New Delhi: On March 22, The Indian Express reported that the Uttar Pradesh government had initiated the process of withdrawing 131 cases — all naming Hindus as the accused and including 13 murder and 11 attempt to murder cases — relating to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. Earlier, in January, PTI reported that the UP government was ‘mulling’ the withdrawal of nine criminal cases against BJP leaders in connection with the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
While this is being seen as a serious attempt at subverting justice in the riots that resulted in the death of 64 people and left nearly a lakh homeless, it is actually just a plot detour in a longer political drama scripted with injustice as its ending.
As of now, the cases have not yet been withdrawn. The UP government has sought the opinion of the district magistrates (DMs) of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli — the two riot-affected districts — on the withdrawal of cases. The Indian Express, in its report has revealed the precise question asked, “In connection with the withdrawal of cases, your clear opinion on public interest with reason.” This is one among the 13 points relating to the riots on which the UP government has sought the opinion of the two DMs.
If the two DMs do not agree to the withdrawal of cases, the effort of the UP government fails then and there.
If the DMs decide to recommend the withdrawal, their wishes will be conveyed to the courts concerned via the public prosecutor. According to Vrinda Grover, a Supreme Court lawyer who is representing some of the victims of the Muzaffarnagar violence, even if the public prosecutor recommends withdrawal of prosecution, under the law it is the court which has the power to accept or reject his proposal.
Section 321 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973, is the relevant law that deals with ‘withdrawal from prosecution’.
“Implicit in the grant of power under section 321 of the CrPC is that such withdrawal should be in the interest of justice. It is settled law that the court will allow withdrawal of prosecution only if it upholds the interest of justice,” said Grover.
“In the case of the Muzaffarnagar riots, withdrawal of cases cannot be in the interest of justice because it is the job of the state to protect the right to life and property of all citizens, including Muslim victims who were targets of the communal violence” Grover added.
The administration, too, it appears would be reluctant to recommend withdrawal. A senior official within the administration of one of the districts concerned told The Wire, “District magistrates don’t give permission to withdraw cases where there has been rioting. It may happen in the case of violence during protests. But, not riots,” said the official.
Interestingly, however, this is not the first attempt by a government in the state to seek withdrawal of cases relating to the Muzaffarnagar riots. In 2014, Akhilesh Yadav, then the chief minister of UP, had also sought the opinion of the Muzaffarnagar DM on withdrawal of cases against Muslim leaders accused of inciting violence. That letter also sought the DM’s opinion on 13 points, one of which involved withdrawal of cases. At the time, the BJP had criticised the move accusing the government of playing ‘appeasement politics’.
Yadav’s efforts came to nought, though, as the DM did not recommend withdrawal of cases.
The BJP does not appear to have learnt a lesson from Yadav’s failed attempt. Or is there more to it than meets the eye?
Sanjeev Balyan, Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament from Muzaffarnagar, a former Union minister, and an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots case is being represented by Chandraveer Singh, a lawyer based in Muzaffarnagar. When Singh learnt that the UP government was moving to withdraw the case, he spoke to Balyan. “I asked him if I have to file a leave or is the case being withdrawn. He said file the leave,” Singh told The Wire.
Singh infers from Balyan’s response that “he knows the cases will not be withdrawn.” According to Singh, the entire exercise of writing letters to the DM seeking withdrawal is a charade. “It is all about political gains before the 2019 elections. The BJP thinks it is losing ground in western UP. They want to send a message to the Jats that they are working to withdraw the cases against them, even when they know these cases will not be withdrawn in this manner,” Singh said.
Why are Jats crucial to politics in western UP?
The Jats are a community that political parties can ignore only at their peril. They form a sizeable proportion of the electorate in Western UP and are a politically influential community in the region. Traditionally, the Jats of Western UP have supported the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). But, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, they deserted RLD and voted in large numbers for the BJP following the polarisation that occurred after the Muzaffarnagar riots in which Jats were pitted against Muslims.
The RLD even lost the Baghpat seat where its national president Ajit Singh, son of former prime minister Charan Singh, lost to the BJP’s Satyapal Singh. It was a setback of existential proportions for the party, as the Baghpat seat had been won by Charan Singh and Ajit Singh in nine of the 10 elections since 1977. Ajit Singh has on numerous occasions blamed the ‘polarisation because of BJP’s divisive campaign’ for the loss.
However, leading up to the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections, things began to change and there was a growing sense that the Jats were unhappy with the BJP over a range of issues. BJP president Amit Shah was quick to recognise the potential damage this could do to his party’s electoral prospects.
In February 2017, with days to go before the Jat-dominated sugarcane belt of western UP voted in the assembly elections, an audio clip featuring Shah was leaked. Shah can be heard trying to appease the Jat community at a private meeting. “BJP is belt mein aapke sahare par hai. Aapke sahare ke bagair jeet nahi sakti. Hum soch bhi nahi sakte. (In this belt, the BJP is dependent upon you. We cannot win without your support. We cannot even think about it),” Shah can be heard telling leaders of the community.
