A communal plot

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

The violence by tribal people against Muslims in Rajasthan, apparently at the instigation of Sangh Parivar organisations, stops short of developing into a full-fledged communal conflagration.

in Udaipur

HISTORY has it that the tribal communities of the Mewar region in Rajathan have mostly coexisted peacefully with others barring the colonial rulers and the feudal landlords. The exploits of Motilal Tejawat (1886-1963), who first raised the banner of rebellion against the economic and social exploitation of the Bhil tribal people and later took on the British and their feudal vassals in the region, are legendary. He was suspected to be a Bolshevik by the colonial masters, who along with the feudal lords set up the Mewar Bhil Sena to crush the rebellion led by him. Unfortunately, Tejawat's battle cries against feudalism and colonialism no longer echo in the Mewar region, where a different kind of mobilisation is under way - to pit the tribal people against certain minority communities.

About 70 km from the district centre of Udaipur lies Sarada tehsil. Around 300 Muslim families live in Sarada, apart from Hindus who form the majority of the population. The Bhils live on the hills surrounding Sarada. Importantly, the Bhils, the Garasias and the Gametis were the original landowners in Udaipur. Gradually they retreated into the hills, to a life of hardship, after their lands were taken over by non-tribal people, mainly caste-Hindus.

On July 29, a quarrel between two persons in Sarada, one a tribal person and the other a Muslim, developed into a major crisis, which was only solved with the intervention of the police. Even the quarrel, between Ashfaq alias Guddu and Shanti Lal Meena, was not a coincidence. According to informed sources in the administration, Meena had been provoking Guddu for almost a month. He and a few others often picked up quarrels with Guddu. Behind the instigation of Meena lay the hand of some influential traders belonging to the Jain community. On July 29, too, Meena picked up a quarrel with Guddu and beat him. Guddu chased Meena, but failed to capture him. Later Guddu confronted Madan Lal Jain, a diesel and petrol dealer, who he thought was instigating Meena to harm him. After a heated exchange, Guddu allegedly set afire the barrels of diesel.

Retribution followed. A mob burnt down Guddu's auto parts kiosk and three other cabins. It is learnt that the police's attempts to arrest Meena were foiled by the mob. That night and throughout next morning drum beats sounded all around Sarada. Meghraj Tawar, a former MLA and a Communist Party of India leader, told Frontline that the practice of "dhol bajana" was usually done when the tribal people perceived that they faced extreme danger. The notion that they were in extreme danger was conveyed to the tribal people in the interiors and rumours were spread on the night of July 29 that bodies of Bhils were lying in the bazaar. It was learnt that the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) outfit operating in the tribal areas, was active in spreading the word. A full-fledged attack was being prepared. The target was the 300 Muslim families in the tehsil.

On the morning of July 30, a meeting, attended by the Bharatiya Janata Party's district president Tarachand Jain, was held in a hostel for tribal students despite Section 144 being in force in the area. According to informed sources in the administration, Tarachand Jain did little to pacify the crowd. The BJP Member of Parliament, Mahaveer Bhagora, who belongs to a tribal community, too did nothing to control the tribal people. The police, in fact, requested the two leaders to persuade the mob to leave. When this correspondent spoke to Tarachand Jain later, he feigned a loss of memory about the sequence of events.

By noon, a 2,000-strong armed group had been mobilised. Earlier, the police, under political pressure, had confiscated all licensed weapons with the minority community. Since it was a Friday, Muslim men had gone to the mosque for the jumah prayers when the mob gathered near the locality. As the mob advanced, it burnt down some shops owned by members of the minority community. However, the police, led by Superintendent of Police R.P. Meharda, was determined not to let the mob enter the town. About eight persons sustained minor injuries when the police opened fire to disperse the crowd. Meanwhile, some members of the Muslim community fired, in an act of self-defence, at some people who managed to enter their locality. Asks Tarachand Jain: "Where was the need for self-defence when the police were already there? And how come some firing occurred from Muslim homes when the S.P. had apparently confiscated all the weapons? Not one single Muslim was killed."

Informed sources confirmed that a massacre had been averted, thanks to the timely intervention of the police. Even nature helped, as a heavy downpour played a role in dispersing the mob. In the mob were members of the Hindu Jagran Manch, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. While Tarachand Jain maintained that the mob was armed with only sticks, informed sources in the Police Department confirmed that it carried all "kinds of weapons". According to Tarachand Jain, there were not more than 500 people in the mob; according to police sources, there were around 2,000. In fact, it is believed that had the BJP district president and the MP not held the meeting at the hostel, the situation would not have turned volatile. Administration officials also believe that the tribal people were systematically instigated as a group against a "particular community" owing to economic and other rivalries. "They are being used as a group to fight the minorities," said an informed source.

On July 31, Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria went to Sarada but did not visit the Muslim homes. Sarada residents said that Kataria, who represents the Udaipur Assembly constituency, made provocative remarks while in Sarada. The Opposition Congress legislator Raghuveer Singh Meena, who represents the Sarada Assembly constituency, accompanied the Home Minister, he too did not bother to visit the members of the minority community. The Muslim houses were searched and police personnel allegedly threw out household articles.

