A Separation

How the violence of Muzaffarnagar riots tore a village apart

One of the houses burnt in Kakra on the night of 8 September. Anjali Mody
Elections 2024
01 March, 2014

WHEN THE HINDU JATS OF KAKRA describe their village to journalists, they most often use the adjective naram, or “soft,” to set it apart from the harshness of the surrounding region. The 1920 Muzaffarnagar Gazetteer described Kakra as an important village: “a flourishing place held by a large number of Jat proprietors, who are constantly quarrelling among themselves.”

Now a village of nearly 1,400 households 15 kilometres to the south-west of Muzaffarnagar town in western Uttar Pradesh, Kakra is still prosperous, but by their own telling, its Jats are no longer quarrelsome. They like to talk about their kabaddi stadium and their star kabaddi players, some of whom come from as far east as Chhattisgarh. They are proud that the village has almost a dozen schools, and of the fact that young men from the village are recruited to government service through the sports quota with fair regularity. These young men claim that they want nothing more than to join the police or the army. Criminals and strongmen have never disgraced Kakra’s name in the wider public record. No Vinod Bawla—the Muzaffarnagar criminal with a Rs 1 lakh bounty on his head who was arrested in Noida late last year—ever came from here.

Kakra’s people also talk, invariably, of the closeness of Jats and Muslims, their dependence on each other, and how they have always voted as one. Going by its own lore, Kakra’s existence began in the fourteenth century, as part of a Muslim fiefdom, and Muslims have always been a part of the village. Kakra’s Muslims say the village was a happy place, at least until their world was turned upside down in a day and night—24 hours which burned through Kakra in early September, as Hindu–Muslim riots engulfed Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, killing 62 people through the region, and displacing a staggering 40,000 from their homes in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and Baghpat.

Kakra was one of over 140 villages in Muzaffarnagar district from which people—an overwhelming majority of them Muslims—fled their homes for refugee camps set up in the vicinity. While it escaped the murderous brutality that some of its neighbouring villages experienced, it was not among the handful of places in Muzaffarnagar district where watchful villagers, Hindu and Muslim alike, banded together to keep the peace.

Half a year has now gone by. Some months ago, Kakra’s displaced Muslims were deemed eligible for resettlement payments from the Uttar Pradesh government, which compensated riot victims from nine of the worst affected villages, who could not reasonably be expected to go back to their former places of residence. Some of the nearly 300 Muslim families that left Kakra in fright have circled back, left again, and set up new lives elsewhere; most of them, however, never returned home. Kakra’s people, Muslims and Hindus both, wonder if they ever will.

ON A LATE OCTOBER AFTERNOON LAST YEAR, Miyajaan and Waheedan, husband and wife, reclined companionably on parallel charpais, drawing on individual hookahs, on the verandah of their home. They had left Kakra on 8 September, when the rest of the Sheikh mohalla had packed up in a panic, but had returned soon after. From their open front door they could see neighbours carrying away large bundles of kindling. It was foolish to take away everything, they remarked; you would have to bring it all back soon enough. “Village people can’t live anywhere else,” Miyajaan said. “They will all be back. We went away too when the mood was unsettled. We have children and grandchildren in town, but it is not the same as being here, so we came back.”

But being back here, he also admitted, was no longer the same. The mohalla, of some three dozen close-packed red-brick houses, was empty. But for Basheeran across the narrow alley and Momeen two doors away, there wasn’t a soul. Sonu, who drove a small carrier being loaded with the kindling and household goods, shook his head. All week he had been ferrying people and their belongings from Kakra to Shahpur town, three kilometres away, where the villagers had rented homes or found space in camps in the Muslim-majority quarter that were managed by Muslim charities. He didn’t think they were coming back.

By the time the Muslims left Kakra, the district had been on the boil for some days. On 27 August, in nearby Kawal village, two young Jat men, Sachin and Gaurav, had allegedly been murdered in retaliation for killing a Muslim youth, Shahnawaz. The trouble escalated quickly, exacerbated by administrative failures both real and perceived. On 28 August, both the district magistrate and senior superintendent of police, who had, over the previous months, maintained a difficult peace in Muzaffarnagar, were transferred out; following this, according to uncontested media reports, five of the six men arrested for the murders of Sachin and Gaurav were released without charge.

Muzaffarnagar district, famous for the world’s largest jaggery market and for its illegal gun manufacture, is a place accustomed to casual violence. Here, honour is a fragile thing and dishonour is often avenged by death. Parents sometimes kill their children if they violate the caste and social norms governing marriage. A neighbourhood squabble can be the cause of violent inter-generational score settling. Property disputes are often resolved through murder. The sugarcane harvest is almost always accompanied by a rise in unnatural deaths, the tall standing cane acting as cover against witnesses.

Miyajaan and Waheedan of Kakra’s Sheikh mohalla fled the village during the riots, then returned for a time, before leaving again. anjali mody

But the Kawal murders had ballooned into a violent stand-off between Muslims and mostly Jat Hindus, fuelled in no small measure by extraordinary meetings controlled by political leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party. In response to the destructive momentum of public outrage over the murders and the official transfers, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), a powerful, if officially apolitical farmers’ organisation that represents Jat interests, called a mahapanchayat—a large meeting—at the Inter College in Nagla Mandaur village, some 10 kilometres south-east of Muzaffarnagar, on 7 September. The reasons for Sachin and Gaurav’s deaths are contested, but the name bandied about for the Nagla Mandaur meeting—the “Bahu Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat,” or a mahapanchayat to “save daughters and daughters-in-law”—was grim confirmation that a certain version of events had been widely accepted by the region’s Hindus; according to this story, the quarrel had begun because Sachin and Gaurav had confronted Shahnawaz over his harassment of Sachin’s sister.

According to Manoj Jha, the assistant superintendent of police in charge of the Special Investigation Cell (SIC) set up in the aftermath of the violence, Jats going to the mahapanchayat traded insults with Muslims in various parts of the district. A Muslim woman was stabbed to death in a melee near Shahpur—so was a Muslim man near Nagla Mandaur—as the bloodied panchayat-goers headed towards the meeting. Once it was over, and as they made their way back, there were larger skirmishes to the west, near a village called Purbaliyan, and the east, near Jauli, alongside the Ganga irrigation canal. Thirteen Hindu men died; three were Jats from Kakra.

