It was on Friday afternoon when an estimated 50,000 people gathered at Muzaffarnagar’s Khalapar area. What was meant to be a protest against the new citizenship law had by 4.30 pm turned into violent clashes between police and protesters, with residents alleging that the hours that followed witnessed a ruthless police crackdown on their homes, their shops as well as a local mosque.
The district, which had in 2013 seen communal clashes that left over 50 dead, now finds itself under lockdown, on the edge, and, in the absence of Internet, virtually cut off. One resident has died in the violence, though police maintain they have not fired a single shot and that they have no link to his death.
When The Indian Express visited Muzaffarnagar on Sunday afternoon, Meenakshi Chowk, usually a bustling marketplace with rows of restaurants, was deserted. Police claim Friday’s crowd had started stone-pelting at Barkachha Chowk and moved towards Meenakshi Chowk and Mahavir Chowk a kilometre away. Residents, on the other hand, allege the sound of gunfire had prompted panic in the crowd, following which violence began.
“There were more than 50,000 people protesting. Initially it was peaceful but soon more crowds began to gather near Meenakshi Chowk. After a few hours, stone-pelting began and we had to resort to lathicharge and teargas shelling to contain them. Not a single round was fired from the police side. In fact, we have recovered empty shells of various ammunition from the side of the protesters,” claimed Satpal Antil, SP City, Muzaffarnagar.
Residents claim what followed barely six hours later was a police crackdown in the locality, with personnel entering the lanes of Khalapar and destroying private property with hammers and lathis. Residents, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, claimed more than 80 policemen, both in uniform and civil clothes, barged into homes, broke windows and destroyed items.
Haji Anwarilahi, 74, claimed that on Friday night, he was detained by policemen after they smashed his vehicle and entered his home. “I can barely even walk. I could hear sticks banging and breaking things. They even broke a fridge which was supposed to be gifted during a wedding. I was detained in a ‘police facility’, and I heard screams from different rooms all night. It was horrific,” Haji, who claims he was released Sunday morning, told The Indian Express. Many residents from Khalapar claimed they hid in corners of their own homes as policemen roamed around for almost two hours on Friday night. Some claimed they hid on terraces when they saw policemen breaking streetlights and CCTV cameras placed outside their homes.
Two kilometres away, the steps leading to Abdul Karim mosque are still littered with broken glass. Eyewitnesses claimed police had stormed the mosque premises Friday night and broken several items inside.
“There was a group of madrasa students who had come from Gujarat and were sleeping inside the prayer hall. They were woken up by the sound of glass windows being broken. They rushed to hide upstairs when police barged in,” said the imam.
Local residents claimed at least 70 families “have left till the situation cools down”.
The family of local resident Noor Muhammad (26) claimed he was “shot by police” on Friday and referred to Meerut Hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. An official from the Meerut Medical College confirmed the man had been brought in with a bullet wound to the head. The family claims they were not allowed to bury the body in Muzaffarnagar citing law and order problems, and buried him in Meerut instead. “Noor had gone to eat something and was coming home when the clashes erupted. He was shot by a security official for no fault. He has a one-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife. He was born here, he was killed here, but he could not be buried here,” said his brother Umardaraz.
However, SP Antil said police had nothing to do with Noor’s death. “There is no chance he was shot by the police since we didn’t fire a single bullet. Vandalism was carried out by protesters who wanted to create a law and order situation,” said Antil.
The administration on Sunday sealed 67 shops close to Meenakshi Chowk as “part of its investigation”. “It is possible some protesters gathered at shops before the violence. We will also study CCTV footage for the sequence of events. If there is no role of a shopkeeper in the incident, he will be handed over the keys,” said an administration official.
When contacted, BJP’s Muzaffarnagar MP Sanjeev Balyan said: “I came to Muzaffarnagar from Delhi on Friday afternoon. I had been hearing from locals that outsiders from different districts, like Azamgarh, were pouring in and I suspect those anti-social elements made the protest violent… The situation is now under control.”