Muslim homes are picked out for arson in an eastern Uttar Pradesh village. The explanation is revenge for cow slaughter, but there could be more to the story.
Jannatunnissa, whose home was burnt, weeps as she narrates her family’s plight.
THAKUR PURVA village in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh has no history of communal violence. So when a mob of some 150 people set fire to the few Muslim homes and their livestock on the night of January 26, it was a shock.
There are only five Muslim families in the village; indeed, there are very few Muslim families in the entire Kadanpur panchayat area, which has 24 hamlets or purvas. The minority community hardly has any physical or economic presence. But on January 26, Riyasat Ali and his other Muslim neighbours in Thakur Purva were lucky to escape with their lives.
At 7 p.m., the day before, Inayatnagar police station in Milkipur Tehsil, which includes Thakur Purva in its jurisdiction, received information that a village resident, small-time caterer Shaan Mohammad had slaughtered a cow at 3 p.m. The informant was Tulsi Ram Yadav, who was later booked by the police for leading the arsonists. Tulsi Ram Yadav’s wife Lalpati heads Kadanpur panchayat, but it is he who controls the panchayat. He is called the "pradhanpati".
The police went to investigate at Shaan Mohammad’s house and found cutting "tools" lying around; they also claimed to have seen some portions of the slaughtered animal. Shaan Mohammad and four others were immediately taken into custody on charges of cow slaughter. One of them was Ram Surat Upadhyaya, an upper-caste Hindu who is a friend of Shaan Mohammad.
The following day was peaceful. Policemen from neighbouring police stations were mobilised and a vigil was maintained through the day. Station Officer Alok Verma and the Circle Officer did their rounds and returned to their headquarters after putting four policemen on duty for the night. The only political person to visit the village during the day was Bharatiya Janata Party block president Ram Sanjivan Mishra, who, according to A.K. Mishra, a Home Guard, warned that the situation was volatile. A senior journalist with the popular Faizabad-based Hindi daily Jan Morcha told Frontline that Mishra informed the newspaper about the "cow slaughter".
The Home Guard was on duty on January 26 until 5 p.m., after which he returned to his post at Inayatnagar police station. Meanwhile, Shaan Mohammad’s family and his relatives fled the village, anticipating violence. But his neighbour Riyasat Ali stayed on. At 11-30 p.m., as the village lay asleep, the Muslim homes were set on fire by a mob. The four policemen present were hugely outnumbered.
Of the 27 men named in the first information report (FIR), the police have arrested 17. The rest are absconding. The Station Officer, the Circle Officer and the Sub-Inspectors on duty have been transferred. Twenty-five members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) have been posted in the village now.
The only Muslim residents this correspondent could talk to were Riyasat Ali and his wife Jannatunnisa, because all the others had fled. "I did not see anyone from this village," Jannatunnisa insisted. The mother of seven, with her children huddled close to her, seemed afraid of what might happen after the PAC platoon is removed and the media attention is over. She was weeping at the thought at what would have happened to her children had they not run away as soon as the fire started. Prodded, she said that no one from the village came forward to help them, but added quickly that it could be because of the late hour. As she spoke, a person who identified himself as a BJP volunteer from neighbouring Rewala village hovered near by, listening to what she was saying. "I was just passing by," he said when asked what he was doing in the village.
The newly appointed Station Officer, Anand Singh, is not entirely convinced that it was the cow slaughter that led to the violence. In any case, it is not plausible that a cow should be slaughtered in broad daylight in a village dominated by the majority community.
So what provoked the arson? One explanation could be the land that the Muslim homes occupied. Shaan Mohammad owns two acres (0.8 hectares) of fertile agricultural land. The Muslim homes of the village stand on land adjacent to a main road, which makes them valuable property.
Charred walls of Jannatunnissa’s house. Her husband, Riyasat Ali, is a landless labourer. None of his seven children goes to school.
The village is dominated by Yadavs and a few upper-caste families. Like Muslims, backward castes have a nominal presence in Thakur Purva. The Muslim residents are daily wage earners, barring Shaan Mohammad.
As the Yadavs and the Brahmins spoke vociferously defending the arson, members from other backward communities watched silently, preferring not to express their views. Chunnilal Nai, a barber, and Bhagwati Prasad, a carpenter, were among the mute spectators.
Among the Brahmin families in the village, Ram Surat’s is the poorest. "His only fault," said Ram Naresh, a Thakur Purva resident, "was that he was in bad company." The reference was to his Muslim friends. His house, however, was strategically spared by the arsonists.
It is not as if there was not a relationship of interdependence between the minority and majority communities. Landowners used the agricultural labour of the Muslims and the Scheduled Castes and paid them around Rs.25 for 10 hours’ work. "They are not the only ones who work for us. We get labour from other villages as well," said Ram Naresh.
Another villager, undergraduate student Krishan Kumar Yadav, seemed to believe that the Muslims had set fire to their own homes in order to get compensation from the government. Riyasat Ali had a different story to tell: "I begged them not to set fire to our house but they abused and pushed me aside. I did not see anyone, so how can I name them?" He was unsure of staying on at Thakur Purva, where the family has lived for eight generations. But Muslims have never owned land in the village. "Every Yadav has some land. If anyone sells land here, then it is a Yadav who buys it," Riyasat Ali said.
Frontline spoke to Mitrasen Yadav, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) Member of Parliament from Faizabad. A former legislator from the Communist Party of India, Yadav joined the BSP before the last Lok Sabha elections and won with a huge margin. In his opinion, the arson was the handiwork of "anti-social elements" and would not happen again.
The political parties that have influence in the area are the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the BSP. The MP’s son, Anandsen Yadav, a former S.P. legislator who is now with the BSP, felt that communal organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Shiv Sena could have pla
yed a role in whipping up sentiments around the issue of cow slaughter. He added that Milkipur tehsil had never witnessed such communal violence.
Only the Muslim homes, it was clear, were the target of attack.
The chairman of the Babri Masjid Action Committee of Faizabad and Ayodhya, Mohammad Yunus Siddiqui, said that had the administration been alert, the arson could have been prevented. He said that in the late 1980s, some 14 shops belonging to the minority community had been burnt in Faizabad town on some small pretext and the administration had stood helpless. Even so, Siddiqui believed that the number of communal incidents in Faizabad was negligible. Even at the peak of the Ram Janambhoomi agitation and the campaign around it, Faizabad district was remarkably peaceful.
However, there is, in general, growing evidence of communal mobilisation in eastern Uttar Pradesh, centred around certain mutts in Gorakhpur, particularly on the emotive issue of cow slaughter. The natural association of the cow with Yadavs is a notion that can be exploited easily. Most northern States have in place legislation prohibiting cow slaughter. In fact, a private member’s Bill was moved in Parliament during the National Democratic Alliance regime demanding an all-India piece of legislation against cow slaughter. The Bill could not be taken up for want of consensus.