Muzaffarnagar Riots: 5 Years of Culprits’ Impunity, Victims’ Fear

In clashes, women & weakest sections of society are the first targets as was the case with 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Representative image of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
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Civilised nations prosecute their criminals. But in India, prosecution can be deeply political. Five years since the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli riots in which 62 people were murdered and over 50,000 rendered homeless, no one has been convicted.

According to this report, over 500 first information reports (FIRs) were filed by police against the alleged culprits; of this, 335 were expunged or closed due to duplication or other errors. Of the 175 cases, forty were decided by courts without any conviction.

Democracy Gone Rogue

This is because Indian democracy is run by its new ‘kings’. These new kings are ministers, chief ministers, the prime minister, and the likes of them in power. More than 800 years after Magna Carta established the principle that the king will be under the law, India's new kings act above the country's rule of law. Last December, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, ordered the withdrawal of a case against himself. This is not an argument against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). All parties do the same.

Caste and religion routinely prevail over our politics, our governance and the rule of law.

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Much like the Islamic clerics prevailed over the Indian Parliament to enact the Shah Bano law, early this year some khap panchayats prevailed over the Yogi government. A delegation of khap leaders led by the BJP MP from Muzaffarnagar, Sanjeev Balyan, and MLA Umesh Malik, who are among the accused in the 2013 riots, met the chief minister, and requested that the cases be withdrawn.

The Yogi government sought the opinion of the Muzaffarnagar district administration to withdraw 133 cases against the accused, who include, along with Balyan and Malik, two more BJP MLAs Suresh Rana and Sangeet Singh Som, and Sadhvi Prachi of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Most often, cops and officials bend to the wishes of the politicians in power.

However, in this case the district magistrate, the senior superintendent of police and the prosecuting officer have all opposed the withdrawal of these cases due to ‘administrative reasons’.

Hate is Innate

In India, minor incidents can transform into religious hate and caste conflicts. In Mirchpur village of Haryana, a Dalit family's dog barked at a group of Jat youths, leading to the killing of Dalits. In Faridabad district, the Muslim teenager Hafiz Junaid was killed due to an altercation over a train seat by a Hindu mob, which deemed him to be a beef-eater and therefore an anti-national, identifying him by his skullcap. In Muzaffarnagar, the riots were triggered after a Jat woman was sexually harassed by a Muslim man. Her brothers murdered him, and were then murdered by a Muslim mob.

We like to view the Muzaffarnagar riots as Hindus versus Muslims, which is correct, but there is more to this.

In wars and riots, women and the weakest communities are the first targets. Neha Dixit, a journalist who covered the Muzaffarnagar riots, narrates the painful stories of women who were brutalised by mobs. Scores of women were raped and gang-raped, but only seven could muster the courage to file cases. Women were attacked with knives and swords on their breasts. The rapists played the dhol, celebrating their sexual violence.

Hate resides in political cultures. In the current political climate, the rioters, cow vigilantes and hate-spreading groups, sense that their political leaders will protect them from prosecution.

Recently, a senior IPS officer told me that the three main agencies which enforce the rule of law – police, prosecution and defence, and judiciary – are under pressures of a different kind: every official in them, to save pratistha (dignity), avoids making decisions. Prosecution also suffers because tax lawyers become judges, unable to deal with criminal cases, while lawyers learn to manage courts and judges.

India’s Youth Can Preach & Teach Love

Still, Indians trust the higher judiciary. But politicians are termites gnawing at the roots of the democratic institutions in India. Our politics divides our society. Our divisions acquire disturbing proportions during elections, during riots and in government institutions. At all other times, Hindus and Muslims live together. The Quint has published a series of reports on issues involving the 2013 riots. One of them is the story around Sir Syed National School, which was established for the riot-victims who are mostly Muslims, but is also enrolling Hindu students, thereby fostering harmony.

As elections are frequent, politicians visit temples and Islamic clerics to seek votes.

Their politics will continue to divide us. But India is a new country, with 55 percent of its 1.3 billion souls under the age of 25. This is an age when individuals fall in love. The under-25 Indians can teach love. It's already happening. “I met her at the bus stop and from the moment I saw her I knew she was the one. Slowly, we became friends,” says a youth in this report of how Muslims and Hindus are falling in love despite the festering wounds from the Muzaffarnagar riots of five years ago.

How Democracies Die

Hate lives in the nature of humans, but most of the time it's love that prevails. As humans, we realise that we commit mistakes. The key question of the failure of rule of law cannot be addressed unless the professionalism of police forces is ensured and political parties are made accountable. As culprits of many riots go unpunished, India looks dysfunctional. Five years on, the Muzaffarnagar riots send a signal that those involved in murder, attempts to murder, arson and hate speech can escape justice because they are in power now.

Can the Indian democracy die? Most Indians will exclaim, No!

But yes, it can – because we are certain it can't. We tend to think that democracies die in a military coup. “But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die, adding: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” Not only in the Muzaffarnagar riots, it is being seen that culprits are hopeful of defeating the judicial system, while victims are resigned to live in hopelessness. This is the threat to India.

(The writer, a former BBC journalist, is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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