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Bloodbath in Kanpur

Print edition : Mar 31, 2001 T+T-

Kanpur witnesses arson and killings as some communal elements in the police and right-wing activists inflame passions and unleash violence.

THE eruption of violence that led to the killing of 13 persons, including an Additional District Magistrate and a 12-year-old boy, in Kanpur city on March 16 took most people by surprise, as the district, with a sizable Muslim population, did not have a history of communal tension. Soon it became apparent that the involvement of Right-wing communal forces, the ineptitude of the district administration, and the partisan, communal and trigger-happy attitude of the State police were the principal causes of the turn of events. Once again the role of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) was in focus.

Inflammatory reports in sections of the media served to escalate tensions and sow distrust among communities. Significantly, entire communities did not join the rioting despite provocation from fundamentalist elements. The face-off was between the police and the minority community, and it was not communal in the strict sense of the term. Certain persons were in league with the PAC. Even so, the clashes appeared to be one-sided as at the end of it all more persons from the minority community were killed or injured than any other group. It was as if the administration had ceased to exist for the minority community.

Some lumpen elements, whose political identity left no one in doubt, cried Har Har Mahadev as they accompanied the police in an ostensible mission to quell the clashes. A local television channel telecast a sizable length of footage of the first day of c lashes. (The clashes continued on March 18.)

It was a report and a picture of the alleged burning of the Koran on March 5 by Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists in front of the United Nations office in New Delhi that triggered trouble in Kanpur and elsewhere in the country. Certai n fundamentalist groups printed posters about the incident and pasted them in several Muslim-dominated areas. (Posters calling for jehad had appeared a week earlier in several Muslim localities of Kanpur district.) It is alleged that the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had the picture downloaded from a website and despatched copies of it across the country. It is felt that even the posters could have originated from outside.

In Delhi, on March 13, a 16-member delegation of Muslim leaders led by Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, Maulana Obaidullah Khan Azmi, Member of Parliament and representatives of the Mili Council and the Muslim Personal Law Board met the Prime Minister to demand action against those who had allegedly burnt the Koran. Stating that it was an extremely volatile issue, the delegation expressed fears that a law and order problem could emerge.

An inquiry was ordered subsequently, but even the Delhi Police initially refused to take the report seriously. Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) P. Kamaraj denied that such an incident had taken place. However, on March 14, two Bajrang Dal activists were arrested.

The Bajrang Dal, which raised provocative slogans following the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, denied that the activists had burnt the holy book. However, it was quite clear from the news picture that the incident had occurred . On March 4, the Bajrang Dal announced its intention to hold demonstrations all over the country to protest against "Islamic terrorism" and the actions of the Taliban.

In Kanpur, word spread about the posters and about a protest meeting called for March 16. All mosques were told to prepare for protest marches and Muslims were exhorted to wear black badges. The administration was aware of the meeting but did not make ad equate arrangements to handle any untoward incidents. Four mosques are located in the area where the clashes took place. Soon after Friday prayers, a protest march, seeking to burn the effigies of the Prime Minister, Home Minister L.K. Advani, was organi sed. When the protesters reached Nai Sarak, the police did not allow them to burn the effigies. They moved towards Naveen Market from where they were forced back into the bylanes of Chamanganj and Yateemkhana. There was a lathi-charge, and it appeared th at the police had succeeded in quelling the protest temporarily. Meanwhile, anti-social elements indulged in arson. A paint shop belonging to a member of the majority community was set on fire. Apparently this was done to settle old scores.

Behind the Kotwali, the seat of the district administration and the police, an entire row of bangle and footwear shops owned by members of the minority community was burnt even as the police watched. Significantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party office, situ ated along the protest route, was not touched. The office of the national co-convener of the Bajrang Dal is located in the market area.

There were numerous instances of members of the minority community stepping in to protect members of the majority community. Some of them were in Choubey Ka Gola where C.P. Pathak, the Additional District Magistrate (Finance), was killed. Similarly, in S hastri Nagar, a Hindu-dominated area, where Bajrang Dal and VHP activists sought to inflame passions, some members of the majority community gave refuge to beleaguered families of the minority community. The police were reported to have recovered some bo mbs from the house of a BJP corporator in the area.

