From displacement to disappearance

Camp after camp has been forced to disappear in Muzaffarnagar by the official authorities. The people displaced by the communal riots are now in small shanty settlements, 10 tents here, another 10 tents half a kilometre down the road

January 02, 2014 01:01 am | Updated May 13, 2016 06:35 am IST

On December 26, 2013, a large group of visitors entered the Loi relief camp in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh. Loi camp — a festering sea of displaced and despairing humanity, with tattered tents and slush as far as the eye could see, where children stare without even a hint of the smile that can sometimes hide deep in children’s eyes. The occasion was that a member of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) had come to see the situation at first hand. Activists from the Joint Citizens’ Initiative (JCI), a collective of non-governmental organisations (NGO) working in these camps for over two months — were also present. The full array of local administration was in attendance — the additional district magistrate, the chief medical officer (CMO), the tehsildar and others. A meeting of survivors took place and a cacophony rent the air. “We are being threatened and pressured by the administration to ‘clear off government land.’ Do not remove us from here. We have no place to go.” Even those whose names have appeared on lists entitling them to compensation said this. They said the promise of money in a bank is not the instant equivalent of a home, with a roof, livelihood or security. “Where should we go today in this freezing cold? Compensation on paper doesn’t mean we move on to a street with small children overnight. Give us time to rebuild our lives, our communities. And why just fling compensation at us? Arrest the guilty. Give us security,” they said. Survivors who have not been deemed fit for any compensation were even more desperate to stay.

Assurances and upheaval

Administrative assurances were given that no one would be forced to leave. Official promises were made of milk, medicines and firewood in the days to come. The CMO admitted that in the first two months of the camp’s existence, the administration had not distributed any milk. But since news of children dying went viral, one milk powder tin has been given to each family, he told us, clearly proud of this largesse. One left the camp that evening somewhat reassured that the visit had bought these internally displaced people some time — a few extra weeks or months in which to get help; for NGOs to bring doctors to examine the 72 pregnant women in the camp (at least eight of them due to deliver any day now); to treat those sick; to distribute books, get admit cards and seek transfers of exam centres for young people so that they can give board exams and not lose a year of their life; to explore reconciliation for those willing to return; to try and help those who have got nothing from the government get some of their due. A few more weeks or months of shelter….. is that too much for survivors to ask for the enormous process of seeking rehabilitation and restitution after being torn so violently from their homes, roots and histories?

But, next morning, thumbing their collective noses at the survivors, the NCM, and at the constitutional contract between citizen and state, the same array of local officials arrived, this time with a JCB excavator. In what is nothing less than an act of unconscionable State terror, they uprooted tents of all the displaced families whose names had appeared on the Rs.5 lakh compensation list. As a final act of viciousness, they dug large pits where the tent had stood, making sure it could never be re-pitched. Overnight, the Loi relief camp had become half its size. Pitted with holes. Many of its former residents scattered to the winds. Human debris.

In this first round of bulldozing, the administration only removed families from nine identified villages where much of the murder and sexual assault had taken place. Only these nine (out of over 140 villages affected by the violence) are entitled to Rs.5 lakh “displacement” compensation per family, given after they sign an affidavit saying they will not return to their village, not occupy government land, and not live in a relief camp. Having extorted this commitment from frightened citizens, whom the state failed to protect, the same state is now determined to enforce this affidavit. (The Rs.5 lakh is given only to the head of the family, regardless of family size. If you shared a family choolah in your erstwhile village, this is all you collectively get, even if there are sons who are married, each with independent families and separate ration cards.)

No justiciable framework

Rs.5 lakh may sound like a decent sum — after all, those displaced are by and large poor people. But break it down and it’s a pittance. Land prices in host villages (where relief camps had sprung up) have escalated with the expectation that riot survivors will be forced to buy land there. What was Rs.1,000 per guz (yard) has gone up to Rs.3,200. Buy a plot of 100 guz and there goes a chunk of the grand Rs.5 lakh, with little left for construction costs, and nothing left with which to eat.

Besides, money alone does not mean reparation, rehabilitation or restitution. How should scattered survivors rebuild the shared community that was once theirs — a village with a chaupal , a school, a playground, a graveyard, where their ancestors are buried? A village that holds the cultural inheritance that was theirs to give to their children, and to their children after that? A place called home? All this and more has been lost. All this and more needs to be regained. This is the debt owed by responsible states to their citizens when it fails to protect them. But in India we have neither the heart nor the vision. No law, no policy, no justiciable framework for internally displaced persons affected because of violence. So, State governments decide capriciously how much money to throw at people, whom to give it to, and whom to leave out.

More displacement

What if you do not belong to these nine villages, and are not entitled to Rs.5 lakh as compensation? Tough luck. You have no business being scared, or trying to live on government land. So, you too are being asked to leave — from Loi, Shahpur, Jhaula and other camps. Go home, go pitch a tent on another roadside, go to another State, or take a boat to another country. The Uttar Pradesh government only cares that you do not collectively sit like an eyesore in anything that can be called a relief camp, for it is identifiable, is irrefutable evidence of large-scale human misery, of state failure, and, in election season, an open invitation to political opponents.

Camp after camp has been forced to disappear. But where are the internally displaced persons? Look closer where the camps once stood and you will find them. In small shanty settlements, 10 tents here, another 10 tents half a kilometre down the road, 20-odd tents along the talab in Loi village. It is the same story in Shahpur. The “camp” has disappeared. Its people are now part of India’s great slum story, their tent clusters dotting the countryside of Shahpur village, here today, gone tomorrow; their permanent addresses unknown.

Remember, these nine are the villages where most of the main criminal cases have been filed — and the Rs.5 lakh is beginning to seem sinister, like hush money. Is this the message — take the money and disappear? The result is that no witnesses will be found, and criminal justice will not be secured. Is that what’s really going on? In Kutba, one of the nine villages designated for “displacement” compensation, where eight people were killed, only five arrests have been made. Warrants are out for another 36 people. Over three months after the violence, the police appear unable to find them.

Even after counting the dead, there are so many more disappearances in Muzaffarnagar — the relief camps, riot survivors and the accused. And this is just the beginning of election season in India’s most populous State.

( Postscript: At the time of writing, December 30, 2013, the Loi relief camp had been emptied of all but a handful of tents. The effect of the JCB excavator could be seen in the way scared survivors began pulling down their rickety tents and creeping away in the days following December 26, in search of other innocuous hiding places. A police picket has appeared at the camp entrance to make sure they do not return. This has been their second forced displacement.)

( Farah Naqvi, a writer and activist, is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed are personal. E-mail:

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