Striking terror

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

The flight of Muslim families from Karjalia village in Bhilwara district following an RSS activist's murder indicates the atmosphere of fear in which the minorities live in BJP-ruled Rajasthan.

in Bhilwara

WHEN Satyanarayan Sharma, a 16-year-old Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activist, was murdered on the night of March 1 at Karjalia, a village in Rajasthan's Bhilwara district, the 18 Muslim families of the village shut themselves up in their houses, terrified of the retribution that they expected to follow. Two young Muslim men were blamed for the murder, and within a week all but one of the Muslim families had fled the village.

Their Hindu neighbours say no one asked them to leave. True, but accounts of the Muslims who have returned suggest that threats of revenge had created an atmosphere of fear that proved too overwhelming for them.

On March 2, the day after the murder, Bajrang Dal State convener Chandrasingh Jain, a familiar face in these parts, was in Karjalia, threatening to start a "movement" if the "murderers" were not arrested within 48 hours. The Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Bhilwara, V.P. Singh, condoled with the bereaved family on the same day. On March 3, Vithal Shankar Awasthi, the RSS leader from Asind, Harjiram Gujjar of the Bajrang Dal, and Tejvir Singh Chundawata, a BJP office-bearer, were in Karjalia, talking to the Brahmins and the Gujjars, whipping up passions against the Muslims of the village. The Muslims also faced a social and economic boycott of sorts - the Hindu shopkeepers would not sell to them.

On March 4, a station house officer (SHO) and a sub-inspector took into police custody the two Muslims blamed for the murder, Farooq Mohammad alias Bunty and Moin Khan alias Bilkis. They had been named by Raju Daroga from the village, apparently the only witness to the murder; he was also taken into custody.

The same day, RSS activists in the village organised a condolence meeting, joined by Sangh Parivar activists from neighbouring villages, and inflammatory slogans against Muslims were raised. On the night of March 6, the Muslim families fled, running across fields, to neighbouring villages.

It took the police a while to bring the charge of murder against the two young men they took into custody on March 4, both of whom belonged to relatively prosperous families. The charges were brought after the State Home Minister, Gulabchand Kataria, announced he would resign if the "culprits" were not brought to book. However, sources in the administration say that no conclusive evidence has been gathered against either of the two accused, save the testimony of a single individual.

Most of the Muslim families have now returned to Karjalia, home to about 50 Brahmin and 20 Gujjar households, but not all of them are confident that they can continue to live there. A few of the 18 Muslim families own land and are fairly prosperous; the rest are daily wage earners, working in factories or as farmhands.

The episode is important because it seems to be part of a pattern of organised targeting of minority communities that has marked the one and a half years of the BJP government in Rajasthan. Indeed, it had hardly been two months since the attack on a Christian group in Kota that the focus shifted to Bhilwara. There is a certain method in this seeming madness. Each time a new location is selected, usually one that has no previous record of communal violence. The minority community is then targeted, made to face a social and economic boycott and, wherever possible, forced to flee.

Sources in the Sadbhav Manch and the Rajasthan Muslim Forum, who visited Bhilwara on April 15, said that there had been other instances of Muslims fleeing their villages in the district, though not quite on the scale at Karjalia. Muslims were reportedly forced to migrate from villages such as Kaliyas, Udo Ki Badia and Brahmino Ke Saredi.

Muslims who have returned to Karjalia are still scared. One of them, Zarina, a divorcee with two children, had fled leaving behind her only means of sustenance, some land and livestock. "What else could I do when they began blaming us for the murder and said they would do bad things to us?" she said. Zarina returned home a month and a half after the incident. Her Hindu neighbours refuse to accept that she had left under pressure and insist that she has returned without police protection. SHO Chena Ram, who brought her home, was also not prepared to accept that she had left out of fear. "Nobody told her to leave," was the refrain.

Maybe. But Karjalia's Muslims are still afraid. Two of them, Nasruddin and Chand Khan, took this correspondent aside and said they were unable to speak freely in front of their Hindu neighbours: "These very people, who have directed you to our homes, will meet in the evening to assess what we have told you. They do this every day." They said that the economic boycott had been lifted but the shopkeers were still reluctant to do business with Muslims. Nasruddin, who works at a factory in Bhilwara, said he did not think he could go on living in the village.

Fateh Mohammad, a mason, was more optimistic. He too had returned to the village after having stayed away for more than a month. "There was an economic boycott initially, it lasted 10 days. But these things happen," he said stoically.

What did the Hindu residents have to say about the alleged boycott? Baliram Gujjar, who runs a dairy, said he had never refused to sell milk to any of the Muslims, adding quickly: "But if they owe us money and expect to buy milk by bullying us, then I have the right to refuse." The petrified Muslims this correspondent came across, however, hardly looked like bullies.

