“We can’t sit back, we have to foster amity”

Interview: Asif Rahi, president, Paigam-e-Insaniyat, Muzaffarnagar

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Aasha Khosa | April 11, 2016


#Muzaffarnagar Riots Victims   #Muzaffarnagar Riots   #Muzaffarnagar   #Ground Report   #Paigam-e-Insaniyat   #Asif Rahi  

How is your organisation trying to help the riot victims of Muzaffarnagar?

The riots have taught us the importance of building ‘sadbhavana’, goodwill, among the communities. It has shaken all of us out of stupor and taught us that we need to remain vigilant against the trouble mongers among us. Sporadic instances of small issues snowballing into communal flare-ups were happening before the riots. But we failed to see these and also foresee the devastating impact of these on society. It is a lesson learnt though the hard way.

Tell us about your work.

We have to remember that after the riots a number of NGOs had come here but soon they left. We, the people of this area, have to fight our own battles. People like me have realised that we can’t take peace for granted. My organisation was working on a low level. After the riots, while working for riot victims, we discovered that while there are a lot of people whose misery can be seen and heard by others, there are an equal number of people who are suffering and not even ready to speak up about it. For example, a family has a member going through chemotherapy and has no money; some parents have no money to pay the children’s school fees. After the riots we found a lot of such people around and our NGO is helping them.

How are you working on building confidence between Muslims and Jats?

Despite a lot of bad blood between the two communities of late, there are  sensible people in both communities. Working in the field, I discovered that there were a lot of Muslims and Jats who had saved people during the riots even when it meant putting their own lives to risk. We recently honoured seven such people to highlight their efforts in saving lives without religious prejudices. We need to showcase our heroes.

Tell us more about these heroes.

When riots broke out Mohammad Jabbar Khan, village chief of Loi, assured the Muslims of Jholla that he would protect them and that they should not leave the village. He also took the army personnel around to save lives. He hosted 200 people in his home for 15 days. A farmer named Ashok Sharma of Lalukheri rescued two Muslim families and ensured their passage to safety. No wonder once riots were over, the Muslims returned to their homes. Dhirsen of Kutbi village sheltered 50 Muslim men and women at his home and dared the rioters to touch them. He along with his two sons stood guard on the terrace of his house against the killers. Satinder Choudhary of Lishaad village hid his Muslim labourers inside the chimney of his brick kiln and saved them from rioters. Sanjiv Baliyan, pradhan of Dulhera village, rescued Muslim families and gave them food for days together.

How are you dealing with the feeling of discrimination among the Muslims?

All these years, we never had to prove our ‘Indianness’. But now we make it a point to collect funds for festivals like Independence Day and Republic Day; we hoist tricolour in Minakashi chowk (a predominantly Muslim locality of Muzaffarnagar) and also distribute sweets. We have realised that there is no harm in making an occasional show of our sense of pride as Indians. We organise inter-faith meetings on occasions like Holi and Diwali.

What more are Muslims doing in this direction?

We have realised that we can no longer afford to sit back and watch the nation go through all ups and downs. It’s our right and responsibility to foster amity and join debates and issues which have a bearing on people’s lives. It was from Minakashi chowk that we collected 15,000 signatures on a petition asking the government to stop harassment of Teesta Setalvad who had played a great role in ensuring justice for Gujarat’s riot victims. We have formed a Jat-Muslim Ekta Manch to work on bridging communication gaps between the two communities.

But don’t you think an average Muslim living in vulnerable and communally sensitive areas like Muzaffarnagar will have to fend for himself when intolerance levels are rising in India?

Yes, I must admit that the instances of intolerance across India have a bearing on people’s lives. The media gets influenced and reacts in a weird manner. For example, when a Muslim girl marries a Hindu boy, local papers will call it a ‘premi jodi’ [a couple in love]; but if it is a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, it is termed ‘love jihad’. 

But looking from Muzaffarnagar, I sometimes feel India is a victim of a conspiracy. Smaller incidents get blown into major controversies, and ultimately these turn out to be a case of much ado about nothing. For example, the case of a man being lynched for eating beef in Dadri was not based on facts; what police got from his house was mutton. However, all these instances surely dent people’s confidence in smaller towns.

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