(New York, January 17, 2014) - Indian authorities in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh should immediately stop evicting people from camps who fled communal violence in September 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. State authorities should conclude their investigations into riot-related crimes, including alleged sexual violence, and initiate appropriate prosecutions.
The central government should ensure that the Uttar Pradesh state authorities provide aid to the displaced, and their safe return or resettlement, in accordance with international human rights law. India should also enact a strong law to prevent and respond to communal violence in the country in consultation with rights experts, and in compliance with well-established international human rights principles.
The state government has forcibly closed camps housing thousands of people displaced four months ago by communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar and surrounding districts that resulted in more than 60 deaths. Instead of displacing these people again, the Uttar Pradesh government should provide needed relief, and ensure the safe, voluntary return or resettlement for all those displaced.
"The Uttar Pradesh government responded to reports of relief shortages and rising children's death toll by evicting riot victims from camps," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. "Instead of protecting those in need, it is using coercion to keep their plight hidden."
A September 7, 2013 communal altercation in Muzaffarnagar that left two Hindus and a Muslim dead was followed by inflammatory speeches by Hindu political leaders from the Jat community that encouraged attacks on Muslims. Three days of violence ensued between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut, Baghpat, and Saharanpur districts until a curfew was imposed and the Indian army was deployed to restore law and order. People from more than 150 villages fled their homes and thousands remain displaced, fearful to return.
In January 2014, Human Rights Watch visited six camps in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts and found that those displaced had received little assistance from the government. Religious charities and madrassas, along with civil society groups and local villagers, have taken the lead in providing aid, including shelter, food, and clothing.
Residents of the camps told Human Rights Watch that the state had provided aid for less than a month and since November 2013 the authorities had been putting pressure on them to leave the camps. Reports of child deaths in camps In December 2013, the Indian Supreme Court expressed concern over reports of deaths of children in the camps and directed state authorities to immediately improve their relief services and report on the situation. A committee appointed by the Uttar Pradesh government found that 34 children at the relief camps had died since September.
Authorities have sought to downplay the ongoing displacement of riot victims. The Uttar Pradesh government reported in December that out of the 58 camps opened in September, only four remained in Shamli and one in Muzaffarnagar districts - but ignored the displaced removed from the camps. It said that only around 5,000 people remained displaced, though local groups put this number at more than 27,000. In January 2014 the Muzaffarnagar authorities told Human Rights Watch that its remaining camp had closed and that all the displaced people had returned home except for those from the six villages designated as "riot-affected." Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief of Uttar Pradesh's ruling Samajwadi party - and father of the state's chief minister - claimed that those still in camps were not riot victims but people conspiring with rival political parties against the state government.
Human Rights Watch found that many displaced people, primarily Muslims, continued to live in camps or had moved inside nearby villages when they were evicted, in Shahpur, Loyi, Kandhla, Jogiya Kheda, and Jaula villages in Muzaffarnagar district and Malakpur in Shamli. In Shahpur, Jaula, and Malakpur, hundreds of tents were visible on government and private land. In other cases, the government had put pressure on the madrassas or religious organizations providing relief to the camps to shut them down. Instead, displaced people had merely moved into nearby Muslim dominant villages, living temporarily in people's homes or pitching their tents on private land.
The Uttar Pradesh state authorities should provide assistance and protection to those displaced by the riots in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The authorities should provide essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation. Assistance should be provided without discrimination. The authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, that would allow displaced families to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of the displaced in the planning and management of their return or resettlement.
The Uttar Pradesh state government's plan for rehabilitation of those displaced has largely comprised a one-time payment of INR 500,000 (US$8,123) to 1,800 families from nine villages. The government contends that residents of six villages in Muzaffarnagar and three in Shamli faced the most violence and do not want to return, so they are being compensated to move elsewhere. Numerous displaced people told Human Rights Watch that in order to receive compensation they had to sign an affidavit saying they will not return to their villages, live in a relief camp, or occupy government land.