Something had begun to churn in Kakra when the news of the Kawal murders reached the village. For generations, the communal violence that ate through the large cities and towns of north India had largely bypassed the village. Kakra society was no exception to the hierarchies and distinctions that governed everyday rural life in western Uttar Pradesh, and this included the largely easy relationships Hindus and Muslims had with each other. Both Muslims and Hindus told me that the village was left untouched by Partition in 1947, and by the mobilisation around the Babri Masjid controversy in 1992. Few, if any of the villagers, could have remembered the last time the communities had clashed violently.

But by noon on 7 September, as the Jat mahapanchayat at Nagla Mandaur was beginning to crescendo, anxious parents in Kakra, hearing of the dead Kakra Jats, fetched their children out of school, and families huddled in their doorways. Kakra men who attended the meeting returned after dark. Sachin Agarwal, the chief of the Kakra branch of the BJP and a member of the block development committee, said that men from Lank village, 30 kilometres to the west, who were also returning from the mahapanchayat, stayed in Kakra that night. “The BJP workers helped them a lot,” Sachin Agarwal told me. “Arrangements for their stay, arrangements for their food were organised by our party people.”

On 8 September, a Sunday, news arrived of reprisal attacks on Muslims in other villages. Eight people had been killed in Qutba, a village close to Kakra. By noon, deaths in Lank, Phugana, Lisarh and Bahawari, all between 20 and 30 kilometres west, took the number of Muslim deaths to 49, according to the SIC. In Kakra’s largely Jat Pachalipatti quarter, preparations were underway for the funeral of one of the Hindu men who had died on 7 September. To Muslims, whose homes lay on the other side of the village, an indefinable sense that there was something wrong intensified until it could no longer be ignored. By late afternoon,  all but three Muslim families had left.

Mohammed Shaukat Ali, a former member of the Kakra panchayat, said that this occurred in a panic—every family left on its own, with no consultation between neighbours. They left in the expectation that they would be back once tempers had cooled. But the match had been set to the kindling. Deen Mohammed and Momeen, from two of the Muslim families that had stayed on in Sheikh mohalla, as well as the Saini Hindu families who lived around the Kakra mosque, all said that, on the night of 8 September, they heard gunshots and shouting from the surrounding sugarcane fields, and then “terrible noises” as the mosque and neighbouring Muslim houses burned. Rajkumar Gautam, a teacher in the primary school, whose home lies down an alley of Muslim houses, claimed that people in the village knew exactly what was done that night and by whom; but none could bear witness against a neighbour if they still wanted to live in the village.

The BJP MLA Sangeet Som (second from right),was arrested for his alleged role in inciting communal violence during the riots. Dheeraj Dhawan / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, Kakra had come to exemplify the effects of an old-fashioned political strategy—that of dividing communities to consolidate vote banks. The SIC maintained that the attacks on Muslims in the villages of Muzaffarnagar on 8 September were a spontaneous response to attacks on Jats returning from the mahapanchayat the previous night. When the chronology of events, starting in Kawal and concluding in Purbaliyan, is recounted in villages like Kakra—as it is over and over— this apparent logic of action and spontaneous reaction is reinforced.

However, in the days following the riots, both the Samajwadi Party that governs Uttar Pradesh, and its opponents, particularly the BJP, came under close scrutiny for their roles in the riots and their aftermath. Over months of conversations with the citizens of Kakra and Shahpur, it became clear to me that the repetition of the stories of violence did not afford those affected by the riots any easy answers. Some were privately convinced that political motives, rather than their neighbours’ personal animus, had driven the events of those days, but had to come to terms with the fact that their instinct to flee had, in effect, been the right one. Clearer still from their stories was the fact that when the state absents itself from situations of communal violence, or acts as a partisan, the ability of communities and individuals to withstand these political impulses is reduced to nothing.

After the 8 September attack on their homes, Kakra’s Muslims filed First Information Reports (FIRs) with the Shahpur police station, accusing their neighbours of arson, looting and vandalism. In some cases the perpetrators went unnamed in the FIRs. In the village, everyone I spoke to claimed that the FIRs named 150 people and listed 500 others anonymously—massively exaggerated figures. I was repeatedly told that this meant the police “can arrest anyone at any time”. It was one sign among many, according to Kakra’s Jats, that the government was partisan.

The unwavering theme of this story when told by Jats and other Hindus is the allegation of anti-Jat, anti-Hindu bias. The fact that the BJP leaders Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana were arrested for alleged provocative speech after the Nagla Mandaur mahapanchayat, while Muzaffarnagar’s member of parliament, the BSP’s Kadir Rana, avoided arrest despite his alleged use of hate speech at a so-called condolence meeting for Shahnawaz in Khalapar town on 30 August, was grist to the mill. That the alleged killers of Sachin and Gaurav had been released was additional proof, as was the transfer of their arresting officers, district magistrate Surendra Singh and SSP Manzil Saini. This confirmed Jats’ and Hindus’ worst expectations. The constant refrain I heard was that the much-missed Singh and Saini had been fair to the Jats—since Singh, after all, was a Jat, and Saini married to one.

In the days following the start of the violence, the Samajwadi Party government did little to defuse rumours of an administration blatantly biased in favour of Muslims. Video recordings of the hapless new district collector trying to shut down the 30 August meeting at Khalapar, and the fact that the administration had persuaded the BKU not to hold a condolence meeting of their own for Gaurav and Sachin on 31 August, were counted as further signs that this government worked against the Jats.

In the months following the riots, UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was criticised for his government’s ineffectual response. Nand Kumar / PTI

RAVINDER SINGH, the pradhan of Kakra, customarily meets people in the vast courtyard of his house. To one side stands a gleaming tractor; at the far end are pristine cattle-sheds, maintained by Bengali labourers. A constant stream of visitors drops by, usually on village business or to discuss the sugarcane harvest. One morning in October last year, a large group of men, both from the village and beyond it, sat down to speak with the pradhan. They had come to mourn his uncle, popularly called “Pehelwan”, who had been the proud patron of the village’s kabaddi stadium. The presence of a reporter in their midst, however, meant that the conversation never strayed far from the events of the previous month.

