‘There is nothing, nothing which can persuade us to return to our villages. They burned and looted our homes: We could barely save our lives, as we desperately ran with our children in our arms and just the clothes we were wearing. What is there for us to return to?’ Words I heard over and over again in a harrowing journey through the districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, exactly a year after a storm of hate overnight tore this peaceful countryside apart.
As I travelled from village to village, everywhere one bore witness to a social landscape ravaged by communal hate — just a year old, but already settled like the crusted burdens of generations. An old man said sadly, “No one has come this full year to call us back, neither the village elders, nor people we grew up and worked with.” “No village cricket team was complete without a Muslim lad or two,” said another. “And now they don’t care if we live or die”. “Look at this camp in which we live now,” said a third, pointing to leaking, soiled plastic sheets stretched over bamboo sticks affording each family a few square feet of minimal shelter, surrounded by black cesspools and mosquitoes. “We know we can die here as well. But at least here we are assured that our loved ones will bury us. Not like our village where our people were killed and burned.”
Contrary to claims of the state government that all camps are emptied, we found over 10,000 women, men and children still living in camps in around 25 villages.
Even in the immediate months after the conflagration, state support was restricted to food supplies or a few blankets in many camps, and only after national outrage following the death of many children in the winter cold, occasional visits by medical teams. Now even this has become a distant memory. Charitable organisations, mainly faith-based Muslim associations, have also closed their offices. Compassion also wearies. The unhappy people — fugitives from the hate which pervades the villages of their birth — are left to fend for themselves. They have just survived the monsoon showers, and are gearing up to endure another long winter.
In these camps, people subsist mainly by casual labour in surrounding fields, and in the numerous brick kilns which dot the landscape. But they report much lower wages than prevailing rates, as employers know of their misfortunes and desperation, and besides they have to compete with local labour. They still have to beg landlords for loans, to cope with illness and hunger, and if they are lucky they get a few thousand rupees at twice the already usurious interest rates, 10% compound per month. “Who knows when you might run away with our money?” reason the landlords. Many children drop out of school, sometimes because teachers refuse to admit or sometimes even taunt the children, but more often because they must also labour to light their kitchen fires.
We found that more than 10,000 more people had permanently resettled in more than 20 new colonies, and even in pouring rain, people were busy building new small brick houses, hoping that they would not have to spend another winter under plastic sheets. Determined like those in camps not to return to their old villages, they have bought plots in hastily laid out colonies in what a year ago were cultivated fields. All of these are in villages and small towns with a majority of Muslim people.
The tragedy of Muzaffarnagar is that the state government has actually facilitated this separation of populations on religious grounds, by a bankrupt policy of paying Rs 5 lakh to all households which undertake in writing not to return to their old villages, instead of facilitating their return with dignity to their original villages through effective steps for security and reconciliation.
Seizing the opportunity to make windfall profits, local large farmers and real estate developers have sold these plots at exorbitant rates to these hapless displaced persons. People have spent the entire government compensation of Rs 5 lakh on tiny plots, and borrowed at incredibly usurious rates to build their small homes. Distress sales of their properties in their old villages yield a small fraction of their actual value. Muslim charities have collected donations from Indian Muslims overseas for about half these colonies, but even they charge the residents for the land and houses. The developers have rarely invested in drinking water, sewerage, drainage or electricity, and the district administration at most has installed a hand-pump. In these hellish slum-like settlements, these internal refugees are bravely building their lives anew.
Only around half the 50,000 people who ran away in fear after the attacks on Muslim villages a year ago have returned home, the rest are still in camps or in these new colonies in Muslim habitations. But it has been a sombre homecoming for all who returned. They arrive to homelands in which they are no longer friends and neighbours but hated ‘others’, suddenly unwelcome in festivals and weddings. Taunts and barbs have become commonplace, and young men are particularly discourteous in transports and open roads, pulling beards and heckling women in burqas. Social hatred has replaced traditions of shared living that endured all of living memory. Many who return are, therefore, saving to buy land and move ultimately to Muslim villages.
These divided populations represent the triumph of communal politics, successfully undoing in just one year histories of shared living between Hindus and Muslims over centuries. This is the ‘Gujarat model’ unleashed on Uttar Pradesh, deploying violence and hate to drive out and cleanse entire villages of their erstwhile Muslim residents. These strategies of engineered social hate continue to yield a rich harvest of votes of polarised populations. But new generations of Hindus and Muslims will be raised deprived of friends and neighbours of the ‘other’ community. This will render them much more amenable to communal politics, eroding ultimately the idea of India itself.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies
(The views expressed by the author are personal)