Cover Story: Bulldozing the idea of India

Demolition squad: Hindutva mobs go on a rampage

Print edition : May 20, 2022

At riot-hit Jahangirpuri, in New Delhi on April 26. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

BJP workers celebrating the party’s victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, on March 10 in Lucknow. Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA

At an arson-hit area in Karauli. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The dargah in Aland which houses the tomb of Hazrat Shaikh Alauddin Ansari, popularly known as “Ladle Mashaikh”. Photo: MOHAMMED AYAZUDDIN PATEL

MNS leader Raj Thackeray addressing a party meeting in Thane on April 12, 2022.

MNS leader Raj Thackeray addressing a party meeting in Thane on April 12, 2022. Photo: PTI

With Assembly elections in three States not far away, the Hindutva machine goes into overdrive, stoking communal tension in several States by targeting Sufi shrines and loudspeakers in mosques and taking out religious processions in Muslim neighbourhoods.

DELHI

Agents provocateur

DIVYA TRIVEDI

“IF you speak in Hindi, they call you Pakistani; if you speak in Bengali, you automatically become a Bangladeshi,” said a young man whose shop was bulldozed as part of an anti-encroachment drive in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri following communal clashes in April. He requested anonymity as he recounted the events of the fortnight. His family is worried about him and has asked him to leave the area until tensions are eased. One of his acquaintances is staying with relatives in another part of the city, while another has left town. “There is no telling who the police will pick up next. They are going after young boys,” he said.

On the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti on April 16, three processions were taken out in Jahangirpuri, coinciding with Muslim holy hours during the ongoing Ramzan. The first procession took place at 1.30 in the afternoon during namaz and the second one at 4 p.m. A third procession, which allegedly did not have police permission, started at 6.30 p.m., during Iftari, when many Muslims were present at the Jama Masjid on Kushal Road. The crowd in the third procession, numbering to more than a thousand, brandished weapons such as swords and knives.

When the procession reached the masjid, they started chanting provocative slogans. According to eyewitnesses, they began with Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata ki Jai, but then started shouting “Mulle kaate jayenge, Hindustan mein rehna hoga Jai Shree Ram kehna hoga” [Muslims will be chopped, if you want to stay in India you have to say Hail Ram] and so on.

Residents of the area were especially hurt at being called Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. “You want to abuse us, please go ahead, but why say such hurtful things?” one of them told Frontline.

Said Sirajuddin, a resident: “I have lived here for 45 years, but I have never seen a procession where young boys were openly carrying weapons.” He was hanging out with Sunny, a Sikh, and Monu, a Hindu, in one of the few shops that were open in the area. They pointed out that various communities had lived harmoniously in the area for decades. There was a temple a few buildings away from the masjid, a church in a parallel lane and a gurdwara, all within a stone’s throw from where the commotion had taken place. According to Abdul Wahid, a resident of the area, the procession with weapons and the violence that followed were the handiwork of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

But sectarianism and otherisation of Muslims have taken deep root in the neighbouring Hindu areas where local people refer to the Bengali-speaking Muslim areas as ‘mini Pakistan’ and ‘Bangladeshi colony’. While lamenting the fact that they could not go to Muslim areas as the Muslims were “very united”, the Hindus Frontline spoke to conceded that the recent incident would not have blown out of proportion if it had not been for the insidious political agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Demolition work

Following the provocative slogans by the Hanuman Jayanti procession on April 16, there was confusion and stone throwing by both sides in which nine people, including a few policemen, were injured. Soon after, Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta wrote to New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) Mayor Raja Iqbal Singh asking him to demolish “illegal” constructions belonging to the “rioters” in Jahangirpuri.

On April 21, the NDMC sent bulldozers to demolish the tiny shops or khokhas built on nalas (drain pipes). All the shops with the exception of two belonged to Muslims. The Supreme Court stepped in to halt the demolition, but despite its orders, the NDMC continued the drive and demolished the gates of the Jama Masjid. It was only after several political activists, prominent among them Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Brinda Karat, stepped in front of the bulldozers that they stopped.

“You demolished our shops by saying they were illegal, chalo koi baat nahi [no problem], but then you treat us like criminals, barricade our lanes, and in the stealth of the night come and pick up our boys and beat them in custody. How is that supposed to make us feel?” a resident asked. When Frontline visited the area—C Block, where most Muslim residents live, and which is right behind the masjid—a day after the anti-encroachment drive, it was heavily barricaded by the police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. Some residents complained that they were not allowed to leave their own lanes and felt like they were in an open lock-up.

This reporter was also stopped from crossing the barricades. Only after much persuasion and confrontation with the security personnel did they escort her through Kushal Road where the anti-encroachment drive took place, but on the condition that pictures or videos should not be taken. At the end of the road, behind a human chain formed by CRPF personnel, the crossroad buzzed with activity aselectronic media reporters stood giving P2Cs (piece to camera). They were not seen speaking to any local person and it was hard to see where they were getting their sound bites from. But they were very excitable and the security personnel were protecting them from all sides by forming human chains.

Resettlement colony

With great difficulty, this reporter was able to leave the press enclosure and take a circuitous route into the residential area. Contrary to the narrative peddled by BJP and Aam Aadmi Party leaders that residents of Jahangirpuri are Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, Jahangirpuri is a resettlement colony set up during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister in the mid 1970s. At that time, slum dwellers along the Yamuna Pushta and other places in the capital were shifted to urban peripheries such as Jahangirpuri and Mangolpuri. The Bengali migrants had arrived in the capital following a food crisis in West Bengal in the 1950s.

Abdul Wahid said this profiling was very humiliating for the community. “Why should we give proof of our Indianness? Why should we be required to do it in the first place?” he asked. Over the years, in several waves, Delhi has been gradually cleared of many urban slums by shifting them outwards. A recent example was the 2010 Commonwealth Games when entire slums were shifted to the outskirts of the capital in a bid to “beautify” the city.

Those resettled in Jahangirpuri are the poorest of the poor. Many of them are ragpickers, garbage disposal workers or engaged in small trades. Almost all of them are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. Apart from Hindus and Muslims, the area has a huge Dalit population. Over the years, these residents have built concrete buildings, with Muslims and Hindus segregated in different blocks or lanes. But to this day, several Hindu houses coexist with Muslim households in the midst of Muslim-dominated lanes.

The overall area, until now, was completely neglected by the municipal corporation and is in utter decay. The road where the Jama Masjid and a Kali temple stand separated by a few buildings, and where the anti-encroachment drive took place, is known as Kushal Road. It is named after a dilapidated cinema hall at the chowk, or crossroads, known as Kushal Chowk. Along Kushal Road, separated by a brick wall, is a long stretch of dumping ground. One part of it functions as a parking lot for hundreds of battery-operated rickshaws while the other contains piles of dry garbage. At the end of the ground is a Ram Lila Maidan followed by a JJ Colony. It is a densely packed pocket of poverty in the northern fringes of Delhi.

So far, the police have picked up nearly 50 people. The prime accused, Ansar, has been booked under the National Security Act and is being probed by the Enforcement Directorate for money laundering. According to local people, he is a benevolent gunda (crook) who was engaged in do numbari dhanda (illegal activities) but was not communal. When the Bajrang Dal-led procession arrived, carrying weapons, Ansar went there to calm tempers.

