Ram Singh (left), the community elder, speaks at Palda in Muzaffarnagar on Saturday. Picture by Prem Singh
Palda (Muzaffarnagar), Feb. 2: Mehndi Hasan, Roshan Ali and Mohammed Rasheed call Palda a “terrain of peace”.
Theirs are among 450 riot-hit Muslim families that have each bought a small plot in this predominantly Hindu village, looking to settle down among its “kind and generous” people.
Hasan, 45, had fled his home in Qutba, just 3km away, with his wife, five children and parents after rioters ran amok, killing and burning, in the Muslim village on September 7. But the Hindus of Jat-dominated Palda provided shelter to them and another 100-odd Muslim refugees for weeks and months.
“They fought off their own community members who wanted to attack us,” Rasheed said.
After the word spread, and the government’s riot compensation began trickling in, hundreds of Muslims from several relief camps began buying small slices of farmland here — about 150 to 200 square yards each — to build houses.
“We welcome them with open arms,” village elder Ram Singh, 60, told The Telegraph on Saturday.
About 100 of Palda’s 500 households were Muslims; now its population will double and Hindus may lose their majority — something that should have no bearing on everyday life unless someone plays mischief.
“We want to send a strong message to political parties that are trying to divide people for votes,” Ram Singh said, drawing claps from the Hindus and Muslims sharing a charpoy with him.
But Palda should not be simplified as a feel-good story. The village stands out in a belt blighted by fear and suspicion since the September violence, which killed over 50 people in the neighbouring districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.
Palda’s experience till now suggests integrated neighbourhoods, not ghettoised compartments, are the best protection for both communities.
But Palda’s solitary status underscores the challenge before integration. Of the 50,000 riot-displaced, at least 15,000 are still too afraid to leave the relief camps. Of the rest, at least half have relocated to relatives’ villages or other Muslim-dominated settlements, often with help from minority organisations, leaving the region largely ghettoised.
“But Palda has become a riot-free terrain of peace (danga-mukt shanti kshetra) for us. The Hindus here are very nice and, thanks to them, many Muslim families are alive today,” said Rasheed, a former inmate of the Shahpur relief camp, 3km away, who bought his piece of Palda a month ago.
He has now pitched a tent and lives in it with his family. “We feel very safe here,” he said. “My new neighbours have been offering us food for the past one month. I’ll soon begin building my house.”
Willy-nilly, strife has become an economic factor, too.
Most of the 450 families of settlers, whom Ram Singh calls the village’s “guests”, are among the 1,000-odd households that have received the Rs 5 lakh compensation announced by the state government. Thousands more are still waitlisted in what critics cite as the latest example of the Akhilesh Yadav government’s poor handling of the tragedy.
“I bought a small plot in Palda paying Rs 3.5 lakh out of the Rs 5 lakh I got from the government,” said Roshan Ali. “I shall build a small house and live here with my family for the rest of my life.”
A municipal official in Shahpur said these plots were sold at rates up to three times the prices that prevailed before the demand from the riot-displaced rose. He added that this was true also of the towns and Muslim-dominated villages where some of the victims have relocated.
Like most Muslims in the region, the new settlers in Palda were mainly landless farm labourers in their native villages and now plan to work in their Jat neighbours’ fields. The rest — masons and blacksmiths — hope to continue in their earlier professions.
Palda is conscious and proud of its newfound fame. Every evening, a group of young villagers assemble at Singh’s home to provide bulletins on the day’s events in the deeply divided neighbourhood.
On Saturday, the discussions centred on Narendra Modi’s Sunday rally in Meerut, about 45km from Muzaffarnagar.
“We’ll go to the rally; some of our Muslim brothers too have decided to accompany us. We’ll submit a memorandum to Modi asking him to intervene and do something for the common people in the area,” said Raj Kumar Singh.
Those who had gone to the rally hadn’t returned home by late Sunday evening; so it remained unclear whether they had been able to hand the memorandum over.
The mood in villages even a couple of kilometres away throw the bonhomie in Palda into sharp relief.
Biram Singh, an elderly villager in Qutbi, which adjoins Qutba where Hasan and fellow residents were attacked, nurses bitter feelings towards his former Muslim neighbours.
“Some Muslims took loans of several lakhs from many people in our village and fled on the pretext of riots. No Hindu from our village attacked Muslims. We asked them not to leave but they did not heed us and even lodged FIRs against some of us,” Biram said.
“The trust between the two communities is gone,” acknowledged Shabana, 40, a widow who is building a single-room house near the Shahpur relief camp with her government compensation.
She has four children, including a 14-year-old son who has not been to school the past five months.
Shabana said the riot had left behind a legacy of hate among the children and youths of both communities. “We don’t know when the scars will heal and people will start living together again,” the Class IV dropout said.