Print edition : July 11, 2014

Hindu Rashtra Sena chief Dhananjay Desai outside a court in Pune on June 11. Desai was produced in court after being arrested for his alleged involvement in the Mohsin Sheikh murder case. Photo: AFP

Social workers and residents of Sayed Nagar hold up a derogatory leaflet attacking Islam that was circulated by the HRS. Photo: Anupama Katakam

A poster of Sanjay Dutt, stuck outside the actor's residence in Mumbai, being kicked by an HRS activist on May 15. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

State transport buses and a few other vehicles were burnt in Pune on June 1 after derogatory images of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray were allegedly circulated on Facebook. Photo: Special_Arrangement

Pune has become a breeding ground for Hindu militancy, and the deplorable attacks in June have exposed a dangerous communal problem that exists in the rapidly growing city.

IN early June, a 28-year-old innocent Muslim man was killed, another severely beaten, two bakeries were burnt and 36 others vandalised by a rampaging mob that was supposedly offended by derogatory pictures of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray posted on Facebook.

The incidents took place in Pune, a city better known for its educational institutions, information technology hubs and the auto industry. It is widely believed that the Facebook issue was a pretext used by right-wing Hindu groups to raise communal tension. This is clear from the fact that Mohsin Sheikh, the young IT professional who was killed, had nothing to do with the site or the Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS), whose members attacked him.

Pune, observers say, has become a breeding ground for Hindu militancy and the attacks in June have exposed a deep, wide and dangerous communal problem that exists in the rapidly growing city.

Activists and citizens working to maintain communal harmony say the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such attacks, a “natural” reaction to anything religious, particularly relating to Hinduism, is alarming. They also ask why a Muslim extremist party is banned, whereas several Hindu ones are allowed to exist and proliferate.

In the Pune case, it is crucial to understand the cause of the killing and to ensure that the perpetrators do not get away with the murder. “We believe that the situation is at a dangerous stage where it can go either way. We do not want to be another Gujarat. People live in mixed neighbourhoods and in harmony. If the State does not take strong action, these anti-social groups will be encouraged to cause discord,” says Alka Joshi from Lokayat, a voluntary organisation working for communal harmony. “The other worry is that State elections are looming large. These issues, which help politics, must be contained quickly.”

Activists point out that fortunately the police were quick to act and control the rampaging mob. Otherwise the violence would have spread extensively. They also swiftly arrested the perpetrators, including HRS leader Dhananjay Desai, who is believed to be behind the hate-mongering.

Residents from Sayed Nagar in Hadapsar on the outskirts of Pune, the area which was affected by the communal attacks, say Mohsin Sheikh was returning from his prayers at a neighbourhood mosque on June 2 when a group of men on motorcycles spotted him. It was around 9 p.m. and the road was empty, which is why there are no eye-witness accounts. It is believed they began beating him and eventually killed him. Reportedly, an SMS which read “pahli wicket down” (first wicket down) began circulating soon. Fearing trouble, local residents closed their homes and shops and called the police.

Ameen Haroon Sheikh was the other unfortunate victim that night. He managed to outwit his attackers by pretending to be unconscious when a group began beating him, soon after the attack on Mohsin and in the same neighbourhood. Whether both men were attacked by the same people is not clear. Ameen was walking to a family function but was alone as he had come in very late from his village. A few men chased him, saying “Catch the bearded man”. He took refuge in a shop, but they found him. They kept beating him until he pretended to be unconscious, and they also attacked the shopkeeper who had taken him in. He said he kept asking them “Why are you beating me? What have I done? I am speaking Marathi and am from here just like you.” But they allegedly shouted “Kill, him, kill him.” “I cannot understand what they are so angry about. What have we done to them?” asked Ameen, who has just started a small scrap business after driving an autorickshaw for 14 years.

“The next morning we heard about the Facebook photographs and the reason why Mohsin was attacked,” says Javed Sheikh, a resident and social worker in Sayed Nagar. “We believe the Facebook photographs were posted by some mischievous elements to cause trouble. How is it that only the HRS saw this and reacted? Facebook is open to millions, but somehow only they saw it! There is an element of suspicion here, which I hope the police can investigate. They used the Facebook issue as an excuse to instigate violence.”

