SWM 2014: Understanding the dynamic of communal riots against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, Uttar Pradesh, India

Case study by Sajjad Hassan

This research is the result of an extended participatory research study between January and March 2014, undertaken by the Centre for Equity Studies in partnership with Aman Biradari, funded by MRG with support from CAFOD. Context – Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts before the riots

Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts are part of the agriculturally rich western Uttar Pradesh (UP) region, dominated by land-owning middle-caste Hindu Jats, who also control much of the bureaucracy and police in the region. Unlike other parts of Uttar Pradesh, the region has, in the past, not experienced communal violence due mainly to the influence of an elite platform, made up of a coalition of different parties that protected Jat interests while allowing some space for non-Jats, including Muslims. Instead, it was the poorer sections of the community – both Hindus and Muslims – that were the object of the elite’s exploitation. The anti-Muslim violence of September 2013, escalating quickly from a minor dispute into large-scale aggression, therefore came as a surprise.

This case study looks at the drivers and impacts of this communal violence, drawing on unstructured interviews and group discussions with residents in a number of villages and relief camps, carried out between January and March 2014, as well as public sources. While focusing mainly on poorer sections of those affected, the research also drew on testimonies from other stakeholders, including Hindu Jats, to develop a clearer picture of the outbreak.

Social tensions and the role of right-wing political groups in the violence

‘A hundred years of mutual bonds were shattered in five days! In that time, friends and neighbours were turned enemies.’ Muslim, 32, male, January 2014

Both Muslim and Jat respondents believed that the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s bid for power in the upcoming 2014 national elections drove this sudden explosion of anti-Muslim violence.

BJP’s bid for power rests a great deal on good performance in Uttar Pradesh … Canvassing Jat votes, by breaking up the monopoly of Rashtriya Lok Dal [a political party with strong support in the west of the region] and consolidating Hindu votes behind it, has been for BJP the strategy of choice, regardless of its social costs.’ Muslim businessman, 53, January 2014

‘BJP wants to sweep up Hindu votes as does [the ruling] Samajwadi Party (SP), which wants all Muslims behind it. This is a deal between the two parties.’ Jat representative, 56, male, March 2014

Research has already shown that the BJP was using its tried and tested strategy of communal polarization by mobilizing violence against Muslims. But why this particular region? Our research suggested that a primary factor was the existing local divisions, rooted in Jat resentment towards recent signs of lower-class mobility among Muslims.

‘Muslims, along with Dalits, are the underclass in these villages, mostly semi-bonded helpers and farm-hands in Jat households, or brick kilns and other daily wage workers, all landless. Recently, a new breed of Muslims are emerging due to the political patronage of the ruling Samajwadi Party, that relies on Muslims, among others, for votes. Many elected offices in the two districts have recently gone to Muslims. They are not as dependent on Jats, in a patron–client relationship, as they were in the past. Muslim, 27, male, March 2014

Muslims have also been performing well in trade and commerce as artisans, petty traders and cloth vendors. These changes threaten to weaken Jat control, eroding the latter’s hold over traditional authority and creating deep resentment.

‘They do not want to see us do well. They want us to remain subservient to them. They are resentful of Muslims who are doing well or of the new leaders among Muslims, who do not toe the Jat line.’ Muslim, 63, male, March 2014

This was even acknowledged among the Jat community:

‘Jats controlled local institutions in the past. People came to us for resolving disputes, and for other help. Now people go rather to the new leaders, for getting the benefits of public schemes and help with police and the bureaucracy. These new SP leaders do not recognize our authority. In the past during election time, we were able to control voting outcomes through “booth capturing”. Now everyone is free to vote who they decide.’ Jat representative, 50, male, March 2014

The trigger for the violence itself was a scuffle that resulted in the death of a Muslim boy and two Hindu Jats. BJP and other right-wing Hindu parties quickly exploited this incident and represented it as an issue of communal pride, involving the marriage of Jat girls to Muslims. There were also reports of hate speech and the misuse of print and social media such as text messages, combined with the involvement of the traditional Jat leaderships, to openly incite violence.

‘They used lies and untruth, all, to whip up Hindu sentiments against Muslims.’ Muslim, 67, male, January 2014

This was reinforced by the failure of the authorities to take effective action during or after the violence.

‘The administration’s and police’s attitude towards us has not been helpful. They did not provide us with security when we needed it. And now all question our loss and suffering. No one shows us any sensitivity. We have been given little relief or support. Rather the government has tried to drive us out of relief camps on one pretext or another.’ Muslim, 43, male, January 2014

The bias of local officials towards Jat interests has also hindered post-violence delivery of justice as well as access to public goods for Muslims.

