Cameraperson: Ribhu Chatterjee, Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
In 2016, three years after the brutal Muzaffarnagar riots, Saeed Hasan was called for a meeting with the then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav. He, along with ten others, were handed a cheque of Rs 15 lakh each — compensation meant for the families of those who lost their kin in the riots. While most other victims had received this soon after the 2013 riots, the compensation for these 11 families had been put on hold because the dead bodies of their kin were never recovered.
Despite this, they were evidently assumed to be dead by the government, for multiple reasons: there were murder FIRs in each of these cases registered on the days of the riots, there were eyewitness statements testifying to their murders, and the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up after the riots had treated the case of these 11 ‘missing’ as murder cases in its probe.
Most importantly, the Indian Evidence Act states categorically in section 108 that if a person has not been seen or heard of by those close to him/her, then he/she is presumed to be dead and that the “the burden of proving that he is alive is shifted to the person who affirms it.”
All these aspects combined with the fact that the CM gave these 11 families a compensation reserved for only those whose kin have been killed in the riots, was effectively seen as a nod that these individuals are being treated as dead. Despite this, ten years after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, these 11 families have still not been given the death certificates of their kin, and thus have failed to access the basic rights that come with it. The administration’s failure to issue these certificates isn’t a result of red tape delays or bureaucratic complications.
The Quint, in its investigation, found that there were a series of lapses in finding the bodies, a murky investigation into the deaths, and incidents of gross negligence that have eventually led to these 11 not being declared dead.
Why These Families Didn't Flee The Village
In the days ahead of the brutal 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, a grand panchayat was organised by local strongmen of the area, where Muslims were given an ultimatum to leave their homes and villages in a day’s time, or they will suffer gravely. This led to a massive exodus of many Muslim families who left their ancestral homes in search for safety.
Many Muslims, however, refused to give in to the threats, confident that they will be safe in their homes, where they have lived for decades. Hasan's parents and other elder relatives, who were residents of a village called Lisarh, were among such people.
“We got to know that mobs are being mobilised, and they are planning to create trouble and we were told that we should leave. But my parents and other relatives said that “We have been living with these villagers for so many decades, why will they fight with us? When we are not at fault then why will they fight with us?” So we didn’t leave,” Hasan recounts.
But on 8 September, the very first day of the riots, Hasan’s family paid the price of their blind trust.
A mob came running towards their home, armed with all sorts of weapons and yelling violent slogans. Hasan says the mob was comprised of villagers, whom he could recognise well.
“As the mob inched closer to us, some of us ran towards the fields. Five of my family members, including my parents, got up and tried to run but got attacked just at the gate of our house. The five of them died there and then. The rest of us, slightly younger and more agile, managed to run into the fields and escape,” Hasan says.
Besides those who stayed back because of their faith in villagers, it’s also the disabled and elderly who suffered, like in the case of Sabir Ansari’s parents.
“When the entire village turned into a mob trying to kill us, we tried to run away from the back gate. But my father, he was old, so he couldn’t walk too fast. And my mother, she had a fractured leg since three years before, so she was confined to the bed including for toilet, eating, everything. She was disabled...They hit her too,” Ansari says.
Ansari and his siblings managed to exit from the back gate of the house, but not without turning back and seeing their parents for the last time. “My mother was sitting right outside at the gate. They killed her immediately on reaching our house. When we turned back to look, she had been killed and they had held our father to kill him next,” he says.
In other cases, it was the love for animals that held people back. Like in the case of Deen Muhammad’s grandfather.
“My father and I hid in the house opposite to ours—it was owned by a Brahmin family and had been lying empty. So we thought we would be safe there. But my grandfather refused to leave our house. He said we have cattle in this house, how can we leave them alone? So he didn’t leave,” Muhammad, who was only 14 back then, recalls.
As he hid with his father and watched from the opposite house, the mob set their home on fire. “Flames of smoke started coming from our house. I was very terrified. I heard my grandfather scream, he had been killed,” Muhammad says.
Ten years since the Muzaffarnagar riots, a total of eleven individuals from the Lisarh village continue to be officially ‘missing’. These include the five members of Hasan's family, Ansari's elderly parents, Muhammad’s grandfather, and others. The next generations continue to fight for their death certificates.
Generations Later, The Struggle Continues
Muhammad, who is now 24, had to take over the reins of figuring out how to avail the death certificate of his grandfather, after his father passed away in 2019.
“My father was the one who had been handling all matters related to fighting for the death certificate of my grandfather. After his demise, it became very difficult for me to handle things. I had no understanding of these things back then, the riots happened ten years ago. I was a teenager back then,” Muhammad says.
Like Muhammad, Rizwan Saifi too was just a teenager when his grandfather was caught amid the riots.
“Everyone would want that when they die, they get two yards of funeral shroud, two yards of land, and their family gets to see them one last time. But my grandfather never got any of that. The government has done nothing about that. We are continuously running from pillar to post, filing applications, meeting officials,” says Saifi.
