Kairana: The bustling little town of Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh shot to the national limelight in June last year when its Lok Sabha representative, the BJP’s Hukum Singh, mooted his “Hindu exodus” hypothesis. Hukum, who allegedly played a catalysing role in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, suddenly woke up from his political hibernation to claim that 346 Hindu families were forced to migrate out of Kairana because of the lawlessness perpetrated by Muslims.
It was later found that many of these families had either migrated out for work or had left the town years ago. Most people in the area said that the prevailing lawlessness in Kairana had misleadingly been painted in a religious light, giving rise to the suspicion that the saffron party might have attempted to polarise the electorate on religious lines ahead of the 2017 assembly polls.
Since then, the BJP has turned its “Hindu exodus” theory into one of its biggest poll issues, with it finding great prominence in the party’s election manifesto. If elected to power, the BJP says, it will stem this migratory tide. The saffron party has cleverly transformed this campaign into a mission to save Hindu women’s dignity.
Kairana goes to polls on 11 February. Hukum Singh eldest daughter, Mriganka Singh, is contesting the polls on a BJP ticket and is up against Samajwadi Party’s sitting MLA Nahid Hasan. The BJP, which has been going all out against its opposition for promoting dynastic politics, has had to face severe criticism for nominating Mriganka, who has barely done any political groundwork.
Amidst such punches and counter-punches, another story of mass migration and displacement has gone completely unnoticed.
In the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots, thousands of families – mostly landless Muslim agricultural workers – fled from their homes, leaving behind their cattle and the little property they owned, to settle in at least 11 camps in the Muslim localities of Kairana.
We visited one such camp where about 300 such families stay. Some of them have been allotted one-room rooftops made by a philanthropic organisation while most of them still stay in half-torn tents made of poor-quality tarpaulin sheets.
A cloud of fear and trauma pervaded the air as the residents spoke.
“I will not go back even if I have to die here,” said Md. Haroon. Almost everyone said that they felt alienated after the riots. “I was living under constant fear that my family will be butchered, mu daughters will be raped. How can I possibly go back,” said Sabra Sayeed, a woman in her mid-forties.
For the residents, the last three years have been a daily struggle and yet they feel much safer here than their homes. This is their biggest irony.
Without any permanent incomes, men and women leave behind their children everyday to go to nearby cities to look for work. Most youngsters from these families have migrated to Delhi and Chennai for a living.
“On some good days, we find work. But on most days, we come back empty-handed. We have been asking the leaders to get us some permanent work but in vain, ” said Md. Yamin.
“One day in September 2016, I visited my village Nagla Pithora (in Muzaffarnagar district) in the dark of the night. They (the rioters) had left nothing. The roof was missing, the walls broken. Everything I had was burnt down. I saw only black soot in place of my pucca house,” said Faiyaz Ahmed.
Over the last three years, the residents have almost given up. They have become unnaturally comfortable in the camps, which has to weather the changing conditions of nature almost everyday.
“We can bear heat and cold but rain is the worst. The diseases spread due to water logging here. Many of our new-borns have died during monsoon,” said Sabra.
The UP government has made some quick-fix arrangements for them. It has arranged for a temporary school and two teachers for the children living in the camp a month ago. Two para-medical staff also visit once every week. But that does not say much as most of these residents stay outside the government’s glare.
Some of them have been given compensation by the UP state government but most have been left forlorn as they keep trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to fend for themselves.
Despite such acute conditions, the poll issues are different. While the BJP took off from a communal standpoint, the non-saffron parties look at these people as an insecure vote bank. In the space that lies between, the displaced riot victims try to bargain for the best they can get.