A burnt and looted house at Mohammadpur Raisingh village, in Muzaffarnagar. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Muslim children go back to their madrasa at Khakra village. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Akhter and Wasir went back to see their looted and burnt houses at Fugana village, where they found their Hindu friend Rajkumar's daughters Poonam and ...
Muzaffarnagar riot victim Sanjida with her children outside semi-constructed homes paid for by the government at Shahpura. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
An old Jat woman talks with Irshad (13) and Furqaan(16), while they visited their burnt house in Muzaffarnagar. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Cattle of villagers living in a house left behind by a Muslim family at Bahawadi in Muzaffarnagar. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Homes burnt and looted at Bahawadi village, in Muzaffarnagar, where Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in September 2013. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Irshad (13) and Furqaan (16) visiting their looted and burnt house after Muzaffarnagar communal riots. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Wakilludin Siddiqui, in his early 70s, remembers the day well. How can he forget September 8, 2013? That's the day he finally understood what might have happened in 1947 during the Partition.
That day, Fugana village in Muzaffarnagar district resembled a battle ground, when, neighbour turned on neighbour and battles were fought with guns, talwars and bricks. The day ended only after 16 from his community lay dead and two girls aged five and two went missing, never to be found, dead or alive.
Over four months later, Siddiqui lives in a ramshackle room with his wife, five sons and three daughters. The room has been given to him by a family in the nearby village of Jogia Kheda. In fact, all the 1000-odd Muslim families who fled from Fugana are now living in Kheda's homes where residents have set aside a room each for a vast population that lies scattered.
Muzaffarnagar's victims, who spent cold nights in tents until the state sent bulldozers to dislodge them, have now been labelled by government files as 'internally displaced people.'
Siddiqui's home in Fugana is only a few kilometers from Kheda. Literally only ten minutes away by car.
'When does he plan to go back?' I ask.
'Never,' he answers firmly.
'Will you accompany us?'
The unambiguous answer is a firm unhesitant 'No' that encourages no further conversation on the subject.
'Why?' I persist, and this time the answer is not a monosyllable.
'They killed my chacha (uncle). They burnt our homes. Our women were raped. How can we even think of going back? My pregnant daughter-in-law had to hide in the sugarcane fields. The killers haven't been arrested. They still roam free in the village. I told you, for us this was Partition.'
Fugana, a village with about 4,000 homes, once boasted of 1000 Muslim houses. We drive there from Kheda and find that only one family has returned. Ironsmith Sakur Ahmed and his son Gulsher have returned minus the women of the family. Both father and son are now held up as examples of communal harmony.
"We want our Muslim brothers to come back. The village is incomplete without them," says Rakesh Malik, a Jat neighbor. Many Jats say they miss their brothers.
Have they made an effort to bring them back? The answers to the question are complex and reveal still-simmering tensions. Five months have passed since August 2013 when tempers ran high, when fake videos circulated and rumour mills churned at high speed. Both sides had clashed over reports that a Muslim boy had teased a Jat girl.
Both sides had extracted revenge: the Jats killed Muslims and angered Muslims, in turn, killed two Jats. Both sides held maha panchayats that further fuelled the tension, leading to riots that left 62 dead and 51,000 homeless.
Full coverage: UP riots aftermath
HT visited all eight villages of Muzaffarnagar categorized by the district administration as 'worst affected.' In village after village, burnt, looted and vandalized homes stand in silent testimony to the violence.
Fugana, Lisad, Lak, Bahavadi, Mohammadpur Raisingh, Kharad, Kutba-Kutbi and Kakda are now names etched in official records and in the memories of the Muslim families, who, until September, had lived there for generations. In five of these eight villages, not a single Muslim has returned.
Many of the former residents said they would never go back though several admit to receiving calls from Jats saying, "We are sorry, please come back." The district SP, HN Singh says the administration has held harmony meetings between Muslims and Jats in an effort to reunite them. They have clearly been unsuccessful.
Unlike Fugana's Siddiqui, who was clear in his head about not accompanying us, two residents of Kutba-Kutbi reluctantly agreed to revisit what was once their home, for only the second time since the riots. The first time was soon after they had fled the village. They had returned under police protection to pick up clothes and utensils.
"Are you sure we will be safe?" Akhtar Khan and Mohammad Waseem ask in unison, reminding us that on September 8, the guns and talwars took eight lives in a matter of three hours. Our first stop as we enter the village is Akhtar's home. The doors are broken, the windows are creaking, the walls are covered with soot and piles of clothes lie abandoned. Akhtar walks in and kneels down in prayer. Afterwards, he paces up and down.
Slowly, other villagers gather and Akhtar starts greeting them. They greet him in return and some of the tension abates. Can we go to the village pradhan's (headman) house, we ask.
Typically, the headman is a Jat as that is the majority community in this village. Akhtar takes us there and in the courtyard, we have a conversation that brings out the complexities of the riot and its aftermath. The same conversation could possibly have taken place in any of the eight 'most affected' villages.
"Haan, bhai Akhtar," Babloo Singh, the pradhan's nephew says in greeting as we sit down. He orders for tea and snacks.
After a few minutes, Akhtar stops shuffling his feet and Babloo stops playing with his fingers.
"You could have saved us that day, if you had really wanted," says Akhtar.
"But we had gone for the panchayat and by the time we returned, the tensions were out of control," Babloo responds.
"But the pradhan didn't come out of the house," protests Akhtar.
"Yes, but have you forgotten that your cousin took shelter here and so did two others and nothing happened to them…
"But the rest of us came under a violent attack for three hours."
"Have you tried to bring them back?" I ask, joining in the conversation.
"We have become mulzims (accused). They have named us in FIRs. How could we go to bring them back?" says Babloo.
"The process of justice is crucial…"
"But now our community is unhappy. They face the possibility of spending time in jail. In any case, they have got compensation, so why can't they withdraw the police complaints. Rs 5 lakh for damaged homes and Rs 10 lakh for loss of life is a lot of money," Babloo argues.
"We saw people being killed in front of our eyes. Can you guarantee there will be no repeat?" says Akhtar. There is fear and tension in his voice.
"Dekheye, Madam, some of the Muslims had borrowed money from us and now they don't want to return because they will have to pay up," says Babloo.
I look at Akhtar and he nods. "Yes, some of us have borrowed and I have already returned the Rs 10,000 I had taken."
Babloo confirms this and says, "They worked as labour in our farms and we too are paying more now to source labour at a time when sugarcane is ready to be cut. I hope one day the feeling of brotherhood will return. I take the blame for our mistakes and hope they will too."
On the way out of the village, in the car, Akhtar says, "some like Babloo are reasonable but the accused call constantly, threatening us against returning."
In Lisad village, at least two families have decided to never return. They have sold their homes to Jat neighbours and only echo what the majority of them feel: It feels like Partition.