Calling the Clans

How the Hindu castes were mobilised for the Muzaffarnagar violence ten years ago

Armed with tridents and swords, a Hindu mob near the village of Lisarh in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district on 7 September 2013. Gajendra Yadav / Indian Express
Armed with tridents and swords, a Hindu mob near the village of Lisarh in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district on 7 September 2013. Gajendra Yadav / Indian Express
Shivam Mogha with additional reporting by Mohammed Kamran
31 August, 2023

KUTBI IS A NONDESCRIPT village—only about twenty-six hundred people strong and a good twenty kilometres from a town of any note—but, on the morning of 5 November 2012, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Uttar Pradesh unit was inspecting a helipad there. A few hours later, Nitin Gadkari, the national president of the BJP at the time, and Rajnath Singh, a former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and former party president, descended in their helicopter. They were due to attend the Ganna Kisan Mahapanchayat—sugarcane farmers’ meeting—which was reportedly supposed to address issues of sugarcane pricing, delays in the running of sugar mills and demands for reservation for the Jat community, who make up a majority of the village.

But, as the meeting dragged on, its primary focus became clear: the BJP’s top brass unveiling their own leader for the Jat community, Sanjeev Balyan. It was a big title for the 39-year-old with nearly no political experience and only a short career as a government veterinary surgeon in neighbouring Haryana. But Balyan had organised the mahapanchayat—Kutbi was his natal village—and he received many garlands that day. He was the first major homegrown leader the BJP had been able to cultivate in the Jat communities of Muzaffarnagar.

Less than a year later, Kutbi would be the scene of some of the worst inter-religious violence in Uttar Pradesh’s already bloodstained history. On 8 September 2013, less than a kilometre away from where the mahapanchayat had been held, in Kutbi’s sister village, Kutba, eight Muslims were murdered, and the rest of the Muslim community fled. This was the pattern for many of the villages around Kutbi, across Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. The violence tore a deep seam across the region, leaving 62 dead and over fifty thousand displaced—the vast majority of whom were Muslim. It was the sort of destruction few could have predicted, except those who had lived, as I did, through the months of mobilisation on the ground before the sparks flew.

In the electorally crucial region of western Uttar Pradesh, which sends 29 members of parliament to the Lok Sabha, the BJP, historically, had limited political clout. Even following the mass mobilisation for the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in 1992, the party remained an urban phenomenon, primarily backed by Brahmins and Baniyas—upper-caste priestly and trading communities—who pushed it to victories only in municipal elections and urban legislature seats. The vast rural hinterland of western Uttar Pradesh, peopled by agrarian castes such as the Jats, Gurjars, Muslims and Dalits, were outside their remit.

The Jats, the largest group in the region, had already mustered under the banner of Mahendra Singh Tikait and his Bharatiya Kisan Union. They had galvanised enough support to enable Charan Singh—a popular Jat leader—to become India’s fifth prime minister. Charan Singh’s son, Ajit Singh, led the Rashtriya Lok Dal, an opportunistic outfit that often garnered the votes of both Muslims and Jats, and allied to whichever party was in power. In the 2009 general election, for example, the RLD had fought in alliance with the BJP, but soon joined the United Progressive Alliance government, in which Ajit Singh held the civil-aviation portfolio.

The BJP’s regional irrelevance was reversed completely in the year following Balyan’s Kutbi mahapanchayat. It became the dominant force in Muzaffarnagar and the surrounding districts following the violence. Buoyed by the RLD’s failings, by a general disrepair in the law-and-order situation of western Uttar Pradesh and by a deep discontent felt by rural youth—who had little in the way of employment or possibilities of upward mobility—the BJP was able to galvanise Jat youth to see Muslims as a potential threat to the pride of their caste.

Fresh out of school in 2013 and working as an office boy at a local real-estate company in Muzaffarnagar, I could see the tide turning among my friends and neighbours. The old politics of kisani—Hindu–Muslim commensality around the shared identity of yeomanry—that the RLD had relied upon was disappearing quickly. In its place, local BJP leaders fanned the narrative of every Muslim ghetto being a “mini-Pakistan” and a threat to the chastity of Hindu women. The names of the leaders of the farmers’ struggle, be it Charan Singh or Mahendra Tikait, were appropriated by the BJP, a platform that the BKU(Tikait)—led by Tikait’s two sons—readily handed to the saffron party on a silver platter.