The filing of the FIRs against Kakra Jats had created a great deal of resentment in the village, Ravinder Singh told the group. The violence could be explained by the government’s partisan policies, he said, while the Muslims’ refusal to return could be ascribed to greed—the expectation of monetary compensation. “The reason Muslim families have not returned to our village is not fear,” the pradhan told his interlocutors, “but mistrust. They don’t trust us and we don’t trust them.”

Singh is one of the people who uses the word “soft” when describing Kakra. “The people in the village are soft people,” he said, employing the English word instead of the more usual “naram”. “There are no fundamentalists here.”

Some agreed with this assessment, especially with regard to Singh himself. Umesh Mallik, a self-described hard-line BJP activist from Muzaffarnagar town, was given to referring to Singh in tones bordering on contempt. Mallik was the BJP candidate in the last assembly election in Budhana constituency, in which Kakra falls, and maintains close links with the village-level RSS and BJP organisations in the area. He boasted to me about the Jat role in the violence, but pointed out that no Muslims were killed in Kakra, despite the death of three Kakra Jats at Purbaliyan. This was because of Ravinder Singh’s interference, he said: Singh “saved [the Muslims] and said that he would shoot anyone who touched them.”

In the village, Rajkumar Gautam, the primary school teacher, told me a different story. Had he wanted to, Gautam said, the pradhan could have ensured that Kakra’s Muslims did not leave, and that nothing untoward happened in the village. Gautam told me that the power to allow the Muslims to return also rested in the pradhan’s hands, but he had failed to create the consensus that could bring them back. In the camp at Shahpur where many of Kakra’s Muslims now live, several people echoed this view.

On 8 September, Singh reportedly told Intezar, a Kakra resident who ran a licensed pharmacy from the front room of his home a few doors down from the mosque, that it was best to leave. Intezar’s brother, employed by the Provincial Armed Constabulary, told him that with such a large police presence in the district after the Purbaliyan skirmish, nothing would happen. Intezar eventually took the pradhan’s advice and left for Shahpur, where he remains. He has nothing to come back to in Kakra: his house and pharmacy were burnt on the night of 8 September.

In good weather, Jat men gather around a hookah in front of their homes, and a family’s standing can be ascertained by the number of visitors who come to call. At one such meeting in Singh’s forecourt, I asked him why the village’s Muslim families had had to leave. He pleaded helplessness. What can one man do, he asked. He was standing not against an angry mob, but against the mood of the moment, an injured resentment among the Hindus. Jats had been killed; their leaders arrested; their community reduced to a minority in their own land by a government that had clearly signalled its concerns in representing Muslim interests, suddenly at odds with the Jats’ own. The Jats, this mood had made clear, had to act as one to reassert themselves. The time had come to band together, and back a leader who was strong and decisive and represented their interests.

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the Jat–Muslim relationship in western Uttar Pradesh ever since the former prime minister, Lok Dal leader Chaudhary Charan Singh, constructed an electoral compact between the region’s land-owning Jats and numerically superior Muslims in the 1960s. Crucial to that arrangement was the fact that western Uttar Pradesh was home to both Hindu and “Muley” (Muslim) Jats, with shared economic interests and social parity.

Refugees in Loi, one of several relief camps set up in the wake of the riots. About 40,000 people were displaced by the violence. Oinam Anand / Indian Express Archive

By 2013, though, that electoral compact had been under pressure for at least 20 years. The Rashtriya Lok Dal, the successor to the Lok Dal, led by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh, aligned itself with various parties, including the BJP. Jats in western Uttar Pradesh had first turned to the BJP in reaction to being excluded from the list of OBCs in the Mandal Commission’s report in 1980, and then again in the 1990s following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, when the BKU, officially non-partisan, effectively called on Jats to support the BJP electorally.

Still, in the rural parts of this region, the collapse of the old electoral arrangement did not strongly affect Jat–Muslim social relations. Non-Jat Muslims in Hindu-Jat dominated villages like Kakra owned no agricultural land; only a minority of them worked as seasonal labourers on the Jats’ fields. Until last year’s rupture, the nature of the relationships between Jat and Muslim families seemed to have endured from a time when more Muslims had worked for Jat farmers and the ties between families were essentially feudal. But with the riots, the region’s political players had prised apart the communities—first little by little, and then in one wide split.

In January this year, I met Umesh Mallik, the BJP activist who was so contemptuous of Ravinder Singh’s efforts to protect Kakra Muslims. We gathered at the home of Sanjay Agarwal, a district-level BJP leader, in the centre of Muzaffarnagar town. Mallik and Agarwal, both in their mid forties, described themselves as “swayamsevaks”. They had been with the RSS as young men, and continued to attend the daily shakhas. Agarwal had narrowly lost the election for the chairmanship of the Muzaffarnagar municipal council last year.

On 19 August, eight days before the Kawal murders, a small dispute in Sohram, a village close to Kakra, had spiralled into a violent clash between young Hindu and Muslim men. Muslim and Hindu Jats in Sohram were more or less evenly matched, holding the village pradhanship almost by turns. On 19 August, the police appear to have acted with speed to prevent matters from escalating, making arrests on both sides and initiating a community dialogue. But political interference had been difficult to prevent. Among the first groups on the spot was the BJP, with Mallik at the helm. When I spoke to the BJP’s young village committee chairman in Kakra, Sachin Agarwal, he told me that this was where the “danga”—the riot—had actually begun; the sub-inspector of Shahpur police station, Hindveer Singh also told me the police considered the Sohram incident to have started the communal trouble in their jurisdiction.

