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Targeted attack

Published : Oct 21, 2011 00:00 IST

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Most of the victims in the violence at Gopalgarh in Rajasthan were Meo Muslims, which seems to suggest a deliberate attack.

in Bharatpur

THE Kasbah, or the old part, of Gopalgarh town in the Assembly segment of Kaman in Rajasthan's Bharatpur district is nondescript save for its undulating roads and crowded marketplace. Nine members of the Meo Muslim community were killed here on September 14 when the police fired at their mosque while rioters belonging to another community attacked them. Of the 23 people injured in the violence, 19 were Meos.

According to the post-mortem reports, three people were killed by police bullets, one person died of burns, another died when hit by shrapnel, while the rest of the deaths were caused by sharp weapons. On September 26, Shabbir, 40, of Pathravli village in Gopalgarh, succumbed to injuries at Sawai Man Singh hospital, Jaipur, bringing up the death toll to 10.

This part of Rajasthan is contiguous with the Meo Muslim-dominated areas of Haryana. The Meos of Bharatpur share many cultural traits with other communities living in the region, and such violence in the area had not been reported in the past.

The dispute that triggered the violence was over a few bighas of land behind the mosque, which also included a pokhar, or waterhole. The violence seems to have been one-sided because all the dead and most of the injured belonged to one community. Meos of the area allege that the police colluded with the rioters. That State Home Minister Shanti Dhariwal defended the firing by the police has not helped matters.

The mosque in question was used, along with another one in Gopalgarh, by people from the surrounding 38 villages. Members of the Gujjar community asserted their claim to the waterhole, which they used for their livestock. In response to a case filed by Meo Muslims in the Pahadi district court, the tehsildar of Pahadi issued on September 13 an order under Section 30 of the Land Revenue Act asking the Gujjars to vacate the land. The agitated Gujjars allegedly beat up the imam, Abdul Rashid, who lived in the Kasbah near the mosque after news of the order spread. Tempers rose, and soon agitated groups of the two communities got together to debate further action.

The next day, leaders of the two communities met to try and resolve the matter. However, rumours seemed to fly thick and fast, and members of both communities reportedly gathered near the mosque. It is not known what provoked the police action, though the police version is that they fired to prevent an armed confrontation between the two groups. The mosque, built about a decade ago, is constructed on a mound. It is flanked by an idgah, a burial ground and a smaller mosque in the rear.

Unanswered questions

Most versions suggest there were no deaths before the police arrived on the scene and started firing at the mosque. Besides, most of the victims were Meos, a fact that seems to suggest a deliberate attack on the community rather than a skirmish between the two communities. It is not clear why the Meos, who form the majority in the area and were, by some reports, heavily armed, could not defend themselves or inflict significant harm on their attackers.

There are other disturbing suggestions left by the violence. Frontline, which was granted permission to visit the mosque briefly, found it badly vandalised. Most of the victims were apparently killed inside the mosque, and there were bloodstains on the floor. An iron door had deep serrations on it, indicating that an attempt had been made to hack it open. A metal trunk lay unlocked; its contents had been looted and the lid had deep marks on it, suggesting that an axe or some sharp tool had been used to prise it open. Two bodies, burnt beyond recognition, were found in a well in the idgah compound; ropes and an empty fuel canister were found nearby. Footage of the burnt corpses, taken by an organisation called Anhad much before the police spotted them, were given to the media.

Though Meos form the numerical majority in Gopalgarh, Gujjars and other caste Hindus have a sizable presence and many of them live in the Kasbah and the adjoining area. There are also a few Meo families in the Kasbah, mostly of the butcher (kasai) caste, including that of the assaulted imam. The mosque, which is among the more imposing structures in Gopalgarh, is less than 700 metres from the local police station.

Questions are being raised on how matters could reach such a stage with the police station so close, and why the police action had such a tragic consequence.

Local Meos who witnessed the violence are unhappy with the police action and the administration's role. Yakub, who saw the firing, said people had assembled at the mosque for evening prayers when a police vehicle driving down the Sikri road began firing towards the mosque. He said, We saw armed Gujjars descending from the end where we wash ourselves. Some makeshift shops owned by Meos in the Kasbah were also vandalised. Yunus Saleem, a middle-aged Meo whom Frontline met at the Dar-ul-uloom Mohammadiya madrassa at Mil Khelda, said: There is a feeling among ordinary citizens that the administration is always partial. Why is it that in every such incident, only our people get killed?

Indeed, about half of the 19 policemen at the local police station are Gujjars. Meos, therefore seldom approach the police station for help. Zahida Khan, the Congress legislator from Kaman Assembly segment, was present at the meeting where the two communities were trying to come to a settlement on September 14 before matters went out of hand. Zahida, daughter of the late Choudhary Tayyab Hussain, a well-known Meo leader and two-time Lok Sabha member, told Frontline that there were communal elements present at the Gopalgarh police station who were trying to incite people against her. There was a threat to my life, too, she said.