Former chief minister Rajnath Singh (second from left) alongside BKU president Naresh Tikait (left), BJP MP Sanjeev Balyan (second from right) and Rakesh Tikait (right) at the eightieth birth anniversary of BKU-founder Mahendra Singh Tikait. Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times

Orchestrating communal violence is not easy. It requires planning and forethought, the protracted targeting of a community and a commensurate mobilisation of divisive sentiments among the communities that make up the majority. This is harder yet in the composite culture compact of rural western Uttar Pradesh—where the divisions of caste far overshadowed differences of faith. Ten years since the violence maimed countless lives, it is important to understand how the BJP worked to capture identities in regions where it had little power. To understand how it deployed its local leadership and which crimes it was able to exaggerate into grievances for the entire Hindu faith. To understand why my friends flocked in untold numbers to meetings where open calls for violence were made. To understand where the victims of the violence are now. And finally, to understand how societies can ensure something like this never happens again.


THE RASHTRIYA SWAYAMSEVAK SANGH had reached our locality, a caste-segregated Dalit neighbourhood on the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar, sometime around 2004, shortly after Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost that year’s general election. Our municipal councillor had begun going to the RSS shakha—branch—around then, dressed in the uniform of the Arya Samaj’s Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College. Most in our locality, including my mother, resented the RSS, as it took children away from the odd jobs that bolstered the meagre incomes of our families. But the councillor—college-educated, well dressed and accessible—struck an aspirational chord, and I joined the shakha. From the age of 11, in the evenings, after working part-time at a roadside eatery, I would go to the shakha, which would host sporting events, drawing many like me.

Within eighteen months, I became the mukhya shikshak—primary teacher—of the newly constituted Eklavya Shakha for adolescents. We were given saffron flags, a stand to hold it and a booklet of nationalist songs. For people from my community, the allure of Hindutva was not new. It promised some measure of power and prominence within the larger community. I remember my father, who was already beginning to show the early signs of a battle against tuberculosis that would make me the family’s breadwinner, being upset when Vajpayee lost the election.

Along with the faux-nationalism, the RSS also inculcated a deep distrust of Muslims. Having grown up with the rhetoric that the Muslim population was growing at a phenomenal rate, I feared that, with the BJP out of power, our neighbouring Muslim localities would overpower us. This was odd, since we were essentially kin. Our Khatik community, traditionally dealing in butchering meat, had always lived alongside Muslims, particularly the Qureshi caste, which had the same occupation.

We were, instead, entirely segregated from the upper-caste Hindus, who lived further into town. This was a segregation that was noticeable within the RSS too. The top leadership of the local RSS and BJP were entirely Baniyas, with Dalit communities only ever allowed middling positions in more militant outfits, such as the Bajrang Dal, the Sri Ram Sena, the Hindu Shakti Dal and the Hindu Kranti Dal. The senior leaders of the local RSS were mostly residents of eastern Uttar Pradesh who had come to the city to study in the medical college and stayed in the organisation’s office. Their caste accorded them primacy within the organisation.

As we shared space in the margins of the town, disagreements between Dalits and Muslims were quick to boil over, providing easy kindling for Hindu nationalist organisations to exaggerate. Eid, the biggest Muslim festival, was not a holiday for us but a day of reckoning. We used to wake up early to stand in the street and watch the Muslims going to the Eidgah, located in the main market, for namaz. We lined up to watch them in pure hatred, making guesses about their population size. The eye contact between us and them was heated, loathful. That hatred also played into where we lived and worked. The square where the town meets the highway going to Dehradun was a hub of activity, with several jhatka meat shops run by members of our community. The halal meat shops of the Qureshis had been pushed into the bylanes away from the square, away from public attention and social tensions, away from our shops.

An adolescent practicing with a sword, as members of the Bajrang Dal do drills at a training camp at an RSS-run school in Noida, on 26 May 2016. Sunil Ghosh / Hindustan Times

After my father succumbed to tuberculosis, I had to quit my lesser paying jobs, delivering newspapers and working at a roadside eatery. I also left the RSS, not as a conscious decision—my priorities had simply changed. I joined a real-estate firm as an office boy, the most dignified job I have had in my career. It was a firm called Vasundhara Residency, which was run by some Jat youth who benefited from selling land in their village and moving into urban real estate. I was told they managed to get the Muzaffarnagar Development Authority to give them the permission to convert agricultural land into commercial land so that they could build housing there. My Jat friends there lived an aspirational life, with vanity number plates for their cars—one of them proudly read “0001.” They cared little for electoral politics but still had the hangover of some inbuilt bigotries. I still remember that, to convince clients to buy a home, they would say that one of the merits of their firm was that they would not allow any Muslims and Valmikis—a Dalit community—to live in the estate.