According to local people, the police had been looking to nab him in some other cases and found their chance now. Many people wondered what the Enforcement Directorate would find in the possession of a local crook. Only an impartial inquiry can reveal the truth, they said. His house is better painted than most other houses in the lane, but it is still a poor man’s house by all standards in a stinking bylane of Jahangirpuri. His wife was in tears, unable to control her emotions and appealed to mediapersons to get him released from remand. Pointing to her daughter, she said, “They have been beating him up and if something happens to him who will feed me and my five children?”

Communal violence over the years

This is not the first time that communal violence has erupted in the area. Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre, the Bajrang Dal has been active, and in 2016, violence erupted after the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar Ekta Mahamanch held a candlelight march for soldiers killed in the Uri attack in Jammu and Kashmir. It was reportedly triggered over an illegal parking lot but quickly took on a communal colour. A few people were injured in the clash before the police brought it under control.

On April 23, the police formed a peace committee comprising members of both communities who took out a peace march, vowing to ease tensions in the area. While such efforts by the local administration are commendable, this incident has to be seen in the context of rising religious polarisation in India.

Communal violence has increased significantly in the country since the BJP came to power at the Centre. Between 2016 and 2020, there were 3,399 incidents of communal violence, according to Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai. He was responding to a question by Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor and BJP MP Chandra Prakash Joshi in the Lok Sabha. There were 869 instances of religious violence in 2016, 723 in 2017, 512 in 2018, 438 in 2019 and 857 cases in 2020.

 

UTTAR PRADESH

‘Bulldozer Baba’

DIVYA TRIVEDI

THE beginning of the second consecutive term of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh saw the bulldozer emerge as a metaphor for the state’s brutal power against its own citizens. And not just in Uttar Pradesh. Given the alacrity with which governments run by the BJP are deploying the bulldozer in State after State, it would not be inappropriate for the political party to change its symbol from lotus to bulldozer. From Delhi to Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh, the bulldozer has been brought out by the state machinery to raze the properties of alleged criminals and troublemakers.

An overwhelming number of the properties destroyed by the state, however, belong to Muslims. This begs a question about the real intent behind such demolition drives. In many instances, the drive has been preceded by a communal flare-up led by elements of the Sangh Parivar, raising the suspicion that the flare-ups were a dog whistle to the administration, pointing to where to deploy the bulldozer and who to target.

Be that as it may, it is pertinent to note that the now ubiquitous bulldozer first made its appearance in Uttar Pradesh during the Assembly elections. In campaign after campaign, Chief Minister Adityanath, aka Ajay Singh Bisht, upheld the use of the bulldozer to maintain law and order. The ruling dispensation claimed that over 67,000 acres of government land had been freed from the land mafia in Uttar Pradesh. While the official narrative claimed that the bulldozer was used to clear illegal properties, including land, belonging to alleged criminals and troublemakers, a majority of the properties demolished belonged to members of opposition parties and the minority community.

At an election rally, Adityanath said, “We have developed this machine that builds express highways and also tackles the mafia and criminals.” The bulldozer became so infamous that Adityanath was given the sobriquet Bulldozer Baba. His ‘bulldozer justice’ was one step up from the mob violence that is often unleashed by Sangh Parivar elements against the minorities under the garb of protecting cows. Members of the ruling party are boldly claiming that unlike in the pastwhen it took years to convict the mafia, action is prompt now. In other words, mob violence, a legacy of the BJP’s first tenure in Uttar Pradesh, where the crowd was the judge, jury and executioner, has been taken over by the state without any due process of the law.

After the BJP won the Uttar Pradesh election, the bulldozer was seen in the heart of the capital Lucknow with BJP workers astride it, celebrating the victory. Jingles were created around ‘Bulldozer Baba’, and in the Holi festival that followed, bulldozer pichkaris were sold.

Hema Malini, BJP Member of Parliament from Mathura, said: “We already knew our government would be formed. We have worked for every developmental aspect, which is why the public trust us, and nothing can come in front of a bulldozer, as it can finish everything within a minute, be it cycle or anything else.”

According to reports, in Bareilly, the property of Samajwadi Party MLA Shazil Islam Ansari was demolished. He was earlier booked for provocative remarks against Adityanath. Several politicians who deserted the BJP ahead of the Assembly election to join other parties also received legal notices or had their properties demolished by the government. In Shahjahanpur, the property of former BJP MLA Roshan Lal Verma was demolished; he had joined the S.P. before the Assembly election. He had also been vocal about Adityanath’s ‘tyranny’ and had said that it would come to an end once the election results were out. Later, he tried to control the damage by praising the Chief Minister, but it was not enough to save his property.

Dharam Singh Saini, four-time MLA and a former Minister in the Adityanath Cabinet, also received demolition notices for shops he owned on encroached land. He was one of the MLAs who resigned along with Swami Prasad Maurya and contested the election from Nakur in Saharanpur on the S.P. or Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket. In Banda, former BJP MLA Brajesh Prajapati’s property was also demolished. He reportedly said that everything was legal as long as he was part of the BJP but the moment he moved over to the S.P., his property became illegal.

S.P. reaction

Reacting to the targeting of S.P. leaders’ properties, Samajwadi Party Chief and former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said: “These bulldozers are crushing the people. Propagated by the BJP as a symbol of the government’s action against criminals, it only showcases an insensitive government that is treating the people cruelly. In a democracy, such approach is inhuman.”

By now, the strategy of the BJP’s governance—‘by hook or by crook’—is apparent to all. It is well known that when the BJP cannot handle criticism or dissent, it deploys muscle power. During the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens in 2019, Adityanath’s administration announced that it would attach the properties of those who had protested. Huge posters with the faces of some prominent protesters were put up on the streets by the government, making their location available for potential mischief makers who might want to take the law into their hands.As many as 106 first information reports were registered against 833 ‘rioters’; the district administration issued 274 recovery notices to recover damages for the loss caused to public property by alleged protestors. The advocate Parwaiz Arif Titu filed a petition in the Supreme Court stating that the process was in violation of the apex court’s guidelines passed in the matter of destruction of public and private properties, 2009.

A bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant pulled up the Uttar Pradesh government. They said: “These poor people, whose properties have been attached, will have no remedy…You have to follow due process of law. Ultimately, there has to be some guarantee of due process also.” The bench said that the Uttar Pradesh government had become the complainant, the prosecutor and the adjudicator and had no respect for the Supreme Court orders. The Judges stated that 236 notices in a State like Uttar Pradesh were not a big thing and if the State wished, it could withdraw the notices with the stroke of a pen. “If you are not going to listen, then we will tell you how the Supreme Court judgments have to be observed,” said the Bench.

Thereafter the Uttar Pradesh government has been using the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Act, 2020, to attach the properties of the defendants. The law empowers State governments to set up tribunals to decide claims for damage to property. It also states that all orders passed by the tribunals will be final and cannot be appealed before any court. The law is draconian, to say the least.

The State government is also rampantly using the Uttar Pradesh Gangster and Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to punish its opposition, dissenters or the minority community.

