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India’s Muslims make emotional return to riot-hit homes to vote


Indian residents displaced by riots, have their names added to a list by an official in the village of Jaula in Muzaffarnagar District, before returning to their native villages to vote in national elections in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Photo - AFP

Muzaffarnagar: Seven months after fleeing deadly religious riots, mother-of-five Shaina Khatoon and hundreds of other impoverished Muslims made an emotional return to their home villages on Thursday to vote in India's election.

After driving for an hour in the back of a truck from a refugee camp, Khatoon, 28, arrived at her village under police escort and went straight to the house she was forced to flee when violence erupted.

"This is where I used to live with my family," Khatoon said as she stepped inside her home, now bare except for a few bricks and clothes.

"How can I return? I have little children, what if we are attacked again?"

The marathon staggered election, with Thursday the biggest day of voting so far, is expected to sweep Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party to power over the ruling Congress.

Among the 92 constituencies voting on Thursday were a group of villages in the key northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where communal riots erupted in September and killed more than 50 people, mostly Muslims.

Since then, thousands of Muslims have been living in camps just kilometres away, too scared to return to their homes where they once lived peacefully alongside majority Hindus in a sugarcane belt.

The clashes erupted when Hindus allegedly killed a Muslim man supposedly for sexually harassing a woman, triggering deadly retaliation that quickly spiralled into three days of riots.

With few toilets, little running water and just enough electricity in each tent to power one or two lightbulbs, conditions at the camps are poor. Some, like Khatoon, say they have not received
compensation.

Instead of resolving the situation, politicians have been accused of trying to exploit the tensions in Muzaffarnagar district to win votes along religious lines, in a battleground state that sends 80 lawmakers to parliament.

Modi's right-hand man faces allegations of incitement after he reportedly told Hindu leaders in the area last week to seek "revenge" at the ballot box against a government that "protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus".

His party says the remarks were taken out of context.

Congress and the Samajwadi Party, which runs the government in Uttar Pradesh, are trying to win over Muslims, who at 13 per cent of the population are the largest religious minority.

"My family will not vote for Modi. He was the one behind the riots," Khatoon said, expressing fears held by some religious minorities.

Many Muslims point to deadly religious riots in Gujarat in 2002, which Modi is accused of failing to prevent as the western state's chief minister. He denies any wrongdoing.

"We have not received any money. But I will vote for them (Samajwadi Party) in the hope that like the other victims, we will also get the money some day," said Khatoon, squatting outside her tent.

Inside, there was a string bed and a discoloured mattress on the floor along with a few boxes of belongings. With limited space, some of the family of seven sleep outside at night.

Khatoon and the others spent three hours waiting anxiously on Thursday at the camp for the truck to take them back to Lisarh village to vote.

When they finally arrived, they were led by police through narrow lanes to the polling stations. Former neighbours from the majority Hindu Jat community stared at the returnees with a sense of familiarity.

But neither side spoke to the other.

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