FROM MY UNDERSTANDING of the region, it was the generation of the parents and grandparents of my friends, who had been deeply political. Many of their fathers had been in the BKU, tied to the association through their khaps and gotras. For the BKU, the Jat khap—clan council—at the local level was equivalent to what Hindutva is for the BJP and RSS at the national level. The khap was the fundamental organisational building block of any farmers’ union in western Uttar Pradesh and the route through which they could mobilise efficiently. It was a level of demographic engineering already implicit in Muzaffarnagar, by virtue of the region’s feudal structures, which Charan Singh and Mahendra Tikait first armed for agrarian agitations and later the Sangh Parivar armed for anti-Muslim violence.

The Muslim and Hindu Jat landowners of western Uttar Pradesh had reaped the benefits of the Green Revolution and were able to leverage that financial and organisational power to raise further demands for the supply of uninterrupted electricity and the cancellation of farmers’ loans. Charan Singh, who belonged to the Tewatia clan from the village of Noorpur, in Hapur district, left the Congress in the late 1960s and founded a slew of political parties—the Bharatiya Kranti Dal and later the Dalit Mazdoor Kisan Party—to attempt to unite the farmers of the region. Mahendra Tikait, who founded the BKU in the village of Sisauli, in Muzaffarnagar district, was a close ally of his, outside the ambit of direct electoral politics.

Mahendra Tikait had become the chaudhary—chieftain—of the Baliyan khap at the age of eight, when his father died. He was able to gather people around the unique experience of rural life and set them against police barricades for issue-based agrarian demands. In 1987, he organised major protests in Muzaffarnagar against rising electricity prices. The next year, he mobilised nearly half a million farmers to clog up Delhi from Vijay Chowk to India Gate, forcing the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, to bow to 35 demands, including lowering water prices and increasing sugarcane prices. In 1992, a month-long sit-in protest in Lucknow forced the Janata Dal government to write off farmers’ loans and increase compensation for land acquired from farmers. One of their famous protests was against free-trade agreements pushed by the World Trade Organization.

While these movements did little to help Dalit communities, many of whom were agricultural labourers who owned no land and worked under the Jats, there was little in the way of religious tension. One of Tikait’s seniormost allies was Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, a leader of the Muslims who mobilised as effectively as Hindu Jats behind the BKU. When I interviewed Jaula for the Trolley Times, shortly before his death, he remembered the 1980s and 1990s as a period of bhaichara—brotherhood. In most BKU rallies, we would hear of Muslims chanting “Har Har Mahadev” and Hindus chanting “Allahu Akbar.” In the 1980s, the BKU was key in stopping communal violence in Meerut, and one of Mahendra Tikait’s largest rallies against the state government was held to protest inaction following the rape and murder of a young Muslim woman. Her religious identity had become secondary to the fact that she was from a farming community.

The BKU’s founder, Mahendra Singh Tikait, during a Kisan Mahapanchayat at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, on 27 February 2008. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times

But alliances founded on caste commensality are as easy to puncture as they are to build. While Jat organisations would not denigrate Muslim Jats—Muley Jats, as they are colloquially called—there was an intense demonisation of Qureshis, who had achieved some meagre prosperity through their involvement in the global supply chain of meat. Many lived in the urban areas of western Uttar Pradesh and were often alleged to be responsible for sexual harassment, hooliganism and “love jihad,” a new language of communalism that had entered the speeches of the senior leadership of the BKU.

The BKU’s general hold over the population was also in steep decline, with the union losing its history of protests and becoming an extension of khap politics alone. Naresh Tikait, Mahendra’s eldest son, was able to trump Sukhvir Singh, the vice-president of the BKU and a doyen of agitational politics, to become the leader of the union—the Baliyan khap that Tikait belonged to was far more consolidated than Singh’s khap. Singh, like many others, started splinter organisations across Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The resultant shift of the BKU from the mode of agitations to a more mediatory approach bled away its support and brought it close to electoral forces. From shutting down governments in Delhi, the BKU and its khaps became a site to fight over who the next district panchayat president would be.

Meanwhile, political interlopers such as Umesh Malik of the Gathwala khap rose to prominence within the BKU, making their primary demands about the banning of cow slaughter, again angering Muslims. These exaggerated the regular disputes that farmers would have with each other. Hindu and Muslim Jats were neighbouring landowners in Muzaffarnagar, just as Hindu and Muslim Gurjars were neighbours in Khairana and Shamli districts. Everyday disputes between them now began to be given a communal colour.

