Communal tension

Tension in Tonk

Print edition : August 23, 2013

A man who was injured in the police action. It is felt that the police action could have been averted had the administration taken the incidents on the previous day seriously, given the fact that it as a month of religious significance. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Nahid, a stone cutter, and Shamsuddin, a government employee, who sustained injuries in the lathi-charge. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The Ashok Gehlot government comes under fire for repeated police action against the minorities.

THE Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan is hopeful of retaining its position in the State in the Assembly elections which will be held later this year. According to opinion polls conducted recently, the incumbent government may yet have a slim chance of continuing in office given the slew of welfare measures it has initiated over the past one year. However, large sections of the minority community do not feel the same way about the Gehlot government as they did when it assumed power five years ago.

A spate of incidents involving extreme police action and measures against the minorities during its tenure have created a sense of insecurity among these communities and infused cynicism into the electorate at large. Memories of the police firing in Gopalgarh in Bharatpur district in September 2011 (“Targeted Attack”, Frontline, October 21, 2011), which claimed 10 young lives, were fresh in their minds when another incident of police insensitivity put the government in the dock.

On July 11, the very first day of fasting in the month of Ramzan, a skirmish broke out between two communities over the high decibel levels of the music that was played in a marriage procession. Two groups of local youth clashed with each other, a motorcycle belonging to a member of the minority community was set on fire, and some musical equipment belonging to the other side was damaged. The police claimed that the incident had the potential to become a serious issue. “It is a hypersensitive district,” said a senior police officer.

The next morning, Tonk District Collector Lal Chand Aswal called a peace committee meeting where, interestingly, local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders were also present. That evening, a huge police contingent, comprising personnel of the Special Task Force (STF) and the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary (RAC), was stationed outside the Chavani mosque, where around a thousand persons, including children and old men, had assembled for the evening prayers. Members of the Keer community, a peasant caste known traditionally to cultivate on riverbeds, assembled on the road opposite the mosque.

Police action

What happened next is unclear. But what it resulted in was very visible. As prayers continued inside, the police pushed their way through, tear-gassing and lathi-charging anyone who came in their way. Not even eight-year-olds or 85-years-olds were spared. In the mayhem, a tear gas shell ripped the eye of a young man, killing him instantly. It was claimed that the police entered the premises because stones were thrown from the ramparts and roof of the mosque and adjacent homes at the Keers who had assembled there.

Nearly four dozen persons sustained injuries, including fractures and injuries to the head. “The action was totally disproportionate to the incident,” said a retired major in Tonk city. The District Magistrate dismissed the matter as a “freak incident” and a “coincidence”, stating that everything was under control. Superintendent of Police S. Parimala justified the action on the grounds that there was stone-throwing and that the situation could have gone out of control. She also claimed that the dead man was a history-sheeter and had no business being there offering prayers as he was from a different area. According to police sources, he had mobilised mischievous elements in order to create trouble.

Local people and leaders of the minority community who Frontline spoke to explained that it was not uncommon for members of their community to offer prayers at any mosque, especially if they happened to be passing by. “Even if he was a history-sheeter, where does it say that he should die like this?” asked Mohammad Hasan, a retired professor of geography at the University of Rajasthan, who visited the place.

Members of the minority community claimed that there was provocation from the Keers who were armed. When stone-throwing began from both sides, some STF personnel got injured and that seems to have been the trigger for the police action. They said the theory that mischievous elements were present in the mosque as part of a pre-planned strategy was false.

“It was not a communal clash, a Hindu-Mussalman fight. The administration is to blame. They had no right to beat us up like this,” said Haji Ahmed Sayeed, a muezzin who sustained injuries on his hand as he tried to protect himself from the blows. Members of the community alleged that they were beaten up brutally, taken to the police station and made to stay there in their undergarments.

Tonk, a Congress seat

The parliamentary constituency of Tonk-Sawai Madhopur is represented by Union Minister Namo Narain Meena, who people say is hardly bothered by such incidents. “We got him elected from a general seat against Colonel [K.S.] Bainsla of the BJP who led the Gujjar agitation for reservation, and this is what we get,” said a local leader. The majority of the Assembly segments here, including Tonk, are represented by Congress legislators. The Congress party’s election observer for the constituency is Brajendra Ola, son of another Central Minister, Sis Ram Ola, who, minority community members say, has rarely bothered to visit the place or inquire about the situation.