“We don’t want differences with this community (Jat community) in this crucial state,” Shah told them. In the 15-minute audio clip Shah can be heard requesting the community to stand behind the BJP and used the word ‘please’ several times, which he admitted in the clip was ‘contrary to his temperament’.
According to several senior state BJP leaders, that private meeting with Jat leaders turned the tide in BJP’s favour and helped it overcome a difficult situation in western UP. “That meeting was crucial as the Jats had been angry with the BJP and we felt that their votes could slip away. After Amit Shah pacified them, they rallied behind the BJP and that set the tone for the kind of wave that we saw following the first phase of polling in western UP,” a senior BJP leader from the region told this reporter at the time.
How reconciliation and compromise efforts impact politics
On December 26, 2017, several influential khap and Muslim leaders from in and around Muzaffarnagar met Mulayam Singh Yadav in Delhi. The Samajwadi Party leader called for a truce with the Jats and urged the parties concerned to compromise and settle the riot cases. The leaders agreed. Since then, eight such meetings — or panchayats as they are locally known — have been held and in several cases a compromise has been agreed upon. The modus operandi followed is that the two parties involved in any particular case reach a compromise in the panchayat and subsequently witnesses turn hostile in the courts.
Vipin Balyan, a resident of Kutba village which saw the killing of eight people during the riots, is one of the main architects of these efforts to reconcile and compromise. “Fifty-three people had been accused and arrested from my village. We saw large-scale violence and are reeling from its effects even now,” Balyan said.
“These cases can go on for tens of years. I felt that the communities needed to be brought together and a compromise needed to be reached,” said Balyan.
However, prior to Balyan’s efforts, some families had, of their own initiative, reached a compromise, for money. “Look, the families who are in the courts for justice are poor and have difficulties making ends meet. Realistically, they can’t expect justice from the courts in any acceptable period of time. So, several families took money and turned hostile in court. It was a pragmatic decision,” said a local leader who was part of the efforts, but wished to remain anonymous.
Balyan concedes that money had exchanged hands, but claims that after the panchayats began, the practise has ceased. “I am aware that these things happened before our efforts started. But it doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.
According to Balyan, the only way forward is compromise. “There is no other way. If these cases continue, enmity between the two communities is only going to grow. That is not going to be good for either community,” he said.
But, it is the Muslim community that will have to bear the lion’s share of the compromise as they had filed 594 FIRs out of the 634 originally filed.
“It is unfortunate. But there really is no other way. Several prominent Jat leaders have apologised to the Muslims with folded hands,” said Balyan.
According to a Muslim leader who is part of the reconciliation process, the Muslim community does not really have a choice. “We are the ones who suffered in the riots. We lost our families and our homes. We do want justice, but the cost of justice in our country is very high. And justice is rarely done in cases of riots,” the leader said.
“It is best for us to reconcile, forget and move on. It is more important now to get back to our villages and get back to our lives,” he added.
Naresh Tikait, chaudhary, or head, of the influential Balyan khap which holds authority over 84 villages in and around Muzaffarnagar, has also been a part of the efforts of reconciliation. “We are making efforts so that the communities reach a compromise. What happened in 2013 was wrong. It should not have happened. We have apologised. Now we want both the communities to once again live in peace and harmony,” Tikait told The Wire.
“Jat sampradayik biradri nahi hai (Jats are not a communal community),” Tikait added.
Not wanting to be left behind, RLD leader Ajit Singh too jumped into the fray and has camped in Muzaffarnagar on a few occasions since January, meeting the the two communities and urging them to resolve their differences. There is speculation that he might contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Muzaffarnagar to try and resurrect his and his party’s dwindling political fortunes. “It is quite likely that Choudhary sahab (Ajit Singh) will contest from Muzaffarnagar. It will be particularly favourable for us if the Jat-Muslim bonhomie continues,” said a senior RLD leader on condition of anonymity.
So, is the BJP feeling left out? According to Vipin Balyan, the Muslim community had agreed to sit down and discuss the possibility of a compromise only if the BJP was not involved in any way as it held the party responsible for the riots. “They had told us that if there was even a hint of BJP involvement, there would be no chance of any settlement,” Balyan said.
So despite BJP leaders expressing their desire to join the panchayats, they were not allowed to.
Sanjeev Balyan’s counter-move
BJP leaders in the region felt that if the panchayats continued with the active involvement of both Mulayam Singh and Ajit Singh, the party stood to lose electorally. “See, the Muslims don’t vote for us. The Jats have voted for us in large numbers in the last two elections,” said a BJP leader from the region.
The leader believes that the involvement of Ajit Singh and Mulayam Singh in the reconciliatory efforts come with an eye on electoral gains. “These leaders are having these panchayats with the two communities (Jats and Muslims) and keeping the BJP out. It is obvious that the BJP stands to lose,” the leader said.
