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

India Today - - COVER STORY - By San­deep Un­nithan in Muzaf­far­na­gar

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

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