When riots occur, they are often spoken about as events waiting to happen. They are actually nothing of the sort. They are organised by political organisations to achieve very definite political ends
As the convener of a riot relief committee formed by the CPI(M), I have visited Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh every month, thus getting a chance to observe many unusual features of the widely reported incident of communal violence that occurred there recently. Let me elaborate. Curfew was lifted in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts on September 10, 2013. Two days later, on September 12, a CPI(M) delegation, of which I was a member, visited Muzaffarnagar.
Fading communal unity
Muzaffarnagar (Shamli was a part of the district until a few years ago) did not experience communal violence even at the time of Partition. Most Muslims here are conscious of the fact of their being converts and maintain close social links with the Hindu communities to which they originally belonged. They are known as Muley Jat, Muley Rajput, Muley Tyagi, and so on. Their social mores are very similar, too. Agriculture is the common factor that has further cemented close community relationships. Significantly, the tallest political leader in the area, Chaudhary Charan Singh, built his political edifice on the unity of the Hindu and Muslim peasantry, especially Jats. This was the springboard for his spectacular rise, first as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and later as Prime Minister. Mahendra Singh Tikait belonged to Muzaffarnagar too, and his successful struggle for remunerative prices for the peasantry, especially sugarcane growers, was also based on the unity of Hindu and Muslim peasants, which he consciously promoted in his speeches and mobilisations.
In recent years, this unity has developed cracks. Many rich peasants have moved to towns and cities and are no longer primarily agriculturists. The rise of Hindutva politics has also had a divisive impact. Chaudhary Charan Singh’s political heirs have allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on various occasions.
Another notable feature was that these riots were the first, in North India at least, to have taken place entirely in rural areas where members of both communities have been amicable neighbours for generations. What happened in Muzaffarnagar could be a tragic portent of things to come.
Yet another feature has been the trajectories of the violence. While the incidents that triggered the violence all took place in and around Jansath block, the vicious attacks on the minority community, the mass killings, rape, arson and looting were all confined to a very different part of the district that was adjacent to Shamli and Baghpat districts.
The “cause” is believed to be the death on August 27 of three young men who belonged to the adjoining villages of Kawal and Malakpur. Two young Jat cousins, Gaurav and Sachin, of Kawal had had an altercation with Shahnawaz, a Quraishi of Malakpur. After an argument, Gaurav and Sachin left, and later returned with some companions, with whose help they killed Shahnawaz. Residents of Shahnawaz’s village, which was very close to where this incident occurred, retaliated by attacking and killing Sachin and Gaurav. There are many versions as to why all this happened, the most prevalent and widely believed one being that Shahnawaz used to “tease” girls from Sachin's and Gaurav’s family. Another version is that Shahnawaz’s motorcycle collided with Sachin’s cycle. No FIR mentioning “teasing” as a reason, was registered.
Campaign over ‘honour’
News of this clash over the “honour” of a young Jat girl spread like wildfire. The Jat boys were also identified as being members of the Mallik clan (which they were not). The fact that Shahnawaz’s supporters incorrectly named in the FIR the fathers of the boys was another fact (a real one) that was widely disseminated. When several boys belonging to the Quraishi community were arrested on the evening of August 27 for the murder of Sachin and Gaurav, all except one were released after political intervention. The following day, the Superintendent of Police and the District Magistrate were transferred. The impression that the government was supporting the minorities became widespread. As a result, a crowd gathered at the cremation of the two men on August 28, and people attacked and ransacked Quraishi homes in Malakpur.
Events started to snowball after this. The “eve-teasing” story fitted in well in a campaign that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP had been organising for several months in Muzaffarnagar and adjacent districts — the “conspiracy” by Muslims to harass, seduce and establish relations with Hindu, especially Jat, girls. Attacks on young Muslim men occurred in several places but these were tackled by the administration.
