Even going by Uttar Pradesh’s history of susceptibility to communal violence, the horror that has unfolded in the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli region will rank as extraordinary with deaths and displacement on a scale unmatched in recent times. Four months after a local skirmish escalated into a Hindu Jat-Muslim clash leading to deaths on both sides, there is no sign that tensions have abated and much less that the mostly Muslim victims have found the courage to return to their homes in the villages. The administration had admitted to an initial Muslim displacement figure of 51,000, the highest for any communal disturbance in the State. The actual numbers today might be less overwhelming, but by the government’s own account — described as a gross underestimation by some social activists — nearly 5,000 people are still living as refugees in relief camps in the two regions. The government’s acknowledgement that over 1,500 families have refused to return home fearing reprisals, is a commentary in itself and suggests that a good many victims may have left the relief camps only to take refuge in the homes of relatives. Of the conditions in the camps and elsewhere, the less said the better, with winter bringing more hardship to the inmates and reports coming in of infant deaths caused by exposure to the cold.
The Akhilesh Yadav government has been tragically remiss in addressing the situation. Indeed, the official abdication has led to the vacuum being filled by Muslim religious groups resulting in communal tensions being kept alive. In late-October, the State government ordered payment of relief at Rs.5 lakh each to about 900 affected families on condition that they sign away their rights to their property in the villages. This is nothing but official sanctification of the communal divide that has been the most worrisome outcome of the violence. Ground reports suggest that Muslim families are investing the money in building ghettos for themselves in rural areas, which have thus far been symbols of harmony. The coming general elections look certain to further vitiate the atmosphere, with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party engaged in the politics of polarisation. The BJP recently feted two MLAs accused in the violence on the specious reasoning that nothing had been proved against them. The SP ought to have shown a greater sense of responsibility, if for no reason other than to safeguard a community the party counts among its voters. Sadly, the Manmohan Singh government too has once again let go of the opportunity — in the winter session — to enact an acceptable Communal Violence Bill focussed on the provision of adequate relief and rehabilitation of victims.