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.”