 

MADHYA PRADESH

Vilifying the minority

ANANDO BHAKTO

KHARGONE district in Madhya Pradesh has emerged as a hotbed of communal tension. On Ram Navami day (April 10) a religious procession taken out in Khargone town deviated from its scheduled route and attempted to enter Talab Chowk, a barricaded locality that is considered communally sensitive. A heated argument ensued between the police and the processionists and rumours spread thick and fast that the procession had been halted. Soon people swarmed the area and took out a second procession, which coincided with the time of namaz at the adjacent Jama Masjid. This resulted in altercations and stone-throwing, forcing the police to resort to a lathi-charge and tear-gas shelling. The frenzied mob then poured into the narrow lanes of Tavdi Mohalla, Sanjay Nagar, Gaushala Marg, Anand Nagar, Bhausar Mohalla and Khaskhaswadi.

Media reports have largely blamed the minority community for the incidents. However, a fact-finding team of eight non-Congress opposition parties found that while the first Ram Navami procession was peaceful, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State vice president Shyam Mahajan had a spat with a senior police official over the barricading of Muslim-majority neighbourhoods. The report accused the BJP leader of instigating and urging people to gather at the Talab Chowk Masjid under the banner of a local Gauraksha Samiti.

Statements made by members of the ruling dispensation and actions taken by the police and the administration in the wake of the April 10 clashes emphasise the political leverage in the incident. At a media briefing in Bhopal on April 11, State Home Minister Narottam Mishra called for reprisals: “Jis ghar se pathar aae hai, us ghar ko hi patharo kaa dher banaenge” (the houses from where stones were thrown will be reduced to rubble). Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said compensation for the damage would be recovered from the rioters under the provisions of the contentious Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property and Recovery of Damages Law that was ratified by his government in December 2021.

The government notified the setting up of a claims tribunal in Khargone. Within no time, the district administration went on a demolition spree. More than 32 shops and 16 houses belonging to Muslims, which were served notices for illegal construction, were razed to the ground. Reacting to the BJP’s “bulldozer politics”, as the action has been termed in social media, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said “the government should run a bulldozer over problems of the people such as inflation and unemployment but the BJP’s bulldozer is carrying ‘hatred and terror’.”

The fact-finding team’s report revealed the communal designs and discriminatory nature of the demolition drive. It said: “A few shops were demolished in areas that had nothing to do with the incident but were razed to the ground owing to political pressure….

“Four Hindu shopkeepers, who had rented shops at Talab Chowk Masjid committee were allowed to vacate them before the demolition, but Muslim shopkeepers were not allowed to do so. Those who tried to remove their wares were caned by the police.”

Communal discrimination

The findings also point to communal discrimination in the handling of a law-and-order situation. As on April 27, more than a dozen first information reports (FIRs) had been lodged by Muslim victims but the police failed to apprehend the accused. Whereas in response to more than 40 FIRs registered by victims belonging to the majority community, the police detained160 Muslims as accused.

The police’s complicity in covering up the killing of a Muslim victim shows how they have aided a unidimensional media narrative aimed at vilifying the minority community as instigators of communal incidents. Ibraish Khan was reported missing when clashes erupted. But the police registered a case of murder, after his body was recovered, on April 14. The police, it appears, did not wish to disclose the killing of Ibraish Khan as media attempted to find public approval for the demolition drive. The fact-finding team accused the police of concealing the death of Ibraish Khan in order to pursue their crusade against the Muslim community.

Jaswinder Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “The death of Ibraish Khan was deliberately concealed from his parents, from the authorities in Bhopal, so that the administration could carry out their oppression of the minorities post riots.” Significantly, the case of Ibraish Khan’s killing was registered under Section 174 (police to inquire and report on suicide, etc) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) although the police had knowledge of the victim being beaten up. Preliminary post-mortem revealed the cause of death to be head injury. The police’s refusal to register the case under Section 302 (murder), the opposition said, spoke volumes of its discriminatory practice.

Jaswinder Singh said there was a concerted attempt by Hindu right-wing groups to disrupt communal harmony in the region. “Over half a dozen cases were reported in the last one year in which a member of right-wing groups and the ruling party tried to provoke Muslims in Khargone,” Jaswinder Singh said at a press briefing in Bhopal on April 27.

It is alleged that there is a reluctance on the part of the police to act against Hindu right-wing elements. Talab Chowk seems to be a preferred hotspot for right-wing elements to incite violence. On March 10, when the BJP was elected in four out of the five States where Assembly elections were held, the party cadre took out a Vijay Yatra in Khargone, allegedly bursting crackers near the Jama Masjid.

A joint statement by the fact-finding team implicated the BJP in no uncertain terms for provoking communal clashes on Ram Navami. “The violence was deliberately stirred, and the reason was political. They said there were 10 Assembly seats in Khargone and Barwani [Sendhwa block in the district also witnessed riots on Ram Navami]. If the results of the past four Assembly elections are analysed, it can be seen that in 2003, 2008 and 2013, the BJP won six of the 10 Assembly seats spread in the two districts. However, in 2018, the BJP lost nine of the 10 seats. The BJP has not been able to digest this defeat and, therefore, it is conspiring to cause communal polarisation to win the [2023] elections,” it said.

The administration has been quick to go after any person speaking about the BJP’s alleged complicity in orchestrating the riots. When Congress leader Digvijaya Singh claimed that he had heard of complaints that the BJP was “hiring poor Muslims to pelt stones”, the police registered an FIR against the former Chief Minister on a complaint filed by a local person. Subsequently, four more FIRs were registered against Digvijaya Singh for allegedly promoting religious enmity. Digvijaya Singh had reportedly tweeted a picture of a mosque in another State while commenting on the targeting of the minority community in Khargone.

Digvijaya Singh wrote to the Bhopal Police Commissioner requesting him to register a complaint against Shivraj Singh Chouhan for a similar post on social media in 2019. He said in his letter that “on May 19, 2019, Shivaraj Singh Chouhan had shared a tampered video of the then Congress president Rahul Gandhi. This was a criminal offence by Chouhan and action should be taken against him”.

Meanwhile, Khargone is under curfew with intermittent relaxation. Taking note of the use of petrol for arson, the district administration disallowed curfew relaxation for petrol pumps. Religious congregation and sale of kerosene in Public Distribution System (PDS) shops have been prohibited. The district administration has accelerated the work on installing 121 CCTV cameras at different locations, including in areas where stone-throwing was reported during the Ram Navami celebrations.

 

RAJASTHAN

Arson at Karauli

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

ON April 2, a motorcycle rally held to mark the beginning of the Hindu New Year led to communal clashes in Karauli district of north-eastern Rajasthan. According to official and fact-finding reports, the “Shobha Yatra” taken out by around 500 people on bikes through the narrow lanes of minority-dominated localities was marked by objectionable songs and communal slogans. The modus operandi strangely resembled incidents reported from other parts of the country later in the month. The provocation led to reactions by the affected community. Nearly 80 shops and houses were looted or vandalised, most of them belonging to the minority community.

