Dear Rahul Gandhi,
When you visited the refugee camps in Muzaffarnagar district last week, you advised the refugees to return to their village homes, saying failure to do so would mean victory for the communalists who started the Hindu-Muslim violence. You also spoke of the need for peacemakers to heal communal wounds.
I visited the same camps a few days earlier, distributing blankets to those freezing in the cold wave. I too asked the refugees if they would return to their villages. “Out of the question,” they declared unanimously. They said they could return only if they were assured of security and justice. Right now, they had neither.
Mr Gandhi, if you are serious about healing communal wounds, or even about winning back the Muslim votes you have long lost, Muzaffarnagar offers you an opportunity. But this means action, not goody-goody speeches. Your party needs to offer both peacemakers and security guards.
You keep talking grassroots rejuvenation of the Congress party. So, why not get your elected panchayat members in the region to form Hindu-Muslim peace committees with other like-minded secularists, and go to the affected villages? Why leave the field entirely to communal forces and the incompetent Samajwadi Party government?
You keep talking of a bigger role for elected panchayat members, especially women. Why not give prominence to female panches in organising peacemakers? That will also improve the access of peace committees to affected villages: not even communal Jats will attack female Hindu panches.
Such an approach will of course alienate communal Jats and other groups. You will lose their votes, and this will dismay those in your party who base all strategy on caste arithmetic. But if you refuse to stand firmly for your professed principles, you will keep losing credibility with all castes and groups.
Your partymen spend huge sums on private security guards, over and above official security. Why don’t you hire 500-1000 private security guards for deployment in the Muzaffarnagar villages, along with the peacemakers? Why not guarantee that any village to which refugees agree to return will have at least two peacemakers and four security guards for at least 12 months, linked to police stations for re-inforcements as required?
The state government will need to co-operate, of course. But private security guards are common in cities, so surely the state government cannot object to their deployment in villages, or to their establishing links with local police stations. Indeed, the state government has stopped sending assistance to the refugee camps, and will probably welcome private security measures that facilitate the refugees’ return.
Any Congress peacemakers who go to these villages will face some risks. Yet they will have the backing of New Delhi, plus security guards. If your own partymen say it is too risky to enter these villages, with what face can you ask the riot victims to go back?
Muslims in the camps say their homes have been burned, their women raped, and their children killed. Their belongings had been ransacked and their mosques burned. The culprits were their own neighbours, many of whom they had known for years.
After the riots they sought police assistance. They filed FIRs naming the culprits, but none of these had been arrested or prosecuted.
How then, said the refugees, could they go back to their villages? After all that happened, if they had no assurance of even basic security, let alone the arrest of the culprits, it would be madness to return.
Muslims at Jhola village said they had filed FIRs naming the Jat culprits. The police then asked the Muslim witnesses to come in police jeeps to identify the accused. But the jeeps were stoned by sneering mobs. In some cases, Jat women blocked the road and refused to let the police enter the villages. Unable to cope, the police simply retreated and put the Muslims back in the refugee camps. Nothing further happened.
Some Hindus also fled from Muslim-majority villages, and are housed in separate camps. Their numbers are small, but they too require peacemakers and security before they go back.
Mr Gandhi, once upon a time, the Congress had large voluntary cadres that went into troubled spots to douse communal fires. Alas, no more. Today people join your party to grab power and become rich. If you truly want to revive your party, you must once again display a commitment to principles so strong that it inspires unpaid volunteers to join.
Muzaffarnagar offers you a chance. If Congress peacemakers and security guards enable refugees to return to even a handful of villages, it can be the start of a great rejuvenation.