A local official defended the affidavits, telling Human Rights Watch: "They have given the affidavit voluntarily, what can we do? We didn't force them to sign it. If they have already given to us in writing that they won't return, how can they return to their villages?" State action missing The authorities have stated that any property owned by the displaced people in their former villages will remain the villagers'. But many displaced Muslims who spoke to Human Rights Watch expressed the fear that in their absence the Hindu residents in their villages would encroach upon their property and take over their land. "The Uttar Pradesh government has no real rehabilitation plan or safe return policy," Ganguly said. "The authorities need to promptly step up and ensure that those displaced can, without discrimination, return home safely or have the means and ability to move elsewhere." The state government's special investigation into riot-related crimes should conclude promptly and appropriate prosecutions should be pursued, particularly in cases of sexual violence. Senior police officials reported that 533 riot-related cases have been registered, including six cases of sexual assault. About 300 arrests have been made so far, though none in sexual violence cases. Muzaffarnagar's police chief, Hari Narayan Singh, told Human Rights Watch that investigations into allegations of gang rape and sexual assault were ongoing. Local activists expressed concern about the pace and effectiveness of the police investigations, calling them slow and alleging that the police are trying to distort evidence in a number of cases. Since the communal riots, state authorities have not taken adequate action to address tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities or improve conditions so that the displaced population feels it is safe to return. On January 9, a state-level minister helped mediate a rare meeting between chiefs of Hindu and Muslim dominated villages that had suffered major displacement. Iqbal Khan, chief of Jogiya Kheda village who attended the meeting, told Human Rights Watch that that it was still not safe for the displaced people to return. "No one has been convicted yet of the crimes," he said. "The people who attacked them still remain in the villages, so how can they feel safe on return?"
While a number of residents in camps and some camp organizers told Human Rights Watch that some of the displaced who came from villages that had not witnessed any violence had returned home, the overwhelming sentiment among those remaining in camps was still of fear and refusal to return.
"Displaced riot victims fear returning home because they don't think the government can protect them if new communal violence erupts," Ganguly said. "Only by prosecuting all those responsible for the violence can the government gain the trust of those anxious to return to their homes." Testimony from internally displaced people and camp committee organizers in Muzaffarnagar "When we came here, the camp organizing committee gave us a tent on government land. We stayed at the camp for about three and a half months. We had to move out in the last week of December because the district authorities came and said ‘Wherever you want to go, go, but leave this place. This is government land.' They added ‘We are telling you nicely. Move now or otherwise we will use force. You might get hurt.' So we moved. Some of us received compensation so we bought land in the village.
When the authorities asked us to move, it was really difficult. Where could we go? Then we asked some Dalits who owned huts in the village but were away to work in brick kilns if we could put our tent in their compound. They agreed, so until they return, we will stay here.
Right now we aren't certain when we will get possession of our new land, build our house, and move. We will never go back [to Phugana]. They will not leave us alive. They have not left a single thing in our homes. How will they leave us? We are scared even to visit our village."
- Jaitoon, 65, from Phugana village in Muzaffarnagar. Living in Loyi village
"For the last two months, police have been coming with the district authorities regularly and asking us to move our camp elsewhere saying we would get compensation. But we didn't move because half the people had not received compensation. We had no faith. Then the village chief told us if we wanted compensation, we had to move. We had constant pressure from the police too. So then we had to move. It was not like we were taking over the land. We felt even more helpless when we had to move this time because at least until now we felt that these people from the Loyi village had helped us. But when they asked us to move our tents, we felt we had no one. The government was never ours, but now even the people who helped us earlier were turning us away. There wasn't enough space for everyone to stay in the village so many people left."
- Nafedeen, 50, from Phugana village. Living in a tent in Loyi village
"Due to media attention on the camps, the authorities were embarrassed so they asked us to move people out of the camps. But we told them that first give compensation to the people, only then will they move. The authorities were threatening us with a court case saying you have taken over state-owned land, so we had to relent and move the people. When there was no media attention on the camps, the government didn't bother about them. But when the media came, then they got worried and we had to move the people inside the village, either in tents on private land or inside people's houses. Not one person wants to return to their village. But there are people who are displaced from villages not counted under the riot-affected village list. Those people are most in need today as they need alternative accommodation. The government says, ‘Wherever you go, just go from here.'"
- Abdul Jabbar, former village chief, Loyi
"We were living in Loyi camp since September. Last month, we heard that those who received compensation should leave the camp, but the rest can stay. But suddenly, one morning when we woke up, we saw district officials, police, and bulldozers standing at the camp. We had to leave in a hurry and lost much of our food grains. From there we went to Neem Khedi along with several other families and put our tent there. We stayed there for a few days and then we were asked to move from there too. Again, the district officials and the police came and asked us to go. So then we came here to Jogiya Kheda and are living temporarily in people's houses in the village. We have been ousted from one place after another. We want the government to give everyone compensation. We want justice. People who made us suffer so, attacked us, left us displaced, burned our homes, they should be arrested."
- Midu, 65, from Phugana village. Displaced multiple times and currently living in Jogiya Kheda village
"We will live here in Kandhla because it's a Muslim village and we have every kind of support here. No one insults us here. No one can attack us here as they did in our former village. We cannot trust these Jats. They can do anything. The Jats don't really want us to come back. They only came here to meet us because they want us to withdraw the FIRs [police complaints known as a First Information Report]. Some people who have returned to the village come and tell us that ‘Jats say that last time you got away but this time we wouldn't let you get away.' We don't want to return. Our children are terrified."
- Mohameed Nafedeen, 38, from Naala village in Muzaffarnagar. Living in a tent in Kandhla village