Mallik, tall and heavily built, somewhat rough in manner, is a self-described helper of Hindus; he told me that if he identified any Muslims at his meetings by their beards or skullcaps, he made an announcement asking them to leave. He recounted the Sohram incident as a way of demonstrating that the BJP had been at hand to “help resolve the dispute”. Following the escalation of violence in the village, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Interviews with political activists and observers in Muzaffarnagar and Kakra confirmed that, since at least the middle of 2013, the BJP’s district-level and local leaders had been busy cultivating a latent sense of grievance between Hindus—especially Hindu Jats—and Muslims. They had made a particular habit of intervening in both consensual relationships and cases of sexual violence that involved Hindus and Muslims. Some of this, on the face of it, was no more than the usual political grandstanding. One instance occurred in Shamli district in June after a young woman reported that she had been gang-raped while on her way from Haridwar to Jind, in Haryana. Some local newspaper reports identified her as Balmiki by caste, and her rapists as Muslims. The police made two arrests, but the BJP took things further, and organised a public protest while a curfew was in place, demanding the immediate arrest of several other accused individuals. Prohibitory orders were in force; the protest turned violent and several BJP leaders were arrested and charged.

Mallik and Agarwal were also active in a campaign against what they called “love jihad”. Similar campaigns had been carried out before in other parts of the country, notably in coastal Karnataka, by Sangh Parivar outfits like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Agarwal, the cooler, more detail-oriented of the two, explained to me that “love jihad” was a conspiracy hatched in Deoband to increase the Muslim population, while simultaneously lowering the Hindu population. This was achieved, he said, by having Muslim men marry Hindu women. Good-looking Muslim men were trained, Agarwal said, to ensnare Hindu women whom they met in public places or by cold-calling them on their mobile phones.

“We have saved at least a hundred girls from Muslims,” Mallik told me. “Ninety-three,” Agarwal corrected him quietly. “Well, about a hundred,” Mallik said.

It was just this sense of grievance which helped rapidly escalate the events in Kawal, thanks to rumours that Shahnawaz had been preying on Sachin’s sister. This is a region where women carry the burden of family and community honour. (In Kakra, a family with links to the RSS told me in casual conversation that in the last year news had filtered through the village of two young Jat women being killed because they were said to have brought dishonour upon their families.) In such a world, the idea that Jat women were victims of a Muslim conspiracy gave wings to the campaign against “love jihad”. Stories of well-dressed Muslim men on motorcycles seducing Jat girls were repeated regularly and with little variation.

The Sohram dispute, and its unsatisfying resolution, was an example of the local BJP’s skill at turning everyday incidents into bigger disputes. Instead of a community-based agreement of the kind that the district administration or a non-party organisation like the BKU might have negotiated, Sohram opted for an agreement that involved the BJP and the Samajwadi Party—political parties that spoke respectively for Hindus and Muslims in this case.

Part of the group that negotiated the settlement was Ashok Baliyan, a Muzaffarnagar-based lawyer who runs an NGO, the Peasant Welfare Association, and has links with both the BKU and the Congress. Baliyan unconsciously echoed the words of Umesh Mallik when he told me that the BJP had indeed been involved in this dispute and the resolution, “but only on the side of the Jats”.

The agreement, according to a report in the Dainik Jagran, was made on 22 August, and called for both sides to restore relations to how they were prior to the conflict—to attend each other’s weddings, share in each other’s joy and sorrow, consensually withdraw cases filed against each other and socially boycott those who sought to create disharmony. It was, however, not worth the paper it was written on. Hindu Jats rejected it outright, claiming that the neutrality of the agreement had been undermined because the orally negotiated settlement was committed to paper at the home of Budhana’s Muslim MLA, Nawazish Alam of the Samajwadi Party. Baliyan blamed himself for not having foreseen this possibility. Negotiating in good faith, he said, had been a mistake, because the others involved were groups that benefitted from divisions in society.

At every stage, the BKU, the most conciliatory representative of western UP’s Jats, had been outmanoeuvered by the political parties. The BKU had been at the height of its powers in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was led by its founder Mahendra Tikait. It had then actively projected itself as a non-sectarian association, giving prominence to its Muslim membership; the academic Dipankar Gupta notes in his book on the BKU, Rivalry and Brotherhood, that its public meetings began with cries of “Har Har Mahadev” and “Allah ho Akbar”.

But all that appeared to have changed. Less than a week after the Sohram failure, the BKU willy-nilly handed its platform to the BJP by agreeing, at the behest of the district administration, to cancel a public meeting slated for 31 August to call for legal action in the murder of Gaurav and Sachin. As a result of this, the battle-ready local BJP grabbed the initiative from the hesitant BKU, and forced it to follow where the BJP led. After the Kawal murders, while the BKU focused on the administrative failures that had compounded the conflict, the BJP focused on the Jat sense of grievance. “Since the August disturbance and … the tandav (dance) that followed, we went from village to village, motivated people and became their support,” Mallik said. “So the message went out that if there is ever a Hindu–Muslim issue, then the BJP people will be the only ones standing by us.”

In the build-up to the mahapanchayat on 7 September, the party called a bandh and circulated a CD with a video—which its MLA, Sangeet Som, also posted on his Facebook page—that supposedly showed the brutal killing of Sachin and Gaurav. In reality, the video was two years old and had been recorded in Sialkot, Pakistan. On 31 August, a week before the mahapanchayat, the BJP also took charge of another public meeting at Nagla Mandaur, which it disguised as a shok sabha—a condolence meeting—for Gaurav and Sachin. The BKU had announced this meeting, then called it off, only to have the BJP march in and take it over. Sanjay Agarwal, who, along with Umesh Mallik and several other BJP activists, was arrested in the wake of the meeting, told me that the gathering “did not have our banner, but it was our meeting.”

Jat community organisations and political leaders of all stripes, even as they appeared to follow the BKU’s lead, continued to demand that the government take action in the murder of Gaurav and Sachin, or face mass protests. The Gathwala Khap, which includes 64 villages in the area, followed by the Baliyan Khap, which controls 84 villages including Kakra, stared down the government over 72 hours. As a result, the Bahu Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat went ahead. The banners raised were all the BKU’s, but it was the BJP leaders from Muzaffarnagar and Shamli who monopolised the stage and the microphone. Six months after the riots, Sanjay Agarwal was able to reckon that if the BJP had the support of 40 percent of the Jats before 7 September, afterwards it had support among nearly all of them.

