All of 19 years old, Raheem’s voice was steady as he spoke about the uprooting, betrayal and loss his family endured during the communal violence which swept the districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in Uttar Pradesh in 2013.

The occasion was the release of Living Apart: Communal Violence and Forced Displacement in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, a book about the conditions of the survivors, written jointly by my colleagues Akram Akhtar Chaudhary, Zafar Eqbal and Rajanya Bose, and me. We had invited some survivors to book-release programmes in Lucknow and Delhi to share their stories. Among them was this young man. We expected him to speak for five minutes. He spoke for nearly half an hour, and wanted to speak for longer.

It was clear that it was immensely important for him that his story become known to the world beyond his village. In my work with survivors of communal violence all over India, I have observed repeatedly that the first step for survivors to attain some sort of solace and healing is by a public acknowledgement of the agony, injustice and dispossession that they have been forced to bear, often at the hands of their neighbours. Most often, this is accomplished through the telling of their stories, and by being heard.

I sat with the boy after the programmes and asked him if he wanted his story to be written and published. He said he did, very much. But a little later, he came back to me and said that while I could indeed narrate his story, his name could not appear anywhere in it. I realised then that the survivors of violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli clearly lived not just with the torment of loss, but also an ever lurking sense of fear.

I have called the young man Raheem. This story is his.

I miss Lishad, my village, all the time. We lived there like brothers and sisters until barely five or six days before the violence broke out. In school, I had friends from every community and caste. We would eat from each other’s lunch boxes and share our food. If there was a wedding in any of our homes, our Jat and Muslim neighbours would say to us: “You don’t worry about anything. You look after the other arrangements, we will look after your guests.” Our neighbours would take care of the baraat and make sure that the guests did not lack for anything. They would serve them food and water as though they were themselves members of the bride’s family. We would do the same for them.

There were some 300 Muslim households in the village, and 700 households belonging to Jat and other communities: Kashyaps, Dalits and others. The Jats were mostly land-owners, and on their fields worked Dalits, Bihari migrants and some Muslims. Very few Muslims or Dalits owned farm lands, they only owned the land on which their houses stood and small plots around them. Muslims mostly sold cloth from village to village, or were tailors or vegetable sellers, or worked in brick kilns. But there was always goodwill between us.

The Kawal incident

Everything changed on August 27, 2013. It started with a motorcycle accident in Kawal village in Muzaffarnagar. There was a scuffle between Sachin, a Jat who was riding one motorcycle, and Shahnawaz, who was riding the other. Hot words were exchanged. We learnt later that after the scuffle, a group of Jat boys went to the Muslim part of the village for revenge and there they stabbed Shahnawaz to death. Angered by this, the local Muslims managed to catch two of the Jats, Sachin and his cousin Gaurav, and killed them. In a couple of days, a video surfaced on social media, in which two boys were shown killed cruelly by an angry mob. The video had been circulated by Sangeet Som, a BJP MLA, who claimed that the cousins Sachin and Gaurav had been killed because they had tried to save the honour of their sister from the Muslim youth Shahnawaz, who had been teasing her for a long time.

We all know now that all of this was a lie, but at that time the video went viral. Everyone watched it on their mobile phones. Even in school, the atmosphere quickly became ugly and tense. The Jats said: “We will have to hack the mullahs now.” They had never used such language about us before. But we Muslim students tried to laugh it off, as though they were only joking.

Summer of hate

The winds suddenly became hot and poisoned. Soon, another rumour began to make the rounds, that a Hindu girl from Saharanpur had been raped by a Muslim man a month earlier. This was denied by the girl and was later proved to be another deliberate falsehood. Yet the rumours had led to an attack on some Muslims on the streets. But leaders of the BJP like Hukam Singh who, in 2014, became a Member of Parliament, led a violent demonstration to the office of the Superintendent of Police, Shamli, to protest the arrest of persons accused of attacking the Muslims. The SP, who happened to be Muslim, ordered a lathicharge to disperse them. In our village, the Jats did not say that the SP lathicharged the demonstration. Instead, they said that a Muslim had dared to beat up “our” Hindu leaders and that would not go unpunished. He was soon transferred.