Mujahid, a Congress worker, whose father, an 86-year-old, was beaten up, wonders what good staying in the party has served him. “We are unhappy that this should happen in a Congress-led regime. Whatever be the reason, the action was in excess,” he told Frontline. Shamsuddin, a government employee with the Irrigation Department, was equally perplexed. “There were small children and old men praying. If the intention was to create trouble, then why would we bring them along? My 13-year-old grandson was also arrested,” he said.

Wild theories

There is apparently no history of animus between the Keers and the minorities, who constitute nearly 40 per cent of Tonk’s urban population. It is learnt that some Keer community members are associated with the BJP and were rather active in organising its meetings. Gyarsi Lal Kaka, a prominent Keer leader, was emphatic that the burning of the motorcycle on July 11 was the handiwork of the minority community itself.

Such pronouncements are not unusual. In Bhilwara district, in February this year, when 40-odd shops belonging to members of the minority community were burnt, the same argument, that “they must’ve set them on fire themselves to get compensation”, was floated around (“Living in Fear”, Frontline, March 8, 2013). It is another matter that the district administration did not buy this theory.

“I think it was planned by those people,” Kaka said but at the same time stated that the stone-throwing was not very serious. He said that no “mob of the Keer community” had assembled as claimed by the minorities, but there were “50-odd people” whom he instructed to “return to their homes”. “The police action was justified. I don’t think the administration used excessive force,” he said.

Kanhaiya Lal Kashyap, a property dealer, who is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and whose shop is right opposite the mosque, could not explain why his shop or any other shop there did not suffer any damage in the alleged excessive stone-throwing from the mosque. He admitted that the Keers and the rest of the Hindu community there supported the BJP.

“I was with my two children”

Mohammad Amir, who runs a madrassa for girls, had gone to the mosque on July 11 with his two young sons. The majority of the people present there were elderly men. “There were around a thousand of us inside. There was too much police presence outside. We did not know why [they were there], especially as the peace committee had resolved the matter during the day. People were shouting slogans from the rooftops and using abusive language too. Some of us told the police to control the mob on the road. I don’t know what happened next. I couldn’t locate my sons. One of them had been hit and had fallen unconscious. The other was whisked away by someone to safety. I was drenched in blood. The only difference between this and the incident in Gopalgarh was that there was police firing there and here tear gas shells were thrown at us,” he said. “If mischief was on my mind, why would I take my minor sons and drive to the mosque in my expensive vehicle, which was damaged badly?” he asked.

After the incidents in Gopalgarh, a team of the National Commission for Minorities visited the place. Its report “held the police and the District Magistrate responsible for the outrage” and specially recorded its “shock at the bullets being fired by SLR and .303 rifles at a civilian mob within a mosque in independent India”. The police, it observed, were partisan and had used force in excess. “The administration and the police could have handled the dispute much more adroitly and not allowed it to come to boiling point,” the report noted. The two members of the team were K.N. Daruwalla and Syeda Bilgrami Imam.

The incident in Tonk, too, could have been averted had the administration taken the incidents on the previous day seriously, given the fact that it was a month of religious significance. In fact, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Gopalgarh put pressure on the State government to take stern measures. Before Gopalgarh, a slew of incidents in which the minorities were affected —in Sarada (Udaipur), Balesar (Jodhpur), Manoharthana (Jhalawar), Surwal (Sawai Madhopur) and Bhilwara—during the Gehlot regime, had heightened their feeling of insecurity.

Search for a political alternative

Tonk, civil liberty activists and others say, would have become another Gopalgarh. The lack of interest by the top leadership in the State and at the Centre and the growing dissension within the Congress, especially with elections drawing near, have led to a feeling of despondency among the minorities. They feel that the Congress does not want to come out openly in their favour for fear of losing the support of the majority community. There is also reason to believe that the BJP has been quietly working amongst the minorities to enlist their support in what may become a closely contested election.

The impact of the formation of the Rajasthan Loktantrik Morcha, comprising parties of the Left such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Janata Dal (United), as a secular, non-Congress, non-BJP alternative, will be watched keenly in some constituencies. Peace may have returned to Tonk and the wounds of those injured might heal gradually, but the Congress will not be able to take the support of the minorities for granted indefinitely.