THE 1,000-odd Muslims of Atali village in Haryana’s Ballabhgarh tehsil, Faridabad district, have paid heavily for attempts to build a mosque: nearly two dozen homes and shops belonging to members of the minority community were burnt, looted and vandalised by a mob led by women and armed with hoes (pharsa, in local parlance) and other improvised weapons on the evening of May 25. The police were hopelessly outnumbered, and they received reinforcements too late to stop anything. No one was killed, but some two dozen people of the targeted community received serious injuries. Curiously enough, not a single person in the rampaging mob was hurt.
Around 8-30 p.m., the police finally managed to bring the situation under control. The victims of the violence were put on buses with tinted windows and driven to the Ballabhgarh police station, at nearly 11 p.m. Many of them had to be rescued from burning homes. Some 50 families have been lodged in a makeshift tent at the police station, put up by well-wishers. Some other families have fled to safety further away.
The Ballabhgarh police station is just six kilometres away from Atali village. Some of the victims who have taken refuge there told Frontline that they had informed the police about the mob build-up on May 25, well before the violence started. One of them said: “We made repeated calls that day. The SHO [station house officer] came, but he left leaving behind only five policemen. When we saw the mob gathering, with women in the front, we made frantic calls to the police station, only to be told that policemen were on their way. The mob used cooking gas cylinders and petrol bombs to blast our walls and burn our vehicles. We took refuge inside our homes and on rooftops. With smoke all round us and we being pelted with bricks, we were completely helpless.”
Twenty people have been named in the first information report (FIR), most of them from the village; the victims claim that they know most of the attackers. At the time of writing this report, no arrests had been made. Nor were FIRs registered on behalf of each individual victim on the basis of each of their statements, which was what the victims had wanted. The only apparent response of the government to the failure of law enforcement agencies to take effective action has been to transfer the SHO who was on duty that day. Though curfew was imposed in the village soon after the incident, under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, youngsters were seen moving around freely in large groups, and even reportedly assembling for meetings. “The day the Minority Commission members came to Atali, we pointed out one of the arsonists who was roaming freely. The police nabbed him, but only to release him later,” one of the victims at the Ballabhgarh camp told Frontline .
The trigger for the violence was the planned construction of a mosque. Atali village has several temples, including several “ancient” structures that look like they were recently built, but no mosque. The Muslims of the village, who have lived there for generations over several centuries, travel to the nearest mosque in Ballabhgarh, nearly 13 km away, to pray during Ramzan or on other religious occasions.
Efforts to build a mosque in the village started in 2009, and some pillars were built. But the construction could not progress in the face of aggressive posturing from members of the majority community. Moreover, two residents of the village filed a case in the civil court alleging that the mosque was being built on panchayat land. On March 31 this year, Civil Judge Vinay Sharma threw out the claim. Village nambardar (keeper of records of land registrations) Isak Ali’s son Naseem said: “We won the case. They then approached the SDM [Sub-Divisional Magistrate] court. The court held that individual appeals would not be entertained. We were prepared for a compromise with the panchayat. The walls were already coming up, only the roof had to be put.”
An attempt to obtain a stay from the SDM’s court failed. On May 10, after completing the requisite verification, the SDM directed that construction of the unfinished mosque should continue. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has said in a statement that the May 25 violence was an attack on the “rule of law”.
Muslims are a minority in Atali, numbering just about 1,000 in a village of about 13,000 people. Jats dominate the village community, numerically and politically. Brahmins play a crucial role, too. Many of the Muslims are landless, but a few own some livestock. Some, like Sharafat who works as a shift manager at a cinema hall, have salaried jobs, while a few have done well in recent years by securing government contracts for infrastructural work.
This relative and recent prosperity may have fuelled the anger of the majority community to some extent, as suggested by the targeting of homes and household appliances, especially since some of the wealthier Muslims were known to be financing the construction of the mosque. But the entire community was attacked, rich and poor alike. Victims at the Ballabhgarh camp said that an old man was attacked on May 27. The victims also said that most of the village residents, cutting across caste lines, were involved in the attack. But there were also some people from nearby villages among the attackers. “We could see them from the rooftops,” said Sharafat.
The police told Frontline that what made it so difficult for them to tackle the violent mob was that women were leading it and there were no women police personnel available. “The police were not prepared for this eventuality. But these tensions always seem to get accentuated around panchayat elections. Some of the affected people are panchayat members,” said a senior police officer. Indeed, panchayat elections are scheduled to be held in Haryana in August. The officer added that in 2009, too, it was around the time of the panchayat elections that tensions had flared up in the village. He admitted that the attack in Atali was one-sided and the main priority for the police was to “save” lives.
A senior police officer who did not want to be named said: “There were around 2,000 people in the mob. The police had to be mobilised from all over the district. What could we do?” He could not give a satisfactory explanation as to why it took the police so long to reach the scene of the violence. The new SHO, Preet Pal, said that a police chowki had been set up in the village after the incident. Two hundred Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel and 500 police personnel, including women, have also been posted there.
Atali village is in Prithla Assembly constituency. Tek Chand Sharma, who represents the constituency, is the lone Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member of the Assembly and had been backed by Muslims of the constituency, including those of Atali village.
According to the grapevine, he won with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) help. At any rate, he declared his support to the BJP soon after he got elected. In the Lok Sabha, Faridabad is represented by Kishan Pal Gujjar, Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment and former president of the BJP’s State unit.
Members of the majority community at Atali made light of the violence. “It was a skirmish between youngsters. Nothing major. These things happen. They were building the mosque. There was a hardening of positions on both sides. That’s all,” said one of the village elders. Some urchins who took the Frontline team through the gutted lanes were told off by village elders. Some women whom Frontline spoke to said they had no say in the matters of men and that everyone was bound to accept the dictates of society.
The targeted community believes the attack was premeditated. Sabir Ali, a contractor for the Electricity Board and the Health Department, said: “All our economic activities are tied to the Jats. Barring the fact that we do the namaaz, there is nothing different between the two communities. We share many similarities. Was there any need to do all this?” He said that in 2009 the elders of his community had even “prostrated” themselves before the majority community leaders in order to reach a peaceful compromise. “We do not want to fight. We want to live and let live. Why do they consider us inferior? Is it because we are landless? But we are educated. They do not involve us in any village decisions. This was pre-planned, otherwise they wouldn’t have the courage to attack us like this,” he said.
Frontline spoke to young people from the majority community who said that in the days leading up to the attack, meetings were held repeatedly in a temple and volunteers from the Bajrang Dal were active in the village. There was a membership drive on, too. For two consecutive days after the incident, Bajrang Dal volunteers reportedly met and assured the majority community of full “support”.
The Atali incident is just one in a series of communal incidents that have occurred in recent months in the State. The attack on a church under construction in Hisar, inflammatory comments by self-proclaimed leaders claiming to represent Hindus, and the activities of belligerent cow protection committees encouraged by the recent legislation banning cow slaughter have set the pattern. In June last year, an accident involving a youth in the Tauru-Mewat region was given a communal colour, following which curfew was imposed. That there has been a systematic attempt to polarise communities in the State on communal lines is now getting well established.