BASSI KALA RELIEF CAMP, MUZAFFARNAGAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the crowd of Hindu men came brandishing guns, swords and machetes, shouting that Muslims should go either to Pakistan or Kabristan (graveyard), Jerina Kathun knew she had to leave her home fast.
The 45-year-old housewife gathered her 10 children and hid in a Hindu neighbour’s home in the village of Kutwa in Uttar Pradesh (UP), while her husband Mohammad Fayad went out of their two-roomed brick house to try to reason with the mob.
A decision which, she says, cost him his life.
“They cut him into three pieces, slicing his neck and stomach,” says Kathun, sitting on the bare floor of a mosque which has become a relief camp, one of many sheltering more than 41,000 Muslims who have fled the worst communal violence in a decade in UP.
“They then poured petrol over our home and set it alight. We survived only because we hid until the army came to evacuate us. But we can’t go back there.”
(For slideshow on aftermath of Muzaffarnagar riots click here
Forty-five people have died in the prosperous sugarcane district of Muzaffarnagar and surrounding areas since clashes erupted between Muslims and majority Hindu Jats - a conservative farming community - in a sign of rising tension between the two groups ahead of general elections due by May. Government officials say 10 of the dead are Hindus.
The violence - which forced authorities to deploy the army and paramilitary forces, impose curfews and revoke gun licences in places where arms are plentiful - has ebbed, but many displaced Muslims refuse to return home, fearing more bloodshed.
They languish in some 40 schools and mosques which have been converted into relief camps across Muzaffarnagar and neighbouring areas, grateful for the safety in numbers and the three meals of rice and lentils provided daily.
The clashes were triggered on August 27 when a Muslim youth was stabbed to death by two Hindu youths after being accused of sexually harassing their sister. A Muslim mob stoned the two Hindus to death.
In the following days the police failed to deal with the perpetrators, and politicians from various parties gave inflammatory speeches, stoking tension between Hindus and Muslims who, local people say, had lived in this area in relative harmony since independence in 1947.
The tension was evident at a Hindu Jat farmers’ rally on September 7 to condemn the killing of the Hindu youths. Video footage showed a crowd of several thousand, wielding wooden sticks and swords, listening to speeches by political leaders who called for action against the Muslims.
Bloodshed followed when Hindus returning from the rally clashed with Muslims, local government officials said.
“When they (the Hindus) reached the villages the following morning, the Hindus started targeting Muslims residing in their own villages,” said Kaushik Raj Sharma, Muzaffarnagar’s district magistrate.
“The mobs were firing shots and throwing petrol bombs at the minority’s houses. Some Muslims hid in their own homes and were burnt alive, others who tried to flee were chopped (to death).”
A local court issued arrest warrants for 16 politicians and community leaders on Wednesday, including members of both the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress which leads the coalition government at the centre, accusing them of inciting violence through inflammatory speeches made at various Hindu and Muslim gatherings, including the September 7 rally.
The state government, run by the Samajwadi Party which promotes itself as secular, has been criticised by right-wing nationalists for “being soft” on Muslims and discriminating against Hindus.
Analysts say Hindu-Muslim violence has been a defining feature of Indian politics since the partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced.
Religion and caste violence play a central role in politics in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Fanning communal tension often brings political gains to parties that claim to protect different religious and caste groups, and analysts say this is what happened in Muzaffarnagar.
Government officials say 147 villages in which Hindus and Muslims had lived peacefully for decades had now been emptied of Muslims, many of whom were evacuated by the army and paramilitary forces.
In the suffocating heat, they sit listlessly in relief camps like Bassi Kala, desperate to tell their stories to journalists and dignitaries like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who visited the camp on Monday.
A few minutes’ walk from the camp lie eight unmarked graves, in a wasteland where displaced families from Kutwa, one of the worst-hit villages, have buried their dead.
In Kutwa itself, 5 kms from Bassi Kala, the narrow lanes are sparsely populated and a sense of unease hangs over the Hindu inhabitants. The charred remains of Muslim homes and shops stand out and the interior of the village mosque - the first stop for the mob - has been ransacked and set alight.
Some of Kutwa’s Hindus say they deeply regret the incident, and say it involved not only locals but also outsiders such as members of political parties and an influential farmers union.
“The Muslims are not at fault. This has never happened before. There has never been a Hindu-Muslim issue in this village before. The Muslims are a poor minority here and they are the ones who have suffered the most,” says village elder Govardhan.
“We lived together peacefully. We would go to their weddings and they would come to ours. It is very sad what has happened. There was so much love between us. We want them to come back and live here again. We will try and persuade them and gain their trust.”
Government officials say they are confident the Muslims will return to their villages within a month, admitting that a “fear psychosis” has developed and it will take time to restore the trust and confidence of the community.
They have dismissed the Muslims’ demands for relocation elsewhere, saying this would create a dangerous precedent and promote division between the two groups.
But displaced Muslims are adamant they will not return to their homes.
“I won’t return no matter what. How can we go back?” says Kathun. “My husband’s body lies in a grave because of them. How can I go and live alongside those in my village who did this. If they can kill once, they can kill again.”