Muzaffarnagar: Will Justice Be Done?

By Antara Desai and Rohit Deshpande,

The riots in Muzaffarnagar were sparked by the incident of two boys of the Jat community killing one youth from a minority community in Kawaal village on 27th August 2013, for eve teasing and harassing their sister. In retaliation, a group of Muslim boys killed these two Jat youth. The Jat community, feeling that the police had taken no action against the mob that killed two of its youth, convened a Panchayat meeting to take action against those responsible for the death of the two Jat boys. The Panchayat announced that if action was not taken, a mahapanchayat would be held in the first week of September, and on 7th September 2013, the slogan ‘’bahu bachao, beti bachao’ resounded from the convened mahapanchayat. The meeting ended with clashes between the two groups, with the Jats being attacked with knives and swords, and quickly escalated into large scale communal riots. The riots have been the worst that Uttar Pradesh has seen in more than a decade with the need for the Army to intervene to put in place curfew, and restore law and order.

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Since the incident, many parents have banned their daughters from going to the nearest school which is in Kawal village, where Muslims are in the majority. Ironically, until just a few weeks prior to the riots, Hindu Jats from the adjoining village Malikpura had coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.

The Plight of Our People Today…

A land rich in sugarcane, where people prospered until recently, today, sees over forty-five of its people dead. The violence has ended, but many of those who have been displaced are fearful of returning home. Hundreds of these people are today left suffering in temporary relief camps finding a vestige of security in numbers. Families have buried their dead in unmarked graves some distance away from their camps.  The ‘relief camps’ are a bunch of plastic roofs set up in the open with no bathrooms, no drinking water, no electricity and no sanitation.

Independent assessment reports show that women and children have been the worst affected. The camps are a ghastly sight with dirt, filth and human excreta everywhere, especially in those camps that have a larger number of people. There have been several cases of assault and rape although very few have been reported and those that have are still awaiting an investigation. Infants don’t have access to milk, children’s education has hit a roadblock and the psychological trauma on the people is probably irreversible.

Today, even months after the riots approximately sixteen thousand, and possibly more, people are languishing in relief camps in Uttar Pradesh. In the Malakpur relief camp, twenty five children have lost their lives due to the cold and adverse weather conditions. Similarly, deaths have been reported in large numbers across the relief camps in Shahpur, Gadhi, Shamli, Kandhala, Jogia Kheda, Bassi-Kalan, Khampur, Balwa, Asara, Suneti, Barnavi, Khurgan, Birpur, Dhaberi Khurd and Loi of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. Pregnant women have suffered miscarriages and many others have lost their babies.

Aged people are dying due to lack of medical facilities and the camps are witnessing an alarming rise in disease and illness such as cases of tuberculosis, bone injuries and paralysis. Some victims claim that money, clothes, utensils, tents and food provided by local communities and social organisations are the only source of their survival as no relief item is being distributed by the district administration.

The irony lies in the fact that the death toll in the relief camps is far more than the death toll in the riots.

Where are Our Politicians?

As has been observed in past riots of this nature, political leaders and their followers belonging to the majority and minority communities lose no time in involving themselves in the conflict and making every attempt to expand their political base. This is even more so when the riots take place at such an ‘opportune’ time, given that the elections are around the corner. The riots in Muzaffarnagar proved no different, and within no time, the UP police was forced to issue non-bailable warrants against sixteen state politicians and community leaders on the grounds of allegedly inciting violence through their speeches. Among those issued notice, were, BSP MP Qadir Rana, BJP MLAs Sangeet Som and Bhartendu Singh, BSP MLAs Noor Saleem and Maulana Jameel, Congress leader Saeeduzaman and BKU Chief Naresh Tikait.

Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the riot affected areas saw him interacting with a handful of victims. He did not hesitate to point out the failure of the state government to provide basic amenities to the victims and his visit ended with the Parliament taking up the issue of children dying in the relief camps.

The UP government was quick to defend itself saying that out of forty one, people living in only one camp need to be rehabilitated. Those who aren’t going back are being misled by locals from other political parties. On October 28, the government announced that it will help families who lost everything in the violence so they could settle in other places and start life anew. For this purpose, they identified nearly nine hundred and fifty families in six villages in Muzaffarnagar and three in Shamli, from where mostly Muslim families fled homes where they had lived for generations. The government issued a notice promising five lakh rupees to those families who would assure them that after taking the compensation, they would leave the camp and not return to their homes. Mister Akhilesh Yadav claimed that many victims have in fact left the camps, and the rest would leave soon, and the district officials have been asked to ensure the victims are sent home safely. Meanwhile Mister Mulayam Singh Yadav went a step further to say that there were no riot victims in the camps, but supporters of the two parties (Congress and BJP) who were staying there. All these statements were made while the Muzaffarnagar riot victims continued to slam the state government for ignoring them completely.

BJP leader Uma Bharti was heard warning of “more tension” in Uttar Pradesh if politicians from her party were arrested for instigating the riots. She said, “Our MLAs (state legislators) will not oppose their arrest, but the government is responsible for what will follow. I am warning them,” she said, in comments directed to the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP). “If any MLAs are arrested, it means they (SP) want to restart the riots… and this time, they want to target one particular community and one party.” This threat was issued by the BJP leader outside the state assembly in Lucknow in an attempt to shield Sangeet Som, one of the politicians against whom a warrant has been issued by a local court. Party workers encircled Mr Som, forcing the police that had arrived to arrest him to turn away.

BSP leader and former UP chief minister Mayawati promptly made strong mention of the riots in her election speech, declaring the ability of her party to govern. She stated that, while SP was in power in UP, there were riots in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar. But during BSP’s rule, people feared and respected the law. If we are elected, we will ensure security for not just one community, but all, was her stand.

Where is Justice?

It appears that in the ongoing blame game and fights between various political parties, the riot victims have become mere pawns caught in a political game. What is the life of these riot victims? Their houses have been burnt or destroyed. Their children have been killed. Bread winners have been maimed and injured. Women have been raped. Can these victims ever be granted justice? From Mister Manmohan Singh to Mister Akhilesh Yadav, there have been several promises made and assurances given that justice shall be done. In today’s political quagmire will justice really be delivered? Who will deliver this justice? What is justice for these victims that have lost everything? While listening to media channels and politicians argue over “official figures” will India rise to the cries of thousands of terrified, trembling, desperate people sitting in relief camps, crying for justice, relief and rehabilitation?

Whether Hindu or Muslim, will the people of India remain mute spectators, watching our mothers and sisters get raped, seeing our infants die and witnessing fellow citizens get murdered? India needs to rise above political games and citizens indifference, and learn from the story of Nero, who was said to have had one of the biggest parties of ancient times during which, Nero brings in criminals from his jail and ties them up and sets them up ablaze in order to “light up the darkness”. In the words of P. Sainath, “the issue was never Nero, it was Nero’s guests” – the silent spectators.

(Antara Desai has completed her Masters in Geopolitics and International Relations and has a special interest in foreign affairs and political issues. Rohit Deshpande is a Masters Researcher at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University. They can be contacted at antara.d9@gmail.com )