After the mind-numbing violence of the riot comes the struggle to reclaim life.
Ten-year-old Farah is using a humble whip to spin a lattoo (top) with repeated strikes. She pieced together this whip by tying a thin strip of cloth to one end of a slender wooden stick. The lattoo required more hard work for she had to skilfully chisel a small block of wood to give it a conical shape. These self-carved lattoos and whips are a common sight in the relief camps of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli district in Uttar Pradesh. With their toys, books, stationery and other playthings left behind, looted or burnt in the riots that broke out between Jats and Muslims in early September 2013, Farah and her friends at Barnavi (II) relief camp in Shamli draw on their own resourcefulness to create modest enjoyment.
For Sajid and Hamir at the Malakpura relief camp, a strenuous one-hour trek to and from school leaves them with sore feet. The 11-year-old boys explain with an embarrassed smile: “Ji, our feet hurt. We ask our parents to get us a bicycle, but they refuse.” The boys return from school only to undergo three hours of rigorous training at the makeshift madrasa in the camp. “Ji, we don’t get time to play,” the boys lament, given that evenings are spent running errands — scouting the camp site for firewood or fetching water from the hand pump — to assist their mothers in preparation for dinner. At the school and madrasa, the boys are learning only Urdu. In Kharad, the village their families were forced to flee, Sajid and Hamir remember studying diverse subjects, seated alongside their Jat friends.
Fourteen-year-old Rizwana animatedly reminisces the games period at her old school. “We had a great teacher! She even taught us games that boys play, like bat-ball!” A spirited Rizwana illustrates playing bat-ball, jumping-the-rope (rassi kudna), singing songs and studying Hindi textbooks as lost joys, inaccessible in the past four months, since the fateful night of September 7, when her family ran barefoot to save their lives from armed rioters returning from a Jat mahapanchayat. At the relief camp in Daberi Khurd, Rizwana is relieved that a toilet unit is under construction using private aid from an NGO, and will offer privacy to girls and women and spare them the daily hassle of making a perilous journey in the dark to a distant area each time they have to defecate.
Rizwana is alert that her passion for education may soon take a knock if her parents prematurely arrange a marriage. Alarmingly, in the last four months, relief camps have witnessed child marriages in great numbers. “Where are we going to keep young girls?” asks Rizwana’s mother, Chando, echoing a common rationale offered by most parents across camps.
The rationale veils a societal mentality that regards girls and women an economic burden, where it is a natural choice to get them married or worse, sell them, especially in the face of severe adversity. This is notwithstanding the sheer grit and courage with which the women are fiercely opposing the UP state government’s ongoing inhuman evictions of riot-affected survivors staying in the relief camps.
Chando wraps eight-month-old Safia warmly, since the local media is abuzz with reports of untimely and preventable child deaths. The causes are diverse — zero medical aid, severe cold, pneumonia, snakebite, paucity of milk, starvation or fever. “The Youth Congress set up its health clinic (first since the riots) only last week, thanks to the media,” says Chando, partially dismissive of the Youth Congress’ belated relief effort. A stitch in time, Chando believes, would have “saved our children from dying.” The premature deaths of children (and even women and elderly persons) are increasingly attributed by survivors to the negligence and head-in-sand approach of the Samajwadi Party-led State Government, which continues to deny urgent medical assistance to survivors in dire need. “If they don’t want to come here, at least the sarkar can send a pair of gloves, scissors, blades and a hygiene kit,” says Rano (45), a respected midwife (dai) who has helped deliver 20 infants at Barnavi (II) since the riots. “We also need a vehicle that can ferry pregnant women to the hospital in case of an emergency,” adds Rano.
Twenty-six-year-old Mehnaz sits awake at night, clasping her four-month-old daughter Taira under her shawl so that she survives the biting winter chill. Mehnaz prefers daytime to nightfall; the icy winds at Loi camp betray the poor quality tarpaulin tent and combine with the stillness of the night to rudely scrape her wounds. She was nine months pregnant when her husband Nadeem lifted her and haltingly limped across the sugarcane fields to evade the rioting mob. Their daughter Taira was born on September 12, four days after the riot. “Week after week, I was troubled by horrific nightmares. I still cannot sleep but I am tired of crying,” recalls Mehnaz. She is reeling under severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which needs psychosocial care and counselling, often neglected in relief efforts.
