Kandhla (Uttar Pradesh): “I never saw such communal tension in my life,” Abdul Waheed, 65, recalls as his smile gives way to disarrayed wrinkles on his countenance.
Only moments earlier, Waheed — formerly of Hasanpur village in Shamli district — came across as a contented, cheerful, elderly man, cracking jokes with fellow villagers gathered around him.
But a question about what happened on the night of September 8, 2013, in his village unsettled him.
“We were holed up in Sanjeev’s compound. A frenzied mob waited outside to butcher us. They could have stormed in had Sanjeev not been an influential person,” Waheed recalled, seated on a cot outside his new house in a rehabilitation colony some four kilometres from their original village.
The Sanjeev Waheed was referring to is Sanjeev Singh, a Jat landlord who is now head of the panchayat under which Hasanpur falls.
Waheed’s is one of the 100-odd families which escaped from their village during the Muzaffarnagar riots which claimed over 60 lives and left thousands homeless. Their escape was largely due to some of their Hindu neighbours who kept the mobs at bay.
In Lisadh village, barely a kilometre away from Hasanpur, several Muslims were killed that night.
The frightened Muslims fled to Jaula village and lived in a refugee camp for almost a year.
Waheed shudders as he speaks. A silence has descended on the small gathering that was minutes ago laughing and pulling each other’s legs. All of them stared at death only three years ago.
“A few in the village tried to foment trouble but some of the prominent villagers drove them away,” said Mehr Deen, a teacher, breaking the silence.
The affected families got Rs 5 lakh each as compensation from the Uttar Pradesh government which they used to buy plots on the outskirts of Kandhla and built houses with the help of NGOs. The area has come to be known as Nai Basti.
“After the riots, people from our village met us and asked us to return. But we refused,” Deen said.
The first person to make the appeal was Sanjeev Singh, now the village head of Hasanpur and Lisadh.
“A few of us have been asking them to return. We want them back in their homes,” Sanjeev Singh told IANS over telephone.
He recalled how he withstood pressure from his own community — he is a Jat — while protecting the Muslims.
“A few were baying for their blood but I put my foot down and told the rioters that they will have to kill me as well. Then a few others (Hindus) supported me,” Sanjeev said.
Chaudhary Narender Singh, an elderly Jat from Hasanpur, said he was happy for the Muslim families now that their lives are back on track. The Jats have even offered to repair the houses of the Muslims damaged during the riots. And a few Muslim families have returned.
Narender Singh had come to see Hanif Siddiqui and other villagers in their new settlement on his old Bajaj scooter.
“They have built pucca houses. I am happy for them though I would like them to return. But there is no point in asking them now,” Narender Singh said.
The new settlement is surrounded by Muslim-dominated villages. However, the affected Muslim families miss the traditional support system they once had in their original village.
There, the Muslims — petty traders or labourers — often borrowed money from well-off people on easy conditions. Now, the borrowing doesn’t come easy.
The local Muslims here usually keep a distance from the new settlers. “We don’t interact with the locals except for Zeeshan pradhan (headman),” said Shamshad, a labourer.
There is also an undercurrent of resentment over the Rs 5 lakh compensation the settlers got from the government. “They would have returned, like a few others, but the money spoilt their brains,” a Jat villager of Hasanpur who did not wish to be named told IANS.
Muslims who have lived here traditionally were also critical of the newly-arrived Muslims for not offering regular prayers at mosques.
Amidst all the societal pulls and pressures, the affected Muslims are trying to build their lives anew. They await electricity and a two-kilometre pucca road till Kandhla town.