‘A peace committee has been set up, with Pradhan and other Jat leaders, but with no Muslim members. They held many meetings to discuss how to get us to withdraw cases against Jat youth. They say they will see to it that no untoward incident now happens. But how can we trust them?’ Muslim, 65, male, March 2014

Impacts of the riots on the lives of minority members

From 7 September 2013 onwards, violent attacks in the area left at least 65 dead and many others injured. In many villages houses were burnt to the ground. As a result of the riots, more than 50,000 people were displaced.

‘We are but poor. What did we do that these Jats snatched our homes and our livelihood? They made us homeless, and forced terror and displacement on our children. All this is a big conspiracy. Why come after us? Why destroy our lives?’ Muslim, 67, male, March 2014

As of April 2014, an overwhelming majority of poor labouring families remain displaced. A large number are living in makeshift camps in deplorable conditions: many children died during the cold months. Life in these camps is characterized by insecurity, with little support from the state government, which is actively seeking to shut down the camps.

‘We don’t like to live on charity, and are happy to live by our own labour. But without a home of our own, all that is not possible. We worry every day, if we will still have our tents and camp, or we will be forced out on the streets. But we do not want to go back to our villages as we do not know what awaits us there.’ Muslim, 43, male, January 2014

Education is another area where the impact has been severe.

‘Initially, in camps there were no teachers, and children just spent time playing. Later an NGO started a makeshift school in the camp, hiring a local instructor. A madrasa has also been running, for some time. But how can this make up for the months of lost schooling?’ Muslim, 62, male, January 2014

The challenge of return

Our research in several affected villages showed that many victims still faced significant challenges on their return. One respondent reported that only a small fraction of Muslim pupils had returned to the local school. Sexual violence, including rape and molestation, has been widely reported. Concerns about ‘family honour’ and fear of further violence have also resulted in large numbers of underage girls among Muslims being hurriedly married off by their families. Female respondents revealed how violence has had other marginalizing effects on women, severely restricting their movement outside their homes.

‘We had to flee our homes at night to safeguard the honour of our daughters and daughters-in-law. After all, the honour of our daughters is more precious than our lives. All adult men are outside the village, only adult girls at home. Their protection is our prime concern.’ Muslim, 45, female, March 2014

Victims also informed us how their livelihoods have been impacted.

‘We came back to our village because life in camps was desperate. But here we face the same problem of absence of employment. We were dependent on Jat patronage for much of our livelihood, as farmhands, iron smiths, barbers and the like. We also feel insecure going into many Jat villages in the affected areas. All this affects our trade. We are now forced to sell off our belongings at throw-away prices, to make ends meet.’ Muslim, group discussion,March 2014

‘We cannot leave our children alone and go out in search of work further afield. This has reduced our livelihood choices.’ Muslim, group discussion,March 2014

Moving towards reconciliation

Most troublingly, the violence has left a permanent divide between communities. Given the rural backdrop, relations between ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ were intimate, and violence in such a situation has left a lasting imprint.

‘We have been betrayed. We have lost faith in the Jats. Those that we considered our own, our neighbours, came attacking us. How can we forget that?’ Muslim, male, January 2014

‘The damage has been so high that I am afraid relations will not be better for a long time, maybe never. Political parties – both BJP and SP – have played politics with us.’ Hindu Jat, male, April 2014

‘These riots have shown me how perfectly normal people can become stubborn Hindus and Muslims. The community has been badly polarized. We were not like this. This is not good for society.’ Muslim, 53, male, January 2014

One of the most important first steps for Muslim respondents to rebuild their lives was the restoration of security and an end to impunity for the perpetrators of the violence.

‘Those responsible for the violence are roaming about freely. The police know who they are, but are not arresting them. This gives the Jats the opportunity to put pressure on us to withdraw cases. We must have the assurance of security. Without that how will we survive?’ Muslim, male, February 2014

Muslim villagers also highlighted the need for positive shared dialogue:

‘Peace committees can be helpful, if they are used honestly, to bring the two communities together. Where village elders have been responsible and tried honestly to resolve issues, peace has been maintained, and miscreants kept at bay.’ Muslim municipal councillor, male,March 2014

A more expansive approach to basic rights and security will also provide the foundation for a more cohesive society.

‘Everyone has rights. If all get their share of what is due, things will be fine. If on the other hand people are denied their rights, just because they are smaller in number, that is neither just nor good for society.’ Muslim, 63, male, March 2014

Finally, there is a need to develop more inclusive political formations, such as community groups with cross-cutting membership, trade unions and parties with non-sectarian agendas, to act as bulwarks against polarization and address the underlying drivers of communal violence in the area.

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.

Photo: Muslim children in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Credit: Eric Parker 

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Date: 13/06/2014




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014
Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech
Religion/Religious minorities

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