As the children queue around a counter distributing kheer from a charity, old men sit in the shade wondering about water supply and compensation to the 136 families who are still waiting.

“Can you please go tell the Supreme Court? Can you also publish this article in Hindi?” asks Abdul Wahid, 60, who keeps the details of the residents. One of the bigger camps, Jwala has Muslim families who fled from Fugana, Laak, Bawdi, Nisaad and Lisarh villages. “Hum unke mazdoor the… Jitne Musalmaan gaon se baaghe hai, saare Jatton ke mazdoor the. Hume ab nayi shuruat karni hoigi (We were their labourers. All Muslims who fled their villages were essentially labourers of the Jats. We will have to start afresh),” he says. “None of them have asked us to return.”

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With more than 6,500 people (according to record-keepers at the camp), Malakpura in Shamli district is the biggest camp that emerged after the riots to house the displaced. Makeshift tents stretch as far as the eye can see. Malakpura is also the camp with the largest number of families still to get any compensation. According to the record-keepers, most families who got compensated left almost immediately. With nearly 2,500 children in the camp, there is panic over an outbreak of chickenpox.

To add insult to injury, local Muslim thugs and crime barons, claiming themselves to be community leaders, have allegedly made away with crores of rupees in charitable donations. “Har koi ne apne aap ko sarpanch, committee member bataya. Jitna paisa relief mai aaya, unke jeb mai gaya. (People came here claiming to be sarpanches and committee members. All the relief money went into their pockets),” says Irfan, 40, one of the residents who tries to ensure that records are kept, cleanliness is maintained and the kids learn English. “Our rotis, like in other camps, come from charity.”

His daughter Asma, 15, is among the few bright ones the camp counts on for record-keeping and dealing with matters in English. “I was beginning to learn English when the riots started. Now I work with Oxfam. I also do some stitching,” she says. Asma helps out the camp with cleaning and better handling of toilets. Despite suffering from chickenpoxinduced fever, she speaks with energy and hope. “I want to study further,” she says, “if I can.”

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At Saharanpur, Congress candidate Imran Masood will take on his cousin Shazan Masood, who is fighting on an SP ticket. The BSP has fielded sitting MP Jagdish Rana. An alliance with the rld is hardly expected to bring any notable gains to the Congress in western UP. Observers say that the fight evidently is between the SP, the BSP and BJP, with the latter standing to benefit massively due to the supposed consolidation of Hindu and Jat votes. With Mayawati having begun her campaign reluctantly (she never visited Muzaffarnagar after the riots), only two weeks ago, indications are that one party could take it all. The possibility of an upset that Delhi saw with aap seems less likely to be repeated in western UP.

Four days after our visit to the camps, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav told a national daily that being secular was difficult. Agreeing with him was former Gujarat Minister of State (Home) Amit Shah, who is now the BJP’s election in-charge for UP. During his campaign trail, Shah asked the Jats of Muzaffarnagar to “avenge the insult” of the riots. He was not particularly virulent or vitriolic in what the Election Commission considered hate speech. He did not have to be. The seeds of hate have already been sown. The harvest will be reaped on 16 May.

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