Nearly Four Years On, Muslim Families Displaced In the Muzaffarnagar Riots Remain in Settlement Camps Without Basic Facilities

Close to four years since the riots, Muslim families that were forced to leave their homes reside in settlement camps, with little access to public services. Kedar Nagarajan
28 July, 2017

“The situation has been the same since we moved here—the water makes us fall sick, and women here have to use tiny tents in the open for all things one would do in a bathroom,” Firdoz Ali, a 40-year-old woman residing in Munawwar Hassan colony, a transit camp, told me. The camp is located on the outskirts of Kairana town in Shamli district. Firdoz, formerly a resident of Sherpur village in Muzaffarnagar district, left the village in 2013. “I am yet to receive a ration card and that is why I have to depend on others in the colony for grain to cook for my two children,” she added.

Firdoz is one of thousands of people who were displaced following the communal riots in western districts in Uttar Pradesh—namely Muzaffarnagar and Shamli—in mid 2013. Tens of thousands of people—largely Muslims—were displaced due to the riots, and forced to settle in relief or refugee colonies in the region. In a piece publishedin the Economic and Political Weekly in October 2016, the researchers Harsh Mander, AkramAkhtar Chaudhary, Zafar Eqbal and Rajanya Bose discussed the findings of an in-depth survey of the conditions in which riot survivors and displaced persons were living three years after the violence. The authors noted that close to 75,000 people were displaced due to the riots, but that three months after the violence, the Uttar Pradesh government announced the closure of all relief camps, although thousands were still displaced. The authors added that 50,000 people were permanently expelled from their villages, and 30,000 among them had settled in 65 refugee colonies. “In 41 of the 65 colonies across both districts, three years after the riots, households are still unable to build houses and instead live in makeshift houses with plastic roofs and temporary walls,” the researchers wrote. “In Muzaffarnagar, 83% colonies do not have clean drinking water ... not a single colony has a public toilet.”

Munawwar Hassan—named after the owner of the land on which it stands, the late Munawwar Hassan, who was a member of parliament from Muzaffarnagar—is one such colony. It is situated about five kilometres from Kairana town, and is home to nearly 250 residents. On the way from Kairana to the camp, stretches of empty farmland flank both sides of the road. The settlement appears as if out of nowhere—the only structure visible from the road is a mosque that is currently under construction, the façade of which obscures most of the houses. Behind the mosque, narrow lanes lead into the settlement.

On the day of my visit, most of these lanes were covered with stagnant pools of water—a result of the ongoing monsoon season. Just behind the mosque were a few small brick structures, which were the only permanent homes in the area. Vijay, a 26-year-old member of the Aftar India Foundation, who accompanied me to the colony, said that about 120 people reside in the permanent homes. The foundation is an independent organisation that works with the survivors of the riots and provides them legal assistance. Chaudhary, one of the authors of the EPW article, is a trustee of the foundation.

Beyond these structures was open farmland, dotted with jhuggis, or semi-permanent structures, with thatched roofs. Small tents stood in the area between the jhuggis—Firdoz would later tell me that these served as toilets for the residents of the colony. “Even the people that live in the finished homes use these because there is no proper drainage system in the houses,” Jaitoon Ali, a middle-aged woman who resides in the settlement, told me.“Look at this,” she continued, pointing at a tent. “Urine flows all the way from here till the hand-pump from where we draw our water.” Firdoz added that several children, including her own, had contracted dengue and chikungunya due to the stagnant water and the open toilets in the area.

Firdoz told me that she and her husband Mustakeem Ali have been residing in the colony since November 2013. The two of them had worked as daily-wage labourers earlier, and continued to do so after the riots. Due to their low wages, she said, they were unable to afford housing other than the jhuggis. “Those who moved here with more money are the ones who have roofs over their head,” she added.

Both Jaitoon and Firdoz told me that their villages never witnessed independent attacks, but the fear of attacks in the weeks after the riots led them to leave their homes. A 60-year-old woman, also named Jaitoon, who lives in the colony with her four sons and their families, said that she too left due to a fear of attacks.“Our village is a Jat dominated village,” she told me. “When we heard that people were being influenced to attack Muslim families, we too decided to leave.” “Some in our village fled to cities like Loni and Ghaziabad, but we did not want to go there because cities are places of great crime and violence,” she continued.

Formerly a tailor by profession, Jaitoon said that the displacement led her to become completely dependent on her sons for food and money. “Since coming here I have been unable to find work,” she said. “People looking for labour look mostly for younger men and women.” She added that even if she managed to acquire enough money for a sewing machine, she would not be able to do anything with it because her home has no electricity.

Several residents mentioned that they had no access to schools or education. Vijay told me that for a few months until March this year, the colony had a tent in which the children would gather to study. But soon the teachers stopped coming, and the tent was subsequently destroyed in the monsoon. “The situation here is terrible, but few of us took solace in the fact that there were two masters coming and teaching our children for eight months,” Aamna Ali, another resident of the colony, who formerly resided in Nayagaon village in Shamli district, said.

