‘Live communities don’t wait for five years.’
Akhilesh Yadav might want to heed these words attributed to his party’s mentor, Ram Manohar Lohia, speaking of the wrath of voters. With just a few months to go before the general elections, the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar that displaced over 40,000 people and left 60 dead will be an issue that he will have to answer for.
Once seen as the face of a new generation of politicians, Uttar Pradesh’s youngest-ever chief minister is having a bizarre Marie Antoinette moment. There’s a 14-day annual carnival underway in his pocket borough of Saifai — a reported Rs 1 crore blown up on fireworks to bring in the new year — and reports of the transfer of an official who delayed the release of funds for the construction of a swimming pool.
All of this would have been crass but not particularly objectionable if Akhilesh Yadav’s administration hadn’t been busy shutting down relief camps where people displaced from one of the state’s worst-ever communal riots have been living since they were forced out of their homes in early September.
Estimates on those who continue to live in relief camps in Muzaffarnagar and the adjoining district of Shamli vary from 6,000 to 18,000. Mulayam Singh Yadav says these are ‘political activists’ from the BJP and the Congress. Officially, the story is that those being evicted are leaving voluntarily as the north reels under its most severe winter in two decades. It’s a ridiculous claim as most are just shifting to other open areas.
On December 30, the day I visited, officials were hard at work at Loi village, ensuring families moved out. Yet, within hours of moving to an open tract of land near a bus station, officials landed there, asking them to move again.
The presence of the camps is a festering sore for the government. They point to the administration’s failure to prevent the riots. They point to mismanagement — 34 children have died according to official figures. And they point to the lack of rehabilitation or even reconciliation. Shut down the camps, brush away the problem.
So where do these people go? The democratically-elected government in Uttar Pradesh doesn’t care as long as they become invisible.
Four months after the riots, there have been only 294 arrests of the nearly 6,000 accused for a variety of crimes from looting to gang-rape. In the six reported gang rapes, some victims say they are asked to come to police stations to repeatedly record their statement in the presence of those they accuse. Most are daily wage earners and say returning to their villages is not an option.
Many are yet to be paid compensation and some claim that they are being warned that this money is contingent upon their moving out.
Camp organisers say that they are under tremendous pressure from the government to wind up the camps. "But please don’t quote me otherwise I will be implicated in false cases," one said to me.
The intimidation by the government is real. Cases have been registered against 100 riot-affected displaced people who had pitched camp in Shamli. The forest department has asked another 270 families to vacate forest land.
Akhilesh Yadav’s apathy is bewildering, on both moral and political grounds. The Samajwadi Party (SP) traditionally has depended on its Muslim voters and this move could cost it dearly in the elections.
Leaders like Mahmood Madani of the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind and the Shahi Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid as well as the All India Shia Personal Law Board have come down hard on the SP. Within the party, some are already jumping what they see as a sinking ship. A senior leader from Baghpat, close to Muzaffarnagar, is reported to have said no thanks to a Lok Sabha ticket.
Losing or winning elections is part of any political party’s fortunes. You win some, you lose some. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP deserves to lose. That’s a small compensation for those who live under open skies, scrambling to rebuild what is left of their lives.
The views expressed by the author are personal