In the courtyard of the Kakra pradhan Ravinder Singh’s house, Kakra’s Jats dropped in every day to discuss village business. udit kulshrestha for the caravan

Uttar Pradesh is key to electoral fortunes at the centre, and the BJP has never enjoyed sustained success here. In the 2009 general election, it won a mere ten of the state’s 80 seats. The party stepped up its activity in the state mid last year, when Amit Shah, a former Gujarat state minister and the right-hand man of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, took charge of election preparations. The BJP attempted to put the Ram temple, its 1990s trump card, back on the agenda in Uttar Pradesh with an “84-kosi yatra”, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, in mid August, forcing the Samajwadi Party government to put the state on lockdown to avoid clashes.

Prior to the violence, Kakra’s village-level BJP committee, which usually meets in the homes of party members, had been working to find new recruits. They claimed to have signed up 30 Muslims in the village, and even put one of them, Salim, in charge of Kakra's BJP minorities cell. However, Muslims are not a major consideration in the BJP’s strategy, which is now focused on consolidating support among groups that do not traditionally vote for it—the Jats, and the Scheduled Castes who have, for the last decade, voted consistently for the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party. Most observers now believe that Hindu Jats may tip the balance in a region that elects eight of the 80 MPs Uttar Pradesh sends to parliament—and shore up the sympathies of like-minded voters throughout the state.

Weeks away from a potentially transformative general election, Muzaffarnagar’s Jats were calling it for Narendra Modi, according to the Kakra pradhan, Ravinder Singh. Singh is considered no friend by Kakra’s BJP men; “Woh hamaare anti rehte hain” (He is “anti” us), Sachin Agarwal told me. Yet Singh seemed to share at least some of the hardliners’ views on what he called “the problem with Muslims”. Chief among these was the belief that the Muslim population was rapidly rising. The first time we met, without provocation or questions on the subject, Singh had been belligerently clear about this. “They [Muslims] are called a minority, but you can’t really call them a minority, can you?” he asked. I said that Muslims constituted 22 percent of the state’s population. “But they are 38 per cent in all of western Uttar Pradesh and 49 per cent in Rampur,” he argued. “How can you call them a minority?”

The BJP’s work, it appeared, had not been that hard. It had tapped a seam of prejudice that was embedded in the relationship between Jats and Muslims, which in good times was overlaid with easy-going and mutually beneficial ties between individual families. Even as Singh spoke of his sincere belief that Kakra’s Muslims would eventually return to the village, he complained that the Muslim population was growing while the Jat population shrank, and that the former received excessive benefits from the government as a consequence.

Speaking to me in January this year, during yet another meeting in his courtyard, Singh pointed out to me that the Nagla Mandaur mahapanchayat had been a panchayat merely in name; its purpose and form contradicted that of a panchayat. Instead of a space for calm deliberation and the setting out of demands, it had become a site of battle.

He described the riots and their aftermath as “a partition right here, inside our country.” Muslims were now living in Muslim-majority areas and Hindus in Hindu-majority areas. It did not bode well for the future.

I asked him if he thought the BJP had played a direct role in the riots. “The BJP finds Muslims an irritant,” he replied. “It does incite. To create Hindu–Muslim [conflict], it does incite people.” Where earlier his village was soft, and had no kattarpanthis, or fanatics, now it was different, he said. It was not so easy to see reason anymore.

BY LATE OCTOBER, most of Kakra’s Muslims were firmly ensconced in Shahpur, three-and-a-half kilometres down a straight road from their village. Mohammed Shaukat Ali, a former panchayat member who described himself as a “jummewar”—a responsible person—from his community of Sheikh Muslims, put it succinctly: “We have no value [returning] in small numbers. Most of us work in other places. Our women live alone in the village. They are afraid.” Shaukat Ali said they would only return if enough of them went back together, and only if someone with clout in the village assured them of their safety. “If someone takes responsibility,” he said. “[If he] says, ‘They are returning on my say-so.’”

Over the months, Ravinder Singh had made it clear that he could not be that person. In October, he told me that the Muslims were “in no state for an agreement”. In January, he repeated that the situation was just as it had been in October, although he had met the inspector general of police and the district magistrate and asked them to intercede with Kakra’s Muslims, to see if they were ready to discuss a settlement—one that included the withdrawal of the FIRs hanging over the heads of many of Kakra’s Hindus.

What Singh had called “mistrust”, Kakra’s Muslims characterised as fear. Fear had forced them to trade the comfort of their brick-and-mortar homes and airy courtyards for the squalor of a semi-urban ghetto. Most of those who rented accommodation had, at best, a couple of ill-ventilated rooms that opened onto narrow streets. Others shared rooms in the madrassa, or tents that barely fit a couple of charpais. The tents were pitched in small clusters in the open spaces between buildings, grouped by family. Some had set up wood-burning chulhas and cooked their own meals. Others subsisted on food supplied by charities.

The Islamabad neighbourhood of Shahpur housed families fleeing from across the district, including the villages of Qutba and Lank, which had seen bloody murders. The stories of the families’ narrow escapes and the brutality they witnessed were repeated over and over in Islamabad, until they became everyone’s story. Kakra’s Muslims always stressed to me that they had not faced similar violence; but they did not believe they were safe from future attacks.

Weeks after they had left their homes, the sense of siege was hard to dispel, particularly among the younger people. Gulmohammed, a 32-year-old mason whose father had suffered a stroke soon after the riot, despaired: “At this time of year”—before Diwali, when work abounds in repairs and refinements to houses where the festival is celebrated—“we used to have no leisure, no time to sit … Here we are just lying around, as if someone has beaten us badly and forced us to sit still.” Javed, another man in his thirties whom I had first met back in Kakra, took in the scene before us with a wave of his hand. “More people have died here of the fever [dengue] than in the riots. And yet we are still lying around here, why?”

Others, like Shaukat Ali’s son Mohammed Mustafa, sat around despondently in small groups, with nothing to do. One or two Shahpur residents would typically be in attendance whenever the Kakra folk spoke to journalists or visitors. Whenever they hesitated over questions about the possibilities of return, a Shahpur resident would usually answer with great force; as I sat talking to Mohammed Mustafa one afternoon in October, an older man sitting nearby emphatically told me, “How can they go back? They will be killed. They are better off here.”