Aamna, her husband Nawab, and their two children have been living in the colony since 2013. Their family is one of the few to have a permanent structure as their home. Nawab, a 40-year-old who works at a brick kiln in Kairana, told me that the residents of the colony had approached the Basic Shiksha Adhikari—a government-appointed body that oversees primary education in a region—in Kairana city to ask why a permanent structure could not be constructed for a school. “They told us that they would begin construction only after the monsoon ended,” Nawab said. (Despite multiple attempts, I was unable to speak to anyone at the Basic Shiksha Adhikari’s Kairana office.)

A few homes away from Nawab’s was the residence of35-year-old Wasim Ahmed. Among the residents of Munawwar Hassan, Wasim and his family are considered financially prosperous—their one-room brick home is larger than most. As we sat inside, he asked his son to bring me a glass of water. The water had a metallic taste and an unpleasant odour. Noting the change in my expression as I took a sip, Ahmed said, “We have gotten used to it now.”

“I used to run a mobile repair shop with my brother in our village, Alipur,” Ahmed told me. He said that the shop, along with all its wares, was attacked and destroyed during the riots. According to him, this caused him a loss of Rs 1.5 lakh. “People who lost property and life were promised compensation between 3 and 5 lakhs depending on what we lost,” he said. “We have received only Rs 60,000 so far.”

Wasim’s wife Nisa told me that she often used the tents that functioned as toilets. “There is a small toilet behind our house, but all the waste water drains out and forms pools in front of our and other people’s houses when we use them,” she said. “It is not a good situation for the women here because men in the colony have the tendency to misbehave with us when we have to use the toilets that are out in the open.”

I visited a second camp, in Kandhla city, in Shamli, called Jannat. In this camp, conditions were only marginally better—most houses had roofs, but I could not spot any cables for electricity. There appeared to be fewer pools of stagnant water, and there were no tents. The issues faced by the residents, however, remained largely unchanged.

Boriya, a 40-year-old woman who resided in a permanent home in Jannat, said that she had left Kharar village in Muzaffarnagar, where she lived before the riots, in August 2013.“We left two days after our house was attacked and burnt down,” she said, adding that none of the family members had been home at the time. She said that in Kharar, she used to run a garment shop and that her husband sold dry fruits. “We were well off over there,” she said. “It is hard thing to explain to people that we used to have such enviable jobs and now we also collect daily wages.”

Here, too, many residents told me that they had received only a portion of the compensation they were promised—some said that they were never informed of how much they were due in the first place. Boriya told me that the government had promise her family Rs 3 lakh, but that she had received only Rs 50,000 so far. “This is the money that we used to build a decent home in this new colony,” she said, “It is important to have a roof over your head.”

Abdul Tayum, a 35 year-old man, left his village in September 2013, along with his wife and sons. He said that their property was destroyed in the violence, and that though he had received a portion of the compensation from the government, he was unsure of the total amount due to him. “There are groups that are filing petitions before the Supreme Court in our name, but some families have received compensation sooner because of loss of life and not just property,” he added.

For Tayum, the biggest issue was the infrequent access to healthcare. “I had broken my arm last year, but I did not have the money for proper treatment,” Tayum said.“It was put in a makeshift sling and I had enough money for basic medical facilities.” He added that his arm was yet to heal fully.

In both Munawwar Hassan and Jannat, residents told me that communal tension had had lasting impacts on their livelihood. Earlier, “many of us were able to get decent wages working on Jat-owned farms, that is no longer an option,” Nawab said. Tayum also said that after the violence, “it became harder to come by work.” “The Jat farmers stopped employing Muslim labourers,” he said, echoing Nawab.

Nawab added that after the riots, he became unsure of which political party to support, and did not cast a vote in the recent state elections. “We used to believe that the SP [the Samajwadi Party, which was ruling in the state in 2013] stood with us, but we lost faith and many of us here did not go out and vote,” he told me. But after the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, he said, he had come to regret his decision. “The colony is on land that belongs to a former MP, and now to his son, and that will not change,” he continued. “But what has changed is that now many of us are worried and confused about what jobs to seek because opportunities for us have reduced.”

In Kandhla, I also visited the small office of the Aftar India Foundation where I met Akram Akhtar Chaudhary. He told me that the organisation has been assisting survivors with filing cases to obtain compensation, as well as with applications for documents such as ration cards. “The situation is terrible in most camps,” he said. I asked him whether the recent change of government in the state had impacted the lives of the residents at the camps. “In terms of the day-to-day life they lead, there has been very little change,” he said.“But the authorities that we approach to help them have become less interested in providing them with help.”

I asked several residents in both Munawwar Hassan and Jannat whether they would return to their homes in a few months or years. Most of them refused.“There is nothing for us there anymore,” Boriya said. “No matter what compensation we receive, there is no compensation for fear.”