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What makes neighbours murder and brutalise each other? The portrait of two warring groups in Muzaffarnagar, UP, illuminates the ancient question
MUZAFFARNAGAR ~ Saturday, 2 November. Shahnawaz Khan, a Samajwadi Party worker, gets into a white Scorpio with his party’s flag conspicuous on its bonnet. It starts to move. He raises his hand, and the vehicle stops.

“Our battle isn’t with Hindus. It is with Jat terrorism. If they can call their panchayats, so can we,” he says. “We have waited for too long.”

To that end, he says, Muslims here have formed a Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Manch to negotiate their rights. “We will fight the battle of the disenfranchised. We have lived in the shadow of Jats for too long. Now, we will claim our space, our dignity,” he says.

Night has descended. The police have imposed Section 144 (of the Indian Penal Code, which prevents unlawful assembly). But in Hussainpur, they have disregarded it, and men have gathered outside the pradhan’s house. Beyond here, the village is submerged in darkness.

Sunday. 3 November. A young man sits in a corner, brooding; a young woman wails.

“Amroz, mere bhai, kahaan se dhoondh ke laoon tumhe,” Shabnam cries.

The mother, Khurshida Begum, a frail old woman, breaks down.

“Mere kaleje ka tukda,” she says. “They killed him. They killed my innocent son.”

The men and women sit in the house discussing the killing of three Muslim youth on 29 October, allegedly by Jats from the neighbouring village of Muhammadpur Raisingh.

Suddenly, the sister shouts—“We want justice. Khoon ka badla khoon,” she says—and collapses. She is propped up. A village elder chides her: “No, not that way,” he says. “That will mean many more killings.”

Amroz, 20, had gone to the fields with his cousins. His mother was at home when someone told her to look for him. She ran to the fields but was stopped on the way and brought back in. That is when they told her that her son had been killed. The mother, who brought up five children after their father died 12 years ago, still cannot express her grief in words. “When you lose a son, it is like losing your eyes, hands, heart…,” she says.

The bodies had been butchered—eyes, hands, other parts dismembered. Was killing them not enough, she asks.

She didn’t see the body. She couldn’t have.

The family is poor. Eldest brother Pervez works as a tailor. None of the siblings was able to finish school—they all dropped out one by one. Amroz used to work in Delhi in one of its many sweatshops. He would come once in five or six months. He had come to the village for a few days to look up his mother, who was unwell. Youngest brother Adam pushes forward a cellphone with his brother’s photo. He had attended the village primary school till Class 5, and then given up. The sisters weren’t yet married and he had to support his family.

“[Amroz] was responsible. He would send more than half his earnings to us. He made only Rs 7,000 a month,” the mother says. “They took him away. What had he done? He was just a son and a brother. A poor man. Nothing more. There was no time to be anything more.”

Killings have also been reported elsewhere in the district. There is an uneasy calm in the two villages. It is an imposed calm.

“Like before a storm,” a man says. “It won’t last.”

It is not going to stop, Shahnawaz says.

Amroz, 20, Meharban, 21, and Ajmal, 22, were beaten to death in sugarcane fields. It is the border with Muhammadpur. Now, there are no Muslims left in Muhammadpur after they ran away to escape a mob, allegedly of Jats, who came shouting “Pakistan ya Kabristan!” Their abandoned, charred houses are the only reminders of the ‘others’ who lived here.

   Muhammadpur was where the bodies of the three men were allegedly taken. One of the young men was still alive. He died on the way.  According to local Jats, they were masked men who attacked Rajinder Fauji, a fellow Jat, and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) killed them. An enquiry has been ordered. What led to which killing is still a matter of perspective here.

The three were later returned dead, and mutilated, to Hussainpur. “I had last seen him as a human,” says Anees Khan, father of Ajmal.

They couldn’t even do the usual rites for the dead. Not even the gusal, the ritual bathing of the corpse. Then there was the hurry to quickly bury them lest tension flare up again. But it did. Thousands congregated that morning at the madrasa in the village. On three cots, the bodies were laid. They were young, healthy men, Umar Daraz Khan, Ajmal’s elder brother says.