According to a first information report (FIR) registered by Rameshwar Dayal Meena, the Karauli Kotwali Station House Officer, 400-500 people from various Hindu social organisations took out a rally carrying saffron flags on 200 bikes. The rally began at 4 p.m. in front of the Karauli Collectorate and was accompanied by police vehicles. The bikers shouted “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, “Vande Mataram” and “Jai Shri Ram”. The FIR mentions the presence of a disc jockey (DJ) on a vehicle and sloganeering but significantly contains no reference to provocative and “objectionable” slogans aimed at the minority community. It refers to stones being thrown at the rallyists, and bikes, shops and other establishments being set on fire. However, in his press conference on April 8, M.L. Lather, the Director General of Police (DGP), stated that provocative slogans had led to the stone throwing.

The FIR names people from both communities as responsible for the violence. Among those named are Sahab Singh Gurjar, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and chief of the Hindu Sena, who was part of the bike rally; Rajaram Gujar, BJP leader and former Karauli Muncipal Council Chairman, whose wife is the Mayor of Jaipur; and Matloob Ahmed, a Congress Councillor.

The FIR states that as the bike rally approached a mosque near Hatwara bazaar area, stones were thrown from the house of Matloob Ahmed.

Fact-finding teams

Two fact-finding teams that visited Karauli, one led by a State-level delegation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the other by the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO), concluded that the violence was premeditated. Dr Sanjay Madhav, State committee member of the CPI(M), and Baldev Poonia, CPI(M) legislator, who led the fact-finding team on behalf of their party, believe that multiple visits by BJP national president J.P. Nadda to eastern Rajasthan in recent weeks and his exhortations to strengthen the party in the region could have led to the recent events in Karauli. “When they say they have to strengthen the party, they indicate polarisation is the need of the hour,” said Sanjay Madhav.

The BJP had drawn a blank in eastern Rajasthan in the 2018 Assembly election. Most people feel that such incidents could become more frequent ahead of the next election, due in 2023.

Sanjay Madhav told Frontline that except for some stray skirmishes in the past, Karauli had not witnessed violence and arson on this scale. The call to take out rallies to observe the Hindu New Year was issued throughout the State. The local administrations therefore had ample time to prevent any mishap. He said: “Communities have been known to live alongside peacefully. The shops and homes of minority and majority communities are located side by side. It is a mixed population that lives in the narrow lanes of the town. How on earth did the administration give permission for the Shobha Yatra through the bylanes? Rumours were being spread well before the rally that weapons were being assembled. Surely, the administration would have had a whiff of it. Either the administration did not know or was complicit in the events. It is our assessment that communal elements have infiltrated the administration.”

The manner in which establishments and shops belonging to minority community members were singled out for arson indicated that the incident was planned and not a retaliatory measure to stone throwing, said Sanjay Madhav. But their actions harmed the interests of the majority community members too as their shops and houses lay adjacent to that of their Muslim neighbours. “This incident is bound to drive a wedge between the two communities and all efforts must be taken by the administration to heal the wounds. Those who’ve suffered losses are all petty shop owners, cart sellers, vendors, and so on,” said Sanjay Madhav. He said his party had demanded that the government keep an eye on the activities of organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and scrutinise the curricula in schools run by such organisations. The government, he said, should ensure that no religious denomination was allowed to use government premises, or stadiums, schools, or offices to spread hatred between communities.

Karauli is famous for its lac bangles. Many bangle shops were set on fire, and the police theory is that the fire spread quickly because lac is inflammable. However, Ansar Indori, national secretary of the NCHRO, says this is bandied about to discount the perception that the arsonists used inflammable chemicals to target the shops. According to the fact-finding team led by Indori, who is an advocate, local people and police officials say that loud and incendiary slogans were played through the sound system, resulting in the violence.

Indori also said that Sahab Singh had booked the services of the DJ and the vehicle on which the music system was mounted. The owner of the vehicle reportedly told mediapersons that apart from religious songs, amplified songs with references to “topi waley” (referring to the skullcap worn by Muslims) were played on the mobile phone with the help of the DJ.

The losses, Indori said, were estimated at around Rs.2 crore from both sides. According to the NCHRO, shops were first looted and then set on fire. A sensational video has also emerged where armed rioters are seen looting and breaking into shops as the police look on.

Karauli has a rich tradition of celebrating Gangaur and observing Muharram for 50 years. It has a population of close to a lakh people, of which minorities constitute 20 per cent. Except for a few skirmishes in 2006 and once in 2012, both communities have coexisted peacefully for generations.

According to Indori, sections in the media tried to link the Popular Front of India (PFI) to the violence. But State PFI president stated that the organisation did not have a unit or members in Karauli. Some sections of the media reported that the PFI had warned the government two days earlier about possible tensions during the rally. Regarding this, the PFI State president told Indori that he had written to the DGP and the Chief Minister that as Shobha Yatras were being taken out across the State, pre-emptive measures needed to be taken to ensure that provocative slogans should not be made.

Government’s reaction

The administration organised an iftaar to assuage sentiments on both sides. Most of the bazaars were open, but the police barred people from entering areas where the arson and stone throwing had taken place. People whose homes had been set afire were not allowed to return as an inquiry by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was on.

The aggrieved parties told the NCHRO that the police had demolished their partially burnt homes without their consent. More than a dozen FIRs have been filed by the aggrieved people on both sides apart from the one registered by the SHO which identified some 125 people. Of 31 persons who were arrested, two were reportedly minors. There were also allegations that the police had picked up people randomly and even misbehaved with women.

The Congress government in the State has taken some proactive steps in the aftermath of the incident. It has issued guidelines on the type of content that can be played through loudspeakers and DJ equipment during processions and rallies. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot described as “illegal” the use of provocative and communal slogans by the front organisations of the BJP. He urged the Prime Minister to condemn the communal violence in Karauli. The BJP, on the other hand, has accused the government for its politics of appeasement for the breakdown in law and order. It has also constituted its own fact-finding team to inquire into the incidents.

Notwithstanding the war of words between the two parties, the scars of Karauli will remain and will resurface if the rule of law does not prevail and majoritarian communal elements are given a free rein.

 

GUJARAT

Stoking old fires

ANUPAMA KATAKAM

 

The cauldron of Hindutva politics is always simmering in Gujarat. Since 2002, when Gujarat experienced the most brutal communal violence the country has witnessed in recent history, the State’s right-wing forces have used insidious and overt methods to successfully polarise the population and, worse, ensure that minorities are completely suppressed, marginalised and even terrorised.

Among the most sinister moves of the right-wing groups in Gujarat has been the constant, yet under the national radar, attacks on minorities in the State. This year, the communal clashes that took place on Ram Navami across the country, including Gujarat, may have been part of a larger plan, but in Gujarat they were par for the course. According to several members of the Muslim community, persecution of minorities is relentless and most of the time incidents are not reported and charges are rarely filed.

Rama Navami violence

On April 11, there were two reported flashpoints at Khambhat in Anand district and Himmatnagar in Sabarkantha district. Clashes broke out between the two communities following a Ram Navami procession that was going through Muslim localities. One person was killed in stone-throwing. According to reports, the police lobbed tear-gas shells to control the violence, and several shops and vehicles were burnt.

