From wealth to worry: a prosperous family’s plight – India

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SHAFAQNA - In Faridabad district’s Atali village, in Haryana, one Muslim family has borne the brunt of communal violence since May.

The family of 45-year-old Haji Ali is the only wealthy one in Atali’s 400-strong Muslim community. They run a private contracting firm that deals with maintenance of government-owned utility poles and water supply pipes across 80 villages. The family has a reputation of being close to the district bureaucracy. Before the riots, villagers, both Hindus and Muslims, would seek their help to secure government jobs or college admissions.

In May, as the dispute over a 30-year-old mosque in the village intensified, rioters jumped into Ali’s courtyard and set vehicles on fire. They lobbed petrol bombs into their bedrooms. By the time the smoke cleared, two days later, all signs that marked Ali Mansion as a symbol of prosperity, even the family name plate, had vanished.

Mid-June was the second attack. This time, the rioters seriously injured Haji Ali’s old uncle and aunt. After this round, Atali’s Muslims fled, seeking police action as a condition for return.

Ali has become his community’s unofficial leader, and the Haryana police have deployed two gun-toting policemen for his security. But his extended family lives in fear.

“We are the only educated Muslim family here,” said Sabir Ali, Haji Ali’s younger brother. “That’s the biggest hurdle for them [the Hindu mob] because we know how to fight for our rights.”

A decade ago, the family was poor. Haji Ali was the only breadwinner and worked two jobs to pay for his brothers’ education and household bills. As the brothers graduated and became employed, the family prospered.

In 2008, the Alis opened a contracting firm. And in 2013, they built a three-storied house.

Their new-found prosperity pushed the family to prominence. Their neighbours sought Ali’s intervention in social matters. One such festering issue was a mosque, a tin-and-tarpaulin structure next to a temple, whose interiors would become unbearably hot in summers. Ali raised funds to revamp it into a concrete, two-storied building, with a restroom and air-cooling facility.

As construction began, Hindus claimed the mosque stood on Panchayat land and was, therefore, unauthorised; Muslims said it was Waqf land. The Hindus took the dispute to court, halting construction for about six years. Ali hired a lawyer, fought the case, and won.  As construction resumed, tension between the two communities rose: some Hindus, affiliated to Hindu right-wing groups, Ali said, indulged in demagoguery.

The dispute actually began in 1992, when Babri Masjid was demolished. Sabir Ali remembers how his father tried to erect a fence around a corner of the mosque where worshippers performed the washing ritual, but young Hindu men, armed with sickles and sledge hammers, destroyed it.

Tempers eventually calmed, and his father repaired the fence that night. “They destroyed it again. A few days later, my father repaired it again. The cycle continued for many years.”

Muslims say that whenever the question of the mosque was raised in the Panchayat, Hindus, especially the youth, some linked to RSS-affiliate, Bajrang Dal, made it clear they wanted the mosque removed.

One evening in 2009, after the dispute went to court, Sabir was stabbed. Soon after, a female cousin was harassed by two Hindu men from the village. Ali and his brothers took both cases to court and fought tenaciously; the culprits are currently facing trial.

Money, education and some access to power encouraged the Alis to fight for their rights. As long as the fight was within Atali, they had some success. But now they fear for their lives. “It’s reached the point where I feel one of us brothers will die,” said Sabir.

Meanwhile, their business has taken a beating. Sabir said the arsonists burnt their stock of copper and silver wires worth Rs. 1.5 crore. “We feel trapped.”

 

 

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