Anita Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator from Nagar Assembly segment, was also present at that meeting. So was, according to local people, Gyan Chand Ahuja, the BJP MLA from Ramgarh in Alwar district. He reportedly played a role in stoking the fire. There were also others who wanted a flare-up, according to local Meos, and they included advocates and teachers owing allegiance to right-wing Hindutva groups. Ramzan Choudhary, an advocate, said: At 1-45 p.m. on September 14, I spoke to the personal assistant of the State Home Minister, informing him that the situation had become volatile. He assured me that things were under control.

Samaideen, a young Meo from Andhwadi, said that like him, most of the Meo youth did odd jobs such as repairing, building, painting and lifting loads. In all the seven villages from where those who died in the violence hailed, there was not a single Meo who held a government job.

Two of the deceased were from Andhwadi. Maulana Khursheed, a father of two children, was one of them. His father, Abdul Rehman, said, He was good in studies, so he was called Maulana. He studied at Deoband. He was the only earning member. He said no one from the administration had met him or the family of the other deceased boy from the village.

Too little, too late

The State government has ordered a judicial inquiry. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has been asked to investigate the incident. Sunil Dutt, Inspector General of Police, Bharatpur Range, told Frontline that a first information report registered by the station house officer at Gopalgarh named 23 Gujjars and 21 Meos. He said that a team led by a Deputy Superintendent of Police was conducting a primary investigation. He claimed that radical speeches had been made from the mosque. When asked how it came about that all the victims were from one community, he did not have an answer. What do you think the police should have done? he asked.

When Frontline visited the area, curfew had been relaxed in the daylight hours from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., but the Kasbah was largely desolate. A barber shop was open and a few youngsters strutted around aggressively. Frontline met Samandar Singh, a Gujjar who was very reluctant to speak. His father, an elderly man, was rather aggressive: We do not know how this happened. Ask them [the Meos]. We were not there. Why are you asking all these questions?

However, Samandar Singh opened up eventually and said that what had happened was unfortunate. The fight was over the waterhole. They wanted to make a graveyard there. They spread rumours that the imam had been beaten up. They announced that they would finish us off, he said, corroborating the police version.

The Meos have not denied that some foolhardy youngsters might have made some inflammatory statements. But they point out that had the police fired on Meos in areas where Gujjars lived in order to save them, some among the latter would also have been injured. The Meos have traditionally voted for the Congress. But members of the community Frontline spoke to expressed unhappiness that a Congress delegation comprising Members of Parliament Rashid Alvi, Viplove Thakur, Deependra Hooda and Vijay Bahaguna spent very little time interacting with witnesses and families of the victims. The delegation blamed the police for the excesses and was also critical of the State Home Minister.

A BJP delegation visited the area, too. A Communist Party of India (Marxist) delegation led by State secretary Basudev and Rajya Sabha member Tapan Sen was told that after a compromise was arrived at between the two communities, some anti-social elements spread rumours and the police, instead of verifying them, fired indiscriminately at the mosque. The delegation felt that unless the issues of political, social and economic backwardness of the area were not addressed, vested interests would utilise the situation.

Kirori Lal Meena, the independent Member of Parliament from Dausa, who has aspirations to form a third front along with former Congress and BJP leaders, has been actively taking up cause of the Meos.

The competition unleashed by political parties over this issue has also unfortunately driven wedges among the Meos. Frontline spoke to Sher Mohammad, an aide of K.L. Meena, regarding raising other issues of development that concerned the community. He answered that at present, the only thing relevant was the death of the 10 persons.

In 2005, the Haryana government carved out Mewat district from Gurgaon and Faridabad. Mewat has borders with three other districts, Gurgaon in the north, Rewari in the west, Palwal in the east, and also with Rajasthan in the south. The Mewat region spreads over three States, and the populations of Meos are roughly equal in Haryana and Rajasthan. There is therefore cultural as well as geographical contiguity. We do not recognise State borders, said Zafrullah, a block samiti member at Ferozepur Jhirka town. The region as a whole is considered backward in terms of social indices, especially education. The Congress government led by Ashok Gehlot may not be biased against any community, but it has given out no indication of a strong political will to deal firmly with such issues. It was only in July last year that minorities were targeted for a second time in Sarada block, Udaipur district, and in September for the first time in Manohar Thana, Jhalawar district, where tribal people were instigated to attack Muslim homes. It is not just a law and order problem in Gopalgarh or the Mewat region as a whole. It is the selective application of the use of force by the law enforcement agencies that is deeply worrying. In the Bharatpur case, for instance, a CBI probe was ordered only after vociferous demands were made by several groups.

Gehlot finally visited Gopalgarh nearly 10 days after the incident. Interacting with presspersons in Jaipur after his visit, he said the security forces would be withdrawn only after normalcy was restored.

He described the incident as highly unfortunate and condemnable and said that such violence was unprecedented in Mewat. He also requested K.L. Meena to refrain from inciting people and instead play a more responsible role.

While the entire police staff at Gopalgarh was moved out following persistent demands by the affected community, no disciplinary action was taken against any of them for the events that led to the firing. Neither have any arrests been made so far. The judicial inquiry does not have a time frame. No CBI team had visited Gopalgarh until this report was written.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 21, 2011.)

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