A few days after the incidents, the State police resorted to their old stories that the flare-up was part of a conspiracy planned in Pakistan, while activists and minority leaders in the State alleged that the Ram Navami procession was actually a planned event to instigate tension. An activist asked: “Why would they need to go through a Muslim area, when towns and cities are now so clearly segregated?” Some local residents accused the police and the State government of being complicit in instigating the violence. Eye-witnesses said that policemen on duty did not do anything to control the spark; instead, they were egging on both sides.

In the aftermath of the violence, on April 26 the Anand and Sabarkantha district administrations razed structures that encroached upon public space and were owned by people allegedly involved in the violence in Khambhat and Himmatnagar. Nirupa Gadhavi, Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Khambhat, told mediapersons that the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police had authorised the removal of unauthorised structures that were causing hurdles to public transport.

Election looms large

Khambhat and Himmatnagar have a history of inter-community violence. Himmatnagar was among the areas worst hit during the 2002 riots. A report in Sabrang, a journal that reports and analysis communal incidents, said local people in Khambhat had a sense that something untoward would happen on Ram Navami as the Assembly election is due this year.

Speaking to the journal, Musavvir Yamani, a three-term municipal councillor, said that with the election looming large, the organisers of the Ram Navami procession may have sought permission to tour the whole of Khambhat town. They should not have been given that permission. And in the event of having allowed it, the administration should have arranged for better security, he said.Yamani also said that he had received distress calls from people when the procession went through a predominately Muslim locality. Speaking to Sabrang, he said: “Some even complained about the miscreants brandishing swords, lathis and similar weapons. Where did these people get these weapons and even petrol? If it was simply a religious procession, how did they suddenly get weapons and fuel necessary for this arson?”

To prove that there was a “conspiracy,” four Muslim clerics were arrested from Khambhat. The police claimed to have intelligence to prove that the accused were planning the attack. Speaking to mediapersons, Ajit Rajiyan, Superintendent of Police, Anand district, said that stones had been piled up at graveyards in order to not raise suspicion. He added that the rioters were seen standing near those sites and throwing stones. A total of nine Muslims have been arrested for the Khambhat incident.

In Himmatnagar, the Ram Navami procession went through the Chhapariya area. Hozefa Ujjaini, a human rights worker with an organisation called Buniyaad in Ahmedabad, said that the police were able to control the first procession which went through the area around 2 p.m. However, another group came at 4 p.m. and began shouting anti-Muslim slogans. A disc jockey (DJ) was playing a loud song with words derogatory to persons of the minority community and the group members were brandishing swords and had even placed saffron flags on a mosque.

Ujjaini, who is gathering eye-witness statements for a fact-finding report, said: “If two permissions were given for rallies, it indicates that there was a plan to create trouble.” Further, he added: “The narrative in a section of the media that this was a planned conspiracy is absolute incorrect. There is enough video evidence to prove what really happened and we plan to expose this.”

Fact-finding team unsuccessful

A fact-finding team led by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) to investigate the Khambhat and Himmatnagar violence was unable to pursue its task owing to an unfortunate incident with a key source. The team hopes to complete the report in the coming weeks.

Prasad Chacko, a member of the coordination committee of the PUCL, said: “There is always a low simmering kind of violence in Gujarat. It takes a small spark for a flare-up and the right wing knows this.” According to him, initial probes into the Khambhat case indicated that the local dynamics between a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) who has the support of the Ram Sena and the present MLA was a significant part of the problem. The former wanted the procession to go through the city, while the elected MLA was unwilling to support the call.

Prasad Chacko said the team’s preliminary findings indicated that this year the Ram Navami procession in Khambhat went through sensitive areas, unlike in previous years. Local residents told the team that the police were involved in throwing stones, and 10-15 policemen were seen watching the incident and did not take action even though the situation was getting out of control. The team believes that the conspiracy theory “unearthed” by the police is part of the desired result of instigating communal violence. The death that occurred was purely accidental. It appears that the man was inebriated and strayed into the cross-fire. He was not killed as the police say, according to Prasad Chacko.

The National Crime Record Bureau’s 2020 report on crime statistics in India showed that Gujarat recorded 1,083 cases of rioting in 2020 and 26 communal violence-related cases. It stood fifth after Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra in the number of communal incidents. Sources in Gujarat said that the number would be in multiples of the official figure.

Mevani targeted

Meanwhile, the State government finally got its hands on Jignesh Mevani, the 42-year-old independent MLA who never misses an opportunity to question the BJP or criticise its top leadership. A thorn in their side, Mevani was arrested by the Assam Police on April 21, following a first information report filed by a BJP worker who was “offended” by a statement posted by Mevani on Twitter.

In his tweet on April 19, since deleted, Mevani had reportedly said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a worshipper of Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi. He also appealed to Modi, who was visiting Gujarat at the time, to use his influence to maintain peace in the areas of Himmatnagar, Khambhat and Veraval that witnessed communal violence. bMevani’s aide told Frontline: “The arrest came out of nowhere. We were not given any notice. We did not even know that an FIR had been filed. We were not given a copy of the FIR.”

After several hours of interrogation, the police took Mevani to Assam, where he was kept in police custody for a few days. Mevani, who has officially announced his support to the Congress, had a strong legal team that secured bail for him. However, in a dramatic turn, he was rearrested for allegedly voluntarily causing hurt and stopping a government officer from doing his/her work.

Speaking to mediapersons after he got bail, Mevani said: “It is a conspiracy by the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh]. They did this to tarnish my image. They have been doing this systematically. They did it to Rohith Vemula, they did it to Chandrasekhar Azad, now they are targeting me.”

Mevani was in custody after being rearrested. A lawyer in Gujarat said: “They want him away from the election. He is a big threat to the BJP and they know it.”

 

KARNATAKA

Targeting a Sufi shrine

VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

On March 1, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians, along with members of the other Sangh Parivar organisations such as the Sri Rama Sene (SRS), made a concerted effort to bulldoze their way into a 14th century-era dargah (Sufi shrine) located in the town of Aland in Kalaburagi district. Aland is about 45 kilometres from Kalaburagi, the divisional headquarters of the Kalyana Karnataka (formerly known as Hyderabad-Karnataka) region. The shrine houses the tomb of Hazrat Shaikh Alauddin Ansari, popularly known as “Ladle Mashaikh”, who received the patronage of the rulers of the Bahmani dynasty that ruled the Deccan during the 14th and 15th centuries.

While the original tomb that shelters the grave of the saint has been rebuilt, a twin-minaret outer gateway dating back to the 16th century rule of the Bijapur Adil Shahi Sultanate is at the entrance to the shrine complex. The monuments in the dargah come under the purview of Karnataka’s Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage. Like Sufi shrines all over Karnataka, the dargah of Ladle Mashaikh is a symbol of communal harmony as Muslims and Hindus of all castes patronise the shrine.

