In the early hours of the morning last Monday, Khalid Ali woke up with a start. His brother who works as a labourer in Delhi was on the phone. “He sounded very worried,” recounted Ali, his polio-stricken legs folded on a cot inside his one-room brick tenement. “He asked, 'Has a Hindu-Muslim riot broken out in Kairana?' I told him, 'No, everything seems peaceful here.'”

Located in western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district, the town of Kairana is two kms away from Nahid colony, the relief camp in which Ali lives. It's one of the many camps that came up in 2013 after Hindu-Muslim riots left 60 people dead and displaced thousands in the districts of Muzzafarnagar and Shamli. Three years later, hundreds of Muslim families like Ali’s continue to live in difficult conditions in these settlements, unable to return to their villages.

Only later that day did Ali discover the cause of the rumours about renewed religious violence in Kairana: the area's Bharatiya Janata Party MP Hukum Singh had announced that 346 Hindu families had been persecuted and driven out of the Muslim-majority town over the last two years. Zee News compared the events in Kairana to the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir in the 1990s.

However, after several newspapers reported that Hukum Singh's list contained the names of people who were dead and also of Hindus who were still living in the town, the MP backtracked on his claims on Tuesday, saying the exodus was not communal in nature.

Despite this, his initial statements sparked great anxiety in the area.

The news put Ali's neighbour, a brick-kiln worker named Islamuddin, on the edge. His family had fled Gadirampur village in Shamli district in 2013, walking three nights to safety.

Islamuddin connected the MP's claims to the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections scheduled for early 2017. On the road to Kairana, the BJP has put up large billboards announcing "Mission 265+ for 2017" and "Vikas Maharally".

“The last time too, the riots in Muzzafarnagar occurred a year before the general elections,” he said. “If violence breaks out again, it is we – the poorest – who will be the first to die.”

Criminal gangs

In Kairana, local police officials expressed both exasperation and amusement as they released information debunking Hukum Singh's claims. Going door-to-door along with officials deputed by the district magistrate, they had managed to check on 119 of the Hindu names on the MP's list. The police document had columns showing “death by natural causes” against three names. Twelve families who the MP claimed had fled were actually found to still be living in Kairana, while 37 families had left between seven to 10 years ago. Only 24 had migrated in the last three years, primarily for jobs and economic reasons.

The district officials who were part of the verification teams were divided over the reasons why the families named by Hukum Singh had migrated from Kairana.

When he made the list of names public, Singh had blamed the exodus on extortion threats by a Muslim gangster named Mukhim Kala.

At the district headquarters in Shamli, Superintendent of police Vijay Bhushan denied the allegations.“This is baseless,” said Bhushan. “At the time of Mukhim's arrest, he had 14 murder charges against him, of whom three victims were Hindu and 11 were Muslim.” The claims that Hindus were being targeted was a “political gimmick”, the policeman said.

“In Mukhim Kala gang, there were four Hindus and eight Muslim criminals in a 12-member gang, and all have been arrested,” said Bhushan. “We are simply trying to do our jobs. Anyone who claims otherwise should first examine the police records.”

But while Mukhim Kala, the gangster and extortionist named by Singh, was arrested last October, an elderly policeman, who had worked at Kairana thana for 15 years, conceded that before that for several years, both Muzzafarnagar and Shamli had been wracked by gang fights and crime.

“Khagha gang, a criminal group, was active in the region till 2010, and after Khagha was killed in an encounter in 2012, his accomplices Mukhim and Sabir became the leaders of the gang,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “Kidnappings, extortion, killings became common. Despite this, no circle officer or deputy superintendent of police has been posted here since the last official left four months back.”

Apart from crime, Kairana also has high unemployment. The nearest factories are in Panipat in Haryana, 25 kilometers away, and in Sonipat, 65 kilometers away. “There are no jobs here, and at most, you can set up a cart or small shop,” said an official. “Most people are daily wage labourers who earn just Rs 200, and cannot afford to spend Rs 50 commuting to Panipat every day, so they leave.”

Officials said that in some instances Hindu families may have shifted out of their old homes in predominantly Muslim areas after the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots to buy properties on the outskirts of town.

But was the shift a result of coercion or a perceived threat from the majority Muslim community? Or was it to search for better livelihoods?

On the ground, the truth seem to lie somewhere in between the two claims.

The names on the list

One of the areas listed by Singh that have seen a large out-migration by Hindus is Bishaiyat Khairana, a crowded neighbourhood on the western edge of town.

From Hukum Singh's list of those who had fled the neighbourhood, Narendra Dhiman, who runs a small flour mill, identified the name of his old neighbour Ramnath Dhiman. But Ramnath Dhiman and his family had migrated over 10 years ago, he said. Also on the list were Banwari, son of Sumerchand, and Punna Ram, son of Mukhteyar Singh, but Dhiman said that they were dead.

The list names Goti, an ironsmith, as having left the area but he was a Muslim Gujjar and not Hindu, said Mohammed Akbar, a BCom student.

