In Muzaffarnagar, police and Hindutva groups attack Muslims in attempt to recreate 2013 riots

On 20 December, Mehmood Nagar and Khalapar—Muslim-majority neighbourhoods of Muzaffarnagar—witnessed a violent rampage by the UP police and Hindutva groups. During the attack, two vehicles belonging to S Saiduzzaman, a former Congress member of parliament from Muzaffarnagar, were set on fire. Tushar Dhara
28 December, 2019

On 20 December, a day after the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath vowed to “take revenge” against those who had destroyed property during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the state police stormed Muzaffarnagar. That day and night, Mehmood Nagar and Khalapar—both Muslim-majority neighbourhoods in the city—descended into violence, with a rampage by the UP police. According to residents, the police force used tear gas, lathi charges, and opened fire on the Muslim locals. Noor Mohammad, a young resident of Khalapar, was shot in the head and died.

The police denied firing any live bullets and claimed it only responded to the protestors turning violent, but numerous accounts from the two neighbourhoods narrated a different sequence of events. Multiple residents noted that as the protestors grew in number, the police acted with brute force to quell the protest march, joined by men in civilian clothes, who were differently identified as members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The locals said that the police and the members of the Hindutva groups terrorised the two Muslim neighbourhoods at night, and entered houses at random to attack its residents, destroy their belongings, and loot their money and jewellery.

That afternoon, Nisar a doctor and a resident of Muzaffarnagar, was in his clinic on Meerut road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, when he noticed crowds of people walking past. The crowd was walking north towards Meenakshi chowk and growing larger by the minute. “It was after the Friday prayers, around 2.30 pm,” Nisar, who asked for his last name to remain confidential, told me. “The crowd consisted mostly of Muslim youth and they had decided to protest peacefully against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed NRC,” referring to the National Register of Citizens. I also spoke to Arif, a journalist who requested not to be identified by his organisation or his full name, was reporting from Meenakshi Chowk at the time. “The crowd was mostly leaderless and the youth consisted of locals as well as those from surrounding towns and villages,” Arif said. “They had decided to meet the district magistrate and hand over a letter pointing out that they were opposed to the CAA, but they intended to do it peacefully.”

According to local residents, during the course of the afternoon the crowd swelled into a massive gathering of tens of thousands of protestors, who started advancing towards Mahaveer Chowk, a kilometre away. “Their aim was to gather at the DM’s office,” Arif said. Bharat Bhushan Arora, a Muzaffarnagar-based senior journalist with Dainik Prabhat, explained that the city, like most others in western Uttar Pradesh, is ghettoised into distinct Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods and has been so for the last thirty years. Meenakshi Chowk is situated at the boundary of Khalapar, one of the Muslim ghettos, while Mahaveer Chowk marks the edge of Jat Colony, a Hindu-majority neighbourhood. As the protestors marched to the district magistrate’s office, Sanjeev Balyan, Muzaffarnagar’s member of parliament from the Bharatiya Janta Party, appeared at Meenakshi Chowk. Within hours, violence broke out in the area.

Balyan is accused of inciting communal violence in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, which had displaced tens of thousands of residents, predominantly Muslim, from their homes. “Sanjeev Balyan and his men definitely tried to communalise the situation,” Arora told me. “The Muslim mob’s intention was to peacefully cross Meenakshi Chowk, meet the administration officials to register their protest and disperse, but because of their youth and the fact that it was a leaderless crowd, they didn’t realize that as soon as they crossed Meenakshi Chowk, a Hindu mob, including Jats, would gather. As soon as this happened Hindus, including elements from the Bajrang Dal gathered. The police was anyway siding with the Hindus.” Arora added: “The Hindus and the police decided to fix the Muslims.”

The police used tear gas and lathi charges to push the Muslim crowd back into Khalapar. Multiple residents told me that the police opened fire with live bullets. Noor Mohammad, a 25-year-old driver and manual labourer from Khalapar, was shot in his left temple, near Meenakshi Chowk. He was rushed to a local hospital and shifted to Meerut, where he died. His family told me that the Muzaffarnagar administration said they would not allow them to bring his body back to the city. They were finally compelled to bury him in Meerut. “I don’t know who fired the shots, but I want justice,” Shanno, Noor Mohammad’s wife, told me at their dilapidated house in Khalapar. Shano is seven months pregnant and a mother to a young girl who is less than two years old. “We haven’t filed an FIR with the police, and now we have no one left to provide for us economically,” she said. The police denied firing any bullets, and alleged that the Muslim locals from Khalapar had shot the protestors.