Hindu Jats were further incensed that, for more than a decade, the Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha seat had been won by Muslim candidates—Saeed-uz-Zaman of the Congress in 1999, Munawwar Hasan of the Samajwadi Party in 2004 and Kadir Rana of the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2009—which was seen as a limiting of the khaps’ influence. Much of this was a result of the failures of the RLD, headed by Charan Singh’s son Ajit.

The disenchantment with the RLD ran deep within my Jat friends at Vasundhara Residency. They felt the party often parachuted candidates into the constituency, with little to tie them to the place other than their Jat identity. The discontent was even worse among rural Jat youth. Many from rural Muzaffarnagar were trained and educated in professional courses from local colleges and had no intention of returning to agriculture as a profession. They were interested in exploring urban life, but there were no jobs to be had. They had seen their families voting for the RLD constantly, but agrarian promises from faraway leaders could do little to help them. Sanjeev Balyan, however, cut an entirely different figure.

Balyan had a doctorate and a promising government job, and yet he was here attending mahapanchayats. He was said to have an extensive real-estate business in Meerut and was flush with the funds needed for a modern advertising-heavy campaign. His associates even held a major share in Vasundhara Residency. For the aspirational Jat youth of the region, that meant a lot. The likes of Umesh Malik had the assumed backing of the BJP, but Balyan had been able to bring Gadkari and Rajnath Singh to their villages. His campaign was a blitz too. After the mahapanchayat, he regularly visited Muzaffarnagar, conducting most of the BJP’s events in the district despite having no official position within the party. Besides, none of the modern campaigning of the new BJP seemed to take Balyan away from traditional centres of power. He was still a senior member of the Baliyan khap and known to be close to the Tikaits.

At the top of Balyan’s rhetoric was women. Campaigning across the region, he spoke of how the honour of bahu–beti—daughters-in-law and daughters—was being tarnished by Muslims. Cases of sexual harassment became omnipresent in the newspapers we got. There was an edge of fear. Many in my locality genuinely believed there was a nefarious conspiracy by Muslims to marry and convert Hindu women. And then, on 27 August 2013, Shahnawaz, a Muslim youth, was killed by two young Hindu Jats, Sachin Malik and Gaurav Malik. The clock began ticking through a chain of events that would lead to the worst communal conflagration the region had seen.


A mahapanchayat of 12 Hindu Jat villages at Muzaffarnagar district’s Kutba village in the wake of violence which claimed 62 lives and left over fifty thousand displaced—mostly Muslims. Sunil Saxena / Hindustan Times

THERE IS NO COMPLETE CERTAINTY about the events that caused the violence. According to the first-information report for the murder of Shahnawaz, the Malik brothers killed him following a fight over a motorcycle collision. According to the sister of the Malik brothers, Shahnawaz used to regularly verbally abuse her, as her bus to her college crossed his village. On 27 August, she claimed, she was on the bus with her brothers when Shahnawaz verbally abused her again. The brothers confronted Shahnawaz and killed him.

Later that day, a group of Muslims killed Sachin and Gaurav Malik. The news quickly spread across the district. An old video of some Hindus being killed in Pakistan spread through Hindutva networks with the claim that it showed the murder of the Malik brothers. This was before the widespread use of WhatsApp, so the video was put up on the BJP legislator Sangeet Som’s Facebook page and even distributed on CDs by the BJP in the large meetings it held after the incident. (Neither Som nor Balyan responded to questions from The Caravan.)

The day after the killings, the state police conducted a raid on Shahnawaz’s village, Kawal. The Samajwadi Party government soon transferred out Surendra Singh, the district magistrate, and Manzil Saini, the seniormost police official in Muzaffarnagar. While the official reason for the transfer was that the raid had not followed protocol, Jats saw it as anti-Jat bias, since Surendra Singh was a Jat and Saini was married to one.

By the time the funerals of the brothers took place, communal tension was running high. On the way back from the cremation, people set fires in Kawal, damaging 27 houses. The next day, a confrontation near the village’s Shiv Mandir led to stone-pelting between Muslim and Jats. On 30 August, after Friday prayers, the local MP, Kadir Rana, held a jan sabha—people’s gathering—at Meenakshi Chowk in central Muzaffarnagar. At the meeting, Muslim leaders from across political parties spoke about the incident and allegedly made provocative comments.

Meenakshi Chowk was on my cycle route home from Vasundhara Residency. When I heard of the meeting, I became worried. Over the past few weeks, our local Sangh Parivar leaders had been telling us that Muslims were ready to attack us and that the state government was hand-in-glove with them. When I came home, I kept telling my mother not to go for daily wage work to the fields, as she used to go in the dark and her path winded past the Muslim neighbourhoods. “Shivam, I have been going through this route for ten years; everyone knows me and they will never hurt a woman,” I remember her telling me. Her understanding of the region would change in the following days, when the widespread use of sexual violence to target Muslim women was reported across the district.

