Feature: Rage, bias, grief: Why death that triggered Muzaffarnagar riots remains unsolved


Aishwarya S Iyer

With a beedi (smoke) and a matchbox kept close to him, 77-year-old Mohammad Salim’s eyes moisten with grief as he speaks about his son Shahnawaz Quershi. A deeply pious man, Salim says he helplessly stood a few feet away when a mob of eight men allegedly came and beat his son to a pulp.

The beating led to Shahnawaz’s death in west UP’s Kawaal village, in Muzaffarnagar district. Salim remembers screaming in disbelief, grabbing the attention of the villagers and his relatives, who ran behind two of the eight men, while the others escaped. The two who were caught, Sachin and Gaurav, were killed soon after.

Retrospectively, history would remember what Salim witnessed as the beginning of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots.

Allegations of Shahnawaz eve-teasing Gaurav and Sachin’s niece were made and so were claims of the fight beginning after an argument over a fender bender got violent. These feelings of mistrust between both communities were stroked for political gains. As a result, villages across Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts were engulfed in violence beginning 27 August 2013.

By the end of the riots, 62 people had died, seven women had alleged they were raped, over 60,000 people had been displaced and several continue to be missing to date. Over 500 First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed under charges of rape, murder, dacoity, rioting and other sections of the Indian Penal Code.

But in the very first death of the Muzaffarnagar riots, which triggered the violence, Shahnawaz’s father alleges that the probe has been biased and faulty since the beginning.

Shahnawaz’s Father: ‘The Eyewitness Who Helplessly Watched His Son Being Lynched’

At Kawaal village we visit Shahnawaz’s home. As this reporter is welcomed by his sisters and brother, they all insist I wait for Salim to return as he is the one who knows everything about the case.

“He is offering Asar ki namaaz (late afternoon prayers) at the local mosque. He should be back in a few minutes,” 29-year-old Shehzaad, who was given a government job in the UP government’s Public Works Department after his brother’s death, tells this reporter. As we wait for Salim, he tells me how these homes have not been painted and await to be fully constructed. “There are no men in the house to work anymore. It is only me. So we have not been able to afford to complete constructing them,” he says.

As Salim enters, settles himself on the cot, and begins to speak, he points to the sky and says, “Allah ki taakat bohut badi taakat hai. Allah se mujhe yakeen hai aur bharosa hai, ke Allah mujhe insaaf dega, zaroor dega. Ek din mera bhi aayega. (Allah’s strength is immense. I trust and believe in Allah. That he will give me justice, definitely will. My day will also come.)” He breaks down.

Salim restlessly fidgets with the beedis kept next to him and sways back and forth on the cot like he has a lot to say.

He is indignant about the manner in which the case of his son has progressed. When asked why he feels so, he says instantly, “Pakshpaat kiya police ne. Khulla kiya. (The police engaged in biased behavior, openly),” and continues to outline various reasons why his distrust of the police has only grown over the last eight years.

Salim’s alleges that his first betrayal from the police came when the police registered the FIR of Gaurav and Sachin’s death before Shahnawaz’s case. This was despite him claiming that it was him who had reported and filed the complaint first. The accused have rejected this claim.

“Secondly, I had named six others in my complaint, but the police filed a closure report against them,” he said. Not only was Salim a complainant in the case, but also an eyewitness to his son’s lynching.

Before continuing to tell this reporter about what he saw on 27 August 2013, he adds, “I would like to share that I have had a problem with the media. Over the years… I say something to them and they constantly twist and change its meaning.” He indicates that he expects this reporter will not do the same. After being assured that would not happen this time around, he takes a breather and continues.

Salim breaks into a hysterical cry several times during our conversation.

“I saw that Shahnawaz left from home, I left behind him to offer prayers. I had gone to offer prayers, he had gone ahead of the mosque. I saw eight people come in on bikes. They started beating him up and hitting him with weapons in his stomach. He fell unconscious and fell on the road. I was just standing there and watching. What else could have I done?” Salim says and breaks into a hysterical helpless cry with his hands stretched and open towards the sky.

He finally lights the beedi that had been lying next to him and says he will accompany the reporter to the spot. In an agitated and animated manner, he described what he saw and where he stood while all of it happened.

He continues, “If I had intervened then they would have killed me. They would have not left me. They were greedy for blood. So, I just stood on the side and watched,” he says with a searing pain in his voice.