In their gravest hour of need, the first relief aid — slippers, warm clothes, ration and tents — was provided to the survivors by Islamic charities, which swiftly swung into action to fill the vacuum created by a woefully irresponsible State Government. They set up unofficial camps in several host villages, making sewer sites, cemeteries and forestland habitable. “We are also providing electricity at the camp and distributing private ration cards to people,” says Javed Khan, a member of the Organising Committee at Loi. The male survivors huddled around him listen intently and then one of them declares, “We may die here, but we will never return to our villages.” Javed Khan volunteers an explanation for the man’s statement: “The perpetrators dispossessed the survivors of everything they owned and burnt our mosque and Quran.” He directs someone to show us photographs of a disfigured mosque, a burnt house and a charred car.
The prompt invocation of religious symbolism enables camp organisers to sustain communal tensions. Buried under this communal narrative are anecdotes in which Jats forewarned their Muslim friends or rescued them during the riots. “The longevity of relief camps allows religious organisers to profit from and control relief aid,” says Kishore with concern. A seasoned social worker who is coordinating the distribution of supplies at the camps, Kishore has a ringside view of the corruption that riddles relief work. Consistently, he says, camp organisers demand that 20 of an incoming 75 blankets or shawls are set aside for resale in the black market.
Squatting on the damp mud floor inside her tent, Mehnaz offers valuable perspective. “Begging for food, firewood or a blanket, with our arms outstretched, is humiliating.” Others around her nod in agreement.
The drastic shift from rozgari to berozgari and from pucca houses to shoddy tents violates the survivors’ fundamental right to live with dignity; dignity that is trampled upon even by a few beneficent NGOs engaged in haphazard humanitarian relief efforts, which can be far better executed. The Popular Front medical and legal aid team from Kerala is cited as a notable exception. “The sarkari doctors hand us the same medicine for cough, swelling, typhoid and burns. It was the doctor from Keral whose cough tonic I liked,” says Nafisa chachi, an octogenarian whose back hurts from sleeping on the ground. Her only wish is for someone to rescue her old charpayi.
Also without charpayi is 17-year-old Rasida, disabled from the waist below. Her strong arms grant her a certain degree of restricted mobility. She relieves herself next to her tent (or is given a tasla or shallow pan) and is confined inside during her menstrual cycles. Rasida longs for an education.
“I can walk and go to school if the government gives me a walker or steel shoes, of the kind I saw in Delhi,” she says wistfully.
At the relief camp in Barnavi (II), where Rasida is hunched over a cooking pot and Farah is still spinning her lattoo, Amrin, a single mother of four, is struggling to feed her children. Amrin’s individual entitlement to a private ration card is lost since she shares a roof with her sister-in-law’s married daughter. Amrin wants the Akhilesh Yadav government to prioritise relief for survivors who are single mothers and widows.
“My children often ask me about home. They want to go back… I give them false hopes,” says Amrin, convinced that return is not possible unless scrupulous security arrangements are made in her home village. Survivors at the relief camps, betrayed and still disbelieving, voice an unwavering aversion to returning home.
“They dismembered our people and raped our women. We want the perpetrators to be arrested,” says Shoib, a 35-year-old father of three who eked out a living by selling ladies’ suits on a cycle. Shoib is bitter that the Samajwadi Party in UP did not intervene to stop the riots. He continues, “Monetary compensation is not insaaf. Surety of punishment is.” Among the rioters were faces known to Shoib; faces whose family festivals Shoib routinely partook in.
“It is a murder of humanity (insaniyat) that the State officials cannot see our suffering. Help is needed now, not after more children die,” says Mehnaz. Insaniyat, she believes, is “if a sarkari officer sincerely listens to us.” A distant look in his eyes, Nadeem seconds his wife: “We will vote for a party that can feel our pain in this period of crisis.” Back in Loi camp (now evicted), Mehnaz is studiously teaching the days of the week and the names of birds to little children. Before her marriage to Nadeem, she was a primary school teacher. The teacher in her interprets insaaf differently: “I do not want our children to be bitter. I want to teach them everything I know and more. Insaaf for me means a good education for our children.”
(Agrima Bhasin is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi.)