The tension in our village rose like never before. An announcement was made around the village that a panchayat would be convened on September 5, which no Muslim would be allowed to attend. This had never happened before in living memory. Once, two years earlier, when a Muslim boy and a Jat girl from the village had eloped, there had been some tension and a panchayat was called, but both Hindus and Muslims attended, and the elders of both communities looked for a solution together. Ultimately, because of a post uploaded by the girl on Facebook, they were located in Ujjain. Police caught them and brought them back to the village. The Jats got the girl married immediately to a Jat boy, and the Muslim boy was sent to jail for a few months even though the Jat girl was an adult. There was a small rift between the communities for a couple of months and the azaan from the village mosques was stopped during this time. But the boy’s family left the village, and matters settled down. There had never been any deep rupture between the two communities before the Kawal clash.

The District Magistrate and the SP came personally to our village on the evening before the panchayat was scheduled and tried to persuade the Jat village elders to not conduct the panchayat. But they were adamant.

The Hindu panchayat

The next morning, on September 5, our school, the venue for the panchayat, was shut, even though it was a government school, and men from distant villages arrived in their tractors and motorcycles. Hundreds of tractors were parked outside the village, as thousands filled the school compound. There was no place to stand and people climbed the walls and surrounding trees. Men stood at the gates with sticks to make sure no Muslims attended the meeting. Policemen stood around, doing nothing to prevent the meeting.

We all stayed indoors that day and heard news of the meeting with mounting fear. I called some of my Jat friends on their mobiles. ‘Bahut bhadkau bhashan ho rahe hain, mahaul bahut kharaab ho raha hai.’ In hushed tones they described how vitiated the atmosphere was becoming with hatred being incited in speech after speech. Their meeting dispersed only at five in the evening, with men raising slogans as they returned to their villages. They declared that there are only two places for Muslims: in Pakistan, or in the kabristan, or cemetery.

We learnt that one of the decisions taken in the meeting was for a mahapanchayat – a great panchayat – of Hindus from the entire region to be held, two days later, in the village of Nagla Mandaur in Muzaffarnagar district. The theme of the mahapanchayat was Beti Bachao, Bahu Banao (Save our daughters, make their daughters our daughters-in-law). We had all been brothers until yesterday. Where did this hatred suddenly come from?

Fearful at home

The next day was Friday. For the first time in my life, we went for Friday prayers in fear. Earlier we used to openly wear our skullcaps without any kind of apprehension, not just when we went for prayers to the mosque but even when we visited our friends. That Friday, for the first time, we kept our skullcaps folded in our pockets and put them on only inside the mosque.

That day, our relatives and friends kept calling us and advised us to urgently leave the village for a few days until tempers cooled, and to move in with relatives in Muslim-majority villages. We were a joint family and our grandfather took all the decisions. He declared firmly, “There is no way that our neighbours will harm us. We have lived together peacefully for generations. Why will that change today? None of us will leave the village.”

We were not rich and my grandfather had worked all his adult life as a farm worker. We owned only our home, and no farm lands. But my grandfather was held in respect in the entire village. I had to only mention that I was his grandson, and people would do anything for me. Therefore, even though we felt a mounting dread we agreed that day with our grandfather that we would not be harmed. My father worked as a skilled mason, a rajmistri, building people’s houses. I also helped out sometimes after school – because of which I was called Mistri in the village. We met the village head, the pradhan, who lived close to our house, and he said to me: “Don’t worry, Mistri, nothing will happen to you.” So even as the climate of hate around us only grew, we kept faith in our Hindu neighbours.

The evening before the mahapanchayat, on September 6, an old man on his way home from the mosque after reading the evening namaaz was stabbed in his stomach by a group of men from the village. Neighbours quickly gathered round and called the pradhan and the police. They had cut into his intestines and he had to be rushed to the hospital. He clearly recognised his attackers and listed their names. “They are drunkards,” the pradhan said. “They must have run away.” But we all knew that the pradhan had sheltered the men in his home and drove them out of the village in his jeep after the police left.

Our panic and anxiety grew. The pradhan’s uncle came to our lane and said to us: “They were just some drunken men. Don’t feel any tension. You are all safe.”

In our home, the elders conferred again. My father described how the manner in which his employers dealt with him had changed. “Unki nazar badal gayi hai,” he said. When he went to them to settle his dues, he was told they would be done after the eighth of the month. What did they mean by this? Since the mahapanchayat was to be held on the seventh, it seemed like a veiled threat. But my grandfather was still insistent. “Our neighbours will never cause us harm,” he said. “There is nothing to worry. We will not go anywhere.”