At Meenakshi Chowk, as the chaos unfolded, vehicles and buildings were torched. Residents of Khalapar recounted that a Hindu mob tried to set a local branch of Dena Bank on fire, and burnt some shops outside a local mosque. Five vehicles were also torched in a garage located close to Meenakshi Chowk. Of the five, two belonged to S Saiduzzaman, a former Muzaffarnagar MP from the Congress party. I spoke to Salman Sayeed, Saiduzzaman’s son.

“The mob that gathered to oppose the Muslim crowd consisted of Hindutva elements and RSS and BJP workers,” Sayeed said. “They broke into my garage saying this is a Muslim property and torched a Renault Duster and a Mahindra Scorpio that belonged to me as well as three other vehicles that were parked there.” He told me that on that day, Muslim youth had gathered in tens of thousands to protest against the CAA and proposed NRC. “The police lathi charged the Muslim youth and then the crowd got aggressive. The police also took the help of communal elements and those people fired into the crowd and damaged property and cars, including mine. They wanted to convert it into a Hindu-Muslim riot and rake up the memories of the 2013 riots to polarise people along communal lines.”

Many residents believed that Balyan and his men had instigated the rampage in Khalapar to provoke a riot similar to the situation in 2013. At the Jat Colony, I met Amit Tomar, a BJP party worker and the nephew of Krishanpal Malik, the party’s MLA from UP’s Badaut constituency. When I asked him if Balyan had instigated the police to fire into the crowd of Muslim protestors, Tomar denied it. “Balyan was there because the city was burning and he is the MP, he just told the police to control the mob,” he said. Curiously, at another point in our conversation, Tomar claimed that “Sanjeev Balyan and his men were in the area, not to cause trouble, but inaugurate a Ram katha”—an enactment of a tale of the Hindu deity Ram. “The Muslims had already rioted at Madina Chowk near Mehmood Nagar and were shouting ‘allah-u-akbar,’” Tomar said. It is unclear why he believed that the Arabic phrase, which translated to “Allah is greatest” explained the police violence.

“The moment the Muslim crowd saw Balyan, they started pelting stones,” Tomar continued. “There were very few cops, so I rustled up some Hindu shop keepers and we helped the police to push back the Muslim crowd that was advancing towards our territory of Jat Colony.” Tomar also claimed that the Muslim crowd dispersed into Khalapar and fired at the cops. “The Muslims burnt vehicles outside Dena Bank, so a Hindu mob burnt a mobile shop outside the masjid,” he said. When I asked him what caused the violence, Tomar said, “Political parties like the Congress and the Communist parties are spreading fake news that the CAA will result in Muslims losing their citizenship, which are fanning these disturbances.” He continued, “It started as a fight between Muslim youth and the police. The Muslims did not come with a mindset to fight with Hindus.”

At the Kotwali police station, under whose jurisdiction Khalapar and Meenakshi chowk fall, sub-inspector Vinay Sharma narrated a different version of events. “The Muslim crowd came with the intention to cause property destruction in the cause of the repeal of the CAA,” Sharma told me. “They also opened fire from Khalapar and Noor Mohammad died in that, it was not the police that fired.” Sharma also claimed that the police had recovered weapons from the area, but when I asked what kind of weapons had been recovered, and how many FIRs had been filed in relation to these arms, the sub-inspector said that he could not reveal that information.

Tomar did not deny that the police had engaged in firing. When I asked him, specifically, whether Balyan or his men had fired into the crowd, Tomar replied, “The firing happened from the police side or from guns fired from inside Khalapar by the Muslims.” Sharma, meanwhile, claimed that neither Balyan nor the police were responsible for the violence and destruction in the Muslim neighbourhoods. “The owners of the homes and shops must have caused the destruction themselves in order to blame us and portray the police in negative light in the media,” he said.

Multiple calls to Balyan’s phone were answered by a man who identified himself as the MP’s personal assistant, and told me that he was unavailable. The district magistrate, J Selvakumari, requested me to email my questions to her. At the time this piece was published, she had not sent a response. Multiple calls to Abhishek Yadav, the senior superintendent of police at Muzaffarnagar, went unanswered.

Around a kilometre to the north of Meenakshi Chowk, in an area called Mehmood Nagar, similar violence was unfolding. Mehmood Nagar is another Muslim-majority area and a crowd had gathered to protest against the CAA. According to the journalist Arif, the police lathi charged the crowd at Mehmood Nagar as well, which agitated them into setting four police vehicles and 11 motorcycles on fire. Residents of both localities said that the situation remained tense in the areas for the rest of the day.

