Rayisa remembers the time when she celebrated Diwali — her grandchildren would burst crackers and friends would drop in to distribute sweets. During Eid, her seviyan would travel to their houses, their homes filled with the aroma of cardamom and rose water. But on September 8, 2013, the air changed direction. Rayisa was among the about 1 lakh Muslims who fled from Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, Uttar Pradesh, during the riots that year.
The 62-year-old lost her husband. She was left with her sons, Shahzad, Kallu and Zahid, and their families. She had to flee Kutba, the land of her ancestors and the epicentre of the riots, leaving behind memories, the jewellery she wore as a bride and her favourite neem tree.
“They came after us, the very people we smoked hookah with, whose weddings we went to. They came with swords and guns, calling out our names, claiming they would save us, and slaughtering those who believed them,” says Kallu, 36. At the end of the violence, the army took hundreds to relief camps, from the very streets where everyone knew each other by name.
From being residents of Kutba, Hasanpur, Lakh, Phugana and Kakda, working on farms and going door-to-door across the country selling cloth, they became Internally Displaced People, or IDPs. For a year, many of the survivors lived in tarpaulin tents, through bitter cold and ruthless rains. The cheek-by-jowl triangular encampments were a far cry from the sprawling courtyards, high-ceiling rooms and patches of kitchen gardens they nurtured. But this, too, would pass. The strangeness would make way for a home.
The state government had given a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to victims. With the guidance of NGOs and activists — including Sadbhavana Trust from Lucknow, Vanangana in Chitrakoot and Delhi-based Farah Naqvi — survivors from Hasanpur and Kutba bought land in nearby villages to build homes, where there is safety in numbers. While many settled in Basikalan and built their own houses, nearly 129 families made houses in Kairana and Kandhla with the help from Kutch-based Hunnarshala Foundation.
The land they acquired in low-lying areas, literally the backyard of already existing villages, were filled with paddy and sugarcane fields. The newcomers knew one thing — they had to build houses before the cruel winter of 2014. So, when Hunnarshala arrived, armed with their years of experience of building in relief situations including the Bhuj earthquake, Kashmir floods and the Nepal earthquake, they saw a group of people who were determined.
It would be a new beginning for all of them. They had left behind bullet-ridden walls and blood-drenched verandahs. In August this year, they lit up their new homes. Festoons flowed from ceilings and fairy lights dressed up Apna Ghar Colonies in the two villages.
Sandeep Virmani, executive vice-Chairman, Hunnarshala Foundation, knew the only way to get back the confidence of the community would be to make them co-participants in the building process. “As compared to a natural disaster, where there are difficulties of terrain, with riot victims, initially, there was hostility. But we didn’t want to bring in contractors, because that would further alienate the community. When people go through such intense loss, being engaged with a creative community exercise helps revive confidence and gives them ownership of the space,” says Virmani.
Rayisa’s house, the first to be built, took nearly four months. The large-span brick arches of her 2,000 sq ft house, the detailing in the columns, and the filler-slab roof in red and white are symbolic of a transition — from a village felled by hatred, to one that rewards the brave. Today, in her new home, she nurtures neem saplings and pomegranate trees.
“With help from architects of Hunnarshala, we learnt how to dig deep foundations and lay rat-trap bond walls, which not only provide insulation from the heat and cold but also make the homes cost-effective. Where one would need 1,000 bricks, this technique needed only 700,” says Kallu. He took the lead in motivating the 100-odd families to build their own houses. “About 15 days after the riots, we went back to Kutba to get warm clothes. We found our houses looted, valuables stolen and everything destroyed,” he says. There was no turning back then.
Architects from Hunnarshala sat with each family to customise and encourage their aspirations. “The Rs 5 lakh compensation from the government levelled us all. We had bigger houses in our villages, but now we all have houses of the same size,” rues Gulshana, who once had a two-storey house, with flower motifs on walls. In Kandhla, in the Kandli district of Uttar Pradesh, she and Shabnam, her sister-in-law, live side-by-side. They wanted courtyards, where they could keep their livestock and tend a garden. In Kairana, if Kallu believed in the parampara of baithaks, Ninna wanted his courtyard covered, because he wanted a house like the one in the city. Most houses in Kairana and Kandhla have retained the lavish courtyards, a throwback to the days when neighbours would drop by, khatiyas dragged out and rounds of chai and hookah changed hands, until, quite literally, the cows came home.
The architects from Hunnarshala drew house plans for one-storey structures for each family, leaving room for incremental growth. They showed them that by splitting a staircase, they could earn space to build toilets below. Rubina, who lives in Kairana, wanted a niche in her two-bedroom house so that she could display her crockery. “We bought all these after coming here,” says the 26-year-old, pointing at the niches of her cupboard she has filled with ceramic cups, steel glasses and bowls, covered with crochet drapes and handstitched covers in pink and pastel green. “I never knew what it was to build a house. Both at my father and at my in-laws, I lived in comfort. Here, I had to start from the foundation. We spent nearly Rs 3 lakh on this,” she says.
Hunnarshala architects also learnt of the 500-year-old tradition of shallow dome roofs from the masons of Kutba. The concentric circles of brick last more than 300 years, says mason Nawab, who lives in Basikalan, in Muzaffarnagar. His designs sit in Ninna’s house, where every room has a brick-filled roof. For Virmani, it’s an identity-building strategy, marked by its technical, social and political implications.
IDPs have little social power, and almost no political agency in the country. With help from Sadbhavana Trust and Vanangana, people from these three villages have been able to get voter ID cards, Aadhar cards, new birth certificates, ration cards, labour cards and bank accounts. Their children are studying in private schools or madrasas. Hunnarshala also raised funds for drinking water, drainage, and partial treatment systems for toilets.
Kallu admits it has taken a while to win the trust of local shopkeepers, which they never had to worry about earlier. “Kutba was home for generations. Today, we are exiled, and yet, we know, we will have to make this our new home.”
For 36-year-old Dilshad from Basikalan, the riots opened his eyes to the importance of education. “From now on, politics will be on communal lines. If I don’t give my children education, they will meet a fate similar to ours. We can only empower ourselves through knowing our rights,” he says.
Mamta Verma, 35, of Vanangana, who has been instrumental in getting the paperwork done for the villagers, says, “For the first time, I experienced politics, how politicians can destroy lives because of their greed for votes,” she says. She had suggested that women have a kitchen inside the house, which didn’t exist earlier. While most of them continue to cook on chulhas, a gas connection ensures guests are not choking on chulha fumes in the courtyard.
Meanwhile in Kandhla, sugarcane-laced teas are doing the rounds at the residence of Allah Meher. He is smoking his beedi, lying on the khaat, reminiscing about the time when nearly 36 different castes lived side by side in Kutba. “What do you dream of these days?” “Of my birthplace,” says the 70-year-old. “No matter where you go, you will always dream of home.”