Saifi’s family, like all other eleven families, fled the village after the riots and had to start afresh in another town. But his father, just like Muhammad’s father, could not live to see justice.
“That age of comfort that everyone craves...everyone thinks I will work hard till 50-60 years of age, and then once the children are grown up, I will live an easy and comfortable life. But by the time my father reached that age of comfort, he was forced to start a new life, the same cycle of hard work again, toiling round-the-clock, night and day, ensuring the children are fed. The same struggle all over again. And while doing that struggle, and fighting for justice, he bid goodbye to this world,” says Saifi.
Authorities' Explanation For Not Declaring Them Dead
But why don’t the authorities declare these 11 people dead?
The kin of these eleven people approached the National Commission of Minorities (NCM) in August 2022, requesting that the body intervene in the matter and help them get the death certificates. The NCM then sent a letter to the District Magistrate of Shamli, which is the authority responsible for issuing these death certificates, seeking an explanation over the delay. The Shamli DM, in response to the NCM in January 2023, wrote that when the district officers went to Lisarh village to inquire about these eleven people, they spoke to the village head or Pradhan, who said that it is not known where these eleven ran away, nor is there any evidence of their death available. The statement has been accessed by The Quint.
"In the investigation conducted in the village, it was informed by the local people and the village head that in 2013 when the rumor about the riots spread in the village, these people had fled from the village, it is not known where they went after fleeing, nor was any evidence of their death available in the village...,” the DM wrote.
The statement of the village Pradhan, Ajit Singh, says that these people had fled the village during the riots.
"Due to the spread of rumors of riots in the village, people had fled from the village...It cannot be said whether these people are living or dead...,” the statement of the Pradhan read.
The Village Head Is An Accused In These Cases
But here’s the catch. Ajit Singh, the village Pradhan, is a murder accused in at least six of these 11 cases.
The Quint visited Lisarh village, to meet Ajit Singh, who continues to be the village Pradhan.
When we reached his residence, Ajit Singh could be seen sitting with a group of villagers, chatting over hookah.
“My family has been contesting elections for four decades. My father was the village Pradhan earlier. Then from 2005 onwards I have also been fighting elections, I have fought four so far. I was the village pradhan from 2010-2015 and the villagers gave me a chance again. I am currently also the Pradhan,” he tells The Quint, explaining his longstanding relationship with the villagers.
When asked about the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, where his village too saw violence, Singh blames “both sides.”
“Both sides made mistakes. That side (Muslims) levelled false accusations. One person commits the crime, but someone else suffers. People went to jail on false cases,” he says.
Singh acknowledges that he had several cases registered against him too. “There were 45-50 cases against me as well. But I was never arrested under any case. It’s just that some names...like the Malik khap head and village head had their names in all the FIRs,” Singh says.
But the families of the 11 don’t agree.
“Whatever happened could happen because of his mischief,” says Islaman, Saifi's mother.
Saifi agrees. “If the Pradhan had wanted, nothing would have happened. He has such a strong, well-known and respected family that he was equivalent to the entire village, he still is.”
On his part, Singh acknowledges that he has great influence in the village, and also says that the Pradhan plays an important role in “controlling” riot-like situations. “It is a lot of hard work from dusk to dawn (to be a Pradhan). Whatever flare ups happen, we have to help reach a compromise. We have been involved in this for 20-40 years. Everyone in the village knows me well.”
In fact, Saifi's mother says that the pradhan, who lived just metres away from their home in the village, would often come over for a meal. “He was that tight with us...with all the villagers.”
On being asked if he has any political affiliations, Singh says that he is “close to mantriji Virendra Singh”
Virendra Singh is a BJP leader, has been a 7-time MLA and a state minister, and is presently an MLC.
Singh says that the BJP government fares much better than the previous SP government.
“Earlier, anything could happen on the roads. Today, under this (BJP) government, things are much better. You can travel anywhere, there would be no issues. There is a lot of difference between the previous government (SP) and this government (BJP),” Singh says.
The families of the eleven say that it is a clear conflict of interest that Singh, who is an accused in six of these cases, is also cited as a witness to state that the eleven ran away.
“The people giving such statements are the ones who committed the atrocities. If they are the ones saying no one died, then how can the investigation be fair? Why will they say, “we killed them”?,” questions Hasan, pointing out this conflict of interest.
Lapses In Finding Bodies
Despite there being murder FIRs in each one of these cases, as well as eyewitness accounts, one reason furthered by the authorities for not issuing the death certificates is that the dead bodies of the eleven were never found.
“The dead body went missing; we went looking for it...We searched the canals, the dirty rivers, but the body could never be found,” says Saifi.
Originally, 13 people’s bodies were missing after the Muzaffarnagar riots. Two bodies were eventually found in a canal. But in its investigation, The Quint found that there were severe lapses by the police authorities that led to bodies going missing even after being found.