He went on to say that while six of the accused used the way towards the fields to escape, the other two went the other way. “The villagers came together, people from every community were a part of the mob. The villagers came together and killed them,” he said. When asked if he could identify the men, he said he could and cannot wait to give his testimony in court.

While the trial in Shahnawaz’s case began in 2018, five years after his death, and since then the charges have been framed, the statement of witnesses is yet to be recorded.

“I have to give my statement in court. I will be the first. I will do it in the next hearing. We will fight the case. Inshahallah (God willing), we will,” he says reflecting an unbreakable resolve. He believes his statement as an eyewitness could be a game changer in the case.

In January 2015, the UP Police Special Investigation Team (SIT) had filed a closure report against the six accused Salim had named in his complaint. They told the court that the six accused – Gaurav’s father Ravinder, and his relatives, Prehlad, Bisham, Tahinder, Devendar, Jitender – were not found to be involved in the murder of Shahnawaz. They only accepted that the two deceased, Gaurav and Sachin, were responsible for Shahnawaz’s death and closed the investigation.

Distraught by this, Salim filed a private petition against the closure report. Ten months after the closure report was filed, the magistrate rejected the SIT report and reopened the investigation into the case in November 2015. The accused moved higher courts against the reopening of the case, but their pleas kept being rejected. In the meantime, both families had applied for firearm licences and were granted them too. Matters at Kawaal village continued to be on edge.

Finally, in June 2018, the six accused were summoned.

Salim waited for the men to be arrested, but nothing happened. While the police repeatedly told the court the accused were absconding in Shahnawaz’s case, Salim vehemently denied this. “No, they did not run away. They were all right here. The police just did not arrest them,” he said.

On the other hand, the case regarding Gaurav and Sachin’s death kept progressing in court. In January 2019, the accused in Sachin and Gaurav’s death – which included Shahnawaz’s elder brothers Jahangeer and Nadeem and cousins Mohammad Mujassim and Muzammil, other than villagers Afzal and Iqbal – were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by the district’s local court.

It was only a a month after these men were sentenced that the accused in Shahnawaz’s case were tagged as proclaimed offenders by court in March 2019. The police had submitted a report in court that the accused were untraceable. Then in May 2019, tired of repeated summons not leading to anything, the Muzaffarnagar sessions court ordered the attachment of the property of the six accused. Finally, a month later, in June 2019, five of the six were picked by police. Ravinder, Gaurav’s father, was still on the run and only surrendered in September 2019.

Even in Arrest of Accused, Salim’s Agony Deepened

However, their arrests came at a cost to Salim.

Broken and inconsolable, Salim says, “Now let’s leave the fact that my kids were sentenced to life imprisonment. But they were even transferred to Agra jail as the accused in this case had to be sent to this (Muzaffarnagar) jail.”

All the accused got bail within 30-60 days, but Salim’s kids and relatives continue to remain in Agra jail.

Salim has resigned to the fact that his sons will be in jail, but he pleads as he says, “All I want is that they are sent to Bijnor, Meerut or Saharanpur jail, so that the old person I am, I am able to meet my kids,” he begins to sob again. “This is all I want. Transfer them to any of these three places,” he says.

Salim is the only elder in the home. He lost his wife four and a half years ago. “She died battling grief. One of her sons died, two were in jail, two nephews also in jail. My entire family was locked up,” Salim says.

Shehzad says that his mother Imrana neglected her health. He would make around Rs 20,000 to clean signboards for the UP government and would give his mother money for doctor visits and medicines. “But she would use all of it to go and visit her sons in jail. She was a woman who had never stepped out of her home before that. I saw the tension eat her from within,” Shehzad said.

In one portion of the home that is under construction, lies Shahnawaz’s motorbike under a sheet of dust. “No one uses this, we do not even know if it can run anymore. It was his bike and only his,” his brothers say sounding emotional.

But despite all the setbacks, Salim is defiant. He says, “These oppressors can do anything they want, how does it matter? The real strength is in the hands of Allah who is running both worlds. Allah will stop this biased behaviour. I believe in Allah. God willing, Allah will ensure I get justice, Allah will give me justice.”

Gaurav and Sachin’s Family Are Upset Trial Restarted

Back in Gaurav and Sachin’s village, called Mallikpura, even the 60-odd days their relatives spent in jail are unacceptable. The village continues to attend the barsi (death anniversary) of the two deceased every 28 August as they were cremated on that day in 2013.

