LOI, India — Sabra Rashid fled her village three months ago, as Hindu mobs started attacking their Muslim neighbors. With nowhere to return after her home was looted and burned, she is living in a tent camp with thousands of other Muslims.
One night this month, the youngest of her four children, 9-month-old Sufian, who had been shivering in the cold, suddenly went still. He was dead.
“My heart cannot bear this anymore. It will explode,” said Rashid, 32, fighting back tears as she ran her fingers over the image of her son’s face on a cellphone — the only photograph of him her family still has. “As a mother, all I want is a safe home for my other children, to stay healthy, to stay alive. Is that too much to ask?”
Rashid was one of 50,000 people forced from their villages in and around the Muzaffarnagar district of northern Uttar Pradesh state during the September rioting. In its wake, there is new momentum to pass a long-
discussed bill aimed at curbing religious and ethnic violence.
Tensions between the majority Hindu population and the Muslim minority go back centuries. Half a million people died in rioting during the partition of India in 1947, when Pakistan was created as a Muslim homeland. Although religious violence has dropped dramatically since then, the number of incidents is ticking upward of late — from 668 last year to 725 in the first 10 months of this year, causing 143 deaths, official data show. And many Indians are concerned that divisions between religious groups could deepen with the national elections scheduled for next year, especially because the main opposition party is led by a controversial Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi.
“Each government has dealt with communal rioting in a completely arbitrary and prejudicial manner,” said Farah Naqvi, a member of the National Advisory Council, a government-appointed group of academics and activists, some of whom have worked on the bill. “Hundreds of thousands of people who have been permanently displaced by rioting are not even counted and recognized by the government. And those who incite riots from behind the scene are rarely brought to justice. It is unconscionable if the new, 21st-century India continues to look the other way.”
The bill, yet to be introduced, would put in place policies to prevent and limit communal and ethnic rioting. It would establish fines and jail sentences for public officials and police officers for failure to control violence. It would also guarantee speedy investigations and trials in special courts, and it would set guidelines for reparation for victims.
The legislation has been in the works since riots in Gujarat state in 2002 left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. The measure could finally pass in the coming year, because it is being supported by the Congress-party-led governing coalition.
The bill has been strongly criticized by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, which has called it a maneuver to garner the votes of religious minorities. In a recent letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Modi called the measure a “recipe for disaster,” saying it would lead to ordinary fights being labeled as communal violence.
Modi is accused by human rights groups of not doing enough to stem the 2002 riots in Gujarat, his home state.
The recent Hindu-Muslim rioting in Muzaffarnagar, the worst such violence in India in more than a decade, was sparked by an incident in which a Muslim youth was killed by two Hindus after he was alleged to have sexually harassed their female cousin. This set off a cycle of reprisal attacks across the district.
Sixty-five people were killed, more than two-thirds of them Muslim. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party were accused of trying to stoke passions during the riots by spreading fake photos and videos of killings via the popular chat application WhatsApp. But the Hindu nationalist party wasn’t the only one accused of fanning the flames: A Muslim leader from the Bahujan Samaj Party was alleged to have given inflammatory speeches during the melee.
More than 6,000 Muslims who fled the violence still languish in tent camps a few miles from the Hindu-majority villages.
In one camp in the village of Loi, large families huddle in informal tents made of old shawls, glittery veils and sheets stitched together. Barefoot children shiver in the cold and eat fly-infested food. There are not enough toilets. About 11 children have died in the camp because of unhygienic conditions and the cold, villagers say. Officials dispute the figure.
Shahnawaz Islam, a 35-year-old brick-kiln worker, recalled how his father’s bleeding body was dumped in the courtyard of his home by a Hindu mob during the riots. “How can we even think of returning to the village where our neighbors turned on us?” he said.
Although he has received financial compensation from the government for his father’s death, he said, he will not feel justice is done until the killers are detained.
In Islam’s village, Phugana, Hindu farmers said Muslims were free to return but added that the trust between the two communities was broken. Before the rioting, the two groups lived cheek-by-jowl in narrow lanes, and Muslims worked in sugar-cane farms and brick kilns owned by Hindus. Muslims owned businesses making jaggery, a sweetener made out of sugar cane.
Some Hindus said the Muslims had leveled false charges against them.
“We did not harm them. The Muslims want money from the government; that is why they burned their homes and mosques,” said Tham Singh, who is accused in 20 complaints to police — including about murder and rape — but has not been arrested.
After the riots, about 6,400 people were named in police complaints in connection with killings, rapes, looting, arson and inciting riots. But police have arrested only 200 people.
“We have gone out to arrest the men at least 10 times, but the women came out armed with axes and sickles and blocked our entry into the villages. They pile bricks and stones on the dirt paths to stop our vehicles. They surround the villages with tractors,” said Kaushal Raj Sharma, the district magistrate in Muzaffarnagar.
Activists say that after each riot in India, diverse neighborhoods have shrunk in population as residents have moved to areas where people of their own faith and ethnicity live.
“That produces its own kind of polarized politics, something a developing country cannot afford,” said Naqvi, of the National Advisory Council.
Although activists have high hopes for the proposed law, some Muslims said it may not change much on the ground.
“We have enough laws in this country; what we need is people who have the will and the heart to implement the laws,” said Abdul Jabbar, a real estate agent who runs the camp in Loi.