“The Punjab seemed to have become a howling wilderness of beasts rather than a land of human beings. All humanity disappeared”, lamented Sir Mohammad Zafarullah Khan at the bloodbath which gripped Lahore in 1947. It would be an apt metaphor for Muzaffarnagar, which never hosted what Paul Brass terms “an institutionalised riot system” but has come to be the fearful face of communal violence of the largest scale post Gujarat 2002.
Do communal riots have a master narrative? Did Muzaffarnagar follow past trends, or was it an outlier, which could still hold portentous messages and lessons for the future? These questions were plaguing Shubhradeep Chakravarty, journalist-turned-documentary film-maker, whose latest work En Dino Muzaffarnagar premiered at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre this week.
More than curiosity, however, Chakravarty was enthused by his partner Meera Chaudhary’s personal quest to look for answers to this bloodstained mayhem. Chaudhary, who hails from Muzaffarnagar, wanted to know how and why the atmosphere of amity between the Jats and Muslims got so vitiated. Investigating communal riots isn’t something alien to the couple, and nor is their disenchantment and scepticism of “official narratives”. In 2003, their Godhra Tak: The Terror Trail raised the hackles of the VHP and its patrons because their lies, being trotted as “the truth”, stood exposed.
An infernal din has swept away credible explanations of what lit the sparks and stoked the flames in Muzaffarnagar; what we have is a cacophony of voices with vested interests, each screaming to drown out the other. There is also a sting operation by a television channel, claiming sole prerogative to the truth. The one-member judicial commission headed by Justice Vishnu Sahai is yet to submit its report, and if the fates of the Srikrishna and Liberhan Commissions' reports are of any example, the wait wouldn’t, in all probability, be worth putting money on. An independent fact-finding committee, comprising some academicians and journalists, came up with a report which offers only cold comfort, because it, hamstrung by expedient constraints, does not dig deep enough.
It is here that En Dino Muzaffarnagar provides a chilling perspective, something that both the administration and civil society should ignore only at its own peril. The initial cause is well known and undisputed by now – on August 27, Shahnawaz, a Muslim youth, is hacked to death by a group of Jat boys out to avenge the “honour” of a girl from their community. But Gaurav and Sachin Malik were unable to get away in time, and are lynched by an irate mob which had gathered at the spot. From there, it is a violent downward spiral. Local BJP MLA Sangeet Som circulates a video, which ostensibly captures the Jat duo’s last moments. As established now, the video was fake – it was two years old, and showed a lynching in Pakistan’s Punjab province, but reason and discretion hold scant currency in a simmering cauldron of communal passions.
All reports and versions parrot on about the caste-based schism, because only lower caste Muslims and not the upper caste Jat Muslims (Mulay Jats, in local parlance) bore the maximum brunt. Therefore, one is astounded at Chaudhary and Chakravarty document with painstaking detail the BJP and assorted Hindutva groups’, especially the RSS’ pursuit of the “love jihad” strategy for communal polarisation and subsequent mobilisation.
Indresh Kumar, infamous RSS zealot, in the company of a Sadhvi Prachi, addresses Jat gatherings where he invokes “bahu behen beti ki izzat” and the Mahabharat’s Draupadi to instigate the enthralled listeners. A battle against the Muslims must be waged to maintain the purity of the community and its honour, he thunders. Even Kalyan Singh, former BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and under whose watch the Babri Masjid was reduced to rubble, delivers a speech where shockingly, he harps on the “action-reaction” theory which is frighteningly familiar by now.
The Jats have traditionally maintained a distance from the rabid purveyors of Hindutva, but ‘the honour of our womenfolk’ is of paramount importance to a community strongly rooted in obscurantist, even vicious patriarchy. Combine this with growing disenchantment and unemployment among the youth (since jobs are scarce and interest in agriculture is dwindling) and distribution of liquor and cash – and one has a noxious mix. September 7, 2013, witnessed a huge rally – a mahapanchayat called by the dominant Jat groups – teeming with these belligerent youth brandishing all sorts of weapons – spears, illicit country-made pistols, licensed rifles (almost every Jat family owns more than one), sickles and scythes. Seething with rage, they rent the air with slogans, most vociferous and common among which were “Narendra Modi zindabad!” and “Mussalmanon ke do hi sthan - Pakistan ya kabristan!”
It is interesting to take note of these weapons, for they set Muzaffarnagar apart from most other communal riots. When members of a predominantly agricultural community go on a killing spree, the police and administration are caught in a bind. Secret gathering of arms, ammunition and gasoline, as done in Gujarat is dispensed with. Same goes for vehicles. Agricultural implements like sickles and scythes are lethal, and here the killers roamed around in tractors, but it is an uphill task to seize these as part of pre-emptive measures.
In so far as the macabre modus operandi goes, some of the Jat rioters reveal to Chaudhary and Chakravarty the Amit Shah lessons they had learnt. In the summer of 2013, Shah had toured many villages and had taught not only how to kill, but also to grab land. Don’t douse people with kerosene and set them afire, for the charred remains help DNA fingerprinting, he had advised. Rather, hack to pieces, then set afire. Identification becomes difficult, and as long as a person is on the “missing” list, his land and dwelling can be safely grabbed, for only after seven years does the law acknowledge him as dead.
While the craven pusillanimity of the Samajwadi Party government has been thoroughly exposed and much criticised by now, and the orgy of rape and administration’s inhumane callousness has hogged the headlines, the investigation into the atrocities hasn’t received much coverage. This documentary focuses more on how all stops are being pulled to thwart the Special Investigation Team’s (SIT) efforts. “Jale hue ghar mein koi balatkar karega?” (Will anyone commit rape in a house reduced to ashes?) , is one woman’s defiant answer when her husband is being charged. More worrisome than such sundry denials and the individual hurling of counter-charges against the Muslims is the collective front put up by different Jat groups to stonewall the investigation. At a meeting with the District Magistrate, the communities’ elders and leaders resolutely bellow that they wouldn’t submit to the law, even if resistance requires the use of force.
Back in 2004, Steven Wilkinson had warned that electoral incentives would be the key factors driving ethnic and communal violence in India. That dire prediction had gone unheeded, and the chickens hatched out of that came home to roost in Muzaffarnagar just in time for one of the most scabrous of elections this country has ever suffered.
In one of the opening scenes, an old man wistfully reminisces about the “Mohabbatnagar” of yore. As the ground reality shows, the hateful communal divide between the Jats and Muslims would only worsen, and nothing but the most stringent vigilance can prevent another conflagration. En Dino Muzaffarnagar sombrely presages the outcome were the politics of hate allowed to breed and propagate.
Saurav teaches Media Law & Jurisprudence in Mumbai and Pune. Follow him on twitter @SauravDatta29.