In many of the affected areas, including Beconganj, Talaqmahal, Yateemkhana and Choubey Ka Gola, the unanimous demand was: remove the PAC. In Beconganj, where a readymade garments market was gutted, people blamed the station House Officer specifically an d the PAC in general. "In normal times, it is unusual for a non-Muslim to come to these Muslim-dominated areas. Do you think they will come and set fire to our shop when the atmosphere is tense?'' asked Sultan Warsi, from whose house two bullet shells we re recovered. His house overlooks the Beconganj police station. He said he had three daughters and there was little reason for him to shoot at the police, an allegation levelled against the residents by the police. There was no doubt in their minds that the police set the shops on fire.

In Talaqmahal, Mariam Urooj was inconsolable. "The PAC looted our medical shop and we shouted for help from our rooftops but none came to our rescue," alleged the student of the Methodist High School. Her father, Pintoo, has a reputation for being secula r-minded. Mariam said that it was only with the help of a senior police officer that the PAC personnel were made to empty their vehicles, from which hens, dry fruit and other objects spilled out. In the Talaqmahal and Choubey Ka Gola areas, the PAC force s were removed and jawans of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) were deployed, which helped restore some confidence among the residents.

Even as the police pushed back the protesters, they were joined by an unexpected ally. In the Yateemkhana area, right-wing elements of the majority community live in Chandreshwar Hata. Some young men, quite at ease with the police, joined with the person nel of the force and hurled objects at protesters. The slogan Har Har Mahadev they raised was captured in the TV video clip, leaving little doubt about their affiliation. Senior Superintendent of Police Arun Kumar, who took charge after the District Magi strate and the SSP were removed following the clashes, told Frontline that the clashes assumed communal overtones after the ADM's death. This was surprising as the majority of Muslims maintained that it was the communal police and not any section of the public who unleashed violence. According to Arun Kumar, the target of the protesters was the BJP office, a theory which is not substantiated. Asked why the police fired directly, Arun Kumar replied that various measures were taken to prevent the riots. H e admitted that there was distrust in the PAC and wondered which other force could have been deployed.

The new District Magistrate, B.S. Bhullar, told Frontline that normalcy had been restored although there was an undercurrent of tension. He felt that it was not healthy to perpetuate the "myth of a communal PAC", especially when there were very few optio ns. He also admitted that the situation had been allowed to worsen. As the majority of the areas were still tense, curfew had been relaxed only partially. Tension was palpable in several Muslim-dominated areas even on March 22.

According to Subhashini Ali, a former member of Parliament from Kanpur, it was significant that areas that were volatile in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1991 were quiet this time. All attempts by reactionary elements to turn the situation i nto a communal one had failed, Ali said. Areas such as Faithfulganj and Ram Narayan Bazaar, which has a mixed population, and even Shujaatganj remained largely peaceful despite the appearance of offensive posters. A visit to these areas showed that thoug h there was a semblance of normalcy, the fear of the PAC was all-pervasive. Residents of Bakarganj wanted the administration to remain neutral. They wondered why Chief Minister Rajnath Singh was reluctant to deploy any other force. For their own protecti on, the local people have formed peace committees that keep vigil.

A FACT-FINDING team of women activists, including Brinda Karat of the All India Democratic Women's Association, Syeda Hameed of the Muslim Women's Forum, and Pranoti Mukherjee of the National Federation of Indian Women as well as representatives of the C atholic Bishops Conference of India and the Indian Social Institute visited some of the areas under curfew. In a memorandum to Commissioner V.K. Malhotra, they demanded action against officials who failed to arrest those responsible for putting up provoc ative posters. They also demanded swift action against the PAC personnel who they said had indulged in arson and looting. The team alleged that the police connived with Bajrang Dal activists who were encouraged to attack mosques and shops. Contrary to of ficial propaganda that sought to paint the entire Muslim community as aggressors, it was the minority community which was the victim of looting, arson and police reprisals, the team members stated.

With Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh approaching, it could well be that the ruling BJP is playing the communal card. More so in a context where its popularity, already on the wane for more than one reason, has taken a further beating with the Tehalka expose. Hence it was not surprising that Rajnath Singh saw an international and internal political conspiracy in the Kanpur violence.