That night, according to accounts narrated by numerous residents, the police went on a rampage. Around 11.30 pm, hundreds of policemen in uniform and people in plain clothes swarmed though Mehmood Nagar and Khalapar, carrying hammers and steel rods, entered Muslim households, and destroyed everything in sight. These included household appliances such as refrigerators, televisions, and air conditioners, as well as furniture and fixtures such as lights and fans. The locals noted that as the police force rampaged through the streets, they broke car windows, vandalised Muslim-owned shops, and generally indulged in wanton destruction. In each instance, residents told me, the men broke the CCTV cameras and took the digital video recorder that stores the security video, to erase any evidence of their identity. According to most accounts, the rampage lasted for around three hours.

Haji Hamid Hassan, a 72-year-old resident of Mehmood Nagar, was among those whose house was targeted. He recounted his ordeal. Hassan, who is a heart patient, told me he was sleeping in a ground floor room when at he was awoken by loud banging on the front door at around 11.30 pm. When he answered the door, he saw over fifty policemen outside. “They said we have to check your house. They then barged into our house carrying hammers and lathis and went on a rampage,” Hassan recalled, his breath faltering into gasps as he spoke. “They beat up my grandson Sajid, who is 14, and started breaking the almirahs and cupboards. They abused me and hit my granddaughter Rukaiya on the head,” Hassan continued, breaking down into sobs.

He said his family could do nothing but watch in terror as the men destroyed their home. “They stole the jewellery, cash and some wrist watches,” he added. The scale of the destruction was evident from the condition of their home. On the ground floor, all the household items, including a refrigerator and a washing machine, lay broken and scattered everywhere. Cupboards and almirahs lay upturned on the ground, their windows smashed, and switchboards, lights and fans had been destroyed. The situation was similar in the kitchen upstairs. Outside it, a cot with two of its four wooden legs broken lay tilted at an odd angle and a washbasin was smashed beyond use. In a corridor outside the house, two scooties lay on their sides, visibly having borne the brunt of the hammers.

Along the main road in Mehmood Nagar stood Sartaj Medicals, a store owned by Mohammad Shehzad Siddiqui. “After the Friday prayers a crowd gathered and the police used force to disperse them,” Siddiqui told me. “A few elements in the crowd indulged in stone pelting. I went home, but heard that 50 police vehicles returned that night for a flag march in this area. That is when they broke into my shop,” he said. “They broke the lock and destroyed the CCTV camera and the main medical counter in the store. When I came back the next day, I found my shop in a mess. The drugs were lying on the floor.” Shehzad estimated that the total damages came close to Rs 1 lakh.

“People in Mehmood Nagar have been living in a state of terror since that night, and all we wanted to do is protest against a discriminatory law that may be used to strip us of our citizenship,” Siddiqui said. “My own name is different across documents and I will find it hard to produce consistent documents. I think they now want to lynch Muslims on the basis of citizenship. If any Muslim is unable to provide satisfactory papers he will be lynched.”

While I was speaking to Shehzad, a woman walked up to us and showed us her bandaged hand. Shabana, who also declined to disclose her full name, recounted that she was walking in Mehmood Nagar at 11 pm in the night with her husband, Naushar, when they were attacked by the police and other men in plain clothes. “They started beating us with sticks and I got hit on my right hand,” Shabana said. “They first hit Naushar then they started hitting me. I don’t know who they were.”

Every time I asked the residents whether they filed a complaint against the police violence, they replied in the negative. “What is the use, who should we give it to?” Siddique asked me with a resigned look.

Afzal, a resident of Mehmood Nagar who declined to give me his last name, told me that there has been an atmosphere of fear in the area since the police crackdown. Afzal’s Scorpio, which was parked in the lane outside his home, was attacked and the windows broken. As soon as he heard the commotion, he locked his front door and rushed upstairs to hide. “I haven’t stepped out of my house for the past four days,” Afzal said.

Perhaps the greatest destruction was suffered by Haji Naseem Ilahi, in Khalapar. The Ilahis are a prosperous Muslim family who are engaged in the shoe trade. They buy ready-made shoes from Agra at wholesale rates and supply them to customers throughout western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Ilahi, the family patriarch, is over 70 years old, diabetic and suffers from a heart condition. That night, Ilahi told me, he was at home with his two daughters when the police broke in and vandalised their home. They broke the furniture and beds in every room, turned the kitchen upside down and smashed the household appliances. The men stole cash worth Rs 3.25 lakh and jewellery worth Rs 8 lakh.

Humaira Parveen, Ilahi’s 24-years old daughter, told me that she and her sister went to the roof the moment they saw the policemen enter. “We decided that we would jump from the roof to our deaths if they dishonoured us,” she said.