Feeding on fear

Print edition : August 22, 2014

Rioters on the rampage in Saharanpur on July 26. Photo: PTI

Shops go up in flames during the violent clashes. Photo: PTI

The Muslim-Sikh riots in Saharanpur are a part and product of the politics of consolidation in which the Muslim leadership stokes the fear of a community demoralised by the rise of the BJP. The saffron party is only too happy to further polarise society along religious lines.

MUSTAQ and his younger brother Syed recall this year’s Eid as a “sugar-free” one. “It wasn’t sweet enough to be greeted. It was an Eid where we offered namaz with distasteful memories. No one left their homes. And no one demanded their eidi [gifts from elders],” said 21-year-old Mustaq, an engineer, as his brother nodded in gloomy agreement.

Many people in Saharanpur, a city in western Uttar Pradesh known for its exquisite furniture designs and a cloth market, had an Eid without sugar or milk in their homes as the city remained under a curfew following riots between two minority groups, Sikhs and Muslims, on July 26. The riots claimed three lives and left at least 50 people injured, and fear loomed over the city when the government relaxed the curfew for namaz. Since then prices of essential commodities and other household items have skyrocketed as supplies have stopped.

In the early hours of July 26, some Muslims who had woken up for the regular Ramzan ritual of sahri (pre-dawn meal) were informed in the mosques that the main gurdwara had started constructing a plinth on a piece of land claimed by both Muslims and Sikhs. By around 5 a.m., some political workers among the Muslims mobilised a group of 200 to protest against the gurdwara’s action, at the disputed site in the Qutubsher area of the town. According to many witnesses Frontline spoke to, the group turned into a mob of almost 5,000 within a couple of hours. The mob, which initially pelted the gurdwara’s kirtan mandali—a group of religious workers that sings devotional songs—with stones, gradually turned more aggressive and looted and burned down shops owned by Sikhs and Hindus. Some members of the Sikh community retaliated by resorting to similar action in the Muslim-dominated areas of the city.

The violence continued unabated for five hours as the police and district administrative officials looked on helplessly. It was finally halted after the police clamped a curfew. Although the situation has been brought under control, the fault line that has developed between the Muslims and the Sikhs is, perhaps, here to stay.

Sikhs have aligned themselves with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the aftermath of the riots. The BJP always had the support of Punjabi Hindu communities and this incident has further strengthened the party’s hold on them.

A five-member team, which included Suresh Rana, a BJP legislator from the Thana Bhawan constituency in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh and one of the main accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots last year, visited the gurdwara and pledged its support for the Sikhs. “The Samajwadi Party encouraged the riots and has refused to arrest the perpetrators. The violence in Saharanpur shows careful planning as the mob used chemicals to burn the shops of our brethren. The riots saw targeted killings and the administration has refused to take any action. The situation is under control only because of the honourable Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh,” Rana told Frontline.

Leaders of the BJP are moving around the city to consolidate the support of non-Muslims and, similarly, the Muslim leadership has been trying to consolidate its own base. Saharanpur is geared to hold an Assembly byelection. Its legislator, Raghav Lakhanpal of the BJP, became a Member of Parliament by winning the Saharanpur seat in the 2014 general election. While the BJP won with handsome margins in all the other constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh, it could wrest the Saharanpur seat only by a margin of 65,000 votes. Lakhanpal defeated the Congress’ Imran Masood, a Muslim leader known for his inflammatory speeches (in his election campaign, he allegedly threatened to “chop” Narendra Modi “into pieces”).

Although many election analysts attribute the BJP’s sweep in the last parliamentary election in western Uttar Pradesh to the strong polarisation between Muslims and Hindus in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots, the hard-fought election in Saharanpur, however, indicated that the religious polarisation was incomplete.

The disputed land

The trigger for the riots was a long-simmering dispute over a piece of land which the Muslims claim housed a masjid that was subsequently demolished while the Guru Singh Sabha, the administrative body of the gurdwara, says that there was no masjid when it bought the land in 2001 and that the gurdwara is the land’s rightful owner. Anwar Ali, a senior advocate in the city and an Urdu columnist, told Frontline that the dispute was unjustified because the matter had been resolved by the Allahabad High Court in 1964. “The Muslims were led to believe that there existed a public mosque in the land adjoining the gurdwara. However, the mosque that existed in that land can at best be called a private mosque. All communities in India have a tradition to build places of worship in their homes,” said Ali.

The case, Sheikh Mohammad Askari vs Khalil Ahmad, is recorded in the Reference no: 1964/Allahabad Law Journal, Page 1122. One Sheikh Mohammad Askari’s house stood at the disputed site. The house on Gurdwara Road, which was then called Malgodam Road, was called Peeli Kothi. In 1936, Askari requested the Collector to liquidate his assets in order to pay off his large debt. The Collector referred the case to a special judge under the then Encumbered Estates Act. On January 8, 1936, the U.P. official gazette notified the district administration to auction his property. As his property included Peeli Kothi, it also had to be auctioned.

However, a Muslim leader, Khalil Ahmad, objected to the auction of Peeli Kothi, claiming that it housed a public masjid. The case continued until November 26, 1948, when the court permitted Askari to auction the property.

