For seven months, the 8 kilometres to Kutba was a bridge too far.
At one end of the journey, was what they had become — daily wage labourers living in tents, at the mercy of the elements and racked by fear. Waiting for them at the other was a reminder of who they once were — farmers with land to tend, and a roof to return to.
On Thursday, for the first time since last year’s communal riots, in which more than 15 people in the village were killed and their homes reduced to ashes, 50 Muslim men and women, and one child, mustered the courage to make the trip to what they once called home, to vote.
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They huddled together in a tractor with four vehicles in front, three at the back, and 50 policemen surrounding them.
If polarisation is a key issue in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it is in your face in Muzaffarnagar. Fifty-nine people were killed in the Jat-Muslim riots last September and thousands of Muslims were displaced and forced to live in makeshift camps for months. And the communal tension has been a theme during the campaigning.
For this group of 50 people, deliberations on whether they should vote at all began early in the morning, when they found their names were not in the voters’ list in Palda village where they now live in a relief camp.
“At 10 am, I called the SDM and told him our names were not in the list. He told me that nothing could be done, and we would have to go to Kutba to vote. I told him we had sworn we would never return to a place where our families had been killed, and our lives taken away. But he said his hands were tied. It was up to us to decide,” said Shahnawaz Hassan, the eldest in the camp.
An hour of furious deliberation later, a phone call was made to Alok Priyadarshi, Superintendent of Police (Rural). “Sir, when you were here the day-before, you had said call me if you want to go to your village, a vehicle will be arranged. We want to go, can you please come,” Hassan said over the phone.
The wait was short, 15 minutes in all. But even if the words they said were encouraging, the elders’ words betrayed fear.
“Arre bhai, I’m telling you nothing will happen. Savdhani barto, bas (Just be careful). No child will go with their mother, and take these (pointing to his skullcap) off. Just stay together,” said Akbar Khan, sitting at the helm of the tractor. No questions were asked. The only exceptions were six-year old Armaan, too ill to leave his mother, and 66-year-old Mohammad, too tired to care.
When SP Priyadarshi arrived with seven police vehicles, the air grew tense, and instructions were given in short, crisp tones. “Four cars in front, and three at the back. Take the road that goes through the forest, and not the one through Kutbi village. We don’t have to announce they are coming. I don’t care if it is longer,” Priyadarshi told his men.
“We have made these escort teams at all relief camps,” he told The Indian Express later in the day. “I am personally escorting them to Kutba, as it is the most sensitive zone for these elections. Thus far, convoys have taken people from Jaula to Fogana, from Jogi Kheda to Lakh, and each with this much security. There has been no violence, but convincing villagers to return to vote has been a problem.”
As the convoy went past the first onlookers in what is now the Jat village, there were gentle but grim reminders of why the measures were needed. People, once their neighbours, stood with arms folded tight, with glassy stares. Some even with barbs. “Ram Ram ji,” said a young man in his twenties.
Another, laughing around him, said, “Bade din se dikhe nahi aap? (Haven’t seen you in a while?)”
If the barbs were meant to intimidate, they were working. As the group reached the primary school where it was to vote, they ran inside where more security awaited, falling over each other in their hurry.
Many had come without identification, but for everyone concerned, the goal was to finish the process as fast as possible. “Koyi nahi, I’ll send a boy to identify them all. Jaldi se ho jayega. Poora cooperate karenge (It will be done quickly. We will cooperate fully),” Ajit Choudhary, the pradhan of the village, told the block officer.
Salim Ahmed, who was a tailor in the village earlier said, “I asked the police officer if I could go home and see if I could salvage something from the rubble. They said they couldn’t come with me because they were all needed here. This is the first time I have seen this place since September and I know this is the most I will see of home.”
For two hours, policemen stood on guard under the trees as 50 people exercised their right to vote. They contributed to Kutba’s highest voter turnout to date, upwards of 72 per cent. But as policemen lined the streets when their convoy made its way back, all of them safely ensconced in their tractor, one thing was clear.
Voting day was over, and there would be no more reasons to visit. Kutba was no longer home.