Mid-January 2014, I decided to plan a little detour trip before Rajasthan to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, India. It is the scene of where a politically-motivated commnal violence took many innocent lives and which led to displacement of 50,000+ Muslims. The media has not given this tragedy its due and there is an absence of due outrage. (How do we select outrage? Why does one thing make us angry and not the other?)
I got in touch with a friend whose work and humility I deeply admire: Faisal Khan. He has revived the Khudai Khidmatgar movement which is a form of peaceful, secular activism.
Alongwith a packed car of at least seven of us, we spent two days in Muzaffarnagar; visiting villages and camps and also Shamli District.
It was a very new experience for me. I felt compelled to see and know of what was truly happening on ground. I feel that it was also important to experience this dimension of social help to help me increase the ways in which I can benefit various communities and villages.
I was privileged to be part of Mr. Khan’s initiatives to open schools in these camps and also a women’s empowerment center. By the time we were there, distributing shawls and blankets were in full-force. While it was very important to have donated these, it seemed that people could not think of more alternate ways to help these people. Everyone seemed to bring truck loads of blankets.
I saw more than 8-10 camps, sticking out like a surreal…sometimes unreal truth in the middle of beautiful sugarcane fields, rice paddies and in between lines of Poplar trees and mustard flowers.
Speaking to people, what is important to understand that most of these were not terribly poor. These were people with proper houses, property and their own world with their roots in their family graveyards and mosques. Overnight, these people were uprooted from their regular life.
Someone who claimed to be an eye witness to this tragedy told me that from June 2013, weapons were being distributed in nearby villages (supported by a political party). There were conflicting stories that the violence was instigated by an outdated, irrelevant YouTube clip of a youth getting beaten up in Pakistan which was spread as a Hindu-getting-beaten-up-by-Muslim clip. There was another (real) story which contributed to the violence escalation but was not the sole reason for the flare-up: Hindu and Muslim youths fighting over a girl.
What it has resulted in is cleansing of Muslims from villages. Each and every person I spoke to (and I spoke to MANY) said that they cannot think of returning because of the brutality some saw and many heard about. I met many who did not see violence but the rumours of brutality against Muslims filled them with fear and they ran overnight–wearing the clothes they were in, without packing anything for themselves or their little children.
One old woman looked distant while remembering her life just a few months back and said, “I miss my home…” only to be cut off by the woman next to her: “Yes, we miss home too but then when I remember that fearful night when they attacked us, my heart just goes blank.”
Another woman: “All these years, WE have been the one who paid Zakat (charity) but this year, we will receive it.”
I saw many pregnant women in these camps and way too many little children, playing near the dirty open sewage lines. There is no privacy for a woman there; no place for her to shower. This compounds their misery and makes them vulnerable to sexual attacks in the midst of the tragedy of displacement.
Within this month, I have already read reports of more children dying because of illnesses, lack of medical help and now, chicken pox.
I was deeply moved by the generosity of villagers who supported these victims by sheltering them and coordinating relief efforts for them. Students from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) are very active in providing help. The AMU students are the ‘doctors’ in these camps. They have also helped built brick-houses for the victims and also donated sewing machines to create employment opportunities for the women. The depth and breadth of their work far exceeds the little I saw in two days.
Under the Khudai Khidmatgar initiative, I was able to inaugurate a temporary ‘bridge’ school and a woman’s empowerment center. When word spread about this makeshift school, with the two teachers being camp residents themselves, there was a line of children running through the fields and from the camp site to start school. There was incredible excitement to resume school after these months of uncertainty and roaming the shabby camps.
As long as incidents like these happen in India, there is never going to be real progress. The shame of silence and outrage from the public is a bigger disappointment. I know many are helpless but what does it take to tip this into a public outrage? Muzaffarnagar riot aftermath is more like a political playground and people are simply statistics and it is a blot on the conscience of every Indian.