As a result of the judgment, he sold Peeli Kothi to Srimati Mansa Devi and Rajvanti Devi, two women from an influential business family. Khalil Ahmad, however, moved the court again against the sale. His argument was based on two points: firstly, the portion of the Kothi comprising the masjid was not liable to be sold, and, secondly, common people have the right to offer prayers there.

The purchasers of the Kothi and two other creditors objected to the case, following which Khalil Ahmad’s case was dismissed on December 3, 1951. Ahmad appealed in the Allahabad High Court in 1952. The High Court, however, dismissed his plea with a judgment on September 1, 1964. Justice Gyanendra Kumar concluded that the masjid was indeed a private mosque as it was not proved that the public had any access at any time to the masjid. He said that the masjid was located in the north-west part of the premises and there was only one access to Peeli Kothi. Therefore, the sale deed was valid. In this way, he made an important distinction between a public mosque and a private one. This land was bought by the Guru Singh Sabha in 2001.

In 2009, some Muslim political workers formed a “masjid committee” under the leadership of one Abdul Wahab to seek public access to the masjid. However, it did not take off well as Wahab died. Moharram Ali Pappu, a former councillor in the Saharanpur Municipal Corporation, and the main accused in the Saharanpur riots, raised the matter again by filing a similar case in the Additional District Court in 2011. Political observers say that by raising the sentimental issue just ahead of the 2012 Assembly elections, he was looking to consolidate the Muslim vote. Again, the matter remained a non-issue among Muslims and Pappu struck a compromise with the gurdwara committee, after which the case was closed by the Additional District Judge in May 2013 in the gurdwara’s favour. Six months later, in an attempt to revive the issue, a close associate of Pappu filed another case in the District Court. This case is still on.

Muslims demoralised

“The BJP’s victory in the last parliamentary elections has demoralised the Muslims of the city. They are feeling insecure. The Muslim leadership took advantage of this insecurity to stoke more fear. This is how the mosque issue was revived,” said one senior journalist on condition of anonymity. Witnesses claim that most mobsters who joined the protesters were outsiders who had come prepared for violence.

The Saharanpur riot is one of the few cases where two minority groups have clashed. Muslims form 34 per cent of the city’s population, Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs 33 per cent and Banias and other castes the rest. Sikh votes have always been divided. In the aftermath of the riots, the BJP, in order to form a larger Hindu identity, is warming up to the Sikhs. The party has always fielded a Punjabi Hindu candidate in the elections because this section of the population is economically and politically the most powerful in the area. Raghav Lakhanpal is a Punjabi Hindu. Since the Bania community has historically supported the BJP, the party gives representation to a Punjabi Hindu and asks the Banias to transfer their votes in favour of its Punjabi candidate. With the Sikhs in its fold now, the BJP stands on a potent electoral wicket. And despite the Muslim consolidation in favour of Imran Masood, the community remains on a weaker pitch.

The BJP has been trying to forge larger Hindu unity in most parts of north India. Some experts say that it has been successful in addressing the concerns of marginalised communities such as Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) better than any other party in recent times. The beginning of this political unity among traditional adversaries, however, has invariably been through communal riots in the past one year. On the same day as the Saharanpur riots, Dalits and Muslims clashed over a temple loudspeaker in Moradabad, around 100 kilometres from Saharanpur. The Muzaffarnagar riots also saw many Dalits at the forefront of the violence against Muslims. In a similar turn of events in Ranchi, Adivasis and Muslims clashed over a piece of land on July 29, the day of Eid.

According to the report of the National Integration Council constituted by the United Progressive Alliance government, Uttar Pradesh tops the list of States with the most number of communal riots in 2013, with 247 incidents claiming 77 lives. The situation in 2014 is no different. In all these incidents, the BJP has actively campaigned in favour of the non-Muslim party, the benefits of which it saw in the last parliamentary elections.

The impact of these riots has been catastrophic. Brotherhood developed over centuries has broken. Anwar Ali said: “Most Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus came to Saharanpur after Partition. They were an anti-Muslim lot because of what they saw in West Punjab. However, it was because of the local Muslims’ efforts that they gradually warmed up to them. Many Urdu and Hindi newspapers, including Nai Duniya, run by Abdul Wahid Siddiqui, father of the political leader and journalist Shahid Siddiqui, supported the Punjabi Suba movement in the 1950s. Our relations thawed because of our efforts. Muslims become the worst casualties in riots, which we made them understand. What has developed now is a very unfortunate fault line. The Sikhs and Muslims share a long tradition of camaraderie and brotherhood.”

Today, Saharanpur is guarded by 18 companies of additional police force—eight of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), six of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), two of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and two of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). There have been no reports of violence after July 26. The main accused, Pappu, has been arrested under the National Security Act. Yet, the division of the population on religious lines is stark and palpable. In such times, the only moment of relief is a story that every believer of communal harmony takes out of Saharanpur today.

As violence escalated on July 26 and Sikhs started retaliating, many Muslim women and children were forced to take shelter in the Bada Masjid near the railway station. With no relief, it was the Sikh owner of Sher-e-Punjab Hotel, which shares its boundary with the mosque, who ensured that they received food and drinking water. “He told us not to worry. As long as we are here, he would get us food and water, he said. If not for him, our children would have starved for the two days we were in the mosque,” said Nafisa Begum, who was a beneficiary of this person’s magnanimity.