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Stoking the communal fire

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

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Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.-SUBIR ROY

Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.-SUBIR ROY

The violence in Mau and Agra in Uttar Pradesh shows that communal politics can rise again and overwhelm the State's social atmosphere with disastrous consequences.

UTTAR PRADESH almost reminded itself of the communally charged 1980s and 1990s as Hindu-Muslim communal violence erupted in two places in the State in the span of a fortnight. The riots first began in the eastern town of Mau, on October 13. The historical western city of Agra followed suit 10 days later.

The incidents in Mau were more serious. The violence continued for three days killing, by official estimates, eight people - five Hindus and three Muslims - and injuring hundreds of others. Property worth crores of rupees was damaged. Informal estimates by non-partisan sources put the death roll at 12 while the politically motivated statements of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a local "Hindu" outfit controlled by the Hindu Maha Sabha, spoke of "narsanghar" (massacre) of Hindus.

In comparison, the Agra incidents were minor and did not result in loss of life. Some property, worth a few lakhs, was damaged, but the timely intervention of the district administration and the confabulations it initiated with leaders of both communities restored peace relatively fast. The fact that the city did not have to be put under prohibitory orders while Mau continued to be under curfew even 15 days after the outbreak of violence, spoke volumes about the difference in the situations.

The sudden outbreak of communal violence has raised several questions about the direction that the polity of the State is taking. Is there an attempt to revive the communal politics and polarisation that almost engulfed the State in the late 1980s and the early 1990s? The fact that sections of the Hindutva combine, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), are once again talking about the need to highlight issues such as "minorityism" and "return to Hindutva" has enhanced the contextual value of the questions.

However, a close scrutiny of the incidents at Mau and Agra does not reveal any clear indicators of an organised game plan. Local factors, starting with the latent traditional animosity between sections of both communities, which have got strengthened by the criminalisation of politics and the administrative subjugation to it, triggered the violence in both places.

In fact, the Mau incidents occurred in a climate that generally brings out the latent animosity among sections of Hindus and Muslims. The Dasara festival in the town is normally concluded with a function called Bharat Milap - a ritualistic procession honouring Bharata, the brother of Rama - and in most years it coincided with the Roza rituals in the Muslim month of Ramazan.

Normally, the leaders of the two communities evaluated the situation jointly with the help of the district administration and took necessary steps to organise both the functions without problems. Uttar Pradesh Home Secretary Alok Sinha told Frontline that a consultation took place this time too and it was decided that the Bharat Milap procession would be taken out on October 29 though it actually fell on October 13. This was done in order to help the Muslim community conduct the Roza rituals peacefully.

However, a section of the Hindu community, led by the Hindu Yuva Vahini, struck an aggressive posture and asked why they should postpone the date of a ritualistic procession for Muslims and started making preparations to hold it by making announcements on the loudspeaker. One of the loudspeakers was set up near the maidan of Shahi Katara Jama Masjid and some "agitated" Muslims objected to the Hindu Vahini's initiative. The objections soon developed into heated exchanges which, in turn, led to a flare-up. What started from the area near the Masjid soon spread to nearby localities. Areas such as Kopaganj and Dohri Ghat saw violence erupt, damaging property and killing and injuring people.

At this point, Mukthar Ansari, the local independent Member of the Legislative Assembly, the "don politician" of Mau, took to the streets in an open jeep, self-professedly to calm the people and control the riots. But, given the politician's support base, his "mission" - whatever its real intent - "boosted" the confidence of the Muslim community and "demoralised" Hindus. The district administration and the police did not make bold to tell the MLA that his "peace offensive" was aggravating the situation. According to a senior State bureaucrat, such is Ansari's influence over certain sections of the district administration that they did not even inform the State headquarters about the details of the incidents.

It was in this situation that Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav admitted that the Mau developments were a blot on his secular government and initiated a series of emergency measures to bring the situation under control. Five top officials - Divisional Commissioner D.D. Singh, Deputy Inspector-General of Police Prabhat Kumar, District Magistrate Heera Mani Singh Yadav, Senior Superintendent of Police Akhilesh Kumar Mishra and B.L. Paswan, in-charge of the Kotwali police station in Mau - were suspended for failing to control the violence. Shoot-at-sight orders were issued in the town and a red alert was sounded across eastern Uttar Pradesh to prevent the violence from escalating.

In contrast, the violence in Agra was not caused by an overtly religious issue. Trouble began when a burqa-clad Muslim woman visited a shop in the Subhash Bazar area of the city and the shop-owner doubted that she had stolen some cloth and hidden it under her veil. The shop-owner raised an alarm and fellow traders gathered at the site. There are contradictory versions as to what happened next. Some people insist that stolen cloth was recovered from the woman, but several others deny it. Whatever the truth, the woman returned home and said that she was insulted. This agitated her family and neighbours. They came and confronted the shop-owner, leading to brick batting and violence. But the police, who acted immediately, dispersed the mob and brought the situation under control.

Although the situation in both Mau and Agra is no longer serious, the efforts to make political capital out of it continue. Unfortunately, the office of the Governor too has got enmeshed in this politics. Governor T.V. Rajeshwar, a former senior police officer, has been in a sort of pro-active mood throughout his tenure in Uttar Pradesh and his reaction to the Mau developments followed the pattern. State Home Ministry officials told Frontline that the Governor indicated his desire to visit Mau on October 15 and had to be restrained by the Chief Minister himself.

However, the Governor went to Mau on October 22 and later called the Chief Minister for consultations. By all indications, the Governor is supposed to have told the Chief Minister to consider holding a judicial inquiry, a demand rejected by the government right from the day the violence started.

Although Mulayam Singh Yadav refused to comment on the Governor's action, his associates in the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) were critical of the Governor. S.P. general secretary Amar Singh asked why the Uttar Pradesh Governor should conduct an "on-the-spot" inquiry when the Assam Governor had not ventured to do anything similar despite the killing of around 1,000 people in that State. Amar Singh said: "The Constitution entails the Governor to act under the counsel of the Council of Ministers. But in Uttar Pradesh the Governor is not obliging the Constitution."

Meanwhile, the Governor is expected to submit an independent report to the Central government on the riots. There is considerable speculation that it would be against the State government. The situation is being used by Opposition parties such as the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress to initiate a political campaign against the government. While the Congress and the BSP are focussing on the "failure of the government" to control the riots in time, the BJP has stressed the "injustice being done to Hindu society". Although BJP leaders such as former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, State unit president Kesri Nath Tripathi and senior leader Lalji Tandon tried to go to Mau on the first day of the violence itself, they were prevented by the administration. Sangh Parivar workers have started a campaign on these lines in neighbouring districts such as Bahraich, Ghazipur and Ballia. The activists burnt Ansari's effigy and shouted slogans against him. Thankfully, however, these activities have not disturbed the peace in these districts.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 18, 2005.)

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