Fanning the flames

On the morning of the seventh, loud announcements were made from the temples and the village squares, urging all Hindu men to attend the mahapanchayat in Nagla Mandaur. There was a huge procession of tractors, motorcycles, jeeps and cars. I watched with alarm as the crowds swelled, most of them were young men. I could recognise many of my school friends in the crowd. Many men openly carried weapons: lathis, guns, revolvers, daggers and spears. Some were even armed with farm implements such as sickles.

But my grandfather still had faith that we would not be harmed.

All day news kept coming in that turned our blood cold. We heard that never before in the history of the region had such angry crowds gathered as they did that day at the mahapanchayat in Nagla Mandaur. As speeches raged, speakers announced a fight to the finish with Muslims; and how we Muslims needed to be show our place and how their women’s honour needed defending. On their way to the mahapanchayat, men pulled burqas off women and harassed them, and tugged at the beards of Muslim men. False rumours spread that Muslims had murdered Jats and thrown their bodies into the canal. The anger of the crowds grew to fever-pitch.

All day, our mobile phones kept ringing. Leave, our relatives urged, leave the village right now. That evening, the elders had another family conference. At last – far too late – my grandfather admitted that the village was no longer safe. Ladkon ka khoon garam hai,he said, and expressed fear that the mahapanchayat had set the blood of the young Jat men boiling. Our girls were no longer safe in Lishad. My grandfather decreed that first of all we needed to save the honour of our young sisters and asked us to take them immediately to relatives in Kandla, a Muslim-majority neighbourhood eight kilometres away.

We begged our elders to leave with us. My father asked our neighbours to take care of our home and our four buffaloes, but they refused. They only said that if we went, we shouldn’t expect to get our animals back when we returned. Therefore my parents and uncles and aunts decided to stay back to look after the animals and the house. My grandfather agreed. Even then he said, “Who will harm the elders of the village?”

And so I left our home with my brothers, sisters and cousins while it was still dark. We did not take the road but walked through fields, hiding amongst the standing crops, crying all the way. We reached Kandla at dawn, exhausted and terrified. We found that thousands of Muslims from many villages in the area had also travelled through the night, and an informal camp had already started forming on the large open grounds of the village Idgah, and in many other Muslim-majority villages. We left our sisters with our relatives and went to the Idgah camp.

We were told later about what had happened in our village after we left.

The betrayal

As the morning dawned, crowds of Hindu men started to set fire to Muslim homes. My parents and uncles and aunts finally decided that they must leave, leaving our home and animals to their fate. They forced my grandfather to come along. He was still reluctant. “This home, this property has been given to us by our forefathers,” he kept saying. “It is our duty to protect all of this.”

They ran as fast as the elders in the family could. A mob of villagers, all of them our neighbours, some even the gaon ke zimmedar log – the respected, responsible stalwarts of the village – easily caught up with them. My family scattered in the ensuing melee. The mob killed my grandfather, a grand-aunt, two uncles and an aunt. Five members of our family, and 13 from our village, were murdered that morning.

The others ran through the fields as we had done to reach Kandla. It was around one in the afternoon that they reached. The camps by then had swollen to several thousand men, women and children, desperately fleeing violence, but also fear because they could no longer trust their neighbours. Our elders found us at the Idgah camp and they shared the terrible news. We wept together inconsolably for the way in which we had lost our family seniors.

We also learnt later about the neighbours who had turned on us, and about those who came to our aid.

Unlikely saviours

Many in the village, including the pradhan, instigated and joined the killings, arson and plunder. However, there were also those who saved lives, often people we had least expectations from. Prominent among these was Babloo, a wealthy Jat land-owner who also ran a poultry farm. Before the violence, he was someone we Muslims were wary of. We felt that he was a bit of a goonda. But on the morning of the eighth, he drove to the Naya Masjid in the village where a large number of Muslims were hiding. Making many trips, he transported them in his tractor to the safety of his poultry farm. On the way he passed by the pradhan’s house. Among those who had gathered there was the principal of the primary school which I attended. The principal threatened to set fire to the tractor and to the people Babloo was transporting. Babloo returned that threat with one of his own. “Try doing that, try to stop me, and see what I do to you.” He then taunted the pradhan: “You took their vote to get elected, did you not? Then why are you not saving them?”

Babloo gathered between 100 and 150 Muslims of our village in his poultry farm. His buffaloes were tied there and he asked those gathered to milk them and feed the milk to children. He brought dry rations, which he asked the Muslims to cook for themselves. A couple of days later, he drove them all to the safety of Kandla.