Another leader who stands to lose out is Sanjiv Balyan, the sitting MP from Muzaffarnagar and one of the beneficiaries of the communal divide. A veterinary surgeon and a relatively unknown political figure prior to the riots, Balyan’s rise post-2013 has been meteoric. Accused of violating prohibitory orders and inciting communal tension during the riots, he quickly rose to become one of Shah’s most trusted lieutenants in western UP. He went on to win the Muzaffarnagar seat by a massive margin of four lakh votes and at 41 became the second youngest minister in the Narendra Modi government after he was appointed minister of state for agriculture and food processing.
“His rise was phenomenal. From nowhere, he was suddenly the most prominent BJP leader in western UP. He became Amit Shah’s ‘go to’ man for the region. And this is not a place where the party was short of leadership. It had stalwarts like Laxmikant Bajpai, who was the state president of the party,” said another BJP leader.
Balyan had become the party’s Jat face, the leader added.
However, unfortunately for Balyan, the law of diminishing marginal utility set in as the political gains from involvement in the riots dried up. He lost his ministry in the cabinet reshuffle of 2017 and has been consistently losing influence in western UP. “His aura has diminished somewhat. He is not as important as he was before,” said the BJP leader.
Meanwhile, in Muzaffarnagar, the process of reconciliation and compromise is going according to plan. And with Mulayam Singh and Ajit Singh tossing their hats into the ring to pick up the political spoils of the settlement between the two communities, Balyan felt he needed to do something or he risked losing political significance.
On February 5, Balyan led a delegation of khap leaders to meet chief minister Adityanath and urged him to withdraw ‘402 fake cases of arson lodged against Hindus’. It was this meeting which prompted the UP government’s law department to seek an opinion from the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli DMs on the possibility of withdrawing the cases. This was Balyan’s effort to be seen as the one setting the agenda when it came to the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Part of the Balyan-led delegation that day was the influential head of the Balyan Khap, Naresh Tikait, who had also been a part of the reconciliatory efforts. This was a setback for the reconciliation efforts. “The most powerful chaudhary is Naresh Tikait and for many he represents the Jat community. And if he is seen with Balyan seeking withdrawal of cases, that sends the message that Jats are not in favour of a settlement,” said Vipin Balyan.
According to Chandraveer Singh, Sanjiv Balyan’s lawyer who has also been involved in the reconciliation process, Balyan took Naresh Tikait along for a specific purpose. “He wanted to send out the message that the entire Jat community is with him. He succeeded in doing that,” said Singh.
Vipin Balyan confronted Tikait after the meeting and asked him why he did what he did. “I told him that this could be perceived as betrayal and could hamper the efforts of settlement. He said ‘galti ho gayi’ (I made a mistake),” Balyan said.
According to both Vipin Balyan and Singh, Sanjiv Balyan’s move has the potential to hamper the reconciliation process as the Muslim community could feel suspicious of their intentions. “If you talk about reconciliation, settlement and compromise on one hand, and on the other hand, you go through the backdoor and ask for withdrawal of cases, the other community will feel suspicious,” said Singh.
The Muslim leader who is part of the reconciliation process feels that even though there is a certain level of distrust, the Muslim community has no option but to compromise and settle. “The effort to withdraw the cases is not ideal. It does sow distrust when the same leaders talk about settlement on one hand, and withdrawal of cases on the other,” the leader said.
“But, what can we do? Do we have a choice? Do you really think we will ever get justice? It is not ideal, but, we have to continue with the process of reconciliation,” the leader said.
Sanjiv Balyan doesn’t agree that his efforts have been influenced by political considerations. “I have always spoken in favour of the withdrawal of these cases. My efforts have nothing to do with politics. Thousands of innocents were named in these cases for political reasons by the then ruling party in the state. I am only fighting for their rights. I am not even talking about my own case. I will fight it out in court,” Balyan told The Wire.
Justice remains elusive
In relation to the Muzaffarnagar riots cases, several words such as ‘compromise’, ‘settlement’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘withdrawal’, make an appearance. However, a crucial word — ‘justice’ — is conspicuous by its absence. It seems to have been elevated to the category of lofty ideals of a utopian world.
Chandraveer Singh knows more about the Muzaffarnagar riots cases than anyone else, having been the lawyer for approximately 1,000 out of the 1,474 accused. He does not believe that justice is possible in these cases. “In most of the cases, there were mobs. How do you identify people? If you can’t identify who committed the crime, you can’t bring them to book. You might end up punishing those who were not guilty, generating another set of victims” he said.
“So maybe true justice is not possible in these cases and reconciliation is the best way forward,” Singh added.
Rehana Adeeb, founder of the Muzaffarnagar based NGO Astitiva, which has worked to help the victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots, terms it ‘unfortunate’ that ‘politics continues in the name of the Muzaffarnagar riots’.
“Nobody seems to want to talk about the families of the victims. People lost their families. Women were raped. Houses were burnt down. How can anything other than justice heal their wounds?” asked Adeeb.
Adeeb doesn’t agree that compromise is the way forward, although she does want reconciliation. “The communities should come together, there is no doubt. But justice must be served. Those who are guilty must be punished,” she said.