Similarly, in Alkhurd Khairana, another predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, Mahendra Kashyap, who makes sweets at weddings, said the list named Begraj, Man Singh, Chetan Lal among the migrants. But the three, who work as daily wage labourers, had migrated to Panipat three years ago to look for work, said Kashyap.

There is little communal hostility in the neighbourhood, said Kashyap, who recounted that following the killing of two businessmen by Mukhim gang in 2014, Hindu and Muslim shopkeepers joined together to organise a protest for eight days to demand action against the criminal gangs.

“All shopkeepers together organised a bazaar bandh for over a week so that the police arrests the extortionists,” confirmed Urmila Panchal, whose family are the only Hindu family living on their street in Alekhurd. Panchal said her family had planned to sell their home in 2010 but had been persuaded by their Muslim neighbours to stay back. “We had even finalised the negotiations for the house but our Muslim neighbours said you have lived here amongst all of us for so long, please stay back, and we did,” she said.

Her son Shantanu Panchal, who runs a confectionary shop, said that if the family moved, it would be to live in a place with better infrastructure. “We get electricity at irregular hours, there are no higher education institutes or good colleges,” he said.

Deepening divide

While Hindu families living in Bishaiyat Khairana and Alkhurd Khairana denied any families having left because of religious reasons, in another neighbourhood called Retewala Khairana, an affluent farmer, Sompal Rod, read out the names of six family members who he claimed had left because of threats by powerful Muslims.

“Rampal, Subhash, Rajkumar are my uncle's sons,” said Rod, as he glanced over Hukum Singh's list. "Along with three other second cousins on this list, Bhopal, Rajveer and Radheshyam, they sold 60-70 bighas of land that they owned and left for Saharanpur a year and a half ago because they were under threat." Rod described a rivalry with other landed families from the Muslim community going back several years.

In the villages around Kairana, Muslim Gujjars, Hindu Gujjars and Pathans own most of the farmland. “Five years ago, my cousin Rampal was named as one of the accused in a Pathan's murder,” recounted Rod. “He was jailed for four months and his firearm was confiscated by the police. He decided to leave because they feared getting named in other cases.”

Rod said he had also approached Hukum Singh with the complaint that Hindus were under pressure from the administration that was biased against them, an allegation denied by the district police superintendent.

During the 2013 riots in Muzzafarnagar, 50 kilometers away, Kairana did not record a single instance of communal violence. But Darbarkhurd Khairana – a mixed neighbourhood off Panipat Road with over a hundred Sheikh, Kashyap, Julaha, Valmiki families – had witnessed residents firing in the air, even though no one was injured.

Of those named by Hukum Singh from this area, local doctor Shripal Kashyap identified four – Shyama Jatav, Rishipal Kashyap, Vinod Kumar, Subhash Kumar – as having left to find work in Panipat and Loni more than two years ago. But he said one of the workers, Dharampal Kashyap, had left after a fight with a Muslim neighbour. “Dharampal had a gambling business and the two had a fight over their business deal,” said Kashyap.

Arun Valmiki, a sanitation worker in his early 20s, said that Darbarkhurd Khairana had seen the population of Hindus drop from 30% to 8%. But when pressed for further details, he said he was citing the figure from a TV report he watched last week in the wake of Hukum Singh's claims. “But the fact is after the 2013 riots, thousands of Muslim families came as refugees to Kairana,” said the young man dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. “The forest area around town is full of Muslim families from Muzzafarnagar and around, and because of this, Hindus fear them.”

Communal lens

Jeejan Begum, a 60-year old resident of the area, wasn't willing to accept that line of reasoning. “My family used to live in Barhal 15 years back, and then we moved to Kandla, then to Kairana after Muslim Gujjars looted our house thrice,” recounted Jeejan Begum. “We are Muslim, but we faced robberies too. How does religion come into this?”

Yosouf Tyagi, a reporter with the Urdu daily Dainik Awam E Hind, said that Kairana had been dealing with significant crime for many decades. “Till some years ago, because of poor policing, Muslim Gujjar gangs were hired for contract killings and robberies by all communities to settle personal rivalries,” he said. But this, he said, is being viewed with a communal lens in recent years.

Dr Tasleem Ahmed, a physician who practices near the local court, also voiced the same concern: that a response to crime is now being portrayed as Hindu-Muslim conflict. He said that the most vulnerable families in the areas were those living without proper houses even three years after the riots.

“Thousands came to Kairana, Dabedhikhurd, Malakpur, Kandala in fear after the 2013 riots, and many were forced to leave again because of livelihood distress,”said Dr Ahmed. “It has come very easy to Hukum Singh to present this 346 Hindus list. But what happend to over 50,000 affected by Muzzafarnagar riots. I want to ask our MP? Where is that list?”

Hukum Singh's claims are vastly exaggerated, if not untrue, residents said. But, as Ahmed concluded, the rhetoric used by the BJP MP is likely to exacerbate the suspicion among Kairana's residents.