With the closing of relief camps in Muzaffarnagar, even the meagre food support has disappeared.
As the winter cold descends this year on Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in Western U.P., some 20,000 people will camp in makeshift unofficial camps amidst squalor and official neglect, or survive in small rented tenements or with relatives — exiles from the villages of their birth. Three months after one of the grimmest communal outbreaks in more than a decade, the dominant mood among the survivors is still of fear and despair, amid a persisting climate of orchestrated hatred.
A hate campaign — falsely claiming that Muslim boys were enticing Jat Hindu girls in a “love jihad” — led to violent murderous attacks in September on Muslim settlements mainly of poor agricultural workers in the two districts. Some 50,000 people fled in fear, and took refuge in Muslim majority villages mostly in the grounds of madrassas and mosques; belatedly, the State commenced food supplies to these camps. A week later, I joined a fact-finding committee to enquire into the condition of the survivors. Almost the same team — Seema Mustafa, Sukumar Muralidharan, Kamal and Anuradha Chenoy, and Rammohan — decided to revisit the area nearly three months after the mass violence to evaluate the aftermath of the carnage.
We now found that all relief camps had been officially terminated, even though several displaced persons were still unwilling to return home because they continued to feel unsafe. Whereas displaced persons in camps should be officially assisted and supported to return to their original homes, to force them to do so by premature closure of camps can result only in thousands being left without even the meagre food and health support which the government had extended in the camps.
Rural riots are very different from urban ones, because people usually know their attackers intimately, unlike the relative anonymity of cities. The sense of betrayal and loss, and the associated anger, pain and bitterness therefore generally runs much deeper in rural riots. As one survivor who continues to live in a makeshift unofficial camp remarked to us, “When faith is broken, it is very hard for it to be rebuilt.”
The sense of fear and alienation of the survivors is enhanced by distressing reports of organised social and economic boycott of Muslims after the mass violence. Many men testify that if they go back to their villages, they are told they should shave their beards off if they wished to live in their village. People also report similar hate exchanges in buses and public spaces. Three young men were killed when they went to work in their fields. Sporadic incidents of sexual assault are also reported. Survivors recount intimidation and boycott in employment as farm labour, or economic activities like pheris¸ or selling cloth and other goods from house to house.
The confidence of survivors to return to homes is further shaken because of the very low number of arrests. For around 540 FIRs registered in connection with the violence, involving more than 6,000 accused persons, as few as 208 arrests have been made so far. Even the Sadhvi who instigated violence with her hate speeches in the September 7 mahapanchayat was arrested only on the day of our visit, on December 2. This reflects regrettably low political and administrative will to ensure legal action against those who indulged in mass hate violence in September 2013.
One reason given for low number of arrests is that large numbers of women block the entrance to the village whenever police vehicles drive there for arrests, or that tractors are parked to thwart police passage. Survivors on the other hand believe that police themselves informally tip off the villagers before arriving to make arrests, otherwise how would so many assemble at short notice to blockade village roads? This allegation is difficult to independently verify, but no self-respecting police administration can accept this kind of public blockade to persist when it comes in the way of fulfilling their official duties. The SSP of Muzaffarnagar also said that it was necessary to verify independently if the complaints were authentic and plausible or malicious and false, before undertaking the arrests. It is as though the police have shifted the burden to prove the crime to the shoulders of the battered and displaced survivors. It has been our experience of many riots that it is unusual for survivors as a rule to lodge false and malicious complaints after communal carnages, therefore it is unreasonable for police to presume that many complaints may have been filed to settle personal enmity.
There are also distressing signs of judicial bias, because most arrested persons have been granted bail almost the next day or soon after their arrests. This ignores the gravity of hate crimes, and the susceptibility of the survivors to intimidation because of their vulnerable situation after mass targeted violence has spurred large-scale fear, destruction of livelihoods and habitats and migration.
It appears that these refugees from hate have little to look forward to, except a long and lonely winter of continued exile.