There is also a pestle-sized, cylindrical-shaped stone purported to be a ‘shivalinga’ within the sprawling compound of the dargah, which is spread across 47 acres of land. This shivalinga, known as the Raghava Chaitanya shivalinga, is buried at the base of the grave of another 14th century Sufi saint, Hazrat Ahmed Mohiuddin alias Mardana-e-Ghaib, and is some 50 metres from the tomb of Shaik Alauddin Ansari. This site is also visited by some worshippers who come to the dargah. The area containing this grave and the shivalinga, which measures around 700 square feet, has been the source of disagreements in the past between the dargah committee and the Raghava Chaitanya Seva Mandali (RCSM). Local courts in Kalaburagi dismissed the RCSM’s petitions on two separate occasions in 1993 and 2017. The issue was thought to have been settled, but simmering tension around the site of the shivalinga was developed into a full-fledged conflict when somebody threw faecal matter on the shivalinga in November last year. Subhash Guttedar, BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly from Aland, raised the issue in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly.

Siddalinga Swami, the head of the Karuneshwar Mutt located in Jewargi taluk of Kalaburagi district, addressed a press conference in Kalaburagi in early February. The controversial priest affiliated to the SRS said he would lead a procession to the dargah on March 1, coinciding with Mahashivaratri, to perform religious rituals to ‘purify’ the shivalinga. At the same press conference, Siddalinga Swami also demanded that the State government give permission to build a temple to protect the shivalinga.

Anticipating disturbances leading up to March 1, which also coincided with the Islamic holy day of Shab-e-Meraj, the Kalaburagi district administration imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in Aland taluk, which meant that a gathering of more than four persons was not allowed. The administration also disallowed the entry of Siddalinga Swamy and Pramod Muthali, a known right-wing provocateur and head of the SRS, into Aland taluk. Violating the prohibitory order, a mob of Hindu right-wing activists led by senior politicians of the BJP congregated at the bus stop in Aland and began marching towards the dargah on the morning on March 1. Among those who led the mob were Union Minister and Bidar MP Bhagwanth Khuba, the MLAs from the district—Guttedar, Rajkumar Patil Telkur and Basavaraj Mattimadu—and Malikayya Gutteda, State vice-president of the BJP.

Rumour and tension

According to members of the dargah committee who spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity, as the procession advanced towards the dargah, a rumour spread among the Muslim population of Aland—a significant number of whom claim descent from the brothers of Hazrat Shaikh Alauddin Ansari—that the Hindu mob was intent on demolishing the dargah. This was sufficient provocation for a large Muslim mob to gather at the entrance of the Sufi shrine to ‘defend’ the tomb of the saint. Members of this group were also incensed that the local police had allowed the Hindu right-wing activists to gather in spite of the prohibitory order. By this time, the district administration had convinced the Hindu mob to disperse while allowing 10 members of the group to proceed to the dargah. As this group was emerging from the dargah after the completion of religious rituals at the shivalinga, there were minor incidents of stone-throwing by the Muslim group.

In a statement published in The Hindu on March 1, Deputy Commissioner of Kalaburagi Yeshwanth Gurukar said: “The district administration has managed to bring the situation under control. We allowed 20 people inside the dargah—10 from each community. The rituals went off peacefully. Some miscreants pelted stones on three vehicles, including mine.” But this was not to be the end of the sordid events that took place on that day that had commenced with the violation of Section 144 by senior BJP leaders.

On the early morning of March 2, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., the district police swept through the houses of the Muslim population of Aland arresting 177 people, including juveniles and women who were subsequently sent to five separate district jails all over north Karnataka. Seven separate first information reports (FIRs) were filed against these 177 individuals under various sections of the IPC (including Sections 120B, 143, 147, 148, 149, 153A, 307, 332, 333, 341, 353, 384, 427, 504, 506) while no action was taken against the Hindu mob that had provoked the entire affair. Two of the FIRs were registered against “unknown persons”, which meant that any person who was part of the mob could be arrested in the future on the basis of further investigation. A member of the dargah committee said: “The arrests were random and some of the persons named in the FIRs are not even present in Aland: one is working in Saudi Arabia, one boy is working in Hyderabad while another is dead!”

The 177 individuals have been released in batches over the past month. But the events of March 1 have left deep scars among the Muslims of Aland, who bore the brunt of the consequences that followed after the Hindu procession led by senior BJP politicians was allowed to violate the district administration’s prohibitory orders. Visiting Aland at the end of March, a few weeks after these events, one felt a palpable sense of unease among the residents; there were only a few worshippers at the dargah. A semblance of normalcy has been restored, but there is an apprehension that this fragile peace can be disturbed at any moment by the Hindu right wing’s claims on the shivalinga site.

B.R. Patil, former MLA of Aland, blamed the police squarely for the lapses on March 1. Speaking to The Hindu, he said: “Section. 144 was imposed on Aland taluk a day before. The BJP leader began leading huge crowds on the streets by 11 a.m.. The police instead of taking them into custody then itself for the violation of the prohibitory order, allowed them to rally the crowd and create communal tension till 4 p.m. It is the failure of local police.”

Speaking to Frontline, senior Kalaburagi-based journalist and political columnist Sanathkumar Belagali said: “Even if communal riots took place in other parts of Karnataka, this region [Kalyana Karnataka] remained unaffected, but the BJP plans to disrupt the harmonious atmosphere of this part of the State as well to make political gains by raising the issue of the Aland dargah. The Aland issue began after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visited Kalaburagi in January this year. More than Muslims, it is Hindus—Lingayats, Dalits and members of other castes—who visit the shrine. The BJP is attempting to make the dargah into a controversial space like Bababudangiri.” He was referring to the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in Chikkamaggaluru (“A battlefront in the south”, Frontline, March 2, 2018.)

K. Neela, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Kalaburagi district secretary and State secretariat member, said much the same thing: “The entire region of Kalyana Karnataka is known for its Sufi-santa culture which is most pronounced in Aland, where you see Hindus and Muslims worshipping together. Bhagwat’s visit gave an impetus to turn the Aland issue into a ‘conspiracy’ in order to destroy the secular nature of the region. This is also a blueprint to raise communal issues leading up to the Karnataka elections because it is crucially important for the BJP to win in Karnataka as it is their gateway to other south Indian States.” The CPI(M) has been protesting continuously in Kalaburagi over the past few months against efforts to communalise the issue of the Aland dargah.

Rama Navami procession

A few weeks after the events of March 1, Siddalinga Swami gave another public call for a ‘shobha yatra’ in Aland on April 24 as part of Ram Navami celebrations. In a public event he said: “More than 20,000 people will gather as a ‘shakti pradarshana’ [show of strength] on April 24. We will go to Aland dargah and show off our prowess.” The event passed off without any untoward incident, the district police having taken sufficient measures; no speeches were allowed. But Muslims in Aland remained tense while the procession went around the town.

Local BJP leaders’ attempts to create a dispute around the shrine is part of the aggressive rightward shift of the saffron party’s politics in Karnataka after Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai took charge in July 2021, replacing the veteran party leader B.S. Yediyurappa. Bommai justified the actions of vigilante organisations last year, signalling to the cadre of right-wing Hindu organisations that they had his government’s backing. Legislative decisions such as the passage of the Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Act, 2021, which protects illegally constructed religious structures, and the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 (which is yet to be passed by the Karnataka Legislative Council), have made the State government’s orientation clear.