In September, riots broke out in Muzzaffarnagar district after a Muslim youth was killed for allegedly stalking a Jat girl. Two Jat men were lynched in retaliation. In the riots that followed, official figures put the death count just under 70. But the communities say the toll was more than 500 with bodies dumped in streams and entire families gone missing. More than 30 relief camps have been set up for those who fled their villages. Muslims in Muhammadpur had also fled to Hussainpur on the night of 7 September when mobs came after them. Around 900 Muslims from neighbouring villages still remain in Hussainpur, refusing to go back because return is impossible.

In Hussainpur, Hindus were scared but promised to do ‘no harm’ and offered sanctuary. There are 36 biradaris (caste/ community groups) here, including Dalits and Thakurs. “Our fight is with Jats,” Shahnawaz says.

In the courtyard of Abad Khan’s house, women have congregated. They read holy verses. In heavy voices that often trail off. And then, they wail. Meharban’s four sisters sit around their mother as they mourn the death of their brother. Abad stands and watches his other son Farmaan fill water. Meharban was a truck driver, and would come home twice a year. His wife and three children lived with his parents.

The father is old and doddering. He doesn’t know what to do, he says.

On both sides of the narrow road, there are sugarcane fields. There’s a school on the way. A lock hangs on its door. This is Lusana, and beyond is Hussainpur Kalan. There are policemen outside the village. Section 144 has been imposed after the killings, but village elder Haji Sagir Qureshi is sitting with a group of 20 men at the village chaupal (central quadrangle).

“They haven’t arrested all of them yet,” he says. “The panchayat will meet to decide the future course of action. If the State grants our six demands, we will thank them. Else, we will reconsider our strategy. These past few days, we have been restrained. But we can’t contain the anger for too long. We said: ‘Don’t fight’. But we can’t not fight forever.”

Muslims had called a mahapanchayat on 7 October, which was later postponed after SP chief Mulayam Singh met some of their leaders and assured them that justice would be done. Their demands include Rs 25 lakh compensation for the families of those killed, government jobs, the arrest of all accused, and gun licences.

Hussainpur is within 12 km of Fugana, another village ravaged by the riots that broke out in September. Rumours abound. In Fugana, they say, girls were stripped and forced to dance. There were rapes. Families were killed, or made to leave their villages, and live in horrid conditions in state-run camps now.

“Exile is a tough choice. But when death stares you in the face, you leave,” says Qureshi. “We had given shelter to 900 Muslims who fled neighbouring villages, including Muhammadpur Raisingh. We even brokered a peace deal with them.”

Just as they were beginning to send families back to their villages, the three young men were killed. Now, nobody wants to go back. They are everywhere in this village. They are the ones with sad eyes and ghost-like faces.

When they show the post-mortem reports of the three men, Anees Khan bends forward, and moves his fingers over a figure they have drawn. Nothing is clear. But there is the outline, and it is of his son Ajmal.

So he thinks. But it is of Meharban. They were all cousins. According to the police, there were more than 10 injuries on each body.

“I couldn’t even look at my own son’s body.” He hands over the copy, and looks the other way.

At his house next to the fields, his wife Bano holds a string of prayer beads in silence. “I am praying for the son I lost,” she says.

She cries and turns away. It is important for them to assert that their son was not a killer. He was a 20- year-old truck driver, who came home every couple of months. That morning, he had come from Kolkata.

Bano had cooked a simple meal of khichri. It had begun to get cold here.

They haven’t cooked another meal since. “Our son never fought with anyone. He wasn’t brought up like that,” she says.

Across the fields, in Muhammadpur, they say the three dead men attacked one of their own community members. In the ensuing fight, they were shot by the PAC.

“How could we turn killers? We were the refuge of those who had to leave their homes in that village,” Bano says, and goes back to praying.

In the dark chambers of Muhammadpur, Pradhan Omkar Singh, a Dalit on the reserved seat, a few men are listening to Singh’s measured sentences. It is a rehearsed speech.