Another saviour was Vinod, the ration dealer of the village. Using his Maruti 800 car and two motorcycles, Vinod and his sons drove as many people as they could over many trips to the safety of Kandla. A Jat widow hid the mother-in-law of one of our aunts, who had died, in her home. People we had least expected saved so many lives. But those in whom we had so much faith were the ones who let us down so utterly.

After two days in the camp, my father decided to go back to the village to claim the bodies of our elders and give them a decent burial. He went with police protection. But when he arrived, he was shocked to find that there were no bodies. Everything had been cleaned up, as if in preparation for a wedding. Not a shred of evidence from the scene of the crimes remained. This could not have happened without the active support of the police.

Two bodies of the dead from our village were found in a canal in Baghpat district a few days later. There was an uproar in the media and their pictures appeared in the papers; that is how we identified them as being from a family of Muslim dhobis from our village.

We haven’t found the bodies of any of our five dead elders even until today. Not only do we have to endure the pain of not having any closure to our collective tragedy, the government, too, has refused us compensation. According to the government, since their bodies have not been found, our elders will be officially treated as “missing” for seven years before the government can accept that they are dead.

Keeping together

In Kandla, we began adjusting to the hard life of the camp. We have an uncle in the Delhi Police. He came to Kandla and asked all of us to move in with him in Delhi. The elders refused because they did not want to be a burden but asked him to take us children. We stayed with him for 20 days, then insisted on going back to the camp. We felt suffocated in Delhi and constantly wept. In this time of great loss and trial, we felt that the family must be together, however difficult the odds.

We stayed in the camp for one year. It was the worst time of our lives. We slept under plastic sheets on the ground through the winter, summer and the rains. Many children died. There were just two toilets for a thousand people. The food was difficult to eat: the same coarse rations day after day after day. And the maulanas insisted on getting many young girls married in the camp itself.

That year, I had taken admission in Class 11. There was no way that I could study. But I did not want to lose a year so I paid my exam fees and decided to sit for the examination. The principal scolded me and turned me out of the examination hall because I was not wearing my school uniform. I pleaded with him: “How could I wear my uniform when my house had been looted and burned down, and I was living in a camp?” But he was adamant, and said, “I cannot have you dressed as though you have come in a marriage baraat.” I was losing heart when another teacher from our village school pleaded with the principal and he finally relented. I passed without books or any preparation. This was only because of some kind-hearted teachers who marked the papers and the practical exam leniently. The principal’s counsel, on the other hand, was: “Why are you taking the trouble? Just get your admission cancelled.”

My dream was to become a doctor. Which was why I had taken up biology as a subject. But that was not to be. My studies have ended; the college fees were just too high for our uprooted refugee family. Now I have begun to help my father in his house-building assignments. Jats have stopped calling on him for work, and times are very trying.

There has been no progress in punishing those who killed people from our family. Whenever we would get an appointment with the Superintendent of Police responsible for the special cell investigating the riot crimes, we would always find that the powerful men, listed as perpetrators in our police complaints and statements, would already be seated in his office. The SP would then advise us to remove their names. “What is the point of keeping up this enmity?” he would reason with us. “Take out their names, and you can add the names of other people in the village.” Our blood would boil. Why should we drag in innocent men and let the real culprits walk free? But we would remain silent.

When they found that we would not relent, men from our family were listed as accused in the killing of a Hindu woman two months after the carnage. The father and other elders of the woman believed that she had been murdered by her husband. But the state government still deemed this murder as part of the communal riots. Her husband was given Rs 15 lakh as compensation, and a job by government. We were listed as accused persons for the killing although our mobile phone locations showed that we were not present anywhere near the site of this crime. The purpose of the police was only to put pressure on us further to “compromise” in our cases against the powerful men of our village.

After a year living in the camp, we were finally able to move into a small rented house. Since we were unable to return to Lishad, the state government had paid us a compensation of Rs 5 lakh. But, taking advantage of our plight, land-owners raised the price of house-plots from Rs 800 per square yard before the riots, to Rs 3,000 per square yard or even higher. But we had no option except to buy a 100-square yard house site.

The house is small and cramped. Back in our village, 100 square yards was the size of waste land on the side of our house where we would play in the dust as children. I miss our village every day and every night. I miss my grandfather, my uncles and aunts. I miss my friends, although no one contacts me now. I miss my school and our friendships there. I miss our home, our life together in our village, our love and the brotherhood we shared. I miss them every single day of my life. But I know they are lost to us forever.