“Bahut bura hua, a lot of wrongs were committed,” the auto driver told me as he drove me around Delhi.
He’d overheard my phone conversation with a friend on my impending visit to his home district in Muzaffarnagar. As soon as I hung up, he adjusted the rear-view mirror and changed his sitting position and started chatting with me. What he told me during that 45-minute ride set the tone for my Muzaffarnagar trip in early March this year.
“Bahut log mare, Madamji. Hindus aur Musalmaan dono. Musalmaan zyada. Us ek hafte mein log aise mare gaye, jaise mooli-gajar kate ho. Many people were killed, Madamji. Hindus and Muslims, both. More Muslims than Hindus. In that one week, people were killed like carrots and radishes are chopped.”
The auto driver, a Hindu Jat, said he had gone home on one of the days when the Jat-Muslim riots had peaked but had returned the next day, unable to bear the sight of his peaceful village in flames. “I could not take it. The way they were on a killing spree. That image of a girl crying out for her father, ‘Abbu, Abbu’, still haunts me. Bahut bura hua, Madamji.”
It is a sunny day in March, but some shawls and sweaters are still visible in the bustling town of Muzaffarnagar, known for its jaggery trade and illegal arms supply. Some distance away from the city limits, sugarcane crops stand ready to be harvested and loaded in trucks, trekkers or bullock-carts, all conspiring to slow down the road traffic. The general elections of India has just been announced, adding more urgency to the politically charged air, when a journalist friend of mine and I decide to tour the riot-ravaged district.
It was not strangers from a faraway land but neighbours from the same village who burnt down homes.
In September last year, riots between the Muslims and Hindu Jats left over 60 dead and 50,000 displaced (mostly Muslims) in the districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in western Uttar Pradesh.