NEW DELHI/ LUCKNOW: In what is emerging as a pattern in Uttar Pradesh – with intervals long enough to make these appear as isolated incidents – hundreds of youth in the Muslim dominated village of Khair in Bahraich district have now fled fearing arrest. Terror swept through the town after the police arrived with the dreaded PAC and picked up at least 200 people of the community under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act invoked after a reported clash on October 20.

The Bahraich Superintendent of Police Gaurav Grover confirmed the incident to The Citizen but said that the matter was still being processed. He said that eight FIRs had been registered under various sections of the IPC, and 35 persons arrested. He said he couldn't confirm at the time how many of the arrested were Muslims and how many Hindus.

According to an Indian Express report, local resident Ashish Kumar Shukla filed an FIR at the Baundi police station against 80 named Muslims and about 200 unnamed others. The FIR alleged that the accused had attacked a Durga idol immersion procession, armed with pistols, bombs and swords. And that 50-60 unidentified persons were injured.

Police officials, according to the newspaper, have now claimed that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was invoked wrongly and will be dropped from the FIR.

Elderly women and children have stayed behind with the village deserted of the youth. There is palpable fear and terror with women, according to the report, alleging harassment by the police. The Indian Express reported:

“There was a clash between Muslims and Hindus, but police registered an FIR only against us. No FIR was lodged against people in the procession who engaged in brick-batting and attacked our houses and shops. Police are harassing us,” alleges 63-year-old Jaituna. “All youths left home after the police started raiding our houses. Those who were found were arrested. My sons Ramzan Ali (30) and Nankau (28) are in jail,” says Jaituna, who is left with two daughters-in-law and 10 grandchildren.

Those who have fled include former village head Mohammad Rasheed (45) and head cleric of Jama Masjid at Khair Bazaar, Hafiz Abdul Bari (43). “Rasheed’s family too has left. Police broke their doors and windows when women and children were inside,” says Mohammad Hasan, a neighbour.

Farmer Karamatullah (55) says, “When the procession reached near Jama Masjid, some persons in the procession threw gulal on Muslims on the roadside. The latter objected, and a heated argument took place. But people intervened and the matter was resolved. Then some members in the procession again threw gulal inside the masjid, which led to an altercation. Both groups clashed.”

Jagdish Kumar Jaiswal of the same village has another version: “People of another community attacked the procession without any provocation.”

Village head Sarita Verma’s husband Hari Narayan Verma says, “The village has 65 percent Muslim population. I do not know if the attack was planned.”

The mass exodus of Muslims from villages in Uttar Pradesh has assumed a sinister dimension. Several such incidents were reported in 2017, with fear and terror registered in villages dotting the UP landscape all through 2018. In June, close to 100 Muslim families fled their homes in Lisadi village in Meerut, alleging one-sided harassment and persecution by the UP police after communal tension and violence. As reported by newspapers at the time, 'For Sale' placards appeared outside the deserted homes with some reading, “This house is for sale. I am a Muslim. I am selling my house. Here, even small incidents are given communal angle.”

Those tensions also arose following an argument between two groups, and although both communities registered FIRs, the Muslims claimed that no action was taken on their complaints.

The police claimed that there had been no exodus and the reports had been fabricated to “create pressure” on the authorities.

In August again at least 70 Muslim families fled Khelum village after the police issued them ‘red cards’ as a warning not to disrupt the ongoing Kanwar Yatra. “We have secret information that during the Kanwar yatra you might create trouble… with this red card we are informing you that if you create any trouble during the Kanwar yatra, action will be taken against you. You will be held accountable,” read the red cards delivered by the police to the Muslim families in the village.

Again in July this year, about a dozen Muslim families fled Surseni village of the Sarai Akhil area of Kaushambi district. Media reports at the time recorded allegations of the police coming under the pressure of the local BJP MLA. The families reportedly fled fearing police action.

The pattern has been set. A small clash between the communities, or just pressure, generates tension in the specific village; the police move in with arrests and threaten further action; the terrorised youth flee.

It appears to be an expansion to rural areas of the previously urban communal riot model, of instigated clashes followed by intimidation and violent dispossession of the minority.

In all cases the minorities have given statements to the media that the police action has been one sided, and has targeted their men with large scale arrests and threats. The police continue to deny reports that any such exodus has taken place in UP's villages.

(Cover Photograph: Indian Express)