Muzaffarnagar to Mohabbatnagar

In the far-flung village of Kawal in the remote district of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, India, a fight breaks out between two groups. While some say it is an old feud, others say that the clash happened after a boy's sister was harassed by some boys from the other group. The fight between these two groups breaks out into a fight between two communities, eventually leading to a widespread riot.

In the couple of decades of its existence, the district of Muzaffarnagar had never witnessed a riot ever before. While several parts of the country had been affected by riots during and even after Independence, Muzaffarnagar had stayed immune from any communal tension. People from all communities had lived in harmony for as long as they could remember and had never anticipated a riot breaking out in their area. But it did.

 

The Muzaffarnagar riots took place in September, 2013, and lasted for more than two weeks before the situation was brought under control by the army. Official figures reported the death count at about 100, and the number of injured ran into a couple of thousand. More than 50,000 people fled from homes fearing for their safety. Property damages were estimated in crores (tens of millions) of rupees. The riots not only caused financial and physical damage, but also left a void in families who lost their loved ones. It wasn't just the death of certain communities' people due to mindless violence that was regrettable, but rather the death of humanity that such an event even took place. Physical wounds may be healed over time, but wounds inflicted on the mind and soul are not easily healed.

The Muzaffarnagar riots took place in September, 2013, and lasted for more than two weeks before the situation was brought under control by the army. Official figures reported the death count at about 100, and the number of injured ran into a couple of thousand. More than 50,000 people fled from homes fearing for their safety. Property damages were estimated in crores (tens of millions) of rupees. The riots not only caused financial and physical damage, but also left a void in families who lost their loved ones. It wasn't just the death of certain communities' people due to mindless violence that was regrettable, but rather the death of humanity that such an event even took place. Physical wounds may be healed over time, but wounds inflicted on the mind and soul are not easily healed.

While the police and army brought the situation under control, relief material started pouring in from all corners of the country. The physical needs of people living in refugee camps were met by providing them with food and clothing, but how would they rid themselves of the emotional trauma? With law and order gone for a toss, the riot had set not just homes on fire, but even passions and hatred that, if unchecked, could engulf the entire region in another bout of senseless violence. Peace was the need of the hour if any damage control was to be done.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation and a well-renowned humanitarian, visited the riot-affected people to ease the tension between the warring communities and restore balance in the social system there. He met with many from the worst hit regions and asked them to rebuild trust among each other and not to resort to violence. Leaders from both communities welcomed Sri Sri and appreciated his efforts in re-establishing harmony and trust between their communities. Some even hailed him as a "messiah" and an "angel of peace".

Sri Sri's visit to Muzaffarnagar set in motion the wheels of a rehabilitation program that would transform hundreds of lives in both the communities. A couple of teachers and several volunteers from the Art of Living family took up the responsibility of healing the scars of the people. The local police and government administration aided them in their task.

Ashish Loya was one of the Art of Living teachers who spearheaded the rehabilitation work in Muzaffarnagar. After having worked on Wall Street for almost 13 years, Ashish returned to India in 2008 to involve himself in seva (service) for the society. Since then, he has travelled to and worked towards society's upliftment in the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. But even with his first-hand experience of rustic India, nothing could have prepared him for what lay ahead in Muzaffarnagar. He recounts that he happened to be in Bijnor, a neighboring district, when the riots broke out. As soon as the situation was brought under control by the police and army, he boarded a bus for Muzaffarnagar to help in the relief work. He visited the relief camps along with Sri Sri and met with leaders from both the communities. He teamed up with local teachers, Sonia, Shailendra, and Sanjeev, and other volunteers to drive forward Gurudev's relief work mission.

Ashish and the others' task was not an easy one. While the whole area was still reeling from the recent riots, there were some who wanted to disrupt normal life again in whatever way they could. They called for bandhs and turned the entire area into a curfew zone. Taxis refused to ply, no matter how much you were willing to pay them. Working in such an environment was not only next to impossible, but also full of life-threatening risks. But the volunteers stepped out of their homes' safety and found cab drivers who made sure that the teachers reached their courses on time, no matter what the situation was.

Wholehearted cooperation from the SSP and SP (Crime), Kalpana, enabled the safe and smooth flow of relief work. Policemen escorted teachers and volunteers wherever they went and also helped bring village heads and community leaders on a single platform. The rehabilitation team worked tirelessly for the betterment of the people and their needs were all taken care of.

How did the ball start rolling?

"Initially, people were very skeptical and scared to even come out of their homes. But that changed by the time the Nav Chetna Shibir course got over. People from both the communities became very relaxed and sat next to each other, as they'd been doing for decades and centuries", says Ashish. He also felt that the youth from these riot-hit areas were willing to move on and wanted to contribute in rebuilding their society. He added, "When the people meditated for the first time, they were taken aback. Their first reaction was that they felt so good that they suddenly realized that this was something different and something genuine. And they immediately became so receptive to hear what we had to say."

He adds, "I feel that there are good people on both sides and in both communities, and they really don't want these problems to happen. There are very few people who are interested in mischief, but the majority want to live together in harmony. And I think that Art of Living is the way that really brings communities together. What I experienced over there was that once they did some meditation, yoga, and pranayama—when they went within themselves and found that there was so much peace inside, and the fear, distrust, and violence was just on the periphery and it just vanishes—they felt so relieved. Once the stress vanished, they automatically became aware of the sense of belongingness that was always there. And that's when they realized that it's so futile to fight over such things."

In the twenty-odd villages that Ashish and the others could reach out to, they managed to touch and transform around 9000 lives. The paradigm shift in the villagers has truly turned Muzaffarnagar into Mohabbatnagar. After giving the villagers a dose of peace through meditation, Ashish now plans to go back to them and rouse dynamism in in them by initiating them into the Sudarshan Kriya, a powerful breathing technique.

In retrospect, quitting a lucrative job to work in remote villages does not sound that interesting. Some would even look at it as a serious error in judgment. But Ashish's smile says it all. He feels more content today than he did when he was earning a handsome amount of money in USA. Every single life that he helps bring back on track, assures him that he took the proper decision.

Ashish's journey in seeing Muzaffarnagar turning into Mohabbatnagar is just one of the many unheard stories of how every person can contribute in their own way to the upliftment of society. When anger inflicts a wound, the wise ones should rise up and apply a lotion of peace, love, and brotherhood. When hatred is kept in check, everybody can exist in harmony and flourish peacefully. If one can learn to be tolerant and accommodating, not just as an individual but also as a community and as a society, every city and village will be transformed into Mohabbatnagar.