Muslims Staying Away From Riot-Hit Indian Village

By Rohit Wadhwaney
2015.08.27
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150827-IN-khan-1000 Budhan Khan sits in the ruins of his former home in Atali, a village in India’s Haryana state, Aug. 21, 2015.
BenarNews

The small Muslim population of Atali, a village about 50 km (31 miles) from New Delhi, has virtually disappeared three months after Hindu majority Jats rioted over the construction of a mosque next-door to a local temple.

A bevy of security personnel, rows of padlocked gates, and an eerie silence now greet the rare visitor to this village in Haryana state.

“All Muslim families have left,” Budhan Khan, a former villager told BenarNews, referring to the locked doors of Atali’s 500-odd Muslim homes.

“It’s hard to live in Atali now,” he said, blaming the exodus on a combination of fear and a social boycott against Muslims by Atali’s 10,000-strong Jat community, which followed in the wake of the violence in May.

Khan and his 22-year-old son, Shan were the only Muslims left in the curfew-bound village at the time. The others had fled and the Khans, too, eventually moved out after the riot.

Last week, when BenarNews visited the village, Khan had returned to gather some belongings the family had left behind.

The Khans moved to a relative’s house in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in early July, more than a month after Jats residents in his village went on a rampage and set fire to about 25 Muslim houses, as they protested against the mosque’s construction next to a Hindu temple.

During the May 25 riot that lasted a little over two hours before police intervened, the mob beat five people, including Khan.

Recalling the day that “destroyed the village’s secular fabric,” Khan told BenarNews: “I was walking back home after offering prayers at the mosque, when a mob came rushing toward me. They beat me with sticks and stones until I lost consciousness. They left me bleeding on the road, probably thinking I was dead.”

The farmer suffered a broken ankle, multiple fractures to his right arm. In addition, rioters burned down his ancestral home, where his family had lived for six generations.

“I have no money left to rebuild my house. All my savings have gone toward my medical expenses,” said Khan, adding he was still unable to use his fractured right arm, forcing him to sit idle without any work ever since.

He said the compensation of about 100,000 rupees ($1,515) he received from the government fell woefully short of the losses he sustained.

Controversy over mosque

The mosque had been a source of tension between the village’s Muslim minority and Jat majority since its construction began in 2009. The project was interrupted later that year, when a local court admitted a petition lodged by Jats to block further construction.

But the anger of local Hindus boiled over when construction resumed in early May, after the court ruled that the land belonged to the Muslims.

The brief outburst of violence that day forced Atali’s heavily outnumbered Muslims to take refuge at the Ballabhgarh police station, some 15 km (9 miles) away, where they stayed in tents for 10 days.

However, following the deployment of the Rapid Action Force (RAF), Muslims returned to the village on June 4 but soon realized that life wasn’t going to be the same again.

“We went back to Atali, hoping to forget and move on with our lives,” said Khan.

“But there was too much bad blood. Shopkeepers refused to sell us (Muslims) anything. Rickshaws wouldn’t stop for us. We would have to travel by bus to the next town to even get daily supplies. How could we go on living like that?” he said.

Jats unperturbed

But members of the communal majority seemed unperturbed by the absence of their long-time Muslim neighbors. They even refused to discuss the May 25 violence, or the boycott that followed.

“They (the Muslims) can go wherever they like. If they want to stay here, they are welcome. We have no problem either way. There is no longer any anger from our side,” Subhash Kumar, a Jat, told BenarNews.

Despite the presence of some 1,000-strong Border Security Force (BSF), which relieved the RAF in early July, and a massive police deployment at the entrance to the village, Muslims say that it’s still unsafe to return to Atali.

“We are heavily outnumbered,” said Sabir Ali, 28, who, along with 15 members of his extended family, has been living in a rented accommodation in Ballabhgarh since July.

“If there was another attack on us, no amount of security could guarantee our safety,” he told BenarNews.

The Ali family bungalow in Atali, built by his ancestors “more than three centuries ago,” was partially damaged in the violence.

Most perpetrators on the loose

Haji Shakir, 37, Ali’s brother, said the family hoped to return to their ancestral property, regardless of the risk of another round of violence or the boycott in place against their community.

“Of course, we want to go back. It is our home. But only after every single perpetrator of the violence has been arrested,” Shakir, a small business owner, told BenarNews.

And that will take time, considering the pace at which the police are going about the investigation, he added.

Three months since the riot, only 14 of 96 suspects have been arrested, according to the police.

“Many of them (the accused) are on the run,” area Police Commissioner Subhash Yadav told BenarNews. “As and when we are getting information about their whereabouts, we are sending teams to make arrests. All the culprits will be apprehended sooner or later.”

“I can assure Atali residents that we have the security situation under control,” the police chief added. “But whether they choose to return to the village is their choice.”

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