For over three years now communal politics has been on the upswing in Uttar Pradesh. With Assembly elections due in early 2017, the communal pot has been stirred up again in this crucial State. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre, polarisation on issues such as ‘love jihad’, ‘ghar wapsi’ and the beef ban have become a regular feature of political mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh and the country at large. The urge to engage in a politics of polarisation must be understood in the context of the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013, which worked to the party’s benefit in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Its impact can be seen from the fact that BJP leaders who were implicated in the violence were given tickets and they won their seats with large margins. For the first time, not a single Muslim candidate was elected to Parliament from the State even though Muslims constitute over 19 per cent of its population and over 30 per cent of the population in quite a few districts of western Uttar Pradesh.
The claim of an exodus In June, the BJP’s Lok Sabha Member of Parliament Hukum Singh released a list of 346 members of Hindu families that had allegedly fled Kairana town in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh due to persecution and pressure fearing atrocities at the hands of Muslim criminals and extortionists. (The chief complainant is an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence.) BJP President Amit Shah called the allegations of a Hindu exodus an ‘eye opener’ at a public rally in Allahabad, and he later cautioned that “UP should not take Kairana lightly”. Aligarh’s BJP MP Satish Gautam declared that there is a need to find out about “other Kairanas”. It is clear from these statements that the ruling party is not averse to using the issue as a plank for political mobilisation even though it could aggravate social tensions in the region.
However, the forced exodus claim was denied by the State government and the district administration. Several investigative reports by the media, notably in The Hindu, The Indian Express , Hindustan Times and Quint , also exposed these claims. They found it to be exaggerated and false as many of the people had migrated for various reasons and some had done so in search of better opportunities. In short, the Kairana exodus was dismissed as a non-event until it was revived by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In response to a complaint filed by Monika Arora, a Supreme Court advocate, and a vocal and active member of the BJP, the commission constituted a team from its Investigation Division to look into the complaints of exodus of Hindu families from Kairana due to fear of criminals.
A ‘partisan report’ The NHRC report released on September 21 observed that these allegations are ‘serious’ and that several Hindu families have migrated because of the worsening law and order situation after victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots settled there. It stated that: “In 2013, the post-rehabilitation scenario resulting in resettlement of about 25/30 thousand members of Muslim community in Kairana Town from district Muzaffarnagar, UP, the demography of Kairana town has changed in favour of the Muslim Community becoming the more dominating and majority community. Most of the witnesses examined and victims feel that the rehabilitation in 2013 has permanently changed the social situation in Kairana town and has led to further deterioration of law and order situation.”
The report came to this conclusion on the basis of verification of six victims/persons and telephonic verification of members of four displaced families in three randomly selected residential localities, which makes it a total of 10 out of the 346 cases of migration from Kairana for reasons of insecurity.
Overall, the NHRC report provides no substantive authentication of its controversial findings; furthermore, it provides no details of the total number of families who migrated from Kairana, the specific time frame for when these families left and the exact reasons behind their decision to do so. The five-page report comprises brief statements on the criminal incidents given by select witnesses. There is no evidence in the report that these crimes were committed by displaced people who had settled in Kairana, even though the report asserts that the presence of Muzaffarnagar riot victims has changed the demography of Kairana and this has led to a further deterioration of law and order in the town. This is a conjecture, not a fact; there is no factual evidence to establish a connection between the presence of internally displaced persons and the increase in incidents of crime mentioned in the report. In any case, there is no corroboration to back the figure of 25-30,000 Muslim victims having settled in the town.
The impression conveyed by the report that only members of the majority community are impacted by the faltering law and order situation in western Uttar Pradesh is deeply flawed. The attempt to paint a largely criminal phenomenon with a broad communal brush without citing any independent and credible evidence is surprising from an institution mandated to investigate human rights violations. Sure enough, the labelling and stigmatising of the minority community in this manner has dismayed civil society activists and victims of the Muzaffarnagar violence who have demanded a withdrawal of the ‘partisan and prejudiced’ report. Social activist Farah Naqvi, who has been working for the rehabilitation of the people displaced by the Muzaffarnagar riots since 2013, called the NHRC report nothing more than “communal rumour-mongering”.
It doubles victimisation The 2013 communal violence had initially displaced over 75,000 people. A 2016 report, Living Apart: Communal Violence and Forced Displacement in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli , based on detailed ground-level research done by the non-governmental organisations Aman Biradari and Afkar India, found 50,000 people still scattered all over Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and other districts, of whom nearly 30,000 victims were in 65 internally displaced people colonies. According to the report, 270 families (approximately 2,000 people) had settled in Kairana. It found that even after three years, riot victims are living in ghetto-like resettlement colonies with little support from the State administration. It further notes that the Uttar Pradesh administration not only failed to rehabilitate riot victims displaced from their homes and villages, it also actively encouraged Muslim refugees, who used to live in Hindu majority villages, to resettle in Muslim-majority colonies, thus escalating the social divide.
Curiously, the large-scale displacement caused by communal violence in 2013 did not lead to any investigation or recommendations by the NHRC. But the Commission saw it fit to investigate the exodus of 346 people, and what’s more, recommend the formation of a high-level committee of the Government of U.P. “to meet each of the displaced families from Kairana Town now living in districts Dehradun, Panipat, Muzaffarnagar, Roorki, Karnal, etc. of Uttarakhand and Haryana in order to redress their grievances and facilitate their return to Kairana, if so desired…” It did not make the same proposals for the rehabilitation of over 75,000 people displaced from Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
Even though communal mobilisation and internal displacement is a process that still continues in many parts of western Uttar Pradesh, it finds no mention in the NHRC report. It is mentioned only in relation to the displacement from Kairana for which the NHRC blames those who are themselves displaced by communal violence. In so doing, it displays a complete lack of sympathy for people who have been affected and displaced by violence. Rather than supporting them, what the report has in effect done is to double their victimisation by tagging them as people whose presence “has led to further deterioration of law and order situation”.
Damaging a shining legacy The NHRC has played a critical role in investigating violations of human rights in the country. ‘In 2002, the Commission, under former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, was the first public body to visit Gujarat after the riots, and it subsequently moved the Supreme Court to transfer cases outside the State to secure a fair trial’. This legacy creates unparalleled social expectations but it also invites civil society scrutiny from national and international actors for any potentially detrimental action by the apex body. Its neutrality is critically important because that is what gives its reports and decisions credibility as a record of ground reality, without serving any person or party’s interest. Its impartiality has been undermined by the decision to investigate an exodus list supplied by a political party with a clear stake in upping the communal ante ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections. In the event, the report vindicated the ruling party’s claims but it compromised its own autonomy and non-aligned status. This is an inevitable consequence of interpreting broader societal trends like migration and security through a communal prism, which sets a perilous precedent of giving an ethnic colour to law and order problems.
The idea of the NHRC as an unbiased arbiter in conflict situations is widely perceived as essential to the promotion and protection of human rights in our democracy. As an icon of independence, the legitimacy and credibility of the NHRC or of any human rights body rest on its ability to address the problems relating to human rights in a society generally, and not those of a particular community. The public needs to have the confidence that the Commission will investigate cases of rights violation without fear or favour. Hence, the effectiveness of human rights commissions depends on how a particular commission locates itself in a society and is able to confront the issues before it. Majoritarianism is a real issue in India today. It has led to legitimate fears about this creed dictating policy and compromising the functioning of public institutions; in this scenario, it is the responsibility of rights watchdog institutions to prevent this tendency from dominating institutions. For a democracy to thrive, institutions like the NHRC have to play a counter-majoritarian role.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.