Apoorvanand with Ali Javed and Satish Deshpande
It has been ten days since the Muslims of Atali have returned. Normalcy has been restored. Or it is being restored, if we are to believe the grave voice of the police officer on the phone who very politely advises us against entering this Haryana village that was hit by anti-Muslim violence on 25th May.
“Please come back after a week. The situation is very sensitive here, you should understand. A misinformed ‘outside’ intervention might break the delicate peace we have managed here.”
We do not want to test the patience of the police men and women guarding the peace of Atali, braving the merciless sun beating down on them.
“We are here precisely to understand this process of restoration of peace,” we make a vain attempt to convince the officer. “Your academic curiosity can wait, we cannot take a chance with outsiders. Memories of the conflict get revived with such visits.”
It is not very difficult to sense his growing irritation as we persist, but the phone line gets disconnected and cannot be re-connected.
We are not here to collect ‘facts’. These are already known and follow a familiar storyline involving claims of harassment of women and, of course, a disputed mosque. What is new and unfamiliar in Atali is that, despite their unresolved grievances, the Muslims were ultimately persuaded to return by their Hindu co-villagers.
However reluctant it might be, such a return is unheard of in the numerous instances of communal violence of the last decade. On the contrary, geographies centuries old have been permanently altered in places like Gujarat or Muzaffarnagar. Villages have turned their back on their own neighbours of several generations, and far from calling them back, have only stoked the hatred. What is it about Atali that makes it different?
We are here to see the Atali that has brought back its Muslims.
After about two hours of waiting at the barricades put up by the police, we decide to enter the village anyway, risking the wrath of the policemen on the scene, who seem by then to be wearied by the heat and no longer interested in us. In the village we meet a team from the People’s Union of Democratic Rights. They want to meet the Sarpanch, but he is apparently away on a business trip to Hong Kong and no one seems to have his mobile number.
A small crowd gathers around us. An old Jat woman asks, “Are you a Mulla or one of us?” We try to laugh away the query. She generously invites us for roti-pani to her house. Some young men follow us. Her son, a middle aged man with an amiable smile, welcomes us. According to him, everything was alright in the village till recently.
‘They eat from our thalis, we trust them to take our women for pavitra-snan (holy dip). They owe us lakhs of rupees; our forefathers gave them land and helped them settle here. Even in 1947, nothing happened to them. It is just two families who have now earned some money, who are at the root of all this. There was never a mosque here, only a chabootara, and now they want to have a grand structure. How can it be? Our devisthan is close by. We are ready to give them land, even money to build their mosque, not here, two kilometers away, but they are adamant. They even threw stones at our women when they went there for puja’.
What is the way out, we ask. He is very clear and others nod in agreement that the Muslims have to understand. They cannot build their mosque at the disputed site. Suddenly he warms up and gives a sophisticated argument, he has been told by his sensible Muslim friends that a masjid cannot be built at a site which is under some dispute. Should they not follow their religion and leave this disputed place? We have heard this argument before in the context of the Ram Mandir movement, as one reason for removing the Babri Masjid.
But why the violence?, we ask. The question produces a sudden hush as no one speaks for several moments.
‘We don’t know who did it. You know, people are at their work, some at their fields, others gone for duty, how do we know? Yes, it was bad. Nobody seems to know how it all happened. But did we not work hard to persuade them to come back?’
We ask about the houses that have been burnt down. Should not Hindus help Muslims in rebuilding their houses?
‘We should, and we will – once they give up their claim on the disputed land.’
Suddenly the old woman gets agitated: ‘You are writing everything we say, but not telling us anything! Tell us what the mullas have told you?’.
“They ‘ll send you to jail,” her son jokingly scolds her.
As we start taking our leave, one of us notices a calendar hanging on the wall. The image is a common one of Ganesha, but the shop for which it has been printed is called ‘Saifi Electrical Works’. Impressed with this little example of syncretic culture, we take pictures with our mobile phones. “You had invited us for roti, where is that?”, we tease the old woman. Everyone laughs and she blushes.
We move to the Muslim part of the village. Suddenly we come face-to-face with a half-built structure. This is the mosque, we are told. We enter a desolate house, part of which is visibly burnt. The man of house flings down the blanket that is on the chowki.
Why are you throwing it on the floor?, we ask him.
“It is all burnt, can’t you see?”. He does not sound angry. Two women are sitting on the floor with a small girl. “She used to be very naughty. Kept roaming around in the village. Not any more. After that evening she does not leave us.”
It is a long story of tears, shock, anger, frustration, betrayal and helplessness.
“We saw neighbors throwing petrol, women with trollies. They destroyed everything.” He shows us the burnt grain from the sacks lying there. “Tell us what do we eat? They burnt my tempo. It used to feed us, and the eight children of this house. What do I do now? Was the tempo building the mosque? They should have burnt me. Why the tempo?”
The man is in a hurry. This a Friday afternoon, time for namaz. Men have gathered at the ‘mosque.’ A police party looks on.
We move around. You can enter Muslim houses quite easily because their front doors don’t exist or have been blasted out of recognition. Only an earthquake or a bomb could have achieved this. You can still smell the viciousness which motivated the attack.
What is it that we wanted to see or know? We start feeling weary. All this looks so familiar.
We are led to another house. Its front portion is totally devastated. About a dozen men, young and old come and sit silently. We hear the same story again, with sadness and humour. Our host is thankful to the uparwala (the one above) for having saved them. And the police, who were kind enough to move them, their kids and women to safety. That they were not killed is still a mystery to him. What else but the grace of the Most Benevolent could have saved them!
Muslims were persuaded to return to Atali with promises that the mosque would be built, they will be compensated adequately. Hindus told them that they would feed them. But once they came back, everyone disappeared. The Muslims feel cheated. Nobody in the village talks to them now. Shopkeepers have been told not to sell anything to them. They are mocked and insulted.
After their return, no political leader has visited them. No village elder, either. They feel trapped. They live with the acute awareness that there is no support for them in a hostile Hindu neighbourhood and village. There are five Hindu villages separating them from the nearest village with a sizeable Muslim population.
Where will this story go? What is the way out? How will any semblance of normal relations between the two communities ever return in Atali? Such a situation of permanent tension between different communities – and not only ones defined by religion – is depressingly familiar in the Indian context.
What is new and alarming though is the frequency with which incidents like the one in Atali are spreading nationally. Is this the future of India – a state of permanent fear and tension for religious, ethnic, caste, or linguistic minorities bullied by an intolerant majority, egged on by venal politicians and an ineffective state machinery?
As we drive back the 59 kilometers to Delhi, it is these questions that weigh heavily on our minds, adding to the oppressive heat of the summer evening.