Shamli, India – As temperatures continue to plummet in northern India, about 4,000 people displaced by recent riots have refused to leave a relief camp, saying they fear further sectarian violence if they return home.
In September, rioting between Muslims and Hindus in the Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts of Uttar Pradesh state killed more than 50 and left 50,000 displaced. Many among the Muslim community fled their homes seeking shelter at relief camps.
Residents at the Malakpur camp in Shamli told Al Jazeera they were fighting eviction by the Uttar Pradesh government, and refusing to return to their villages over fears of further communal violence erupting.
Standing in a crowd of about 40 camp residents, a young woman named Shaista accused the state government of trying to push them out.
I left everything in my house. All my money is in my home. I feel comfortable living here, but it is so cold at night and we have no blankets.
“I left everything in my village, but we don’t want to return because we are afraid of what might happen to us,” she told Al Jazeera. “The government is pressuring us to leave. We all know what happened at Loi [relief camp]. The [Uttar Pradesh] government doesn’t want to help us.”
Another resident interrupted Shaista and pulled out a blood-stained shirt – a reminder of the violence that destroyed his home last year.
“Look at this,” the man said, holding up the ripped clothing. “Four people died in my family. We are very afraid. We are never going to return to our village. Even if our tents get knocked down, we will not go.”
A kilometre down the road at the Khuragon relief camp for other riot victims, the same sentiment was expressed.
“I left everything in my house. All my money is in my home,” Bablu Kamalaudin said. “I feel comfortable living here, but it is so cold at night and we have no blankets.”
Another man, Javed, said he would not return to his village. “People were firing at my house. I am not going back. We have not received any government help. They’re pressuring us to leave. They told us to go anywhere but here. We won’t leave.”
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akilesh Yadav has come under fire for his handling of the situation, with the media taking him to task for holding an expensive cultural festival in the area, featuring Bollywood stars, while reports of the struggles of those displaced in freezing temperatures captured headlines.
“The money spent on this jamboree could have been better spent on trying to rehabilitate those in camps,” the Hindustan Times said in an editorial. “It is no-one’s case that people should not enjoy entertainment, but it is another for the state to fritter away money on this when people are suffering so much.”
Last week, officials visited the Malakpur relief camp and urged the displaced to go home. “We have appealed to them to shift to a safer place due to the biting cold,” Shamli District Magistrate PK Singh was quoted as saying.
Residents, however, say they are being coerced into leaving and have refused to budge.
|Relief camps in Muzaffarnagar [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]|
New Delhi-based lawyer and activist Shehzad Poonawalla told Al Jazeera he was campaigning on behalf of camp residents against the “forcible evictions”.
“The Uttar Pradesh government wants to get rid of all the camps,” he said. “They don’t want them to exist anymore because the longer they exist, the more journalists write about the horrific living conditions here. It is an embarrassment to the government.”
He said people also did not want to return to their villages because police have failed to investigate complaints of rape. At least six people have reportedly given statements to police alleging they were raped, but no arrests have been made.
Only 294 people have been arrested over the September violence, despite nearly 6,000 being named as suspects.
Poonawalla has called on the government to move the displaced people to empty government schools and buildings to protect them from the cold. He has also demanded that the government give people two months’ food rations, that their damaged property be repaired, and they be adequately compensated for financial losses.
“The forcible eviction is taking place, against the wishes of those living in these camps, and is being done in a pressing haste by the Uttar Pradesh government and administration without making any concrete, sustainable and viable alternative arrangements for the riot-affected persons,” Poonawalla wrote in a letter to the chairman of India’s National Commission for Minorities, Wajahat Habibullah.
“Dismantling of the camps and [the] forcible evictions of its inhabitants, without proper identification and payment of compensation, in this bitter cold, would amount to the grossest form of human rights violations.”
Poonawalla recently met with the Shamli district magistrate, but he said the meeting failed to elicit any assurances from the authorities to halt the evictions.
As a result, Poonawalla said he and about 30 Malakpur residents were fasting indefinitely until the government gives written commitments to help those affected.
We don't have any money ... The future for us is very scary, no-one cares about us. The government said that if we left Loi we would receive rations. But it has been a week and we have not received anything.
Loi relief camp
The hunger strike comes amid fallout from the eviction of residents at Loi relief camp in nearby Muzaffarnagar.
That camp, which housed about 6,000 riot-affected people, was destroyed last week.
Residents alleged their makeshift homes were demolished in order to avoid negative media attention, following a report that revealed 34 children had died in the relief camps since September 7.
Officials denied reports that children had died from the cold, but some families have said otherwise.
While the Uttar Pradesh government had promised compensation for victims of the deadly riots to build new homes, less than half of those at Loi camp had received any money. As a result, many are now living in abandoned buildings, or on the side of the road.
In a run-down vacant factory in Barasholi, a small village in Shamli district, more than 100 people tried to protect themselves from the cold. Young boys crowded around the only gas stove, cooking roti for their siblings, while men set up tents for their families.
There is no running water or electricity.
“We don’t have any money. We are hopeless, we don’t have anything. We feel very insecure here,” said Islam, who was evicted from Loi relief camp, giving only his first name.
“The future for us is very scary, no one cares about us. The government said that if we left Loi we would receive rations. But it has been a week and we have not received anything.”
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