File photograph of paramilitary forces in Muzaffarnagar after the riots. AP
Published in Firstpost. 15 November 2013
Not far from Delhi, the nondescript interiors of Malakpur village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district present an unusual sight— countless rows of small, coloured plastic tents have been hoisted on a dirt ground, stretching as far as the eye can see.
Small piles of litter dot the periphery. Scrawny children play in the dirt, while their mothers sit in the tents. Some of the women are pregnant. The men idle around in groups. A slightly larger tent has been erected where two men administer the distribution of medicines.
This was the scene at a Malakpur camp in Muzaffarnagar in early October. This camp was initially home to around 5,000 people, mostly Muslims, who lost their homes in the wake of the September 7 Muzaffarnagar violence which left three young men dead—two Jats and a Muslim, and displaced around 50,000 almost instantly. Over 40 people lost their lives in the violence which continues to simmer.
There were 17 camps in Shamli district, of which five are remaining with about 4,000-5,000 people. According to Rahana Adib, an activist with Astitva Samajik Sanstha, who has worked in Muzaffarnagar for nearly a decade, the situation in these camps has further deteriorated. “People are falling increasingly sick. The nearest hospitals in Muzaffarnagar , 35-40 km away, are overcrowded, with two persons to a bed in some cases. In one instance, a woman had to give birth in a camp since she could not reach the hospital. When it rained recently, the tents could not provide much protection. Children are still out of school. A number of small children were also recently married off. How can the situation be any better?” she says on the phone.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Akhilesh Singh Yadav recently announced compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to the next of kin of those who were killed, and Rs. 5 lakh each to displaced families. If government authorities are to be believed, many of those who are lodged in camps have not impacted by the violence. Compensation is being given only to those who were displaced from Lisar, Bhawari and Lak villages. “Not even one-third of the people in the camps have been impacted by the riots,” said Shamli District Magistrate PK Singh.
The land on which the Malakpur camp is located belongs to the forest department. According to Singh, rumours were spread that that free land parcels were being distributed at Malakpur.
The DM also alleged that local Muslims leaders were responsible for spreading these rumors, inducing people to leave. “We tried hard to stop them from coming. Many of those in the camps are landless and poor labourers.”
PK Singh claimed that many of them have returned to their villages. “Jats and Muslims have not turned enemies overnight. They were living together peacefully since a long time.”
Media accounts have similarly painted a rosy picture of Muzaffarnagar’s Jat-Muslim relations prior to the violence. But locals in Muzaffarnagar note that it has long been witness to instances of murder, robbery, eloping and violence, often among the two communities. In Muzaffarnagar, Jats are the main land-holders, and the Muslims are labourers, though some Muslims also possess small land holdings. Locals say that these issues were not played up communally, until recently, and piece together a narrative involving a bid by the BJP to lay stake to power in Uttar Pradesh and efforts by a local BJP MLA Hukum Singh to fan discontent against the minorities.
Further, civil society teams which have been visiting the camps of the displaced have found that the mood on the ground was strongly against any return to the villages. For instance, a group of displaced Muslim women from Lisar village in Kandhla camp asserted that return was impossible since they feared for their lives. “They (the Jats) burnt our houses, next they will burn us,” said a pregnant Shabana whose house was burnt down. The women either wanted land in the city, or if at all have to live in villages, want to stay in Muslim majority areas.
The Muzaffarnagar District Magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma said that barring nine villages that had faced the brunt of the violence, people were leaving the camps to stay with relatives or are buying land and building houses with the compensation they have been given. In Muzaffarnagar, government jobs are also being given to families which lost a member in the violence.
Though the government is engaged in aid and relief work and is trying to give an impression that it is facilitating the exit of people from the camps to resume their lives, the administrative apathy is visible. Three-year-old Nargis, who when we met her at Kandhla camp, was unable to walk because of malnutrition. The small camp dispensary where we saw her was attended by a young man who insisted that the mother to go to a big hospital, obtain a ‘sunvai’ and then get medicines and treatment.
The exact origins of the Muzaffarnagar violence are hard to pin down, but the sense that emerges was that an isolated incident— a skirmish, was given communal overtones for narrow political gains. It was the Muslim community which received the heaviest blow, caught unawares by an engineered violence, which ripped through the already tenuous social fabric which constitutes Muzaffarnagar society.