Sonia Gandhi meets members of the Jat community at her New Delhi residence on Sunday; (right) Rahul interacts with residents of a Muzaffarnagar relief camp. (PTI)
Lucknow, Dec. 22: Rahul Gandhi today asked chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to improve the “terrible” condition of riot shelters as he rounded off a hectic trip to the heartland to try and convince victims still holed up in camps to return home.
The Congress vice-president’s unscheduled visit to the violence zone, two weeks after his party’s drubbing in the recent Assembly elections, came amid conflicting accounts of deaths of children at these shelters.
Rahul said the condition in the relief camps was “terrible”. “Children are dying. We harbour no ill-feelings, no animosity against the Samajwadi Party government, but Akhilesh Yadav should focus more attention on the Muzaffarnagar relief camps,” he told a media conference in the west Uttar Pradesh district after visiting several camps since morning.
Some reports claimed at least 31 children had died in one camp. The state government ordered a probe after the matter reached Parliament last week.
Earlier in the afternoon, Rahul had run into black-flag waving protesters, said to be unhappy with the condition in the camps, as the Amethi MP left a shelter in Shamli that borders Muzaffarnagar. Congress MLA Akhilesh Pratap Singh said the protests appeared to have been organised by the Samajwadi Party.
In the morning, Rahul had driven down to Shamli, some 100km from Delhi, to persuade victims still camping in the shelters to return home. He said if they didn’t, they would be playing into the hands of those behind the September flare-up that left 60 people dead and over 40,000 homeless and triggered fears of a polarisation ahead of the summer national elections.
“They would love to see you here as it suits their design,” Rahul told inmates of a camp in Malakpur village in Shamli, some 530km from Lucknow. “Our understanding is they want to keep you away from your villages.”
Union minister of state for home R.P.N. Singh and AICC general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh Madhusudan Mistry accompanied Rahul on the unannounced trip, a little over three months after he had visited riot-torn Muzaffarnagar on September 16.
At the Malakpur shelter, Rahul spent over 10 minutes and had tea with the dwellers. “I know it is not easy, but we have to think of life beyond this camp,” Rahul said.
Unconfirmed reports said at least 31 children had died at the Malakpur camp over the past month because of a cold wave sweeping the district. Rahul visited two more camps — at Khurgan and Barnawi, both in Shamli — where he repeated his appeal.
AICC leader Mistry told reporters in Shamli the state government had “never bothered to provide even basic amenities like adequate foodgrain and drinking water in the camps”, a charge the administration has denied.
On December 10, Shahid Hasan, a resident of Lisaad village in Muzaffarnagar, had moved a petition in the Supreme Court claiming that 39 people, including 21 children below the age of 10, had died because of the conditions in the camps.
Muzaffarnagar district magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma, however, told the media last week that 11 children had died in these camps. In a press release on December 19, state chief secretary Jawed Usmani said the number of deaths would be known only after a committee, headed by the Meerut divisional commissioner, submitted its report.