//Khaki and saffron

Khaki and saffron

21 oct 2011

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI
in Rudrapur

Rudrapur, an industrial town in Uttarakhand, witnesses large-scale rioting and clashes of a communal nature.

PTI

Vehicles set on fire near a police station in Rudrapur town on October 2.

THE Garhwal and Kumaon regions, which constitute the tiny hill State of Uttarakhand, were totally free of communal disturbances even when the entire country was in the grip of tension following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and the Mumbai blasts in 1993. These regions had always maintained communal peace. But on October 2, the bustling industrial town of Rudrapur, located in the foothills of the Kumaon hills in Udham Singh Nagar district, became the venue of the first communal riots in the State.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been taking great pains to explain that the 2002 Gujarat violence was an exception, something that could not be avoided. What happened in Uttarakhand for three days from October 2 proves yet again that with the BJP at the helm of affairs, the administrative machinery does look the other way when members of the Muslim community are targeted by the majority community.

Rioting went on for three days, and shops and houses of Muslims were looted and set on fire. The town was brought under indefinite curfew following widespread clashes between Hindus and Muslims in which three persons were killed and some 100 injured, some of them grievously. Several people are reported missing. Being an industrial hub, Rudrapur has a large population of migrant labourers; these people are now fleeing the town. At the time of writing this report (October 9), night curfew was continuing and reports of sporadic incidents of violence were coming in.

The mayhem could have been avoided had the administration been more vigilant. The first provocation came on September 29 when miscreants allegedly packed beef and pages torn from the Quran in a bloodstained cloth and placed it outside a Shani temple in Bhadaipura mohalla. Members of the Muslim community, agitated over the desecration of the Quran, demanded action against the culprits, but the administration did not act. The alleged act of sacrilege was repeated in the same mohalla on the night of October 1. This time, pages from the religious book were wrapped in a sheet of paper along with pork and thrown outside the house of one Mustaq Ahmad.

The following morning, over 100 Muslims gathered at the town kotwali (police station) to demand action and resorted to stone throwing, in which some policemen and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Vir Singh Budhiyal, sustained injuries. The police chased the crowd away by resorting to a lathicharge. However, the Muslims regrouped, and this time a thousand people gathered outside the police station at Indira Chowk, stoned the police, damaged and burnt vehicles that were parked there and threatened to set the station on fire. At this stage, the police reportedly sought the help of the Hindu residents of the nearby Rampura mohalla and, thereafter, the two communities started clashing with each other. Soon the clashes spread to the entire city.

Justifying the police action of calling the Hindu residents to control the Muslim crowd, the new Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Abhinav Kumar, said that it had been done to save the police station from being burnt down as the number of police personnel available was not sufficient to protect it. But why was the police force not strengthened when signs of trouble were evident on September 29 itself? Besides, two battalion headquarters of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) are located within three kilometres of the trouble spot. Why were local residents enlisted to join the police action instead of calling for reinforcements from the PAC?

Facing criticism for mishandling the situation, the B.C. Khanduri government removed DIG Amit Sinha and District Magistrate B.V.R. Purshottam. Nobody has answers to questions about the clashes. Abhinav Kumar, who took charge on October 4 after Amit Sinha was removed for perceived lack of efficiency, only offers conjectures. The new District Magistrate, B.S. Jangpangi, only says there was some inefficiency in handling the situation initially.

The initial administrative apathy, however, took a toll on the town. Scores of houses and shops belonging to Muslims were burnt and looted, leaving the community with a deep sense of fear and injustice. The two communities had coexisted without any trouble, but now there is a divide and a sense of mistrust. What has compounded the feeling of insecurity among the Muslims is the fact that not a single leader from the ruling BJP or the government offered their sympathies even six days after the incident. The Chief Minister visited the town on October 3, but he neither met the victims nor visited the affected areas.

PTI

The police lathicharge the protesters.

This correspondent saw rows of burnt shops in Bhadaipura, Kicchha Road, Transit Camp, the main Durgadevi Road market and Gandhi Colony. In the Durgadevi Road market where shops owned by Hindus and Muslims stood side by side, miscreants had selectively targeted those belonging to Muslims, thrown the goods on the road and set them on fire. In areas where there were rows of shops owned by Muslims, as in Bhadaipura, they were all burnt down.

Asif Ali, an elderly person who had been running an electrical goods shop in Gandhi Colony since 1976, is inconsolable. He told this correspondent that he kept calling up the police helpline when the miscreants were looting and burning his shop, but he heard only laughter on the other side. No police came to help him. He has incurred a loss of roughly Rs.15 lakh. Similarly, Rais Ahmad, who washes and irons clothes in the same area, had his house looted and all his belongings burnt. “We ran away to save our lives, nobody came to protect us,” says Ahmad’s wife. Now they do not know where to go, for Ahmad was born here and grew up thinking this was his home. Suddenly he is feeling insecure and vulnerable.

There are others with similar harrowing experiences. Qauser Ali’s ironworks shop in the Transit Camp area, Mohammad Omar’s cycle shop, and Mohammad Sultan’s tailoring shop in the Durgadevi Road market area were all targeted. Sultan, who employed 15 people, has suffered a loss of Rs.15 lakh. “With the administration turning a blind eye to those who burnt and looted our shops, where do we go now for help?” he asks. “If the administration had taken action against those who were responsible for the desecration of the Quran, this trouble would not have happened in the first place. Our grievance went unheeded, naturally there was anger among the people and they gathered at the police station to protest. But why is the government not paying attention to our grievances?” a member of the Muslim community asked this correspondent.

This sense of denial of justice is deepening by the day because the real culprits, who have been named by eyewitnesses, have not been questioned by the police, whereas several Muslims have been rounded up. Many of the alleged attackers are said to be close to BJP and Congress leaders. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen Hindus with Congress and BJP affiliations leading the mobs that set shops on fire.

The district administration too agrees that “the role of political parties cannot be denied in this” but has stopped short of taking any effective action. According to political observers, the Assembly elections scheduled for early next year is making the two political parties nervous and hence the attempt at communal polarisation. “Both the BJP and the Congress are trying to fish in troubled waters,” says Tejinder Singh Virk, a member of the local traders’ association and State secretary of the Samajwadi
Party.What is shocking is that the members of the Hindu community see nothing wrong in the police seeking their help to quell the agitating Muslims. Mohit Chauhan, an educated youth working in a leading hotel in the town, said, “After all, the Muslims were the ones who started it all. Why did they throw stones at the police station? If they thought there would be no retaliation for their actions, then they have surely learnt a lesson now.”

A Hindu shopkeeper in Gandhi Colony is also of the view that the police were right in seeking the help of the residents of the Hindu-dominated area to control the Muslims as the police station did not have sufficient personnel.

“The police, all young men without training in handling such a situation, were not even equipped with weapons. The trained policemen of the former Uttar Pradesh Police went back to the parent cadre when the State was bifurcated. The concept of mitra police [people-friendly] has done much harm to the morale of the forces. Had the Hindus not assisted them, the police would have been lynched by the mob,” he said. But why harm innocent Muslims instead of those who started the violence? “This happens in any such situation, nobody can help it,” shrugs a shopkeeper at the Durgadevi Road market.