Barefoot Harsh Mander

Fraying Fraternity

At a relief camp for victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots. Photo: Sandeep Saxena  

Hate violence alters the course of people’s lives forever, in ways that are barely understood and rarely tracked. Years, decades, even generations pass after hate violence is unleashed on targeted families and communities, but their suffering may not end. In the wake of the communal carnage in Muzaffarnagar in the autumn of 2013, the numbers who fled from their homes in dread of their neighbours ran into more than 100,000. Even today they endure bitter painfully unhealed social divides.

Three distinct trajectories are visible for populations who escaped their homelands, indicating the course of their suffering over generations. First are residents of villages in which locals suddenly turned upon their Muslim neighbours with daggers, country rifles and flaming torches. People still recount with raw pain and disbelief the cruelty with which old people and children were slaughtered, women gang-raped and homes destroyed, and their houses plundered and torched by young men who had been like sons and brothers. Hopes of ever returning to the villages of their birth crumbled when no one from their villages sought them out, to offer solace and comfort, to urge them to return home.

The state government announced an unprecedented relief package of Rs.500,000 for each of these households, which undertook to live now only in villages with high Muslim populations, a safety in numbers. The norm of centuries — of mixed villages in which Hindu and Muslim residents lived in amity side by side — was abandoned in favour of segregation of populations on religious lines, the ultimate success of the communal agenda. I believe that the duty of the state was to restore mutual faith and trust between communities enough to enable their return, instead of tacitly incentivising religious segregation.

Displaced villagers left behind a great deal in the villages of their birth: houses in which they were born and raised, settled livelihoods, life savings, friends of lifetimes, and most of all trust in people of divergent faiths. But their adopted villages were far from welcoming. Large Muslim landowners in these villages saw in their desperation the chance for windfall profits. They carved out and sold small house-plots at sometimes four times the price before the carnage. Refugees spent all their compensation money to buy at these extortionist prices small sites for their houses, and took loans at usurious interest of up to 10 per cent per month compound to build modest brick houses. Many carried loans from before they escaped their villages, which they took care to also return. The administration does little to pressurise the colonisers to fulfil their basic obligations to supply most fundamental amenities of internal roads, drainage, water supply and electrification.

The new settlers search desperately for work, in exploitative brick-kilns, or as casual labour on farms or house building, or petty house-to-house trade. The brick kilns entail near-bondage, whereas petty trading requires further high-interest private loans. All amid the festering pain of betrayal by their former neighbours, aggravated by unwelcoming discrimination by original inhabitants in their new villages. Sharing the same religious identity is surely no guarantee of social solidarity.

A second category of affected households is of villagers who were not attacked by their neighbours, but who still fled because they could no longer trust their neighbours in Muslim-minority villages. Their predicament is that the state government does not regard them to be ‘affected’ by the communal carnage; therefore they didn’t qualify for even a rupee of compensation. They live in makeshift, unrecognised, highly under-served camps, mostly under stretched plastic sheets, under continuous threat of eviction by a state administration, which is convinced that they are merely free-riding without actual distress. But I found that the fear of returning to mixed villages was real and palpable, with dark fears about uncertain futures.

The last category is of households that ran away when neighbouring villages were set aflame, but agreed to return after persuasion by the state government. But I visited many of these villages, and Muslim residents everywhere said that it was only a matter of time when they would raise enough money to leave forever. Social relations between communities had collapsed to a degree when women in burqas and men in beards were routinely taunted, and none invited for weddings and funerals, in dramatic reversals of co-living before 2013.

For Mahatma Gandhi, Hindu-Muslim unity was an article of faith. But Makarand Paranjape observes that as the years passed, he pleaded: if not unity, can we live at least with amity? At the end of his life, he implored: if amity is impossible, then at least co-existence? But the division of both populations and hearts surgically accomplished by communal organisations in Muzaffarnagar suggests that, unless we collectively resist, even co-existence may become an impossible aspiration.

The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 5:16:37 AM |

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