KAIRANA, Uttar Pradesh -- In Kairana, people are amazed at the things being said about their village—it's a portrayal they say they don't recognise.
For nearly a week now, the alleged exodus of Hindus from Kairana has dominated Indian politics. The person who first made the allegation—BJP MP Hukum Singh, has now dialled back the claim, saying it's a law and order issue rather than a communal one. BJP President Amit Shah, who sought to turn this into a campaign issue in poll-bound UP, now looks like a man who doesn't do his homework before speaking. Amidst this din, there is pervasive confusion in Kairana, the alleged communal hot spot.
File photo of BJP MP Hukum Singh.
BJP MP Hukum Singh's attempts to pass off demographic changes in Kairana—which has shifted in the past few years in favour of Muslims in the area, in part because of a large-scale migration on Muslim refugees from riot-hit Muzaffarnagar in 2014—has been shown to be unsubstantiated. His allegation of a "complete breakdown of law and order" have been rebutted with only one case of extortion reported in Kairana this year, and only three people leaving the village due to criminal threats.
On Wednesday, Kairana is overrun by media. Teams of journalists wait around at the local police station. Some are interviewing bewildered residents. There is talk about a press conference by BJP leaders in the evening. There's a near stampede when the "fact-finding" team from BJP arrives, sent after its national president aired Hukum Singh's claims as fact at a rally in Allahabad on Sunday.
The BJP team arrives in Kairana on Wednesday.
Their first stop is the house of one such Hindu family, whose members claim to have fled the village following extortion threats. After all the mediapersons are asked to empty the room where the "peedit" (victimised) family waits to tell their story, the BJP team too exits 5 minutes later. I am seated at the front, but I don't see a word being exchanged between the remaining Hindu family members and the BJP team. Most of the BJP leaders have spent more time giving interviews to television channels outside the house.
Journalists mob members of the BJP team for interviews.
Opposite this house, members of a Muslim family recline on a charpoy. Do they know why the politicians are here, I ask. Immediately, a crowd gathers. Village residents—both from Hindu and Muslim families—rubbish the claims made by BJP leaders. One Hindu man, Sonu, tells me how his wedding last year had 2,000 guests, many of them Muslim. "We have no problem here. We celebrate many festivals together, and greet each other whether it is Diwali or Eid," says the 28-year-old. "I was born in this village. I call him 'tau' (elderly uncle)," he says, pointing to his 62-year-old Muslim neighbour, Idris.
"We've never had communal tension here, even in 1947," says Mehmood, 66, referring to the year of India's independence when there was a large-scale migration of Hindus and Muslims across the India-Pakistan border.
"People leave Kairana because they sell land here and buy it for better prices elsewhere," Iqbal, 65, a Kairana resident for the past four decades, claims. "There are no factories here."
Villagers in Kairana say there has never been communal tension here.
It's a familiar refrain everywhere I ask. A 48-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Ayum, says that he isn't aware of what the television channels are playing, and can't understand why there are suddenly so many journalists and politicians in his village. He says some people have left for better opportunities in other states, and a sizeable population of daily labourers leaves for Panipat every day for work and return in the evening.
At a barbershop, Dilshad cuts Shahbad's hair. The 20 year olds have just found out about the 'Hindu exodus'. "My brother left for Haryana three years ago for work and he's not Hindu," says Dilshad. "We didn't even know there were any such problems. This entire lane has so many Hindus and we've never had problems with each other."
Dilshad and Shahbad have just found out about the 'Hindu exodus' in their village.
A local tailor, Ram Chander, describes how his family has lived in the village for generations. "Hindus and Muslims have always been friends here. We celebrate all festivals equally," he says.
Nearby, his 19-year-old son Shiv Kumar exchanges grins with his 11-year-old Muslim neighbour, Sofiyaan. "We fly kites together," Sofiyaan says, by way of showing their camaraderie. "They are trying to make us fight," he says, referring to local politicians.
Sofiyaan is eager to introduce all his Hindu neighbours, whose houses are separated from their Muslim acquaintance by narrow alleyways just about wide enough for one person to squeeze through. In one such alleyway, I encounter Hajra and Sandhya, both in their mid-fifties, exchanging the day's gossip.
Hindu families say they have been peacefully living with Muslim neighbours for decades.
When I ask them if they know of any Hindu-Muslim animosity in their village, the two start slapping each others' backs, asking if there is a problem. "We live here like the rest of the world," says Sandhya. "She's Muslim, but that doesn't change our friendship," she says, pointing to Hajra and grinning.
A few houses away, 85-year-old Kalavati sits on the steps leading up to her house, where her son also runs a primary school. Inside, the walls are decorated with pictures of the Hindu god Hanuman, and leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. "Both Hindu and Muslim children study here," she tells me. "They get on together like children do."
Kalavati's son runs a school from their home attended by both Hindu and Muslim students.
Back at the local police station, the thana in-charge MS Gill claims that he has begun receiving worried calls from relatives if the "situation is safe" in Kairana. "About 95 percent of the crimes reported in the area are what we call 'body offences'—which involve fights within family members, quarrels, minor injury," he tells me. "The remaining five percent are property offences, where something gets stolen. We have had one extortion case since the beginning of the year." In this case, the accused include members of both the Hindu and Muslim community. All of them are behind bars now.
Local police claim they have never received complaints of Hindu-Muslim strife in the village. Except for one case, no Muslim refugee has been involved in a crime in the area, police say. Around 1,100 Muslim families have left the village in the last decade for better job opportunities, they say, and approximately 7,000 residents travel to Panipat daily for work. When some businessmen were murdered in 2013, the entire market was shut down, and both Hindus and Muslims protested against the crime together, cops say.
And that didn't surprise anyone.