The murdered boy's father, Ram Gopal Sharma, has been an RSS activist for decades. He insisted that the "real culprits" were the father and uncle of the accused. He also said that they were "sandalwood smugglers", though it was not clear what was the basis of this charge.

What did the elected sarpanch of the village have to say about the whole business? Did he have any role at all? Ram Gopal said the sarpanch was a tribal and illiterate person. "All the panchayat meetings are held at Hastilal Jain's house. He is a big trader and he is with us. He shares our Hindu sentiment," Ram Gopal said.

After Karjalia, it was the turn of the Muslims of Mandal tehsil to come under attack. Most of them are daily wage earners, commuting to and from Bhilwara town every day with their Hindu neighbours. A few of them teach in government schools. Shops owned by Hindus and Muslims exist side by side in Mandal, and Hindus from the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy live in the midst of Muslims at Ansari Mohalla, the `Muslim' neighbourhood of the tehsil.

On the morning of April 8, a Friday, Rustam Ali Mansuri, the manager of Medina Masjid, saw two men creep inside the premises and plant two saffron flags with Jai Shri Ram written on them. Ansari, who is an old man, could not do much at that moment. Later, members of the community informed the Subdivisional Magistrate's Office about what had happened. The SHO of Mandal, Bajju Ram Gujjar, removed the flags. However, the police did not pay much attention, probably because Mandal had no recent history of communal strife.

But in the evening, the majority community organised a bewan, a flower procession, which inexplicably made its way through Ansari Colony. Policemen accompanied the procession. However, a riot started when some people threw stones at the procession. Panicky shopkeepers immediately downed shutters, but rumours spread fast and soon there were rioters setting fire to shops, picking out the ones owned by Muslims, sparing those owned by Hindus. The police tried to disperse the mob by firing in the air and a stray bullet killed a man, Kanhaiyalal.

Curfew was imposed almost immediately. The police have registered cases against 27 Muslims and seven persons from the majority community. Hussain Quraishi, an advocate at the Sessions Court, Bhilwara, said that the "real instigators' of the arson had been spared and "the victims had been further victimised".

The arrested Muslims, one of whom was a teacher, were allegedly beaten up in police custody. Policemen raided their homes, and the searches allegedly turned into lootings.

A senior official in the administration said he had received no complaints of police excesses but that he would look into them if he received any.

Om Prakash Birla, a prominent businessman and a member of the Hindu Dharma Raksha Parishad, said that the Muslims set fire to their own shops to profit from insurance claims. However, only three of the 10 shops burnt had been insured, that too days before the arson. A senior official dismissed the Raksha Parishad allegation, saying: "As soon as we paid the shop-owners compensation, the other side raised the issue. It was an attempt to malign the community. There is fundamentalism on both sides, but especially in sections of the majority community who are trying to fan trouble."

Indeed, there does seem to be an organised pattern. The first major onslaught against the minority community in Bhilwara was in July 2000 at Asind, when the Kalandari Masjid was demolished. The mosque stood on the premises of the Sawai Bhoj temple, a shrine of the Gujjar community, and was a testimony to the composite culture of the place. Its demolition drove a permanent wedge between the Gujjars and the Muslims. A Congress government was in power then, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was making headlines with its Trishul Diksha programmes in the State. The State government eventually banned the programme, but the ban was lifted in July 2004, months after the present government was formed.

It has been only a year and a half since the Vasundhara Raje government has been ruling, and already its reign is marked by a dubious record of attacks on minorities. In February 2004, the Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal in Udaipur was attacked over an allegedly irreverent painting of some Hindu gods. The Bajrang Dal led the attacks. In July 2004, tribal people were incited to attack Muslim shops and dwellings at Sarada tehsil in Udaipur district, after an insignificant quarrel between a tribal person and a Muslim youth. More recently, at Sojat in Pali district, two dozen Muslim shops were burnt on March 27 this year. As in Bhilwara, the trouble began when a religious procession of the Ghanchi community was allegedly stoned. In February, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal targeted the Emmanuel Mission.

Even Dalits do not consider themselves safe in the State, especially after the brutal daylight murder of Mohan Meghwal on March 1, at Jaitaran in Pali district. Meghwal had dared to contest for the post of sarpanch against a Thakur. But, of course, the minority communities remain the favourite targets.

The lone Communist Party of India (Marxist) member in the State Assembly, Amra Ram, who visited Bhilwara along with the party's State secretary and Central Committee member Vasudev Sharma, told Frontline that the incidents at Karjalia and Mandal were not isolated instances. He thought it was part of an attempt to create a Gujarat-like situation and the plan was to target small towns and villages. He criticised the Congress for not taking to the streets on this issue. He said: "It is not a question of merely visiting the affected persons. The CPI(M) has a small presence in the State. The Congress is the main Opposition party and Bhilwara has been a Congress stronghold. Despite that they have not displayed any protest on the ground. This shows they do not want to annoy members of the majority community."

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