On 31 August, the BJP held an even larger gathering in Nangla Mandaur, which it called a shok sabha—condolence meeting—for the Malik brothers. The meeting had initially been called by the BKU, but it pulled back at the last minute, allowing the BJP to lead the proceedings. At the meeting, BJP leaders demanded that the government reinstate the district officials who had been transferred, claiming the SP was “playing the politics of Muslim appeasement.” As the Hindu crowd returned from the mahapanchayat, they stopped a car with a few Muslims from neighbouring Amroha and beat them up. At Meenakshi Chowk, the police assaulted a Muslim youth. I was unable to attend the shok sabha, but most people from office had gone. Since I had a free day, I sauntered around the city. It was empty. Nearly everyone was bunkering down at home, fearing violence.

Curfew-bound Muzaffarnagar markets following the violence. Gajendra Yadav / Indian Express

Every night for that week, we would wait with anxiety and anticipation as rumours floated in of violence from different parts of the district. People in my locality kept vigil all night, preparing for anything untoward. Fake videos were everywhere and rumours were legion. We heard rumours of several famous locals being killed, that the doctor who stayed beside our locality had been burnt alive by Muslims. After the violence, when I looked into these claims, not one stood true. However, much of this misinformation had even made it into the local newspapers. There was a rift within the journalists in the city about the nature of reportage around these incidents. Their identity and social status factored into the content that they were reporting. Other videos we were given by our neighbours explained how we should make petrol bombs for our own safety. Locals affiliated with the Sangh Parivar told us we should look to be armed, so cassettes were brought that continuously played the sounds of gunshots being fired, so that Muslims nearby would know not to attack as they would think we were armed.

The BJP had called for a bandh across the district on 5 September. To prevent it, the police briefly arrested every local leader of the party, including Balyan. However, the entire city was desolate, and Hindu leaders continue to maintain that the arrests were an attack against the faith. In our locality, where no shop had shut for any previous bandh, all shutters were down. On 7 September, the BKU called for an even larger gathering at the Janta Inter College grounds at Mandaur, titled the Beti Bahu Bachao Mahapanchayat. Everyone around me, my friends and Jat colleagues, decided to attend, despite it being thirty kilometres away. I was packed into a car along with them. They said all the arrangements had been made by the firm.

We reached the meeting late—the road to the village was packed for kilometres. Hordes walked along the road, between stranded cars and tractors. When we arrived, we saw that tens of thousands of people had arrived, under the banner of the BKU. Such large numbers would not have likely arrived under the banner of the BJP alone. The BKU had brought the heft of the khaps with them, with Umesh Mallik’s Gathwala khap having influence over 64 villages in the area and Tikait’s Baliyan Khap controlling 84 villages. BKU did not respond to questions sent to them.

Many had also brought violence with them, a fact-finding report by several journalists and professors titled “Communalism and the Role of the State” found. While on their way to Mandaur, many Jats from Haryana had stopped near the madrasa in the village of Lisarh, where they chanted slogans such as “Narendra Modi Zindabad”—Long live Narendra Modi—and “Musalmanon ke do sthan, qabristan ya Pakistan”—Muslims have two places, either a graveyard or Pakistan. In the same village, they told us, they had dressed a dog in a burqa and begun beating it with shoes. In a nearby village, Shahpur, when some Muslims protested, a Muslim youth was attacked with a sword and a pregnant Muslim woman was stabbed to death with a spear. The police reached the scene but did little to prevent the situation.

While it was officially a BKU mahapanchayat, the stage belonged extensively to BJP leaders, including Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana. They carried stories of those coming to the meeting, claiming that they had been attacked by Muslims, and asking for retributive violence. The call was answered soon. The violence fanned out into all the surrounding villages. In the villages of Kutba, Kutbi, Lankh, Lisarh, Bahawadi, Phugana, Mohammadpur Raisingh, Kakada, Kharad, Mohammadpur Modern and Atali, Hindu mobs attacked Muslims on 7 September. In Kutba, Muslims repeatedly asked the panchayat president and her husband, Devender, for help, but no aid came. On 8 September, hundreds of armed Jat villagers led by Devender and his cousin Upender attacked Muslim houses with spears and lances. Seven men were killed in the violence and one woman was shot dead.

