The Shahnawaz-Sachin story proves, again, that every episode of communal violence is rooted in the victims’ alleged misdeeds

The on-going suffering of traumatised Muslim families in Muzaffarnagar was spurred by reports of a Muslim young man stalking a Jat girl. The story spread like a forest fire from village to village that Shahnawaz had long harassed a Jat girl in his village and that her brother Sachin and cousin Gaurav defended her honour by killing the boy. In retaliation, a mob lynched the brothers. A graphic video depicting the brutal lynching made the rounds from cell phone to cell phone.

Jat elders met in khap panchayats, enraged by these accounts and a mahapanchayat was convened. Thousands participated, and speaker after speaker railed against the duplicity of their Muslim neighbours. The next day mobs of Jat men attacked settlements in which lived the families of Muslim farm workers who had cultivated their fields for many generations. The state administration stood by as homes were torched and looted, women raped and men killed. Terrified children, women and men fled to the safety of Muslim-majority villages.

Both village squares and social media were rife with stories that the incident was not an isolated one. Instead Shahnawaz’s pursuit of Sachin’s sister was part of a much larger conspiracy of ‘love jihad’ in which Muslim boys enticed Hindu girls in romantic traps to convert them to Islam. Few paid notice when, early on, one English television channel carried an interview with Sachin’s sister in which she said that, far from being harassed by the murdered Shahnawaz, she did not even know him. Some days later it emerged that the video of Sachin and Gaurav being lynched was fake. It was actually a video of a murderous mob attack on two brothers in Sialkot, Pakistan. This video was uploaded by BJP MLA Sangeet Som to deliberately create hatred against local Muslims. But even this did not shake the popular conviction — not just in Muzaffarnagar but across UP and the country — that the attack was justified retribution against Muslims.

Six months later, police has completed its investigations and filed the chargesheets related to the murders of Shahnawaz, Sachin and Gaurav. The records reveals that the initial FIR filed after the killing of the Jat brothers did not even mention stalking. The investigation reveals a very different trajectory. What transpired was a road rage encounter after the motorcycle of one accidentally touched the bicycle of the other. This led to an overheated exchange of words. Shahnawaz went to the Muslim enclave for afternoon prayers in the mosque. Meanwhile Sachin with his cousin Gaurav and seven other men surrounded and stabbed Shahnawaz, and then tried to flee. The others escaped but Sachin and Gaurav were caught. People rushed Shahnawaz to the hospital, but news came that he had died. Sachin and Gaurav were killed.

This story did not serve the political objectives of those who sought to profit from popular anger against Muslims. An emotive alternative narrative was constructed of sexual predation and honour. It served its purpose of generating mass hatred among Jats against their Muslims neighbours. Murderous hate attacks, arson, rapes and the mass exodus that followed were the harvest of the deliberately propagated falsehoods. Thousands spent a bleak winter under tents and continue to live in abject fear of returning to their homes.

Each episode of hate communal violence seeks its rationale in the victims’ alleged misdeeds. Every time a town or village burns, the flame is lit by claims of aggression and betrayal by the ‘other’ community. Sometimes the facts are true, such as the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. More often the story is later proved counterfeit, such as rumours that Muslims slaughtered thousands of Hindu students in their hostels in Bhagalpur leading to the bloody massacre of 1989, or the stalking charge in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

Political commentators are unanimous that the Jat community in western UP and probably upper caste Hindus across the state will vote for the BJP, because they believe that this is the only party that can tame the Muslims. The fact that Muslims were not guilty of the crimes that generated so much majoritarian anger against them is strangely irrelevant.

Even if a person from a community commits a crime, does this justify reprisal killing of even one other person from the same community? Why does popular hatred persist even after the criminally propagated falsehoods are exposed? And when the initial story turns out to be a fabrication, why is there no public remorse from people who justified the attack? These are ethical issues in our public life that we have side-stepped for too long.