IF THE BJP’S INFLUENCE shadowed the events leading up to the violence of August and September 2013, the riots themselves had a midwife in the Samajwadi Party government. In keeping with the anatomy of communal violence in India, it is possible to see the Samajwadi Party’s actions during the riots as fitting a pattern in which non-majoritarian parties project themselves as protectors of an insecure, threatened minority. It is routine in Uttar Pradesh to transfer senior district officials after a communal riot, even though this leaves an administrative vacuum that gives those intent on trouble time to regroup. This is an unsound practice, but hardly particular to Muzaffarnagar. It was the conduct of the administration following these transfers that raised serious questions of intent.

Although a curfew order handed down after the Kawal murders prohibited public gatherings, Muslim leaders from several parties held what they called a public condolence meeting for the murdered Kawal man, Shahnawaz, after Friday prayers on 30 August in Khalapar, a neighbourhood of Muzaffarnagar town especially prone to communal incitement. From a makeshift stage, the BSP MP Kadir Rana, led calls for revenge. The others on the stage with him, waiting their turn, were the BSP MLA for Charthawal, Noor Salim Rana; Kadir’s nephew, the former Congress MP Saiyadduzama; and the SP’s Rashid Siddiqui.

This meeting became a justification for the escalation of conflict, because the police seemed unwilling or unable to stop it. In fact, although there were uniformed witnesses to Kadir Rana’s hate-filled tirade, which was also recorded on camera, the government did not act against the Muslim leaders until weeks after it had arrested BJP members such as Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana. Kadir Rana himself evaded arrest for months before finally giving himself up in December.

A party that had the support of the majority of western Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims—anywhere between 33 and 49 percent of the vote there—stood a good chance of winning the region. For a time, particularly in the years around the BJP’s Ram Janmabhoomi campaign in the early 1990s, a large Muslim block was guaranteed to vote against the BJP. There have, however, been some shifts in polling patterns, according to the political scientist AK Varma of the Delhi-based Lokniti research programme, which conducts regular surveys of voting behaviour in Uttar Pradesh. Varma told me that certain shifts had made the contest for Muslim votes sharper in recent years. Muslims who had seen their incomes rise in the last decade and benefited from social development programmes had begun to vote on considerations other than just keeping the BJP out.

The riots resulted in an emphatic return to the status quo. Rumour and suspicion began to rule Muzaffarnagar district in the months following the violence. Conversations with people in the Shahpur camps and in Kakra alike made it clear that every crime, in a region with a higher crime rate than most, was viewed through the lens of communal score-settling; this apparent tit-for-tat was even given a name—“silent war”—that was used ubiquitously by people and the local press.

In this atmosphere, the people from Kakra mulled over their own situation. They said they did not want to return (“We are afraid for our safety”), and they said they did want to return (“Anyone who has lived in a village can’t live anywhere else”). They wanted work, but they weren’t looking for work (“We worked for the Jats—where do we go now?”). They spoke sometimes in anger, sometimes in frustration, often with an uncomprehending helplessness.

In the months before winter, many Kakra Muslims ventured back to the village during the day, to check on their homes, collect belongings, talk to those they had once trusted, and to test the mood for their return. Several, like Miyajaan and Waheedan, and their neighbour Basheeran, returned to live in the village, in the same alley as Momeen, who had never left. Illyas, whose brother Abid had once been pradhan of Kakra, returned at the start of the sugarcane harvest in October to start up his jaggery kolhu (cane crusher) just as he had done every year. He zipped through the village at high speed on his bicycle, back and forth between the kolhu and his dusky, pink house. Yaseen, known as “thekedar” because he farmed land leased from a Jat farmer, was back with his oldest son, Matloob, working the fields by day and eating meals and sleeping in the Jat farmer Sohnbir’s house at night. Mohammad, who traded in cattle, had also returned because, as he told me, “I was born here and I will die here.”

But Shahpur was also abuzz with conversations about what the government would do for the people who had fled. The consensus seemed to be that they would be resettled right there in town. In Kakra, Matloob told me that back in Shahpur, “the mood is to get plots.” More than one Shahpur resident had pointed to open lots of land between the houses and the madrassa and said, “the government will give them plots here.”

Trucks with relief material had been arriving almost daily in Shahpur, some from as far away as Maharashtra, many bearing the flags and banners of Muslim charities and community organisations such as the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind. The Shivpal Yadav Committee, set up by the Uttar Pradesh government in the aftermath of the violence to restore communal harmony, had recommended that relief be dispensed through religious and community organisations rather than by the civil administration. As a result, these outfits had taken over relief distribution entirely. In consequence, madrassa committees, community organisations and local politicians who ran the official camps exerted considerable influence over camp residents. Rumours repeated endlessly, and the absence of real communication between Muslims and Hindus in Kakra reinforced the atmosphere of fear and suspicion. It seemed that there was some pressure on Kakra Muslims to remain in Shahpur. All my questions to Kakra men about the possibility of return were answered with an emphatic “no” in the presence of Shahpur residents. The same people answered rather differently when I met them alone outside the narrow alleys of Islamabad or in Kakra. Then, they said they wanted to return, but they didn’t know how.

Then, on 25 October, the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government announced a compensation package for displaced families from nine villages, including Kakra, which faced extreme violence. Since the outbreak of the riots, the government, including the chief minister himself, had repeatedly stressed that it would take full responsibility for rebuilding lives, paying for the repair of homes, and providing jobs for those who had lost family members.

Implicit in these promises was the expectation that people from other villages, who did not qualify for the resettlement payments, would return home. The administration made efforts to ensure they did, as was evident in the last week of October when officials from Baghpat district arrived in Muzaffarnagar, saying they had come to organise the return of their own Muslim residents who had been living in camps in Muzaffarnagar.

With uncharacteristic efficiency, starting in late October, the district administration conducted surveys to establish which families qualified for compensation. Some 900 such families were found eligible in Muzaffarnagar district, 265 of them from Kakra. The administration helped them open bank accounts, and had them sign affidavits stating they had left their villages in distress and could not return to them. It then transferred Rs 5 lakh to each family, and published lists of the beneficiaries on its website. Within six weeks, compensation had been paid out to most of the eligible families.