Mohammed Shaqir, a 35-year-old, prays at the graveyard of his eight-month-old son Sofiyan, who was buried a few hours ago in a graveyard near Muzaffarnagar district’s Loi village on 1 December 2013. More than fifty children and many of the elderly died in relief camps because of the cold and a lack of medical facilities. Raj k Raj / Hindustan Times

Many Muslims had fled to the adjoining sugarcane fields. A handful of policemen were drinking tea at the house of the panchayat president. When a few Muslims informed them of the attack, they replied that they would take action after finishing their tea. They then locked up the complaining Muslims in the panchayat president’s own house. This was characteristic of the behaviour of the police throughout the violence. Despite much reportage claiming the ruling Samajwadi Party sided with Muslims, my own experiences and the fact-finding report suggest otherwise. “Ever since violence broke out in Kutba, the police acted as bystanders in response to the violent situation that ensued there,” the report states. “The police further refused to aid the victims of violence when they were fending for their lives and felt most vulnerable.”

In villages such as Mohammadpur Raisingh, the police took no action as the entire Muslim locality was burnt and several murdered over a span of hours by Hindu mobs, by claiming that they were on the other side of the village when it happened. The report notes that, in some instances, “the violence actually became a beneficial event for some police officials who accepted bribes to withdraw the FIRs against a lot of people.” It adds that “the police would coerce the victims of violence, and the mass acquittal of those involved in the riots is a telling testimony to this entire process.” The report notes at least two clear instances of police officers killing Muslims. The Muzaffarnagar police did not respond to a detailed questionnaire.

Sexual violence was also routine. In Lisarh alone, more than two dozen rape victims spoke to fact-finding teams, but only six cases were reported to the police. While, in Muzaffarnagar town, curfews were dropped after the first week days of violence, sporadic attacks were reported in the villages around for weeks after. The targeted burning of Muslim homes and mosques was commonplace. In the following days, the fact-finding report states that nearly a hundred thousand Muslims were rendered homeless, though the government only acknowledged 50,955 refugees.


IN THE SECOND WEEK after the violence, first out of curiosity, and then out of concern, I decided to visit the refugee camps that were crowded around the town’s Muslim localities and a few regions where Muslim villages were clustered together. My friends from Vasundhara Residency objected to me visiting the camps. My mother had been opposed to anything that would lead me to lose my income, but what I saw at the camps were conditions so horrendous that doing nothing seemed impossible. With winter approaching, there was a lack of water, food, clothing and shelter. Local NGOs were largely absent. Civil society had been divided along communal lines.

Meanwhile, to ring in the new year, the state government was busy organising a gala event called the Saifai Mahotsav, at the ancestral village of the chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav. An estimated Rs 1 crore was spent on crackers alone, and several Bollywood stars and dancers were hired to perform. Less than a hundred kilometres away, more than nine thousand Muslim refugees struggled in 17 camps, in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, while the temperature was hovering between 0.3 and 2.2 degrees Celsius. When asked about the tone-deafness of the celebration, Akhilesh said that he was “proud of what the state government did for riot victims” and that “complete communal harmony prevails in Muzaffarnagar.” In an attempt to prove their point, the government had been urging refugees to return to their villages, where they did not feel safe anymore, by forcefully evicting over a thousand refugees from temporary camps that very week.

Despite the miserable conditions of the camps and even the hostile treatment that the victims faced, the predominant message Jat organisations and the BJP were selling was that the SP government had lavished care on the Muslims. It was an easy message to sell, since local journalists had turned deeply communal, and even reporting about camp conditions was seen as failing the Hindu religion. I made it a practice to guide the handful of journalists coming from Delhi to the rehabilitation camps. I began writing for the first time too, two short articles in Jansatta about camp conditions.

Ruksana, a native of Fugana village, sits near her tent which was razed by district authorities, at the relief camp in Muzaffarnagar’s Loi village, on 27 December 2013. Oinam Anand / Indian Express

Casualties were unimaginably large for the Muslims and, thus, a majority of the rehabilitation funding did go to them. This gave the Vishva Hindu Parishad and other local Hindu outfits an inroad into managing relief programmes for the handful of Dalit camps in Muzaffarnagar. The BJP leadership’s outreach was largely towards the Jat population. Rajnath Singh attempted to visit the affected villages soon after the violence died down, stating he was “only going to apply balm on the wounds and not to create further tension.” The SP government, however, denied him entry.

Following this, Rajnath instituted a committee to study the effect of the violence on people. It was to be led by Hukum Singh, a BJP leader himself accused of triggering the violence by giving inflammatory speeches at the 7 September mahapanchayat. Hukum, and the report he authored, were able to mobilise support around claims that Hindu Jat victims of the violence were not given justice and were being victimised by the government. When Rajnath finally got permission to visit the district, he went not to camps for internally displaced people but to the home of Sachin and Gaurav Malik.

