Communal calculations

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The VHP and the Bajrang Dal launch a 'Trishul Diksha' campaign in Rajasthan, disrupting the peace.

KHATUN BANO, 65, and Manohar Singh, a Rajput, belong to different religions, but both revere the centuries-old dargah of Sufi saints Sultan Shah Bana and Gaffar Shah Baba at Asind town in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan. While the two still find some meaning in the composite culture of Asind, communal amity in the town has taken several knocks in recent times. And this may be indicative of the situation in Rajasthan as a whole today.

While on the one hand religious places of a particular community are being pulled down or desecrated, on the other Hindu outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal have emerged in strength in areas which have had a history of amity and peace. Their rise is not being addressed seriously by the State government, though Congress(I) Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot did demand a ban on the Bajrang Dal in the context of the Central government's ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

The lack of firmness in the matter of dealing with communal elements has encouraged the proliferation of incendiary outfits. The Trishul Diksha and Jalabhishek programme of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal held on September 25 in the Sawai Bhoj temple complex at Asind was an example of communal mobilisation in the guise of a membership drive. Incidentally, the district administration also saw the belligerent acts involving the display of metallic trishuls as being part of a "membership drive".

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.-GOPAL SUNGER

The programme was apparently aimed at mobilising the Gurjar population in the town barely two months after the July 27 demolition of a 16th century mosque built in the Qalandari style and located adjacent to the Sawai Bhoj temple. Evidently, communal elements used the demolition during the urs festival as an opportunity to work on the minds of the members of the majority community. Today the 31-member Sawai Bhoj Trust maintains that the urs itself was not a regular feature and that no mosque existed on the premises of the temple complex. Head priest Bhoja Ram, who is a member of the Trust, said the structure that was demolished was just a wall that Naga sadhus had built to deflect strong westerly winds. However, there is ample evidence, including a video recording made in 1997, to show that the mosque did exist at the spot prior to July 27 (Frontline, August 31, 2001).

What remains at the site now is a freshly-cemented floor and a security guard's tent. The Hanuman idol that replaced the mosque appears to have been kept aside. The complex now houses the sprawling Devnarayan temple, which was completed in April.

The demolition was not an isolated incident. Two mazaars, or burial grounds, were desecrated in Jahazpur town, 90 km from Bhilwara, in July before the Asind demolition. Another mazaar in Pander, a town near Jahazpur, was defiled on August 12, Janmashtami day. In each of the cases the administration prevailed upon the minority community to reconstruct the damaged structures in order to avoid further tension. One person, Trilok Joshi, was arrested but he was granted bail apparently after protests from the majority community. Nisar Ahmed, chairman of the Anjuman Committee, said the Jahazpur market was closed for seven days after Joshi's arrest.

A Deputy Superintendent of Police, a Circle Inspector and a Station House Officer were suspended following the Jahazpur and Pander incidents. Now the incidents are being investigated by an Additional Superintendent of Police, Criminal Investigation Department, and the district administration has washed its hands of the case.

Newly-inducted volunteers of the Bajrang Dal with their mini-trishuls after the diksha ceremony at Asind.-

IT was around the time of these incidents that the VHP and the Bajrang Dal began making their presence felt in Bhilwara district and adjoining areas. While no direct link has been established between their growth and the acts of desecration, the activities of communal elements have without doubt contributed to creating an atmosphere of tension and mistrust in these areas. For instance, in Jahazpur a nominated Congress(I) councillor, Gopal Chand Khatik, floated an organisation called the Hindu Sangathan Manch, later renamed the Hindu Manch. Congress(I) members in the town participated in the events organised by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Members of the minority community registered their displeasure by greeting Gehlot with black badges and protests when he visited Jahazpur on September 8.

The Trishul Diksha in Jahazpur was held on September 6 when prohibitory orders were in force in the district. The administration argued that it was held "privately" and that it was not possible to curb such "membership drive" activities. Deputy Superintendent of Police Hemant Sharma explained that if Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav could address a public meeting in the area on August 26, there was nothing wrong in allowing the Trishul Diksha of the VHP-Bajrang Dal.

Sharma said that around 150 people were given Trishul Diksha at Jahazpur in the presence of Praveen Togadia, international secretary-general of the VHP, and Chander Singh Jain, Bajrang Dal regional coordinator. The process involved offering a 15 cm-long trishul to the acolytes and their reading out a pledge. The organisers had sought permission to hold the programme near the bus station but he did not allow it, said Sharma.

To Muslims in Jahazpur, the role of the administration is suspect. While a banner of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) calling Hindus to unite fluttered on a gate, the words 'Jama Masjid' written on a wall to indicate the direction of the Jama Masjid that is under construction had been effaced. "There were complaints against the writing of 'Jama Masjid', so we had it effaced," said Sharma. Detailing the efforts for peace undertaken by the administration, he said that as part of confidence-building measures peace committees and local area committees had been constituted. Ironically, the representatives of the majority community on these committees are those whom Muslims hold responsible for vitiating the atmosphere. The include, besides Gopal Khatik, influential members of the BJP, Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal.

