Khatauli is a small dusty town of Uttar Pradesh, like many in North India. As we enter Khatauli, we are taken to a community room crowded with local citizens—some clean shaven and young, others bearded and old. They have two things in common: All are Muslim men. All eyes are filled with fear. A local Muslim journalist is not there to cover the gathering, but to speak of his own arrest by the police. An elderly man laments “Khatauli used to be so peaceful. We had Hindus and Muslims together in a local town committee. Now in the last year all that has finished. All that is left is fear." Another middle-aged man chimes in "Anyone can be picked up and killed any day. We are scared.” That a room full of adult men are admitting to stark, naked fear was unsettling. Fear and desperation were palpable. A day before, on Hanuman Jayanti, processions of saffron-clad bikers wielding naked swords passed through the lanes of Khatauli, shouting slogans. Muslim citizens allege these processions of young men with weapons and aggressive slogans regularly pass through the Muslim localities trying to intimidate and provoke riots. They say that local police and administration watch these brazen displays of weapons quietly.
In December 2017, 10 people from a Muslim family were arrested on charges of cow slaughter. Four of them were minors: children between 12-16 years, of whom 2 were girls; another a pre-teen boy and the fourth an eight-month-old infant. They have been in jail ever since. We are shown the children’s Aadhaar cards to prove their ages. And yet, the judge remanded them to an adult jail. The only man in the family who is not under arrest is their uncle, a short middle-aged man who is running around trying to get his nieces freed. He doesn’t know that children can’t be put in a jail for adults. He doesn’t know about juvenile laws or child rights.
Their lawyer was recommended by the local police, who in turn chose not to inform him of all the alternatives. Says one clean shaven individual, “I’ve finally come to believe that there are two laws here. One for the Hindus and another one for the Muslim citizens.” Everyone nods in assent. They may not know anything of the yellow stars once handed out in Germany many decades ago, but they seem to understand the concept perfectly.
We are taken to the empty homes of the arrested children. They got bail the day we reached, but are still not free. A light-eyed young man comes out. He is a neighbour. “When the police came, my father tried to tell them not to arrest the women at night. So, they took my father and brother too,” he says bemusedly, as if trying to make sense of what happened. His father and brother haven’t been released since.
In Khatauli, there have been no activists protesting flouting of laws by the police and judiciary. No high-profile lawyers have filed PILs. No national media has descended. A few educated young men, Hindus and Muslims, try offering support to residents. A young Muslim man confesses that he should be preparing for his entrance exam but has got caught in local activism. He has already been picked up (and released) twice by the local police “for trying to be a hero”. Khatauli lives on the verge of despair, waiting for the worst to happen.
We drive on to the ‘higher profile’ town of Muzzafarnagar, which seems to have never recovered from the 2013 riots. Muzzafarnagar is again simmering with anger and fear. There is anger among the residents at the Yogi government’s plan to withdraw the 131 cases against men accused of rioting in 2013. Residents say the plan is an insult to the victims’ families, the judiciary and the Constitution. “All we’re saying is that let the courts decide whether they are guilty or not,” says a suave older man in impeccable English. We go to the police station to discuss this, but meet no high officials. The local intelligence officer who meets us is friendly and cheerful. He says with a huge smile, “There is something wrong with the DNA of the people.”
Our educated sensibilities are stunned into silence at the blatant prejudice of the law enforcer. What about the UP government attempting to wipe off the 131 criminal cases off the record? “The state government has till now asked for the status of 131 cases, which courts they are in. Anyway, they are all very minor crimes,” the vigilance officer assures us smiling.
This is the second time the state government has asked the local administration about the withdrawal of 131 cases, the first was reported in January, when the local administration refused. These ‘minor crimes’ include 13 charges of murder, 11 charges of attempt to murder, 55 charges of dacoity, 36 charges of explosives/fire, and 2 charges of kidnapping all of which hold sentences of seven or more years. All the accused in the 131 cases are Hindus.
I notice that all the women are wearing sindoor and colorful bindis. They are Hindus. “Why haven’t Muslim women come to protest,” I ask. A young Muslim activist answers with some bitterness. “Some say that victims’ families leading protests will make the situation worse.” The alienation of the Muslims in UP is complete. They can’t even protest the release of the killers of their family members
Try to curtail it, as the government and officialdom may, news of this gross unfairness has spread and shocked India. A protest was organised by National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an umbrella of civil society organisations, at Muzzafarnagar court house by up to 200 women.
Vimal Bhai, a longtime Gandhian who was leading the protest, says that in guise of a crime-free UP, the state government is encouraging criminals by setting them free. He admitted that he was shocked by how bad the situation is and that they will continue with their fasts and protests nationally.
I notice that all the women are wearing sindoor and colorful bindis. They are Hindus. “Why haven’t Muslim women come to protest,” I ask. A young Muslim activist answers with some bitterness. “Some say that victims’ families leading protests will make the situation worse.” The alienation of the Muslims in UP is complete. They can’t even protest the release of the killers of their family members. They are the new social pariahs.
Our last stop is Kandhla. It’s a peaceful place historically known for the camaraderie between Hindus and Muslims. We go through the bylanes to the home of a prominent religious leader respected by both the communities. As we pass, we are shown the ruins of historical buildings where Hindus and Muslims jointly fought against the British in India’s struggle for Independence. Even during the 2013 riots, Kandhla remained a place of refuge from the communal violence. At the Maulana’s home, people start streaming in till the little room is full of residents. The atmosphere is tense.
The conversation centres around the spate of extra-judicial killings in their area in the last one year. A young man, who looks more at home in a corporate setup, says that “Initially people thought that only criminals are being picked up, but then we realised that any of us can be killed.” The people say that the killings, which are illegal and for which the state government has been rapped by the NHRC, are methodical, planned according to lists, with a common modus operandi and target the poorest Muslims and Dalits who don’t have the means to protest the unlawful acts.
The families are shut up by bribery or intimidation.
The people say that the killings, which are illegal and for which the state government has been rapped by the NHRC, are methodical, planned according to lists, with a common modus operandi and target the poorest Muslims and Dalits who don’t have the means to protest the unlawful acts
Just that morning, 20 policemen had descended at the house of Furquan, one of those killed in an encounter, to pressure his family to withdraw their demand for a judicial inquiry. The rest of the family members, five of whom were in jail, now fear being killed. The Maulana speaks in gentle flowery Urdu, his voice weary and sad: “No local people will even participate in a protest march, they are all so scared. But the locals will have to take the lead. Outsiders can just support us.” Plans are made for future peace marches and protests, but for now nothing is being done.
We walk out sombrely, acutely feeling our helplessness in face of such horrors. If CM Yogi Adityanath intends to be in the fray to be the Prime Miniser as his admirers predict, he first has a long way to go in upholding law and order and administration in UP. The tale of western UP right now is of frightened citizens, where might is right and the Constitution is merely an unopened book meant to adorn dusty shelves.
The writer works in area of human rights and prevention of conflict and was a part of an Insaaf Yatra organised by ANHAD-Act Now For Harmony and Democracy-to Muzzafarnagar and Shamli in March 2018