Fear & Foreboding in Sugarcane Country
A vicious clash between two communities in western Uttar Pradesh puts the state on edge as it threatens to spiral into a wider communal conflagration
Sumit Balyan, 30, sits in a crowded ward of Muzaffarnagar’s general hospital, nursing a gunshot injury on his left ankle. The truck driver had just returned to his house in the city’s Krishnapuri area on September 7 when an angry mob wielding swords and guns surged across the narrow road that divides homes of two communities. A bullet fired by the mob pierced his ankle. “They were shouting religious slogans,” he recounts, still trembling in fear. “We fled to save our lives.” Akram Malik, a wiry 23- year- old mason sitting a chair away from Balyan, a sword injury on his chest sutured by five stitches, tells a similar story of unsolicited horror. The resident of Haldi village, 50 km away, was on his way to attend a family wedding when a dozen stick- and sword- wielding youngsters stopped the tempo in which his six family members were travelling. His uncle, Karamdeen, 70, who sports a scraggy white beard and a skull cap, was riding in front. The group pulled them out, slashed them with swords and bludgeoned them. “I’ve lived among Jats for five years,” he says tearfully, “I’ve built houses for them… why would they do this to us?”
It all began with a case of sexual harassment on August 27, which led to three murders in this district of lush sugarcane fields of western Uttar Pradesh, 125 km north- east of Delhi. Sachin, 24, a farmer, and Gaurav, 18, from Malikpur village, allegedly murdered Shahnawaz Qureishi, 26, of Kawal village, 35 km away from the district headquarters. The youngsters were lynched by villagers as they tried to flee. The incident would have gone down as another statistic in a district with a history of land disputes, crime and revenge killings. Instead, it caused Uttar Pradesh’s worst incident of communal violence in nearly two decades.
Over the next few days, tempers rose as Jats agitated for the arrest of the perpetrators from Kawal village. Rumours were fuelled by an alleged MMS clip of the deaths of the two youngsters, Sachin and Gaurav; the video was later proved to be fake. There were stone pelting, stray incidents of arson across the district, intelligence alerts that warned of a powder keg, and then, an inscrutable sign: Children stopped going to schools. “It was like a gas balloon slowly building up,” says one Muslim leader. On September 3, fresh violence broke out after an argument between a sweeper and a Muslim house owner assumed communal overtones, leading to arson and the death of one person.
On September 7, the balloon burst into an explosive communal conflagration. Nearly 100,000 people from Haryana and neighbouring districts congregated at Nagla Mandaud village, 20 km away from the city. The gathering was illegal because Section 144 was still in force, but both sides had ignored prohibitory orders for over a week and the state government did nothing. At this provocative ‘ mahapanchayat’, Hukum Singh, BJP’s leader in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, and Rajesh Tikait and Narendra Tikait of the Bhartiya Kisan Union delivered inflammatory speeches. The crowds returning from the mahapanchayat were fired upon, allegedly by Muslims. Hindus and Muslims fought pitched battles in