During the reporting of this piece, we spoke to Akram Akhtar Choudhary, a lawyer and activist associated with the Afkar India Foundation, a Shamli-based nonprofit that works with rehabilitating internally displaced people. The foundation had set up several camps in November and December 2013, as many who had fled the violence had lost the little savings they had salvaged while fleeing, attempting to rent homes in Muzaffarnagar and other towns. Support for the refugees and Afkar had come from minority religious groups, though most Muslim organisations stayed away from directly engaging in relief work.

Following their stay in temporary camps, the victims had settled on the outskirts of small towns such as Kandhla, Kairana and Budhana. In these colonies, even basic facilities such as water and passable roads were absent. Electricity supply was inconsistent, as they had to depend on the poor power supply provided for agricultural work. They also faced hostility from residents of the towns.

Soon after many victims fled to Kairana, BJP leaders such as Hukum Singh began alleging that the growing Muslim population was leading to a “Hindu exodus” from the town. In 2016, with Modi safely in the prime minister’s office, the National Human Rights Commission even investigated the “Hindu exodus” and published a report that reiterated the same claims that had begun the Muzaffarnagar violence in the first place. The report said that “youths of the specific majority community (Muslims in this case) in Kairana town pass lewd/taunting remarks against the females of the specific minority community in town. Due to this, females of the specific minority community (Hindus) in Kairana town avoid going outside frequently.”

The long-term impact of displacement on Muslims had been incalculable, an essential erasure of their legal existence. “Most riot victims have been unable to register their families or personal identification through Aadhaar cards,” Choudhary told us. “For proof of residence, the government relies on old outdated surveys of villages.” Only a few have been able to procure ration cards. The construction of homes has been entirely backed by private funding, with most victims still living under corrugated sheet shacks. “This is primarily because government officials pass the baton of responsibility endlessly between the municipality and the panchayat,” he said. “In short, in the name of relief, what we get from the administration are excuses. The panchayat has deemed the lands where these colonies have settled as private land and gives no facilities, as they would to all settlements in the village. The municipality also refuses to recognise the new settlements.”

The government’s processes of compensation have been entirely deaf to the situation victims find themselves in, seemingly almost deliberately impractical. The state government has a graded system of payment, wherein each victim is given cash according to the value of land they have lost, but under the condition that they cannot claim panchayat land. The process began with an official affidavit that had to be filled out by each person seeking compensation. The affidavit did not recognise the divided households of Muslim settlements while disbursing relief funds. Only after legal proceedings that took years to wind their way up to the Supreme Court did the government stop requiring the affidavits. Police procedures were equally daunting, because an FIR was required for each individual complainant to claim relief. Most FIRs with the police were filed collectively, without a single complainant, as the police were themselves hesitant to take action during and after the riots. This meant that a vast majority of survivors were never able to furnish FIRs and access compensation.

Hindu villagers rest under a tree near an abandoned Muslim home in Kutba village, which they have claimed, following the anti-Muslim violence that killed eight people in the village, on 1 September 2014. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In contrast, many Hindu Jats were able to furnish FIRs and proof of residence and thus get compensation for the theft or destruction of crops from their fields. In some reported cases, they even claimed compensation for the mismanagement of their fields during the violence. Most ground reporting from Muzaffarnagar shows that compensation was not distributed commensurate to the violence faced but rather through access networks maintained between village-level leaders and the administration. Finally, as the khaps determined the start of the violence, they also determined who would get compensated for it.

I once accompanied a team of Dalit activists and writers to the Dalit camps. Most affected by the riot were daily-wage labourers from the Valmiki and Chamar Dalit communities. A vast majority of the Muslim refugees were from among the same castes, Pasmanda Muslims who had been caught in a conflict that had been between Muslim and Hindu Jats. Unlike landholding communities who could push for compensatory land, these were labourers who had no lost property to bid against hopes of compensation. Their only route was to return to their old villages for agricultural work, without any assurance that their old neighbours would remain peaceful. Since attempts at rapprochement have remained for the most part unsuccessful, they remain rootless, floating between camps and urban ghettos, unable to return to the homes and neighbours they once spent time with. People of the same caste, the same families, the same traditions and culture, only of a different religion.