Earlier this year, the State government disallowed the wearing of the hijab in public educational institutions for students upto Class 12; in mid March, the High Court of Karnataka upheld the government order to that effect. Ever since, there has been an explosive increase in the actions of right-wing organisations such as the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Sri Rama Sene and the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka. Cadres of these organisations have called for a ban on Muslim traders in and around temple premises, a ban on halal-certified meat, prohibition of the use of loudspeakers for azaan (the Muslim call to prayer); and boycott of Muslim mango wholesalers and Muslim jewellery stores.

The brazenness of the demands reflects the impunity that these groups enjoy. State Ministers have actually justified such calls. Political observers have commented that the BJP’s resounding victory in the Assembly elections held in February, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, has provided an impetus for Hindutva to be used as a strategy in Karnataka over the next year: the idea is to polarise the electorate on religious lines. Assembly elections are slated to be held in Karnataka in April or May 2023.

 

MAHARASHTRA

Dangerous antics

LYLA BAVADAM

RAJ Thackeray, while trying to kick-start his political career again, has dragged religious identity politics to the centrestage in Maharashtra. Spurred on by the impending election for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), he has mounted the communal soapbox demanding that loudspeakers be removed from mosques. He attempted to relaunch himself on April 2 at a rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai where he said that the State government should remove loudspeakers from mosques, failing which he would put up loudspeakers in front of mosques and play the Hanuman chalisa (devotional hymn) .

The playing of the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, over loudspeakers has been the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader’s bugbear for long. Apart from the upcoming BMC elections being an ideal opportunity for him to expand his shrinking party membership, the loudspeakers are also a subject that attracts the attention of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Raj Thackeray has toyed with the idea of some sort of affiliation with the BJP although a formal approach has not been made by either party. From the BJP’s point of view Raj Thackeray is small fry who is only getting smaller. Besides, tying up with the estranged cousin of Shiv Sena leader and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray would shut the door on any chance of reviving the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, which the BJP still nurtures hope for.

Needling the Shiv Sena

The BJP is aware of the Shiv Sena’s political strength and that it has actually grown under Uddhav Thackeray’s impressive leadership since 2019. It is in this scenario that Raj Thackeray is trying his luck yet again in the political arena and this gave rise to a series of incidents. A day after his April 2 threat, one of his supporters played the Hanuman chalisa in front of a mosque in the largely Muslim area of Asalfa in Mumbai. He was detained by the police and later released. On the same day four MNS workers were detained by the police for playing the same hymn in front of the Shiv Sena’s headquarters in Dadar.

A week later, a BJP worker named Mohit Kamboj said on Twitter: “Whoever wants to install loudspeakers atop temples to play Hanuman chalisa can ask us for free. There must be a voice of Hindu unity. Jai Shree Ram! Har Har Mahadev!”

On April 12, at an MNS rally in Thane, Raj Thackeray persisted with his new message saying that he was giving an ultimatum to the State government to remove loudspeakers from mosques by May 3, when the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan ends. In characteristic abrasive style, he said: “If the State government does not remove loudspeakers from mosques by May 3, we will play the Hanuman chalisa over speakers. This is a social issue, not a religious one. We will not backtrack on this matter.”

Inspired by this, Navneet Kaur Rana, a member of Parliament, and her husband Ravi Rana, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, both independents from Amravati and Badnera respectively, demanded that Uddhav Thackeray should read the Hanuman chalisa on Hanuman Jayanti, failing which they would read it in front of his residence, Matoshree. They later withdrew their plan citing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mumbai, but they were arrested nevertheless under Section 153A of the IPC for promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups.

On April 17, Raj Thackeray once again exhorted his “Hindu brothers” to “be prepared” if the government did not remove loudspeakers from mosques by May 3. He also said that on May 1 he would be addressing MNS workers in Aurangabad, a city with a large Muslim population. He also announced that he would be making a pilgrimage to Ayodhya on June 5 and appealed to others to join him.Although the State government has condemned Raj Thackeray’s comment, it has not taken any further action even though the MNS leader’s pronouncements could easily incite communal trouble. He has cloaked his threat cleverly, calling the use of loudspeakers a social issue and not a religious one, but shot himself in the foot by declaring that he would retaliate by playing the Hanuman chalisa on loudspeakers in front of mosques. Promoting his campaign as a “social issue” might have worked, especially under noise control laws, but his retaliatory ‘solution’ proves his real intention. He further exposed his real objective when he said that he was doing this for peace in society “but if the use of loudspeakers continues, then they [Muslims] will also have to listen to our prayers on loudspeakers”.

He has also said, “…if they [Muslims] don't stop, and if they think that their religion is bigger than the judiciary, then we will give tit for tat. The MNS is preparing for it.”

BMC election

Raj Thackeray’s crusade is in keeping with his party’s recently adopted hard-line Hindutva stance. What should worry the government, and especially the Shiv Sena, is that his political reawakening could play spoilsport in the upcoming local body elections, particularly the BMC election. While the MNS may not make much headway in securing votes for itself, it could cut into the votes of the Shiv Sena or its other partners in the Maha Vikas Aghadi and weaken their chances of victory.

The Shiv Sena has ruled the 227-seat BMC for more than 20 years. It has become a symbol of Sena pride as well as the cornerstone of the party’s political strength. Currently the Shiv Sena has 97 corporators in the BMC, the BJP 80, the Congress 29, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) 8 and the Samajwadi Party 6.

The MNS is, of course, hoping for electoral gains from its current antics. After its formation in 2006, its best performance was in the 2009 Assembly election when it stunned everyone winning 13 seats. In the 2012 BMC election it won 28 seats and in the 122-seat Nashik Municipal Corporation it was the single largest party with 40 seats. The BJP supported it then and this resulted in an MNS mayor in Nashik. But the MNS could not sustain its promises. In the 2014 and 2019 Assembly elections its downhill slide was apparent, with the party winning only one seat on both occasions. Likewise, in the 2017 BMC election, its seat share fell to seven; of these, six corporators later defected to the Shiv Sena. Nashik, too, slid from Raj’s grasp.

A retired bureaucrat said: “The MNS was founded on ego. It has no ethos except that of revenge against the Shiv Sena. It has fickle policies and campaigns—Marathi manoos, Hindutva, so-called outsiders, sometimes for and sometimes against PM Modi—and it is unpredictable and changeable. It cannot gain voter trust.”

Local body elections are likely to be held by September and this accounts for the timing of the loudspeaker campaign. The term of 10 municipal corporations, including important ones like Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad, Nashik, and Nagpur, plus 25 zilla parishads, ended in March. Elections were deferred after the State government amended the law to ensure quotas for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the elections. Until then, the local bodies will be run by administrators. The elections must be held within six months of the appointment of the administrators.

Known for his incendiary speeches, Raj Thackeray has repeatedly targeted Uddhav, accusing him of “betraying the BJP” for the sake of the Chief Minister’s chair. In retaliation, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said that Raj was just the “BJP’s loudspeaker”. He said that Raj Thackeray was indebted to the BJP because the Centre gave relief to him from a 2019 Enforcement Directorate probe he had been facing for money laundering.