Three bodies were found in a jungle in Muzaffarnagar's adjoining district Shamli on the night of 8th September 2013—the very first night of the riots. As per an RTI response by the Shamli SP office, the Kandhla police station was informed about the dead bodies, of one woman and two men, but the police officers who reached the spot, made an excuse that it is dark now, and said they would return in the morning to collect the dead bodies. However, the bodies disappeared later that night itself. The officers showed “gross negligence, indifference and indolence in performing their duties”, says the RTI response.
"Neither was any investigation undertaken by them at that time nor were any police personnel and villagers stationed there for protection of bodies. By making an excuse of darkness, they were asked to come in the morning to take action, but these three dead bodies disappeared from there in the night itself,” the RTI response reads.
As result of this a disciplinary action was taken against at least four police officials who were penalised for it, as per police records.
Handling of The Recovered Bodies
Moreover, the two bodies (of the 13 that were initially missing) which were recovered, too weren’t “treated properly”, say the families of the deceased.
These two bodies were found in a canal. One of these bodies was of Inam’s father.
“We didn’t see the dead body. The police came to the relief camp and were showing a photo of a dead body and asked us to recognise it. We recognised that the body is of our father,” says Inam, who was staying at the riot relief camp at the time.
Inam says that the police told him that his father has been buried and took him to the grave.
“They only gave us the photo and the post-mortem report. Nothing else. They didn’t even give the clothes he was wearing...We would have liked to bury him with our own hands, covered him in shroud. These were our desires, but we never saw him, so what can we do,” Inam says.
The Quint reached out to Shamli police for a response, but didn’t receive one till the time of publishing this report.
Enough Basis To Declare Them Dead: Advocate
Experts say that there was enough evidence, and reason, to declare these 11 people dead.
Advocate Akram Akhtar Chaudhary has been working on cases pertinent to the Muzaffarnagar riots for the last ten years.
“Since there is proof of the fact that three bodies were found by the police but then went missing, so is it not possible that there were murders in the village and that bodies were made to disappear? On the one hand, three bodies go missing after being spotted by the police, and on the other hand two bodies are found from a canal and an FIR is also registered in the matter. Then you cannot say that there were no murders in this village. And the panchayat also cannot say “no one was killed here” when the dead bodies of the villagers have been found,” Chaudhary says.
Chaudhary further cites the section 108 of the Indian Evidence Act which pertains to the death of a person who hasn’t been heard of for 7 years.
“The question is whether a man is alive or dead, and it is proved that he has not been heard of for seven years by those who would naturally have heard of him if he had been alive, the burden of proving that he is alive is shifted to the person who affirms it.”
-Section 108, Indian Evidence Act
Importance of The Death Certificates
Without the 11 people being declared dead by the authorities, their families won’t have a death certificate as evidence of death. The families say the death certificate is important for a multitude of reasons.
“First, our family’s khet (field) is under my mother and father’s name. If we can register it under our name, we will be able to sell it, and earn some money. Second, my father had a bank account which has some money which will be of use to us,” says Hasan.
“And most importantly, we want a sense of justice and closure. The criminals must be punished. So that something of this sort doesn’t happen with anyone else. There must be punishment,” he adds.
Moreover, at the time of the riots the UP government had promised a government job for one member of every family that has seen a death of a kin in the riots. None of these 11 families have been given that government job, because they need the death certificate to avail it.
“The job is so important to us, the household’s entire burden will get reduced if we have a continued source of earning, solving many problems that we are facing right now and struggled with in the initial days. Our home at our village was perfect, our only chores were to send the children to school and eat. The home was complete, all resources were available. Here, we had to start everything afresh,” says Saifi.
Former CM's Compensation, Assurance
The Special Investigation Team or SIT which was formed to probe into the Muzaffarnagar riots too treated the case of the eleven ‘missing’ as murder cases as per its statements to the media back in 2013.
Moreover, in 2016, the then UP CM Akhilesh Yadav met with the families of these 11 members and gave them cheques of Rs 15 lakh each—the compensation that was only being granted to those families whose kin were killed in the riots. Thus, this was seen as a nod from the government that these 11 too are being treated as dead.
“When the CM gave us compensation cheques, I told him, please also help with the death certificate and punishment of the culprits. He gave us assurance that everything will happen in time,” Hasan says.
For families like Hasan’s, getting the compensation cheque came as a reassurance that the death certificate was also on its way.
“The CM gave us Rs 15 lakh each. Our family members were killed that is why he gave us that compensation amount, right. Only such people got it. If they say our parents are alive then I will find a way to work hard and give them several lakh rupees in exchange. But then get me my parents back, alive. I will be grateful to them all my life,” Hasan says.
National Commission of Minorities Directs DM To Give Employment
In June 2023, the National Commission of Minorities directed the Shamli district authorities to fulfil its second part of the obligation to the eleven families: employment.
“On the one hand, the government accepts death and on the other hand needs proof of death," the order states.
The Quint reached out to DM Shamli, Baghpat Police, Shamli Police for a response but did not receive one till the time of publishing.