Killing zeal

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Perhaps the riot in Vadodara could have been averted if the administration was less foolhardy.

THIS is a story of a riot in Vadodara that could have been prevented. Like in most other riots, the script was painfully predictable. Everyone could see it coming. But Mayor Sunil Solanki was adamant to rush recklessly into a confrontation. The result: six dead, 42 injured (including 16 in police firing), five days of curfew and further polarisation of the population.

The story started when a demolition notice was dropped at the doorstep of the 300-year-old shrine of the Sufi saint Syed Rashiduddin Chisti on Fatehpura-Chappaner Road, Vadodara's old city. The municipal corporation wanted to knock down the dargah as it was blocking the road. Muslim groups objected and were talking to the administration. "We had reached a compromise the day before the demolition. We agreed to their proposal to keep only the shrine intact and demolish everything around it. Why did they go ahead and raze it all on May 1?" asked Zuber Goplani from the Anjuman-e Indad-e-Bahami.

"The police had warned of a communal flare-up during the demolition. But the municipal corporation was insistent. We were prepared for trouble," Deepak Swaroop, Vadodara's Police Commissioner, told Frontline.

As the bulldozers closed in, a crowd started gathering. They threw stones and tried to stop the demolition. The police burst tear gas shells and later fired on the mob. Two people were killed. That was when things took a turn for the worse. The angry crowd went on the rampage in other areas close by. It stormed the Nyay Mandir (District Court) and burned vehicles outside. Curfew was imposed by 1 p.m. Two people were stabbed. The violence was beyond control.

That night was crucial in deciding the turn of events. "Unfortunately, the power supply went off in the Panigate area [in the old city]. This increased the tension. Rumours spread that mobs from the other community were preparing to attack. People came out on the streets, and incidents of arson followed," said Swaroop. The next day, the funeral procession of those killed in police firing turned violent. People threw stones at the police and burned vehicles along the way. The night was tense, particularly after a Muslim boy was burned alive inside his car. It was only on May 4, when the Army was called in, that the violence seemed to be dying down.

Unlike the pogrom of 2002, this was only a riot. There were spontaneous clashes between two communities. There were casualties on both sides, of innocent people. The violence of 2002 was a far more widespread, state-sponsored, planned and systematic targeting of Muslims. This was a situation that spiralled out of control and hurt both communities. It died down soon because it was not premeditated.

Yet, it could have been averted if Mayor Sunil Solanki had not been quite so aggressive. Despite warnings, he was intent on going ahead at any cost. He dismissed compromise. And refused to postpone the demolition to prevent trouble.

"As part of our road-widening project, we have been demolishing all kinds of encroachments for the last four months," said the young Mayor, keen to project himself as a man of action. "We have already removed 20 temples and three dargahs. It's only with this structure that some people were insistent that it should not be removed, even though it is an illegal structure. But you cannot get in the way of the law. There can be no progress if you think of Hindu and Muslim, rich or poor, residential or commercial. We treat everyone the same."

The Mayor felt vindicated when the Gujarat High Court took up the matter suo motu on April 2 and ordered that "encroachments on public roads cannot be tolerated". It ruled that if necessary, "anti-socials" opposing the demolitions must be arrested before carrying out the demolition. However, this judgment was quickly overturned by the Supreme Court on April 4, which temporarily stayed the demolition of all illegal religious structures "in view of the extremely volatile situation". The stay order would give time for the State to negotiate and resolve apprehensions, it said.

"The temples that the Mayor claims were removed are actually small deras [private shrines] put up recently or the stairs of a small temple. This was a historic monument marked in the 1912 town plan, even before the municipal corporation existed," said Goplani. There are several temples that have sprung up more recently, like the Hanuman temple at Old Padra Road, that are bang in the middle of the road.

Why was law and order not a concern in the case of the Rashiduddin Chisti dargah? Even when the mob gathered, the bulldozers did not stop to defuse the tension. Instead, in a matter of hours, the dargah had vanished. It was totally flattened and a tarred road was laid over the site.

During the 2002 violence, there had been similar demolitions of historic dargahs. Within a matter of hours, the shrine of Wali Gujarati, a famous Sufi poet, was obliterated just outside the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner's office. When it wants to, the administration can be extremely efficient.

The Rashiduddin Chisti dargah was a place of worship not only for Muslims, but also for Hindus. "We feel bad that they broke down the dargah. All of us had a lot of faith in this shrine. Our contributions kept it going," said Harish Panchal, who lives close to where the dargah stood. Rashiduddin Chisti was a distant relative of the well-known Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti from Ajmer. His followers believed in peace to all.

The families of innocents who died from both communities were going through the same trauma. Biren Shah, 27, was stabbed on the day of the demolition while he was on his way home for lunch. "Just the day before he died, he had opened a new shop. I had called and told him that it was OK for him to come home for lunch. I didn't know that they had imposed a curfew. The police should at least have let people know," said Binduben Shah, Biren's mother. "What did my son do to deserve such a death? His killers should get the death sentence. Only then the innocent like Biren will get justice."

Mehmood Gani ran through a stone-throwing mob to save his brother Mohammed Rafiq. But it was too late. "We knew mobs were gathering from all four sides of our colony, so we sat on a terrace to keep guard," said Mohammed. "Then, I saw my brother's car enter. They stopped the car. Took him out, killed him and then threw him into the burning car. I ran to save him, but couldn't. If the police were there, he could have been saved." But they arrived one and a half hours later. "We tried calling them but they wouldn't pick up the phone. Our neighbours were on the road asking people for help, but one person told them: `Go to Pakistan'. When my sister-in-law was crying for her husband, the police hit her with their lathi," he said. "So many innocent people have been killed. We would also like to meet the families of Hindu boys who are suffering like us for no reason."

There were several complaints of police inaction. The police did not even respond to calls and fax appeals from human rights groups such as the People's Union for Civil Liberties, which has been actively trying to broker peace during communal conflicts. At the hospital, most of those admitted with bullet injuries were Muslims. "I was selling vegetables on my cart. The police asked me my name and then told me to go and shot me in the back," said Ali Salim Pathan, 16.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi visited the injured in the hospital during his whistle-stop visit to Vadodara, on the third day of the violence. He warned the culprits of stern action, but his visit had no effect beyond the tokenism.

The turn of events has helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to polarise people and re-enforce all the stereotypes about Muslims that it propagates - `fundamentalists', `law-breakers', `trouble-makers' and `illegal encroachers'. However, its role in pushing the minority to act out the stereotype has been ignored. Many Muslims feel that it is time that their leaders re-invent their response to provocation. A community that has been marginalised, demonised and beaten into submission must avoid biting the bait.

Until the players act out of character, defying their typecast, the predictable riot story will not have an ending that is anything other than tragic.

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