Although Raut dismissed Raj Thackeray as a pawn of the BJP, the fact remains that the latter has undoubtedly made a small, albeit disturbing, impact. He has drawn out the Sena’s innate Hindutva-ness. Uddhav Thackeray has never been shy about this but his cousin’s comments have made the Shiv Sena stand up for its Hindu beliefs. The late Bal Thackeray had also spoken out against azaan through loudspeakers and it would not be politically wise for the Shiv Sena to allow Raj Thackeray to appropriate that plank. The challenge before the Chief Minister is to resolve the issue and assuage his followers. Meanwhile, Aaditya Thackeray has scheduled a trip to Ayodhya in May. This political keeping up with the Joneses is ominous. At the same time, the Shiv Sena is trying to maintain a balance. While reacting to the Ranas’ plan to besiege Uddhav Thackeray’s residence, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna accused the couple of being the BJP’s mouthpiece and stated: “The chaos resorted to by the BJP cannot be supported. Hindutva is a culture, not chaos.”

Uddhav’s reaction

Uddhav Thackeray himself took a dig at his cousin, calling him an andh bhakt, or blind believer or follower. He also said that reciting the Hanuman chalisa was not the problem but the manner in which it was proposed to be done was.

There is no doubt that the matter is causing political rifts in Maharashtra and to that extent Raj can already claim some success, although that is not sufficient to bolster him or his party personally. When Prime Minister Modi was on a day’s visit to Mumbai, Uddhav Thackeray did not meet him, and instead went to the house of an old and dedicated Shiv Sainik who had led a gathering to protest the Ranas’ plan to besiege Uddhav Thackeray’s residence. NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s comments on Raj Thackeray were dismissive, but the fact that he was forced to comment on him is telling. Pawar said: “I don’t take Raj Thackeray seriously. He speaks once in six months or a year.” Watching and waiting instead of offering knee-jerk reactions is of the essence in the political arena. Sharad Pawar has mastered it and so has the BJP. But the Shiv Sena has a reputation for being easily needled and the BJP is banking on this. Under Sharad Pawar’s tutelage, Uddhav Thackeray has done a commendable job of keeping his cool and reining in his street-fighting followers. To give him some credit, it is not just Pawar’s tutoring but also his own innate cool head as opposed to that of his father, Bal Thackeray, who was easily provoked and quick to incite.

On his part, Uddhav Thackeray needs to carefully maintain to the positive public persona he has developed of being a level-headed leader who does not fall prey to the opposition’s political manoeuvres. So far, apart from holding strong to his commitment to the Ram temple, he has not put a wrong foot forward and has governed well through the difficult years of COVID and also given his party the beginnings of political respectability. The current situation with his cousin Raj is yet another test.

The MVA government in general, and the Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray’s own personal reputation in particular, are on test here. If Uddhav’s past two years are any indication, he will not make any missteps. He needs to watch out for and control the illogical passions of religious fervour that the opposition is relentlessly trying to kindle.

GOA

On a tinderbox

ANUPAMA KATAKAM

During the recent Assembly election, Goans made it a point to state that their State has a history of tolerance and that the Hindu right wing’s agenda would not work in their culture. Yet Goa finds itself on the dubious list of six States which saw sparks of violence on Ram Navami that was celebrated on April 11. The BJP won its third consecutive term with a complete majority to govern Goa in March 2022. Reportedly, right-wing groups are recruiting cadre in the State. Are these indications that the State that boasts of being a tolerant community, with its susegaad (“live life to its fullest”) approach to living, is in effect becoming a playground for the masters of right-wing politics?

“The tolerance is not just a smokescreen, it is an absolute lie,” said Ranjan Solomon, a columnist and human rights activist based in Goa. “It is a myth that Goa is defined by the absence of communal stress. The fact is there are latent prejudices that lurk between communities. Communalism here survives in silence and concealment. We are looking at a very dangerous future for this State.” As a witness to the violence that erupted on April 11 at Baina village near Vasco in South Goa, he says the Ram Navami procession deliberately went through small and congested routes in the area so that they could turn disruptive.

According to news reports, participants in the procession claimed that stones were hurled at them. However, the CCTV footage, which Frontline had access to, shows men dressed in saffron and holding saffron flags attempting to enter a mosque in Baina village during the time of Iftar (breaking of the Ramzan fast), leading to a fracas between the two communities. The footage shows a few elderly Muslim men placating the men dressed in saffron. According to Solomon, had the men not intervened, the violence could have spread. As many as 17 Muslim men were arrested on bailable charges in connection with the incident.

Solomon said: “Goa may be sitting on a tinderbox. It is a communal laboratory that has existed for years. If you scratch the surface, you will find [that] people here practise caste, class and religious discrimination. When we recently conducted workshops with the youths, they told us their parents told them not to eat in a Muslim or Christian home. And that Brahmins are certainly the upper class. This generation ideally should not even know about these layers but they do. These are small but clear signs of underlying tensions.” Solomon added that the right-wing agenda gained momentum recently when the Bajrang Dal set up a base in the State about eight months ago. This happened after Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s visit six months ago. Furthermore, the fact that the Sanatan Sanstha, an extreme right-wing organisation that has a criminal record, is headquartered in Ponda in South Goa, proves support from the State.

Sandesh Prabhudesai, a journalist and author based in Goa, said that Ponda is one of the few sensitive zones in Goa. He said: “It is not just the Hindu majority which causes issues, Christians also play a part in targeting Muslims living in Goa. For instance, for three decades, Muslims in the Madgoan area have tried to build a kabrastan (cemetery) but they have been denied permission.” There is truth in the fact that Goans do not play religious or caste politics. Elected representatives are chosen on being able to deliver and their accessibility to constituents. In fact, in spite of the general antagonism towards the Muslim community, the late Sheikh Hasan Haroon was a five-term Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) elected from Madgoan. However, Prabhudesai says he can see a shift taking place and sectarian politics creeping in.

As per the Census, Goan Muslims make up 8.33 percent of the total population. They are the third largest religious section after Hindus at about 66 per cent and Christians at 25 per cent. Historical material available on the Goan Muslim community says they are original inhabitants and not immigrants from other States. The community largely traces its origins to the 14th century Bahmani Sultanate, which controlled the Deccan region. During the 16th century Portuguese conquest of Goa, the Goan Muslims were violently persecuted, leading many to flee the territory. Currently, most Goan Muslims live in Madgoan and Vasco in South Goa, Valpoi, Bicholim and Satari in North Goa. By and large a community of traders and businessmen, they also have a significant presence in politics, with many Muslims winning elections over the years. According to Prabhudesai, Goan Muslims are a small and close-knit community, and are as “local” as any others.

Observers say that the recent communal incidents in Goa may be minor but there have been a few significant attacks on Christians. In 2017, several churches, crosses and graveyards that dot the countryside were vandalised. Recently, there was a claim that the 416-year-old Sancoale Church was built over a Laxmi Narayan temple that was razed down by colonists. Therefore, according to Solomon, the notion that Goa is a secular harmonious State is completely untrue.

He added: “In fact, it was the late Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar who propagated this theory. But in effect his strategy was to break the Catholic bastion, give several opportunists from the community berths and claim Goa was a peaceful State. This is a train wreck waiting to happen.”