Over October and November, in several riot-affected villages such as Kharad and Khera Mastan, community meetings promoting peace and coexistence were held, and Muslim families from the camps had gone back to these villages. But these were villages where there had been no violence on 8 September following the mahapanchayat, or in the days after. Before the compensation was announced, expectations of such a discussion flickered in and out of existence in Kakra. In October, a senior district official, Indramani Tripathi, told me that a meeting was indeed planned; Ravinder Singh confirmed this. But in the Shahpur camp, Kakra’s men had heard of no such thing. They speculated that the meeting would be held with Arif Siddique, the Samajwadi Party chairman of the Shahpur nagar palika (municipality). He was not from Kakra, but given the fact that Kakra’s Muslim families were now in camps and rented accommodation in his town, he was treated by the civil administration as their de facto community leader.

It emerged over time that negotiating a settlement for Kakra was not a priority for the district administration. Its concerns were more immediate. Plans had been made in early October for a women’s panchayat in Kakra, to protest the inclusion of what were believed to be names of Jat Hindus falsely accused in the FIRs that Kakra Muslims had lodged after 8 September. Similar panchayats had been held in other villages, to prevent the arrest of Jat and other Hindu men. The protests had received a great deal of attention from the local media, which reinforced the narrative that the authorities were anti-Jat and anti-Hindu. Preventing another mark against the administration was a priority. A conciliatory meeting was held in mid October in Kakra to prevent the women’s panchayat being held; Tripathi made it a point to attend that particular meeting.

In late October, in the weeks prior to Diwali, the administration also had other preoccupations. Two Jat villages in Jansath tehsil, where Kawal is located, had planned a first-of-its-kind public “Govardhan Puja”. The Govardhan Puja is one of the rituals that make up the Diwali calendar. The administration clearly felt that a public puja would aggravate communal tensions, and stopping it consumed its energies. The main puja organiser was Virendra Singh, whom most people identified as a former pradhan, but Sanjay Agarwal, the Muzaffarnagar BJP leader, said he was a relatively new entrant to the BJP, with electoral ambitions.

Sandeep Mallik, a teacher at the Kakra government primary school, said that he and his colleagues had been seconded to update Shahpur’s electoral roll in October. He claimed that he had been told that anyone who wanted to be registered in Shahpur was allowed to do so, even if they did not yet have addresses in the town. The BJP had objected to the revision of this electoral roll, Umesh Mallik told me; a change like this might lead to people being listed in two places at once. This gave credence to the suggestion that where Kakra’s Muslims voted would make a difference to the outcome of future elections. Shahpur is a municipality where the Hindu and Muslim population is evenly balanced. With Kakra’s Muslims in Shahpur, the number of Muslim voters could now increase by over a thousand. As Kakra’s Muslims dithered about their future, the question of whether Shahpur politics was playing a part in stalling their return hung in the air.

THE VIOLENCE IN MUZAFFARNAGAR was only the most serious in a series of communal riots—at least 100, according to some press reports —which have taken place across the state since Akhilesh Yadav became chief minister. By the end of 2013, a consensus emerged, both in media reports and on the ground in places such as Kakra and Shahpur, that the SP’s mishandling of the conflagration in Muzaffarnagar was a calculated strategy to facilitate communal polarisation, and to consolidate the Samajwadi Party’s Muslim vote. The consensus was also qualified—among the SP’s political rivals, political commentators and pollsters—as a strategy that backfired, as Muslims saw through the party’s cynical manipulation of their fears. A survey conducted in January by Lokniti for the television channel CNN-IBN found that 45 percent of respondents in an all-Uttar Pradesh survey blamed the Samajwadi Party for the violence, and only 13 percent blamed the BJP. Among Muslims, 24 percent of poll respondents blamed the Samajwadi Party, and 34 percent the BJP.

The Samajwadi Party government’s mistakes continued to pile up. In December, it asserted that compensation had been paid to all those to whom it was due; this meant that those families whose cases warranted resettlement had been given the means to move, and that those who remained in the camps could return safely to their homes. Samajwadi Party leaders showed a marked impatience with the fact that the camps did not disappear. Mulayam Singh Yadav called the remaining camp residents “Congress and BSP political activists”; a few weeks later, Atiq Ahmed, the party’s candidate for the Sultanpur Lok Sabha seat, created an uproar by describing the refugees as “professional beggars”. To those already convinced that the Samajwadi Party government had been cynically negligent, these words were further proof of the government’s arrogance.

But by the new year, the rumblings of dissatisfaction with the SP appeared to have died down. The majority of Kakra’s Muslims were attempting to move on from the upheaval. Most of those from the 265 Kakra families eligible for compensation had received it. Many had used the money to buy land in Shahpur, or in other small towns in the tehsil, to build new homes. Many had returned to work. Several had new voter identity cards with Shahpur addresses.

A number of Kakra’s Muslim residents who had received compensation and other forms of financial support told me that the government had come through for them, the victims of violence. Apart from cash grants for marriages conducted in the camps and the Rs 5-lakh compensation for each household that had been displaced by extreme violence, there was additional compensation for the families of those who died in the violence, various grants for damaged property, and the possibility of further cash grants to start businesses. Their lives had been turned upside down, but they had the means to begin again.

Mohammed Mustafa, who, with his uncles, was back at work in mid February as an itinerant textile trader in Punjab, said categorically that Mulayam Singh Yadav had the support of families like his. “He has done so much for us,” Mustafa said. “He has resettled us … given us a chance to build our lives.”

THE QUESTION of whether Kakra’s Muslims will return is still being asked. By January, however, many had begun building new homes in in Shahpur or Kandhla, 35 kilometres away. Some said they had paid as much as half of the compensation they had received to buy plots of only a hundred square yards. Some of their former benefactors had helped them spend it: one of the main sellers of land in Shahpur was a land aggregator, Haji Balle, who had been on the relief camp committee and had housed a large number of Kakra families in a building he owned.

Even Miyajaan and Waheedan were dismantling what remained of their lives in Kakra and packing up to go to Kandhla. Kakra was now full of houses missing doors, windows, grilles and sections of brick wall. People had salvaged whatever they could, turning family homes into abandoned ruins.

