Fear and Loathing in North India’s Sugar Cane Town

Religion Fellows 2013

By Nida Najar

September 17, 2013

Also published by The New York Times

Zareena Khatun, 45, covered her head and part of her anguished face in a white scarf and her sun-battered hands worried a string of white prayer beads. Ms. Khatun sat on the floor of a madrasa in Bassi Kalan in Shamli district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which had been converted into a refugee camp.

On Sept. 7, riots broke out between the majority Jat community and the Muslim minority in the adjoining Muzaffarnagar district. More than 44 people have been killed and 42,000 people, mostly Muslims, have been displaced from their homes.

Ms. Khatun hid with her family in a relative’s house until the Indian army evacuated them on Sept. 8 from the village. Her husband had left home in the morning. Eight people were killed in Ms. Khatun’s village. She knows her husband is among the dead because the local officials called her son, Mohammad Saajid, to the hospital to identify him.

When Mr. Saajid returned to the madrasa sheltering the refugees, he described how he pulled his dead father out of a stack of bodies. What he did not tell his mother is that his father’s head was injured by a sharp weapon and that he had stab wounds on his neck. “He was slashed here,” Mr. Saajid said, drew his hand slowly from ear to ear, as he described his slain father’s wounds.

Muzaffarnagar, which is about 80 miles north of New Delhi, is a largely agricultural district predominated by miles of sugarcane fields that are the mainstay of the local economy. Muzaffarnagar has been roiled by violence since August 27 after two Hindus killed a Muslim man for stalking their female relative. The slain stalker’s family retaliated by killing two Hindu men. After their deaths, thousands of Jat farmers in Kawal village held a large council meeting on Sept. 7, after which the riots broke out in neighboring villages. Indian television networks ran footage of politicians from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party addressing crowds carrying weapons. 

On Sept. 8, after the local police response was found wanting, the Indian government sent the army to the violence-affected villages, imposing curfew, and evacuating Muslims to camps in Muslim-majority villages like Bassi Kalan.

A sprawling madrasa compound in Kandhla town in Shamli district, around 19 miles from Bassi Kalan, shelters about 6,500 people displaced from nearby villages.

The stairwell of one of the madrasa buildings, which houses women refugees, was littered with plastic tea cups and swarmed by flies. Inside, young mothers breastfed children and old women squatted and smoked bidis. Local community members have been donating grains, cereals, and some meat. The refugees slept on the ground next to strangers.

And they traded stories to make sense of what happened.

Riyasat Ali, 44, a weaver from Bawari village about 10 miles from Kandhla town, recalled crouching in a storage loft inside his house when the attackers surrounded it from the outside and opened fire on Sept. 8. The tensions had been rising in the village and nine Muslim families had fled their homes to take cover in Mr. Ali’s relatively spacious house.

Mr. Ali watched as the rioters shot his brother who was standing in the kitchen.  He watched as they hacked into the door with axes, cut his brother’s feet at the ankle with swords. Mr. Ali watched as they shot his 18-year-old niece in the back. Mr. Ali watched as they hacked his neighbor to death outside his house.  “I saw everything,” said Mr. Ali, who has been living in a refugee camp in Kandhla for the past week with his nine children.  “It was raining bullets inside the house.”

Mr. Ali had never had problems with his Hindu neighbors before. He knew the attackers and wrote down their names on a sheet of paper. He constantly carried the paper, which had 37 names on it.

The police eventually evacuated his village, but others had to fend for themselves. Nafeez Ahmad, 35, a laborer from Simbhalka village, who made ends meet by ironing clothes and helping construct houses in the village, watched the rioters burn the village mosque. His wife, Ruksana, first heard the screaming, then the firing. Word of violence had spread, and he handed his wife a sickle to protect herself and their five small children. “Just get out,” he told her.

She took her children and ran through the sugarcane fields behind their house. The cane is 10 feet tall and grows thickly, its narrow, slender leaves shooting off the stalk and providing cover from the village mobs. They spent the evening in the field, motionless with fear, then continued in the morning on their way to Kandhla.  The leaves were sharp and pricked at their skin like small blades, but their village was burning behind them and they didn’t look back.

The refugees believe the police were complicit in the violence. “There has been no help from the government,” said Mr. Ali.  “It’s because this is the work of the government.”

Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, visited the refugee camps on Sept. 15, a week after the violence erupted. “The incident was saddening, not only for those who lost their young sons but for us also,” Mr. Yadav told reporters.  “We have already appealed for peace to everyone and my government will take strict action to deal with those creating trouble.”

At several camps, protesters waved black flags at Mr. Yadav. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the refugee camps on Monday, promising relief to the victims and persecution of those responsible for the riots.

The Muslim refugees have decided to continue staying on in the camps or resettle in Muslim-majority villages. Inside the Bassi Kalan madrasa, Ms. Khatun wept, struggled to speak about the day she left her village, and then gave up under the weight of her grief.  Her relatives and daughters sat next to her, sometimes consoling her, sometimes filling in the blanks of her story.

She spoke with an unmistakable clarity only when the question of a possible return to her village came up.  “Don’t ever speak the name of that place to us,” Ms. Khatun said.  “We’ll never go back there.”

Zareena Khatun lost her husband in the riots in the Muzaffarnagar district. Her son, who was asked to identify the body of his father, told her that he pulled his father out of a stack of bodies.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Riyasat Ali, a survivor of the sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar, who witnessed the killing and the maiming of his family members.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Women and children at a makeshift refugee camp in Kandhla in the Shamli district of Uttar Pradesh.

Photo: Vivek Singh

A child’s hand reaching out for food at a makeshift shelter for displaced Muslims in the town of Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Refugees at a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, in the town of Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Fresh unmarked graves of those killed during the sectarian violence, at a refugee camp in the village of Bassi Kalan.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Women lining up to receive relief supplies at a refugee camp in Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

A young displaced Muslim girl sifting through thousands of old clothes donated by community members in a refugee camp in Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

A child survivor at a camp in Bassi Kalan. He suffered a head injury during the riots

Photo: Vivek Singh

A child sleeping on the floor at a refugee camp in Bassi Kalan.

Photo: Vivek Singh

People gathered at a refugee camp in Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Supplies donated by community members and various relief organizations arriving at a refugee camp in Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Collecting supplies in Kandhla.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Refugees surrounded a truck delivering food and clothing.

Photo: Vivek Singh

A woman offering evening prayers at a refugee camp for displaced Muslims in the Muzaffarnagar district.

Photo: Vivek Singh

Based in New Delhi, Nida Najar is a freelance journalist and a religion reporting fellow for the International Reporting Project (IRP).