Print edition : February 21, 2014

Hakim Mansuri stands amidst the looted and burnt ruins of his house. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Women preparing dinner for all those whose homes and property were vandalised and looted. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Rani Khan, whose beauty parlour was set ablaze. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

ON December 7, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got a resounding mandate from the people of Rajasthan and Vasundhara Raje was sworn in as Chief Minister for the second time. And within a month of her government assuming power, communal clashes were reported in Pratapgarh district, 180 kilometres from Udaipur.

Three persons were killed, six injured and about three dozen homes and shops were looted and vandalised in these incidents on January 14. The actual death toll, local people said, was much higher and would have been even more if Lok Sabha elections were not round the corner. Since the government did not want to be seen in a poor light, administrative measures were taken swiftly. Top officials of the administration, including the Inspector General of Udaipur Division, were seen taking a keen interest in stabilising the situation. The damage to the social fabric, however, had been done.

This was the second such incident reported from southern Rajasthan in January. Four days before the January 14 violence, the homes and shops of a minority community were set ablaze when a girl from Gogunda tehsil in Udaipur went sightseeing with a boy of that community.

The immediate cause of the Pratapgarh incident was an altercation in Kotadi village of Arnod tehsil between members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and some Muslim youth. January 14 happened to be a day of celebration (Makar Sankranti) for Hindus and a day of solemn observation for Muslims (Barawafat). Kotadi has a population of around 3,000 people, of which 700 are Muslims. Among Hindus, it is the Rajputs who are numerically larger and they are powerful, both politically and economically.

According to the official version, some RSS members returning from a Path Sanchalan programme held a few kilometres across the border in Raipur village, Mandsaur district, Madhya Pradesh, ran into a Muslim youth at the bus stand and an altercation began. Provocative slogans and abuses were made and the tension escalated. In the melee that ensued, some members of the minority community fled to the adjoining village of Moheyda. According to newspaper reports, they were surrounded by a mob and one of their vehicles was attacked. The Muslims claimed that they fired bullets in self-defence. Two RSS men, one of them a BJP office-bearer, died due to gunshot wounds. In retaliation, homes and kiosks of the Muslims were set ablaze.

Minorities targeted

Sources in the administration said that the rioting was over within an hour and a half. But acts of arson continued the next day despite the curfew, spilling over into other villages where shops, fields or homes of the minorities were targeted. A motorcycle showroom in Salamgarh was razed. Another motorcycle shop in Arnod town, which was just 300 metres from a police post, was set on fire. The lone fire brigade vehicle in the region failed to work, following which additional reinforcements from Ratlam in adjoining Madhya Pradesh were deployed. The affected people say that the incidents had been orchestrated for it was difficult to mobilise material for arson at such short notice. Twenty-two persons were arrested, 15 of them Hindus and the rest Muslims. Curfew continued over the next two days as well, and police pickets were posted in as many as 12 villages.

History of Polarisation

Pratapgarh district, along with Chittorgarh, is known for opium cultivation. While most of the big landowners are caste Hindus, a few members of the minority community also own land and hold leases for opium cultivation. “What has happened is not good. Once this kind of a feeling spreads in villages, living together is impossible,” observed an elderly Muslim, referring to the communal divide. But the district has a history of communal polarisation and the divide has only deepened each time an incident of this kind occurred. Sources in the administration admitted that “communal hatred was not the outcome of one incident”.

Ratan Lahoti, District Magistrate of Pratapgarh, said, “My main mandate was to ensure the rehabilitation of the affected families. A total of 71 persons have been given relief under various schemes of the government.” Curfew was relaxed on the fourth day after the incident and a peace committee and a Community Liaison Group were constituted. Pratapgarh is a sensitive area as some members from both the communities have criminal backgrounds. Extortion is a common phenomenon in this agriculturally rich, opium-cultivation area. Possession of illegal arms is also said to be an issue.

“The Pathan community in Pratapgarh is relatively affluent. They have some government leases for opium cultivation and some of them own large tracts of land,” sources said. But according to them, a majority of the Muslims were daily-wage or landless workers. Beedi-making, agricultural work and quilt-making are the main economic activities of the members of the minority community. “For the last 35 years we’ve had a BJP MLA , Nand Lal Meena, winning from this region. It is not because he has done anything for the public, including the Meena community to which he belongs. But he has kept the Pathans and other Muslim groups at an arm’s length, making it clear that he will not have anything to do with them. That is why he keeps on winning,” said a resident of Pratapgarh. Reliable sources told Frontline that Hindu fundamentalism was rather strong in the region, and had become stronger since the change of guard in the State.

The events of January 14 were not spontaneous. Highly placed sources in the police told Frontline that members of the minority community had objected to provocative slogans being raised in the RSS shakhas (units). “The organisation is not banned; therefore, we cannot stop them from holding shakhas . But they have been told not to raise provocative or communally charged slogans,” said the source. Reliable sources said that the shakhas had become more active over the the last six months or so. Members of the minority community Frontline spoke to also said that the choicest of abuses were thrown at the minority community during the shakhas. The local school was often an area of conflict when Muslim youth were targeted and made fun of. Some objectionable graffiti scribbled on the walls against the minority community resulted in tension recently. “We find it difficult to send our children to the village school in this kind of an atmosphere. The girls want to study but what to do?” the women lamented.

“We are daily-wage workers”

Refuting claims that most of their families kept illegal arms in their homes, Muslims told Frontline that had it been the case, the casualties would have been much higher. Pointing out that none of the homes of their Hindu neighbours was damaged, they said that only Muslim homes and shops had been targeted. The administration also admitted that only the homes of minorities, especially the Pathans, were targeted. “Our homes were looted when the curfew was on and we were either hiding in the fields or some other place for safety,” said Mehbooba Khan, a widow. “I dragged my mentally disabled daughter and her two minor children into the fields. She could not understand what was happening. There was chaos all around,” she said. Both men and women said that they feared for their lives constantly. “They want us to leave the village. But where do we go? We have lived here all our lives. We do daily-wage work. If we were well-to-do, would we live in mud homes with broken mud tiles for roofs? There are a few among us who have land, but the majority are landless and poor. Yes, we might eat less but we like to dress up; we might be poor but we like to look good, like jagirdaars, and this is something the other community does not like about us,” said Akbar Khan.

The women supplemented the family income by doing additional jobs like stitching clothes. In the 62 homes in Kotadi that had suffered damage, the sewing machines were destroyed. “Only 50 per cent of the households have been given financial relief. Of the 90 households, 62 were targeted, though the administration has identified only 25,” a woman said. Rani Khan, whose beauty parlour was looted and razed, was distraught for more than one reason. She said she was now afraid of sending her children to the private school in nearby Dalaut, where they were studying. “Of the 10 submersible motors my husband had kept in the shop, they took away eight. They burnt all our clothes and took our jewellery. The only clothes we have is what we are wearing and what some good samaritans in Pratapgarh have given us,” she said.

Heavy deployment of police forces continues in Kotadi and surrounding villages. Anger and a sense of hurt are simmering on both sides. Mistrust runs deep and there appears little hope that the Peace Committees or the Community Liasion Group would make an impact. Mistrust also ran deep among the various groups of the Muslims too, with some pinning the blame for the hostilities on the Pathans. But, at the moment, all of them are victims.

While various reasons have been attributed to the communal clashes, including turf issues involving opium cultivation, systematically created communal polarisation is the fundamental problem. The Congress failed to rein in communal elements during its regime. It remains to be seen whether the government run by a party that thrives on such polarisation will act against them. The beginnings do not promise much.