The family says that the fight began because Shahnawaz harassed a 16-year-old niece of Gaurav and Sachin daily. This was something that the girls we spoke to, and who did not want to be named, said happened a lot preceding the riots. None of them had registered a complaint at the police station. Shahnawaz’s family had called this argument drivel. “What non-sense. These eve-teasing allegations are baseless, and the fight had begun because the vehicles had collided, leading to an altercation,” he had said.

Gaurav and Sachin’s family felt relieved when the SIT probe had given the six people who Salim had named in his complaint a clean chit. They were also happy to see the accused in the case of Gaurav and Sachin’s case behind bars.

But when the SIT probe was rejected by the court in 2015, their apprehensions returned.

“The police had said that these six (other) accused had not done anything. But then, the relatives of Shahnawaz moved court. What the police said in their report does not hold any importance now. Now let us see the trial. Let us see the evidence. Let’s see what the court does,” 60-year-old Tahinder Singh, one of the accused, tells this reporter as we wake him up from his afternoon nap on the cot in the courtyard of his home.

Explaining how he is related to all the accused, he says his brothers are Prehlad and Bishan. His brother-in-law is Ravinder, who is Gaurav’s father. His nephews are Devender and Jatinder.

Gaurav’s father Ravinder tells this reporter that there is no chance that they were at the spot. “Let Salim say anything, but we were not there. You ask anyone in the village. If elders were around, something like this would have never happened. We would have intervened and shut the matter down immediately,” he says adding that the FIR was registered against them as a cross-FIR. When asked Salim said there was a delay on the part of the police, Ravinder asks if Salim had any proof for his allegation other than his word.

Tahinder and Ravinder deny that the police picked any sides. “On the contrary, under the Samajwadi Party government the biased behaviour was towards them and not us,” he says. This is something all Hindu accused have told this reporter from the riots. That it was the BJP coming to power in 2017 that gave them the hope for justice.

Tahinder, who works as a farmer and has a family, says that mahapanchayats were held that stated that the six of the accused were innocent and not at the scene of the crime. When told that the panchayat is not a judicial agency, he did not respond.

Efforts of Compromise Fell Flat

This reporter asked Salim’s lawyer, Hassan Mohsin Zaidi, if any efforts to compromise had been struck, to which he instantly said, “That family is not agreeing to compromise. I had made the effort. I told them that this way their (Salim’s) kids will also come out of jail and they never had an enmity from the past between each other to begin with. I told them that if Shahnawaz did not die then it would be right to assume that Gaurav and Sachin would not have died. But they have some kind of pressure on them that they are not able to compromise.”

Zaidi is a 67-year-old Muzaffarnagar-based lawyer who has worked for 38 years in the profession. When we asked Zaidi, what he meant by pressure, he speculated, “See, we tried one or two times in the beginning. They have the kind of pressure that if they compromise then the issue will end. So they are keeping the issue alive, that his death anniversaries are celebrated. A gathering happens every year where leaders come, give speeches, and keep the issue alive.”

This speculative remarks were firmly rejected by Ravinder. “In every case where a compromise was struck, Rs 5-6 lakh was paid per victim at the least. Middlemen also ate money. I am not against compromise, I am against atrocities by them. It is incorrect that they included our names in the FIR,” he said. Tahinder adds that they will go by the verdict of the court.

The only time Tahinder and Ravinder betray emotion in the conversation is when we speak about Gaurav and Sachin. “The state of our kids, when they died, in the middle of a village… There was no place in their body where there was not a wound. I would understand if they died as they were hit on the head, or that they were shot by bullets, but to die from the wounds by being hit by sticks is not a small thing,” Tahinder says and looks on his left towards his fields.

As mentioned by Zaidi, a barsi is organised on 28 August every year, where anywhere between 500 to 100 people are present, they said. “This is the day where we spend remembering our children, in grief,” Ravinder said.

While efforts to compromise are far from materialising in this case, the very first death of the Muzaffarnagar riots awaits justice.

“We are facing many difficulties. But Allah is the Almighty. He will handle everything. Who does not have anyone, Allah stands up for them. He ensures justice for all,” Salim says. When asked if he really believes justice will happen, he says, “God willing, I believe in it entirely. Justice will happen,” he says, as he becomes emotional again. Courtesy The Quint