Kab tak jalega Muzzaffarnagar (How long will Muzaf- farnagar burn)?” he asks. “There was the Kawal panchayat, and people from this village had also gone. There was stone pelting, and other such things, and in the chaos, 1,200 unknown people came to this village and set the houses of Muslims on fire.” Singh has his version of how the murders of the three young men from Hussainpur took place. A Muhammadpur villager, Rajinder Fauji, was in his fields in the evening, watering his crops, when he was ambushed, and some masked men put a gun to his forehead. He was able to escape. There were three other farmers with Rajinder, says Singh.

He was injured, but once back in Muhammadpur, Rajinder collected a group of men and told them about the masked men. They gathered PAC personnel and went to confront them. The three men, he says, were killed but the police took Rajinder away and kept him in custody.

Eight people were arrested. Muslims of Hussainpur say 15 others are at large. They roam the fields, militia style, armed and ruthless.

Hussainpur has very low literacy. Most men and women drop out of school to work in the fields, or as daily wage labourers. For now, the primary school has been converted into a shelter for families that have refused to return to their villages. “This won’t end soon. Not now. Not in the near future,” says Hamida, while making rotis for her family.

They dropped whatever they were doing to leave Muhammadpur. Because the men hadn’t returned, and the mob was coming for them. They jumped from roofs and hid in fields. Then, when dawn broke, they walked to Hussainpur, and asked for shelter.

Ishrana, 22, ran with her four children. Nobody knew which way to go. It wasn’t easy to run in the narrow lanes. So, they got out into the fields. “Those who couldn’t run were caught,” she says.

Shahnawaz says at least five women from Muhammadpur village have lodged a complaint of sexual assault with the Mahila Aayog team that came visiting. They have also alleged rape. But FIRs have not been filed, and the women won’t come out and speak about it. They fear being ostracised. Rapes are used as terror tactics in such situations, says Shahnawaz. In earlier reports from riot-affected villages like Lisarh and Kandhla, women have said they were gang-raped. But the police have registered only five such complaints. In such situations, there are all kinds of stories—some true, a few manufactured.

That evening, there is some commotion in the fields close to Muhammadpur village. In Hussainpur, they watch from the graveyard, alert. Anything can happen. The tubewell that waters the fields of Jats lies in their zone. They have, so far, kept their word—they let them come and switch on the pump.

“We can’t even go to the graves,” says Arshad Khan, who lives in Hussainpur. “It is dangerous.”

Three trucks carrying RAF personnel go past. Nobody is willing to accompany them to the graveyard.

Kotwal RK Sharma is doing the patrolling.

“Will you please come with us?” I ask him.

“Why do you want to go?” he asks. And then, “Go ahead, I will follow you.”

But he does not. Arshad Khan is not surprised.

“Now you see?” he says.

The villagers have formed a group, and together we walk a narrow mud road, past the Idgah, to the graves. At a small distance, you can see men carry a coffin covered in a shawl. A woman died this morning. She was a refugee, Arshad Khan says.

They stop, and bow. Sohrab, another refugee from Muhammadpur, is chipping away at the wood. He sits next to where they have dug up the earth. That’s where she will be buried.

“It is for her grave,” he says. “It’s sad to be buried on someone else’s land.”

Ever since the riots broke out in early September this year, the villagers have formed groups of eight to 10 men to guard the village at night. They roam the streets, and circle the village, and spend the night stationed at various spots.

On the way back, the kotwal meets us.

“You should not be here,” he says.

Muhammadpur fares better than Hussainpur in terms of land ownership. There are more pucca houses here. The Muslims here mostly work as farm labour. There is a lane leading to the Muslim quarters. These are abandoned homes. The Hindu residents say they miss their neighbours. “Manga is 80 years old. He was picked up by the police,” says Pradhan Omkar Singh. “The police are against us. They blame us.”

On Sunday, they sit in little groups, and speak in hushed tones about the killings. It is Diwali but there is a khap diktat that no village will celebrate the festival. “Dispel the darkness,” says Singh. But in the streets, there is talk of a possible attack.