After the death of Sachin and Gaurav, the campaign gained supporters and credence, and reached a crescendo. Anger, hatred and a sense of revenge intensified in a series of planned events. On August 31, thousands of Jats and other members of the majority community congregated near Kawal village to perform the fourth day ceremony of the two men. Inflammatory speeches were made and swords brandished. A Muslim family whose car was spotted nearby was attacked, but the police were able to save the family. Videos of communal attacks began to be circulated on the social media. Later it came to light that these had been made in Pakistan. An inflammatory situation prevailed, fuelled by what transpired at the Friday prayers on August 30 at a mosque in the centre of Muzaffarnagar town when several Muslim political leaders belonging to the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress made provocative speeches.
The role of the administration was incomprehensibly passive. No attempt was made to stop crowds. On September 5, a panchayat with the theme “Beti Bahu Bachao (Save Daughters and Daughters-in-law”) was held at Lisadh village (Shamli) where a large congregation assembled. Provocative speeches were made, arms brandished and anti-Muslim slogans raised. It ended with a call for a mahapanchayat on September 7 near Kawal.
The response was overwhelming. Thousands of people, mostly Jats, came in from not only villages in the district and adjacent areas but also from Uttarakhand and Rajasthan. The role played by Hindutva forces was visible and outrageous, and hate speeches were made by BJP MLAs. There were some clashes between Muslims and those coming to the mahapanchayat who were seen brandishing swords and arms and shouting threatening slogans. On their return, the participants were even more belligerent. In attacks and counter-attacks, several Hindus and Muslims were killed.
All these incidents took place in Jansath block where Kawal and Malakpur are located. One would have expected, therefore, that the worst phase of the violent attacks would also have taken place in this area, but it did not happen. After September 7, there was not a single incident of communal conflict in any village in the area — in Kawal, Malakpur, Bhokarhari, Khedi Firozabad, Baseda, Tenwda or any of the other villages which had lost their menfolk that day. In all these villages, the men who were killed belonged to the dominant community but none of them witnessed revenge killings or attacks.
The horrific violence that occurred on September 8, when mobs attacked Muslim villagers, burnt their homes, killed many of them, abducted and raped women and girls and forced their family members to leave the villages, took place in villages bordering Shamli and Baghpat districts. Most of them are located in the Budhana Assembly constituency, where the BJP has never been able to put up a strong fight. Many of the villages, such as Lisadh, Phugana, Lankh, Kutba-Kutbi and Kekda, which witnessed the worst incidents of killing and violence, recently became part of Shamli district. To which Assembly constituency these villages will be attached, remains to be decided.
Political significance of location
The geographical location of the violence seems to be the result of deliberate planning. The constituencies of the sitting BJP MLAs are far away from this area. The violence-affected villages, however, are crucial to the expansion of the BJP. They are dominated by the Mallik and Ballian khaps, many of whose members have recently shifted loyalty to the BJP. The RSS has been active in this area for over a year.
When riots occur, they are often spoken about as events waiting to happen. Actually, they are nothing of the sort. In fact, they are organised by political organisations to achieve very definite political ends. If the State government fails to fulfil its responsibility of doing all that is necessary to restore peace immediately, the ends of these organisations are served. The communal violence in Muzaffarnagar was planned in order to polarise not just the district but a wide area around it. The failure of the Uttar Pradesh government to intervene effectively has allowed this to happen.
Far from ensuring their security, the government has actually compounded the suffering of the victims — in its inhuman neglect of their basic needs and a refusal to bring the guilty to book. It has exerted its authority to disband the miserable shelters in which the riot victims have been living, supported by Muslim organisations and those involved in relief work, rather than in ensuring that justice is done and that the victims are rehabilitated. In the bitter cold of winter, the plight of many hundreds of families without shelter, money and food can only be imagined.
If the political ends of those responsible for the terrible violence and resultant polarisation are realised, not only will a terrible miscarriage of justice occur but the stage will also be set for many more such tragedies. In any case, the impending 2014 election has already exacted a bloody toll.
(Subhashini Ali is a social activist and president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.)