|Children at the relief camp in Shahpur village
in Muzaffarnagar. Picture by Prem Singh
Muzaffarnagar, Sept. 25: Satinder Singh has been trying his best to convince his neighbour Mohammed Subhan to return home.
If nothing else, that would at least stop his kids from badgering him with the same question every day: “Where has Uncle Subhan gone?”
Satinder knows where Subhan is. The farm worker from Qutba has been living in a relief camp since armed rioters stormed the west Uttar Pradesh village on September 7.
Over a fortnight later, Subhan is still terrified of going back to Qutba, one of the worst hit in the recent communal flare-up in Muzaffarnagar.
The violence, which has claimed dozens of lives and displaced thousands, has changed everything.
Over 40,000 people, mostly minority residents, are still crammed into some 30 schools, madarsas and mosques that have turned into relief camps. Some huddle in makeshift tents.
“We shudder when we recall how the mob attacked us and set fire to our homes. They will kill us if we go back,” said Jamil Ahmed, 50, a villager from Kutbi, who has been living in a camp in Shahpur with his wife and four children.
Fear reigns where friendship once held.
|Satinder Singh. Picture by Prem Singh
Take, for instance, the relationship between the families of Satinder and Subhan.
For four generations, the two families have lived in peace, a friendly co-existence that went beyond sharing casual banter and serious talk to even meals and taking part in each other’s festivals.
“My children played with his children and are missing them now. I have not told them anything about the riots. What can I say, we always lived together peacefully,” Satinder, who runs a transport business in Muzaffarnagar, said.
Every morning over the past week, the 45-year-old has been calling a relief camp in Shahpur, about 5km away, where Subhan has taken shelter with his family.
“Ab aajao na, bhai. Biswas karo, tum logon ko kuch nahin hoga (Please come back. Trust me, nobody can touch you here),” Satinder told Subhan on Monday.
Last week, Satinder had visited the camp to meet Subhan, his wife Susma and their eight children and urged them to return home.
That was six days back.
Satinder understands why Subhan’s family, among the 3,000-odd minority residents living in three camps in Shahpur, is scared to return to Qutba, where eight people were reportedly killed in the afternoon of September 7.
The rioters, armed with sickles, revolvers, swords and petrol bombs, targeted minority houses and torched some. “I was at home and asked Subhan to rush to my home with his wife and children. I gave shelter to three other minority families who were shouting for help,” Satinder said.
In the evening, a large number of policemen reached Qutba and escorted the minority families to Shahpur, a minority-dominated village.
Safety lies in numbers — even if that means living away from home and hearth.
A trek through the riot-affected villages — Qutba, Kutbi, Kakra, Bhopa, Majra, Baju, Bassi Kala — in the sugarcane-rich Jat heartland tells the same story.
A sense of unease hangs over these villages where minority residents accounted for 15-20 per cent of the population. Look around, and you get the drift: charred remains of houses and shops.
Some people this correspondent spoke to regretted the flare-up. They said some residents, along with local workers of political parties, provoked the violence, forcing residents — Muslims or Hindus — to flee villages where they were in a minority.
“We celebrated festivals together and helped each other in times of need. This time, some neighbours turned on each other,” said Satyapal Singh, 60, recalling the mayhem triggered by an altercation over a teasing incident that snowballed.
Shahnawaz Qureshi, a member of the Shahpur panchayat, said some of those who have fled are scared to return because they have named fellow villagers in their complaint to the police. “They are getting threat calls on their mobiles asking them to withdraw the names,” Qureshi said.
Most Hindus want their minority neighbours to return, though there is also an economic reason behind their wish. “If they don’t come back, who will harvest our crop (sugarcane)? We don’t have anybody to work as masons,” said Kakra villager Rajinder Singh.
But it’s survival first for Jamil and Subhan and the others who have been living in camps in Shahpur. Others demanded land from the state government so they could settle down near Shahpur.
One minority resident has, however, gone back to his village. Khali Mohammed returned to Kakra with his wife on Sunday to take care of his two cows and two buffalos. His children are still in a camp. “We are living in fear,” he said, “but nothing has happened so far.”
“We are asking Hindus to reach out to their Muslim brothers and restore the trust and confidence of the community,” said Muzaffarnagar district magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma.
Satinder wants Subhan to return before Id, which falls in mid-October. “Subhan,” he said, “has always invited us to have sewaiyan on Id.”