AN ANNUAL STREET FAIR called the Saavan Mela takes place in Ayodhya, usually gathering thousands of people. On 21 August 2013, it arrived with a deserted look. Fear was in the air. Ayodhya, where the VHP had, in 1992, demolished the Babri Masjid, had become the centre of Uttar Pradesh’s political arena again. Early in August, as the violence began in Muzaffarnagar, the VHP had announced that it would be holding a Chaurasi Kos Yatra—a 20-day march from Ayodhya to the town of Makhaura, in Basti district, in support of building a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid was demolished. It was due to start on 25 August, and the VHP was already in talks with the state government about letting the procession go ahead. However, after talks between Ashok Singhal, the head of the VHP, and Mulayam Singh Yadav failed, the government banned the yatra, citing a high likelihood of communal violence. The VHP attempted to defy the ban but, in its very first day, 2,096 VHP members, including some of its most senior leaders, were arrested. Orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure—which restricts public gatherings—were enforced and the yatra fizzled out. Mobilising around the Ram temple, which the BJP had successfully done in most national elections since the early 1990s, seemed to be an option no longer.

On 2 February 2014, a mere two months before the Lok Sabha elections, Modi held a massive rally in Meerut, neighbouring Muzaffarnagar and the centre of Sanjeev Balyan’s real-estate empire. Even before the rally was underway, a BJP spokesperson told the media the rally was intended for Jats and that “a large number of people from Muzaffarnagar were expected to attend.” Modi’s language on stage, which he shared with Balyan and other BJP leaders accused of orchestrating the Muzaffarnagar violence, such as Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, fit the occasion. “Are your daughters, sisters safe in Uttar Pradesh?” he asked the crowd. Speaking of the struggles of sugarcane farmers, much like Balyan had a year ago, he said, “The poor situation of farmers compels us to think of leaders like Chaudhary Charan Singh, Mahendra Tikait.” The platform of the BKU and the khaps behind the RLD had been, for all purposes, entirely appropriated by the BJP.

After the bloodletting, it was clear that Balyan was the perfect candidate for the Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha constituency. He won with spectacular numbers, a margin of four hundred thousand votes, nearly thrice the votes of the second-placed candidate. Seemingly as a reward for his performance, in his very first stint as an MP, he was made minister of state for agriculture and food-processing and, later, minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation. He reportedly lost the second portfolio, in 2017, because of his failure to make concrete progress on Modi’s pet Namami Gange project. But, in 2019, he was re-elected in Muzaffarnagar, defeating the RLD supremo, Ajit Singh, and campaigned heavily in Amethi, leading to the defeat of the Congress princeling Rahul Gandhi.

Muslim men offer Friday prayers in Muzaffarnagar town, amid tight security, on 13 September 2013. Sushil Kumar / Hindustan Times

Balyan has also ensured a deepening of the BJP within the rural structure of Muzaffarnagar. He has helmed crucial electoral victories in the district panchayat elections, which stand proof that the khaps had essentially run into the BJP’s pockets. During the farmers’ protests in 2021, Balyan attempted to meet khap leaders directly to prevent them from joining the protests. The BKU’s outreach had meant that tens of thousands of Jat farmers joined them at the barricades at Ghazipur border—including Gulam Mohammad Jaula, who had left the BKU in disgust on the day of the 7 September 2013 mahapanchayat. It is unclear how deeply the returning bhaichara sparked by the farmers’ protests will last in Muzaffarnagar. Communities are still deeply divided, with most Jat and Pasmanda Muslims unable to return to their natal villages.

Besides, everyday hatred is still omnipresent in Muzaffarnagar. On 24 August this year, Trapti Tyagi, a teacher at Neha Public School, in a part of town affected by the violence a decade ago, asked multiple Hindu students to slap a Muslim student. She was heard telling the man who shot a video of the incident, which soon went viral, “I have declared this, for every Mohammedan child.” The Muslim student, and the rest of his classmates, are seven years old, in the second standard. Balyan soon went to meet Tyagi and assure her of his support. The hate sparked by the 2013 violence has touched bone and is bleeding into the lives of those who were born after it.

Legal investigations into the Muzaffarnagar violence, including the Vishnu Sahai Commission of Inquiry, failed to indict the political leaders behind it or even reprimand the political motivations behind the violence. They simply pinned the blame on district officials. The multiple FIRs against Som, Balyan and other BJP leaders have not led to any arrests since 2017, when the BJP came to power in the state. The only exception is Vikram Singh Saini, the BJP MLA from Khatauli, who lost his seat after being convicted for his role in the violence. In the resultant by-election, in December 2022, his wife, Rajkumari Saini, standing on a BJP ticket, lost to the RLD. As for my Jat friends, they still work at Vasundhara Residency, partially owned by Balyan’s associates and now the richest real-estate agency in town.