THE youth among the minority community are being persuaded by their elders to show restraint. Mohammad Sher, a member of the Mohammadan Youth Club in Jahazpur, said that despite much provocation the youth had exercised restraint, heeding the calls of elders. He denied Gopal Khatik's claim that SIMI was running the Youth Club and that maulvis from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were agents of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Sharif Mohammad Chita, Congress-man and a former Municipal Council chairman, said that the police inspected the records at the two telephone booths he owned in order to check if any calls had been made to Pakistan. He resented the fact that Congress members were working along with those of Hindu communal outfits. "I can leave the party if I feel it is against Hindu dharma," retorted Khatik. "I am first a Hindu and then a Congressman." Khatik is a Dalit and is apparently trying to rally Dalits against the minority community. He supported the Trishul Diksha and claimed that it was the first step towards the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. "Trishul Diksha was being planned in all the villages, and in the smaller villages Jalabhishek of Shiva lingas would be conducted," he said. At Pander, 101 people were given Trishul Diksha on October 1; nearly 700 people attended the function.

The desecration of the mazaar at Pander held the potential for serious trouble. Maulana Abdul Qayuum, who was sleeping in his quarters in the mosque complex, told Frontline that he heard some voices and saw the gate lying open. It was raining. Fearing that something untoward might happen he went to the house of Qamar Ali nearby. At 5 a.m. he returned to the mosque and saw smoke coming from inside. After he gave the Azan (the muezzin's call to prayer), he was joined by Afzal Mithu, a resident of Pander. Inside, the minbar (cemented steps from where the Maulana preaches) had been broken and a copy of the Koran kept on a shelf burnt. Qayuum is now in Jahazpur; he feels safer there. The administration, in a move to placate all sides, got the village sarpanch to present a copy of the Koran to the mosque, but no arrests have been made so far. Later the sarpanch called a meeting allegedly in an attempt to boycott Muslim families. Now the 20 Muslim families in the town are ready to move out.

In Bhilwara town, people at the VHP office are annoyed at the transfer of the Superintendent of Police (S.P.) and the District Magistrate. The men who have come in their place are prejudiced, alleged Om Prakash Bhulia, the Dharmachari Sampark Pramukh of the Chittorgarh belt of the VHP. He said there was nothing unusual about the Trishul Diksha as it was decided at the Maha Kumbh in January to induct 30,000 Bajrang Dal volunteers.

International secretary-general of the VHP Praveen Togadia (wearing turban) at the VHP-Bajrang Dal Trishul Diksha programme at the Sawai Bhoj temple at Asind on September 23.-

District Magistrate Sudhansh Pant and S.P. Srinivas Janga Rao, both of whom assumed charge on August 15, said they were keeping a watch on the situation. A few weeks ago interaction between the two communities had broken down as petty irritants began to surface, said Pant. The two of them together had helped improve the situation considerably since then, he added. Asked about the Trishul Diksha, he said he would not give permission to any such programme if it would lead to problems. However, a ban on the programme may prove counter-productive, he felt.

While the Gehlot government lacks a consistent policy when it comes to dealing with communal forces, civil liberties groups as well as non-Congress and non-BJP political parties in the State have taken the initiative to challenge such trends. On September 30, State units of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Samajwadi Party organised a Sadbhavana convention where they denounced the communal organisations. A citizens' initiative against communalism organised by the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur, outlined the spread of communal incidents in the State.

The State unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) pointed out that the Tibrewal Committee's report on the riots following Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's arrest in 1990 was yet to be placed in the Vidhan Sabha. A PUCL report states that since 1998 there have been a series of incidents beginning with an "ouster campaign" of alleged Bangladeshis in Ajmer. It catalogues recent communal incidents, including a police firing on protesters in Jaipur in 1997 that resulted in six deaths; riots in Malpura in July 2000 where innocent people including women and children were massacred; communal tension in Rajsamand in August 2000 and Kotda block of Udaipur in March 2001; tension during Muharram and Mahavir Jayanti at Nasirabad in April 2001; tension over the construction of a mosque at Beaver in April 2001; and incidents in Jahazpur, Asind, Pander and Bhilwara.

The game plan of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal seems to be to exploit incidents of tension such as that witnessed at Asind. The Gurjar representatives at Asind are vehemently opposed to the reconstruction of the mosque, but at the same time they do not want to be used by the VHP-Bajrang Dal. Kuka Ram, a member of the Sawai Bhoj Trust, told Frontline that Chandra Singh Jain of the Bajrang Dal had offered to help, saying that it was a Hindu issue, and twice sought to organise the Trishul Diksha and a Jalabhishek ceremony in the main Sawai Bhoj temple. But permission was refused. They were allowed to conduct it in the complex under police watch. Volunteers went around on motorcycles mobilising people for the meeting. A large number of people turned up, apparently under the impression that it was a Sawai Bhoj temple affair and not knowing that the Bajrang Dal was behind it.

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