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Living in fear

Published : Feb 20, 2013 00:00 IST


Muslims are at the receiving end of Hindu Gujjar highhandedness in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district.

THE vacant faces told the story of the wanton destruction. On January 25, a day before the Indian republic completed 63 years, 37 shops, including kiosks, belonging to members of the minority community in Asind tehsil in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district, were set ablaze even as a helpless district administration watched, busy as it was controlling another conflict in the adjacent Gulabpura tehsil. The incident occurred when the Congress, perceived to provide a safe environment for the minorities, was in power. Seventy persons were arrested, the bulk of them from the majority community of Hindu Gujjars, including a district leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

What began as a dispute over the route of a procession taken out by Muslims metamorphosed into a strategy of arson in which the livelihoods of the minority community were systematically targeted by the Hindu Right.

Bhilwara is represented by Union Minister C.P. Joshi; but no one even from the State Cabinet made a visit to the place. Sources in the Chief Minister’s Office told Frontline that Ashok Gehlot had promptly convened a meeting on January 25 and deputed the Inspector General of Police, the Divisional Commissioner and two DIG-level officers to make a quick assessment and for damage control. But the damage, it seems, had already been done. Sentiments raged against ruling party representatives.

“We would just like to know how long we must remain like this in perpetual fear of being attacked. It is better that we sit across a table and discuss openly what is expected of us. If it is going to be an unequal relationship in democratic, secular India, then so be it, but tell us where we stand,” said Abid Hussain, a property dealer.

The day of the arson was Bara-wafat, celebrated both as the birthday and the day of demise of the Prophet Muhammad. Permission was sought by the community’s leaders to take out a procession—a ritual they have been undertaking for years—in the tehsils of Asind and Gulabpura, both with sizable Muslim populations. However, organisations of the Hindu Right, which included the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Shiv Sena, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, insisted before the administration that the procession would not be allowed to pass through temple areas.

It had so transpired that the administration had not given permission to an earlier programme, a path sanchalan (route march) of the RSS, to pass through Muslim areas. The path sanchalan, planned a year earlier, was to be a show of strength, and was to coincide with the 1,101st anniversary of a Gujjar deity, Devnarayan. The chosen date was January 13. The idea was to converge on one point from three corners of Asind town, passing through areas with Muslim homes and places of worship.

Asind is no stranger to communal violence; the demolition of a medieval Kalandari masjid in 2001, located on the premises of the Sawai Bhoj temple, had vitiated relations between the two communities. The masjid was never rebuilt.

The background The administration was unprepared for the request for the “Triveni Sangam”, which appeared to be a ploy to foment tensions. Muslim leaders approached the administration, which in turn called a meeting of all community representatives on January 8 to amicably settle the matter. At the meeting, a section of the Muslim community agreed to the Sangam’s route while another did not. Given the turbulent history of Asind, District Magistrate Omkar Singh declined to oblige the Sangh.

The VHP gave a call for a bandh in Bhilwara from January 23 to 25, keeping in mind that January 25 was Milad-un-Nabi or Bara-wafat. According to Ravindra Kumar Jajoo, Vibhaag Sampark Pramukh of the RSS at Bhilwara, the administration had not allowed the earlier Janmasthami procession on the pretext that it would create tensions. Permission was not granted because the Janmasthami procession was to go past a mosque. At Gulabpura, armed mobs began gathering from 6 a.m. onwards on January 25, local people said. They retreated only at 3 p.m. when the police resorted to a lathi-charge.

Had the Muslims decided to take out their procession, there would have been loss of lives, district administration officials told Frontline. Around 2,500 people armed with swords had gathered in front of a temple at Gulabpura. “The crowd was determined not to allow the Bara-wafat procession through,” said an official. That food packets were distributed to members of the armed crowd and petrol bombs were hurled at the police showed that adequate preparations had been made for a full-fledged conflict. But minority community members stayed indoors both at Gulabpura and Asind. At Gulabpura, there were skirmishes between the police and armed members of the majority community.

At Asind, shops were set on fire. “There wasn’t a shortage of police force. Our focus was on protecting the residential areas,” Nitindeep Singh, Superintendent of Police, told Frontline .

Escalation in activities It was learnt from various sources that activities of the Sangh in the region had been stepped up over the past few years, particularly in the past six months. Membership drives were on. The frequency of path sanchalans and the visits of top Sangh leaders had gone up. VHP leader Praveen Togadia had visited the district at least three times in the last six months, said a senior official.

The mobilisation of the Gujjar community in activities of the Sangh was a novel phenomenon. An organisation called the Dev Sena, after the Gujjar deity Devnarayan, was part of the overall mobilisation against the minority community and an active component of the path sanchalan. District officials observed that a call for a three-day bandh was unprecedented. “There was a time when flowers used to be showered from the rooftops of Hindu households on the Bara-wafat procession,” said an elderly man at Gulabpura.

A good proportion of members of the minority community in Gulabpura eke out a living as tailors. Others work for daily wages. Muslims of Asind are either petty shopkeepers or are employed in vehicle repair shops. Of the total population of 25,000 here, Muslims have around 3,500 votes. “These votes make a difference. We vote for the Congress but do not feel protected under its rule. Maybe we are safer with the BJP in power. We saw our friends from the majority community, with whom we used to sit and chat, wield swords that day,” said a Muslim youth. The legislator from Gulabpura, Ram Lal Jat, was yet to visit his constituency. Both parties, said a former mill worker, were two sides of the same coin. “One abuses us openly; the other does it quietly. There is no third alternative.”

The social fabric of Bhilwara, known as the Manchester of Rajasthan, is under strain. The interdependence of Hindus and Muslims living here will be a thing of the past soon. A good section of the trading community seems to be backing Sangh activities.

A fact-finding report by activists from Jaipur and Bhilwara observed that the Sangh had a tradition of organising path sanchalans for mobilisation and social consolidation. With less than nine months to go for the State Assembly elections, it is time the government acted against communal forces.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 08, 2013.)



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