“I am Abhay Mittal and this phone number belongs to my brother Vijay Mittal. Tell me what do you want to know about our escape?” asks the middle aged businessman to me from his cell phone, the number for which I have managed to procure after much effort and cajoling from his neighbours. 

Abhay is one of those dozens of local businessmen born and brought up in the small town of Kairana, but forced to flee the homes of their forefathers after serious threats to their business and life. Abhay and his brother Vijay’s tale of woes began on 28 November 2013 when four strangers came to Abhay’s grocery shop and asked for his mobile number. The same night he received a call from the dreaded gangster Mukeem Kala to hand over Rs 30 lakh. Kala narrated how he knew about the children of the family, their school schedules and other details and could pick them up if money was not delivered on time. Abhay was scared but tried playing along and managed to bring down the amount. “Some of my neighbours received similar phone calls and a few even paid up to Rs 5 lakh,” he claims. However, realising that the threats were becoming more and more sinister, Abhay bid goodbye to Kairana on 15 December 2013 to live in far-off Surat in Gujarat. Soon, scared of an aftermath, his brother also joined him. They have set up their shops there but are struggling to make business. “Life is a constant struggle as we are outsiders and the local businessmen are well settled. It is going to take us a long time before our new business comes on track,” Abhay says resignedly. Abhay and Vijay’s story also finds mention in the detailed report of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

But for his brethren who stayed back, the situation deteriorated fast with the proverbial last straw on 18 August 2014, when Vinod Singhal, a well-to-do businessman of the same area was gunned down at noon in his shop when the market was bustling with activity. Just a week later, two brothers running a brisk iron business were both killed in the afternoon by a group of men wielding Sten guns. The ill-fated shop was located barely 50 metres from the Kotwali. The three murders sent shivers down the spine of all Kairana traders, big and small, and they started looking for avenues to get out of the place. Like Abhay and his brother, dozens of businessmen made a beeline for Panipat, Karnal, Meerut, Ludhiana, Ghaziabad and other cities. 

Kairana is a small but historic town in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh. A fertile area with lush sugarcane fields, few may know that this communally charged town is the birthplace of the rich Kirana gharana of Hindustani classical music. The very origin of this typical school of khyal boasts of a Hindu-Muslim composite heritage. Very little of this communal bonhomie is visible these days. It has escaped no one’s attention, much less the NHRC, that the victims of lawlessness in Kairana are members of one community, while the perpetrators, another. The distinction is stark. In fact, the NHRC report categorically says, “At least 24 witnesses stated that the youths of the specific majority community (Muslims) in Kairana town pass lewd\taunting remarks against the females of the specific minority community in Kairana town. Due to this females of the specific minority community (Hindus) in Kairana town avoid going outside frequently. However, they could not gather courage to report the matter to the police for legal action. Some of the displaced persons also verified that it was one of the reasons for their migration from Kairana town.”

The biggest worry for those who have left Kairana to protect themselves and their family, is the safety of their house and property in the town which was their home for generations.

I met Vishal who continues to live in Kairana only because he does not have the means to go and set up business in a new place. Yet, his comparatively poor state does not spare him the wrath of the goondas. “They came to demand money from me. I told them I have no money, but they refused to listen. We have approached the police several times. In fact, I not only gave the CCTV footage of the threatening goondas to the police officers, but also showed them their houses in person. Even after all this, the boys have not been arrested. I’m now living under constant threat because of them,” Vishal lamented. He is resigned to his fate in Kairana itself.

While Vishal represents the group which has no option but to face extortion, threats and violence in Kairana, others who can afford it continue to move out of the place. Arvind, Vineet and Anuj Mittal packed their bags and shifted their businesses to other towns. The case of Arvind is especially notable as he was the Vyapar Mandal Adhyaksh or the chief of the traders’ forum of Kairana. He spearheaded a long protest against the local police and administration. “I became an obvious target after standing up for my community as the chief of the Vyapar Mandal. However, instead of solving our problems the police refused to acknowledge the evidence, footage, phone recordings, etc. As I was constantly threatened by the goondas following our agitation, I too had to leave Kairana,” Arvind told this correspondent in Shamli where he has shifted base. 

The circle officer of the area, Bhushan Singh dismissed the complaints of migration as an “issue among local traders who use the goondas against their rivals thus encouraging lawlessness in the market”. He vehemently refused any harassment of a particular community, claiming complaints had been received from traders of both communities and the police was taking “strict action as per law’. 

A few facts stand out in this sordid saga. One, the pattern of violence, threats, lawlessness—both with traders as well as girls and women—shot up suddenly after the Muzaffarnagar riots. Local residents attribute this to the huge migration of a particular community to Kairana post the riots. The NHRC report spells this out very clearly: “Most of the witnesses examined and victims feel that the rehabilitation in 2013 (of the riot-affected) has permanently changed the social situation in Kairana town and has led to further deterioration of law and order situation.”

Two, the tacit support of the administration and lack of will in dealing sternly with the gangsters such as Mukeem Kala and Furqaan is clear from dozens of instances. In fact, Kala continues to terrorise Kairana and its nearby hamlets despite being in Maharajganj jail. Most of his sidekicks are already out on bail and continue to carry out his orders with precision.

Murders sent shivers down the spine of all Kairana traders, who started looking for avenues to get out of the place. 

Three, the migration of traders and other families of a particular community has been reported from Shamli, Kandhla, Khatauli as well in huge numbers. The reasons remain the same: threats to traders and harassment of women.

According to Kairana MP Hukum Singh, who first flagged the issue, “There are a dozen Kairanas in west UP today and it may be too late when we wake up.” Singh says he is not surprised by the attitude of the state government, which has stubbornly refused to take adequate action against the gangsters even after the NHRC report. He claims it is rooted in the vote bank politics of the state’s ruling disposition. “I do not care who raises the issue in the right earnest or who does not. I’m the representative of my people in Kairana and I have no option but to raise it at every possible fora. Unlike others, I do not have the luxury of weighing the political pros and cons. However, I am certain that for the Hindus of Kairana and the nearby towns it is going to be the issue in the Uttar Pradesh elections,” he declares emphatically.