Sheikh, who witnessed the attacks on the bakeries that night, said the perpetrators were men looking for trouble. He saw two or three of them riding motorbikes and shouting “Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji”. They had come prepared with rods and hockey sticks and were yelling in Marathi, “Catch the man with the beard and skullcap”. Then in no time, he recalled, there were suddenly 60-70 bikes and they started going after the bakeries, which are largely owned by Muslims.

Mazhar Khan, another resident, said Facebook had nothing to do with the violence. He claimed that in March this year, residents of the area, mainly Muslims, had complained to the police that Desai was planning to speak in their locality on Shivaji Jayanti. Desai is allegedly known for his hate speeches and incitement of communal discord. Fortunately, the police paid attention and did not allow Desai to attend the meeting. Khan said Desai was furious and reportedly said he would “take care” of this area. A few weeks later, the HRS distributed a derogatory pamphlet about Muslims and the Quran in the area.

“We did not expect him to go this length. A poor boy has paid with his life. Justice should be done,” Khan said.

Along with Desai, 18 other HRS members have been arrested and the police hope to send out a strong message. “Yes, we have information about these groups and the HRS and we will not allow them to get away with these activities,” said an investigating officer.

The rise of right-wing Hindu groups such as the HRS, the Sanathan Sanstha and the Abhinav Bharat has been observed in the city for a while. They tend to attract boys between 18 and 25. Several come from other parts of the State. The training and camps are open, said Alka Joshi. “Former Inspector General of Police I.M. Mushrif has put together a report on the rise of these Hindu right-wing fringe organisations. Hopefully, that will help in keeping them in check,” she said.

Police records show that Desai is a history-sheeter who has been named in 23 cases registered in Mumbai and Pune. Several cases are to do with dacoity, extortion and possession of arms. He was also questioned in connection with the murder of the anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar.

Police sources say Desai founded the HRS about a decade ago. He used to operate in Mumbai but moved to Pune a few years back as it was a smaller pond to play in. He allegedly extorts protection money from the land mafia and is also reportedly involved in other nefarious activities. Informed sources say that his followers are mainly poor and he takes advantage of their condition. He is known to settle land disputes and resolve family matters, earning a fair amount in the process.

The HRS is known for its aggressive stand on Hindutva issues and for using physical violence to make its point. The group was responsible for the attack on the Star News office in Mumbai in 2007 for telecasting a programme in which a Hindu girl falls in love with a Muslim boy. More recently, in May 2013, HRS members protested outside actor Sanjay Dutt’s house, claiming he was being shown leniency in jail.

Desai will reportedly be held entirely culpable for Mohsin Sheikh’s death and tried accordingly. The Pune police hope there will be enough evidence to ban the outfit.

Unfortunately, the police have admitted that tracing culprits via Facebook has hit a dead end as the creators of the mischievous photographs used a proxy server.

A larger picture

“Banning [organisations such as the HRS] is not the best solution,” says Ram Punyani, a well-known anti-communal activist. “They will just sprout again under another name. We have to be able to address this issue on a larger level.” He told Frontline that sometimes the “climate” was such that these type of organisations felt more empowered to carry out these violent attacks.

“After Nagpur, Pune is the second centre for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideology. There is a very large and strong base in this city,” he says. There are consistent attempts like these at communal polarisation and that must be checked. Punyani believes that the identity issue and the demonisation of Muslims are one area that anti-communal groups must work on. “Try to remove misconceptions about Muslims, such as that they are terrorists. It’s hard for them because their reach is limited, but we have to work harder on it.”

From time to time Pune has witnessed communal problems and Hindu right-wing attacks. In 2004, the Sambhaji Brigade, a group claiming to be protectors of Shivaji’s legacy, launched itself by vandalising the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute because of a book published by a professor allegedly made derogatory remarks about the Maratha king.

In 2010, a bomb exploded at the popular German Bakery, killing 14 people. The investigations are still on. In 2012, bombs exploded on J.M. Road. It still is not clear who were behind the explosions.

Pune, approximately 150 kilometres from Mumbai, is a major Tier II city. Known to hold on tight to its Maharashtrian culture, the city is both cosmopolitan, with its increasing number of educational institutions and industrial centres, and extremely insular, with the local residents protecting their proud heritage.

No link has yet been established between the HRS and other saffron groups. Punyani said: “The general election results will definitely embolden groups like this one. The forthcoming elections give them a sense of purpose. Communal polarisation is politically useful [for some groups]. but there is something deeper here that will have long-term effects.”