I watched as the driver Sonu, together with a young relative, helped Miyajaan load wooden windows, doors, doorframes and bundles of kindling on to a small truck as a Provincial Armed Constabulary patrol, posted in the village, stood guard, acting as escort. Less than a hundred meters away, a group of Saini men were sunning themselves. Among them was Rajender Saini, a farmer and moneylender who had told me in October that he had many loans outstanding among the Muslims who had left. Looking towards a Muslim house near the mosque that was still intact, he said, mockingly, “I have been wondering if I will be able to occupy it … or who knows, the government may come up with another plan for them.”

By January, many refugees who fled to Shahpur’s Islamabad neighbourhood had acquired land there and started to build new lives. udit kulshrestha for the caravan

The Kakra mosque, repaired after the riots but still locked, bore an inscription which dated its contruction to 1931. The Jats said it had been built by a Jat pradhan. No one would say more, though, until I met Rajbiri, a spry old woman in Gopalpatti, Kakra’s central quarter, who told me the only story I heard in Kakra of Hindu–Muslim conflict before last year’s riots.

“There was this one time, just like now, when all the Muslims left the village,” Rajbiri said, with the air of one pulling up a long-buried memory. “The Muslims had decided to build a mosque, but people in the village were against this. They [the Muslims] built a rough structure. Someone pulled it down. Then all the Muslims left the village. But then there was an agreement, the mosque was built and they all came back.” She smiled toothlessly. “It would be very good if there is a settlement [now] and they all come back. But perhaps they have left it too late.”

On the other side of the village, Ravinder Singh’s father, Harbir Singh, was sitting in his courtyard with an elderly kinsman. They offered me the prevailing explanation for why their former neighbours were unlikely to return. “Muslims from our village got 13 crores in compensation,” Brijpal Singh, Harbir’s companion, informed me seriously. “Our [village’s] total crop output is only 6 crores.”

The most tangible link between the former neighbours remained the cases that were now with the Special Investigation Cell, based on FIRs that Kakra Muslims had filed after 8 September, on the basis of which 20 and 40 people were still under investigation. In the village, suspicion and uncertainty ruled; exaggerated figures for the number of people named in the FIRs were still doing the rounds.

Harbir Singh, who had described himself to me as a dyed-in-the-wool Lok Dal man, told me that everything that had happened since August was an effort to make Jats communal. He squarely blamed the Samajwadi Party government for this. Jats have never been communal, Brijpal Singh interjected. “We are a proud people, and we lived side by side [with Muslims] when the Mughals were in power, through British rule … until now.”

All over Muzaffarnagar, including the highway outside Kakra, billboards had sprung up, sponsored by aspiring Lok Sabha candidates. The BJP’s orange-and-green posters dominated. Many of these had pictures of Charan Singh alongside images of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Sachin Agarwal of the Kakra BJP claimed that two busloads of people from the village had attended a Modi rally in Meerut on 2 February, at which the prime ministerial candidate had asked the crowd, “Are your daughters, sisters safe in Uttar Pradesh?” The crowd had responded with a resounding “no”. “Farmers are saying, we wish Chaudhary Charan Singh and Mahendra Singh Tikait were alive today,” Modi thundered. “Those who believe in Ram Manohar Lohia are not bothered about the farmers of a state that gave us Chaudhary Charan Singh.”

Harbir Singh remarked, dryly, “Now it’s all har-har Modi, ghar-ghar Modi (all hail Modi, all homes for Modi).” This was the slogan on BJP posters across the district. The pradhan arrived just as he said this. “They are not with the BJP psychologically,” he said of the village Jats, “but with Modi for this election.”

In Kakra, politics and the forthcoming general election had been staples of conversation from the very beginning. By contrast, in Shahpur, for months after the violence, questions about the elections had elicited only angry answers about how pointless politics were to people whose lives had been destroyed. Still, by February, several Kakra folk, Shaukat Ali and Mohammed Mustafa among them, attended a Samajwadi Party rally in Saharanpur, where Mulayam Singh Yadav appeared on the dais with the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind president Maulana Syed Arshad Madania and the party’s national Jat leader, Yashpal Chaudhary, on either side of him.

For those who were not as easily satisfied as Shaukat and his son, the political alternatives were few. Intezar totted them up: “The RLD is a lost cause. Even the Jats are not voting for them. The Congress is not a player in western UP. The BJP is not an option.” What about the BSP? “Mayawati has been too slow to speak up for Muslims.”

There had been members of the local BSP among the relief camp organisers, and in her birthday address on 15 January Mayawati spoke emphatically of Dalit–Muslim brotherhood and the need to keep the BJP out. But Shahpur is a Samajwadi Party-controlled municipality, in an assembly constituency represented by a Samajwadi Party MLA. In settling here, Kakra’s Muslims had become residents of a Muslim-majority neighbourhood in a kasba town, and both their group loyalties and individual priorities were set to change. They would no longer be led by the Jats.

Yet, at the glimmer of a suggestion that they might be able to return, news spread among Kakra’s scattered Muslims in whispers. Since September, both in the village and in the camps, they had been considering possible dates of return—they would return after Eid, after Diwali, after Bhai-dooj, in the new year. By late February, the rumour in the camps was that they would be able to return after Holi. Mohammed Mustafa had heard that Ravinder Singh had attended a reconciliation meeting at the Shahpur thana.

I called Ravinder Singh to ask if such a meeting had taken place. He confirmed that it had occurred, and that the subject of the return of Kakra’s Muslims had been discussed. It was only a small beginning. The meeting had been hosted by sub-inspector Hindveer Singh at the Shahpur police station, and the Muslim pradhan of Sohram, Tanvir. The Shahpur nagar palika chairman, Arif Siddiqui, had turned up after all. Kakra’s Muslims, however, had not been present. Sub-inspector Singh said they had not been invited.

The pradhans had agreed to break bread together, and sponsor an intercommunity volleyball game to promote greater harmony between their communities. I asked Singh directly if the intended outcome of this diplomacy was a reconciliation with his former neighbours.

“We have a programme to eat together, to play a volleyball game,” Singh answered. “Before anyone can come back, there is the matter of a few small muqadmas”—the FIRs—“to be resolved. That takes time.”