Soon after, Meharda was transferred to Jaipur and posted as the Deputy Director of the Rajasthan Police Academy. The government move demoralised the police force and for two days police personnel in the district reportedly observed a silent protest by boycotting the mess. Said an officer requesting anonymity: "If all the 30 Superintendents of Police in Gujarat had acted the way Meharda did, not a single person would have been killed in the post-Godhra violence."

A week after the incident, reports indicated that attempts made to assemble people to discuss "tribal" problems were thwarted by the administration. Although no organisation claimed responsibility for the event, influential members of the Jain and Hindu communities in Sarada were believed to be behind it.

In the wake of the incident, 200 families fled Sarada. Several of them are yet to return. For five days all shops in the area remained closed and an economic boycott of Muslims was organised. None of the shops owned by the majority community members sold to Muslims; the few grocery shops owned by the minority community were destroyed in the violence. An informed source said: "There have been only two victims - the Muslims and the S.P."

In fact, it is a mystery how the tribal people got involved in the violence, the immediate cause of which was a tiff between two non-tribal people, a Muslim and a Jain trader. It was Madan Jain's shop that was burnt; Ashfaq did not harm Shanti Meena. It is evident that Shanti Meena was only a pawn used to provoke the violence. B.L. Singhvi, the district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that such incidents drove a wedge between communities and succeeded in deflecting attention from the real exploiters of the self-respecting tribal community.

Among the non-tribal people of Sarada, the Muslim community is more or less educated and has some retired government servants. Some of its members own jeeps. A handful of them own land. The rest of the population comprise caste-Hindus, Patels, Meghwals (a Scheduled Caste community), Jains and others. The trading community in Sarada largely belongs to these caste groups.

Although Guddu was arrested on July 29 itself, the people involved in the July 30 incidents were arrested much later. When the latter were arrested, a call for a bazaar bandh was given. The police remained resolute and, a few hours later, the shops opened. According to M.N. Dinesh, the new S.P., several people were held in preventive detention. Of the 31 persons arrested, 24 were Muslims and seven belonged to tribal communities. Shanti Meena, who was arrested under a non-bailable offence, secured bail and was reportedly roaming freely in Sarada. There are allegations that sections of the trading community in Sarada sold in the black market foodgrain and kerosene meant for the public distribution system (PDS). Madan Lal Jain, confirmed informed sources in the Police Department, should have been booked under the Essential Commodities Act for storing diesel beyond the prescribed limit and for the illegal distribution of petrol. Similarly, an inquiry into the meeting on July 30 which aggravated the situation is yet to be held.

Members of the minority community said that this was the first time that the tribal people attacked them. Keshu Lal Meena, who belongs to the Bhil community, said that he was born and bred in Sarada and he had never seen the atmosphere so vitiated. But the amity between the tribal people and Muslims is visible when Meena goes and fetches Sattar Mohammad, whose shop was looted and burnt on July 30. "We represent the fourth or fifth generation of Muslims in Sarada," say Sattar and his brother Gaffar Mohammad. In fact, Muslims were known to have served in the paltan (platoon) of the Rajput rulers of Mewar. "The tribal people are not to blame. They have been instigated," say the brothers.

Alam Ara, a young girl doing her post-graduation in Urdu, wonders why the administration has not set up a peace committee. Her 70-year-old grandmother Allahrakhi said that this was the first time that she feared for her life. "As long as there is no compromise or a settlement, how can things get normal?" asks Allahrakhi. Muslim elders said that the arms that were confiscated were licensed weapons. The area was close to a jungle and after the incidents in Gujarat - not far away from Sarada - insecurity among the minority community had heightened.

Adding to the minorities' feeling of insecurity in the State are some controversial decisions of the Vasundhara Raje government - the lifting of the ban on the VHP's trishul diksha (trident distribution) programme and the withdrawal of more than 100 riot cases.

In the first week of August, some tribal people going from Banswara to Ajmer for a programme organised by a non-governmental organisation were stopped by Bajrang Dal workers at Chittorgarh. The Bajrang Dal activists forced them to alight from a State Roadways Bus, alleging that the people were being taken to be converted to Christianity. Accompanying the activists were mediapersons and police personnel. The tribal people, along with the team leader Stephen Rawat, head of the Banswara-based Sampoorna Jeewan Vikas Samiti, were taken to the police station, interrogated for hours and then sent back to Banswara. Joseph Pathalil, the Roman Catholic bishop of Udaipur, told Frontline that the tribal people were going to attend a programme on health care and development organised by the Catholic Relief Services, an international body. He added that the head of the organisation in India was Hemant Tiwari, a Hindu. "Instead of giving protection to the team for going ahead to Ajmer, the police forced them to go back to Banswara," said the bishop. He wrote to the Chief Minister and the Home Minister requesting an inquiry into the incident, but none of them has replied so far.

Udaipur and Banswara are close to the Gujarat border. In the post-Godhra violence, there were attacks on Muslim shops and homes in Udaipur's Kotara block, not far from the Gujarat border. Timely intervention by the police prevented matters from going out of control. But is this the tip of the iceberg? Was Sarada a Hindutva experiment to communalise the tribal people that almost succeeded?

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