“They will come for us,” a young boy says. “The pradhan of Hussainpur has said he will take revenge. We can’t go outside. We are confined.”

No candles are being sold here.

In villages, panchayats are the last word. Nobody dares defy their diktat.

Gul Mohammad, Shahnawaz’s younger brother, is sitting outside their house in Hussainpur. It is night, and tea is served in small white cups.

“We had a peace treaty with [the Jats of Muhammadpur]. In this kind of guerilla war, you can’t be sure. So we invited them here, and agreed that business will resume as usual. You cut grass in the morning, and we will go to the fields in the evening,” he says.

Shahnawaz, who is the Hussainpur pradhan’s husband, is the man in charge. He comes and sits. He says on the night of the killings, he made at least 20 calls to OP Chaudhary, the inspector in charge of the Bhoran Kalan police chowki, but they went unanswered.

At the Budhana police station now, a woman refuses to give out copies of the FIR registered on the Hussainpur killings. When the inspector comes, he shows an FIR copy that is registered in the name of Md Qais, who was with the three victims in the fields that day. He and another young man had managed to escape, and that is how word got round.

The FIR was filed on 30 October. The previous night, villagers had marched to the police station. The post-mortem was done in the wee hours of the morning, and the bodies reached the village at around 7.30 am the next day.

In the FIR, Md Qais has said he was with the three victims and one other person from the village, and they had gone to the fields to cut grass when Rajinder Fauji, with 14 other men, ambushed them. According to the FIR, there was another group of 10 men with this group and they had lathis and sundry other weapons.

“Rajinder has said he was injured, but he hasn’t given us any written complaint. Maybe he inflicted the injuries upon himself to make his case more genuine,” says Inspector Dhananjoy Mishra, who came to Budhana on 14 September from his earlier posting in Allahabad.

It has been a challenging time for Inspector Mishra. He spends most of his time roaming the area’s villages and speaking to people, asking them to keep faith in the police.

“We recovered the bodies from near the fields between the two villages. There were a lot of injuries but when a mob kills, it is no surprise,” says Inspector Mishra. “Those who died have no police record of criminal behaviour. We will normalise the situation.”

That is a tall claim. With just 30-odd policemen in each village and the touring RAF personnel, it won’t be an easy task. Already, the police have been attacked elsewhere.

“Section 144 is in place. There will be no panchayats,” says Inspector Mishra.

“Khuda is on our side,” says Hamida, as she serves a little girl food. The children cry for their home. They want to return. “How does one tell them home is no more,” she says.

Three families from Muhammadpur are living in Shahnawaz’s house. The other families are scattered across the village. “Everything is gone,” says Hamida. “But I will never go back.”

Around 10 families are living in the primary school. The school runs in a small room for now.

Hina, another woman from Muhammadpur who is here, says they lost their animals and land. They even brutalised the horses, she says, with resigned disbelief.

Around 1.30 pm, a mosque’s muezzin calls for namaaz.

Men are sitting inside the primary school, waiting.

They have been waiting since September to return, to make a fresh start.

Inside one of the rooms, there is a bed and a few almirahs. A set of cups and sundry other utensils.

There are boxes and reclaimed furniture. “Some of us went back with the police to retrieve what was left,” explains Afroz.

His daughter Mohsina, 16, is stoic. She was studying for her intermediate exams, due in March. But her books are all gone and so are the certificate and mark sheet of her first Board exam. Afroz says he will try to buy her new books and enrol her in a distant education programme.

Mohsina averts her face. She doesn’t want to talk about the loss of her future. “She secured 63 per cent in Class 10. She is bright. But now she is always sad,” Afroz says. Mohsina walks outside.

“I am determined. I will study,” she says. “I want to be a reporter. I want to tell my story.”

On one of the walls, a line reads, ‘Vipatti mein dhairya rakho (keep faith in times of trouble)’.

Two women stare at the wall. They probably can’t read. But Mohsina can. She will keep the faith. For now.