Nakul Sawhney: West UP and 2013 violence

A map of Muzaffarnagar

West Uttar Pradesh and 2013 violence

As you enter the rugged landscapes of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in the western parts of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in North India, it is hard to miss the rich religious diversity that defines the region. Definers of caste and religious identity and political affiliations are visible in the clothes, car and motorcycle stickers and sometimes even flags that flutter on houses, offices and vehicles. 

The landscape is dotted with dense sugarcane fields, imposing yet tranquil, the mainstay of the region’s economy, sugarcane, makes its presence felt everywhere. The crowded mofussil towns of the region are classic examples of the horrid planning (or the lack of it) that are now visible in many small towns across Northern India. The rural (and urban) parts of the region are seeped in deeply feudal and patriarchal mindsets. Social progress didn’t accompany economic prosperity.

Yet, inherent to these districts is a sense of resistance. From the mighty farmers’ movements that shook the Indian state in 2021, to militant anti-caste movements, and now nascent voices defying patriarchal structures.

Muzaffarnagar was also called ‘Mahaubbatnagar’ (land of love) because of its history of relative communal and religious amity. Even when India had seen growing religious discords, and violence against religious minorities the sugarcane belt of west UP saw relative peace and calm.

However, September 2013 changed the landscape forever. Religious violence of a scale that was never seen in the region engulfed Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. Over 60,000 people were displaced and had to flee from their villages. Their houses were attacked and burnt. Almost all the displaced were Muslim. Official figures claimed that 67 people were killed in the violence. Independent fact-finding groups put the numbers higher. Again, the bulk of those killed were Muslims.

It was around that time, soon after the violence that I began to travel the region to work on my documentary film, ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…’ (Muzaffarnagar Eventually…). Among the key questions was to investigate what went wrong this time? What got a region that hadn’t clashed on religious lines in the past, had neighbour attacking neighbour?

What was evident was that along with a whole range of socio-economic factors in the region that eventually led to the violence, a sinister ploy of manufacturing consent was carried out in the media. Not just social media, but even the local mainstream media. Over the last few months before the violence, almost every local skirmish was being given a religious colour by the media.

Social media was flooded with fake news that tried to villainize the Muslims. Moreover, in the run up to the major violence, small riots broke out in the region. None of these incidents of violence were reported by the big national media, which could have pressurised the local administration to bring peace to the region. Unfortunately, India’s big mainstream media limits most of its ‘reporting’ to big cities and what’s worse is that it is now ensconced in studios. All of this played a big role in vitiating the atmosphere in the region.

ChalChitra Abhiyaan (Moving Images campaign)

In the midst of all this, while working on my film, the idea of ChalChitra Abhiyaan germinated. Local activists felt the need for an alternative to the hate spewing medias of west UP. Essentially, the need for an alternate progressive media and cultural space. ChalChitra Abhiyaan (CCA) emerged out of this need or vacuum.

ChalChitra Abhiyaan is a film and media collective based out of Western Uttar. The idea of the collective was not just to set up an alternate media portal but to work and base ourselves in West UP itself. This enables us to not just understand but also be part of the churnings that take place in the region. Part of our endeavour and a very important aspect of ChalChitra Abhiyaan’s work is to train young people from marginalised communities of west UP to tell their own stories through videos. In essence, to try and invert the gaze where the marginalised have control over their own narratives. Through extensive film making workshops the idea was that the youngsters at CCA are handed over means of production and dissemination to be able to tell their own stories. These stories are evolving into a movement to challenge the propaganda machinery that’s constantly dividing communities.

Today the core members and those leading CCA are a young Dalit brick kiln worker, a riot survivor from 2013 whose house was burnt down during the violence, the son of a small farmers among others. After years of effort, the collective finally has young women as part of their team. Wading through the deeply conservative and patriarchal societal norms of the region, getting young women to join the team was especially difficult. Today, young Muslim women from working class families are also gradually taking control of the camera at CCA.

The collective produces a range of video formats like documentary films, news features, interviews and live broadcasts. CCA tries to bring to the fore local issues that concern different marginalised communities in their own voices. Issues that are often glossed over by the mainstream media because of corporate control, the stranglehold of strong political parties or caste, class, religious and gender biases. Under the shrill polarising political rhetoric of the politics of west UP, real issues concerning farmers, workers, women, and Dalits get overlooked. CCA tries to bring these issues back into the mainstream.

Moreover, as mentioned above, several smaller incidents of communal violence went unreported in the national media which facilitated the build-up to the large-scale violence of September 2013. CCA has meticulously, and often at great personal risk, covered these incidents, and even incidents of state brutality. This coverage has often put the collective’s members at the receiving end of police harassment, to the extent that the members have even had to go underground on several occasions.

Finally, ChalChitra Abhiyaan organises film screenings of a range of films on different socio-political issues. There is a treasure of such incredible films, both documentaries and fiction, Indian and international, but they rarely make it beyond select circles. In trying to build such spaces, ChalChitra Abhiyaan seeks to contribute to a larger progressive cultural movement. The screenings of the films are preceded by a screening of a CCA video. They are held at various villages and townships in Shamli district, by putting up a makeshift screen and projector. CCA then sees themselves as not just a media organisation but also as a film collective and a cultural collective. Their tagline is, ‘Counter culture is people’s culture.’