Ayodhya Shining

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Political agents seem hellbent on stirring UP’s communal cauldron: a ground report
FAIZABAD ~ Blame it on the fast-approaching Lok Sabha elections or desperate attempts to keep the communal cauldron boiling, Faizabad and its surrounding districts in Uttar Pradesh have developed some ugly warts of late. Over the past couple of weeks, while all seem busy debating the Muzaffarnagar riots and its sordid consequences, these districts in the eastern part of the state have seen a series of low-intensity communal outbursts that have turned the region into a veritable tinder box, ready to explode.

The latest flashpoints, whether in Ayodhya or areas around it, are rather unusual insofar as they have mostly remained calm even during the most turbulent periods of the past. On 4 January this year, when Balua, a Muslim-majority village in Balrampur district, was attacked by a mob of communalists, none of its residents could recall a time when tensions ran so high. Yet, today, a pall of fear and silence has descended on a village that has had a long history of harmony.

“Not even in 1992 [when the Babri Masjid was demolished] did this happen here,” says Habibullah, an octogenarian resident of this village, his eyes full of terror. “Where should we go [to keep ourselves safe]? Can’t they free us of elections?”

After posing these two questions, he turns silent, but his body language speaks volumes: despite the support of a walking staff, he visibly shivers—in the apparent grip of emotions that stir within him.

Balua village is located about 15 km from Balrampur town. Late on 3 January, there was a minor dispute involving some residents of this village and one Dhirendra Tiwari—an activist of a Hindutva outfit called the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV)—of a nearby village, Mahadeo Hariharganj. The next morning, a group of armed men from Mahadeo Hariharganj and a few nearby villages, including Bargadahi, Bagesar, Noagaon, Koyelara and Ranijot, mounted an attack on the residents of Balua. Over a dozen people of both sides were injured in the clash. By noon, the police moved in to bring the situation under control, picking up men of either side of the confrontation for interrogation.

Late that evening, however, the situation took another turn for the worse after the death of a 70-year-old resident of Balua village, Wahid Ali, in Balrampur’s Memorial Hospital. Residents of this village claim that Wahid had been picked up from his residence by the police soon after they entered the village in the aftermath of the clash, and that he died in police custody. According to Shirish Chandra, deputy superintendent of police of Balrampur, the officer who oversees law and order in the village, the force in khaki had nothing to do with his demise. Around five o’clock in the evening that day, he claims, he found Wahid lying injured in the fields and took him to hospital in Balrampur, where he died soon after.

“The police are lying,” says Tabassum, Wahid’s daughter, as she waits with other villagers for his body to be brought for burial to Balua after its post-mortem. Her mother Zainab would be accompanying the body.

Meanwhile, almost all able-bodied men have fled Balua in fear of another round of communal attacks or police atrocities, leaving behind women, children and old men in the village. Kallan, a resident of this village, arrived in Balrampur town early on 4 January, hours before Balua was attacked. I met him in the afternoon of 5 January as he wandered into the residence of a senior journalist of the town, Zakhamat Ali. “As soon as I reached Balrampur, I got news of the clash,” he says. “My wife and daughter-in-law are the only two left in the village. I don’t know what will happen [now to us].”

Kallan, a small-time farmer, remains uncertain. Neither is he able to muster the courage to go back to his village, nor is he ready to risk seeking police help. “What if they level some charges against me too?” he asks. Indeed, in Uttar Pradesh, as in many other parts of the country, the police have developed a habit of lying—if not to hide their failures, then to cover up their wanton assaults on the defenceless.

IN BALRAMPUR, WHERE public rallies and provocative speeches by Gorakhpur MP Adityanath and the heightened activism of his HYV are being watched with anxiety by Muslims, there seems to be reason for the latter not to trust the local administration and police. At a meeting held in the village of Vahini activists on 29 December, a week before the Balua violence, Adityanath had declared: “Muslims consider terrorists their protectors… Hindus must unite and remain alert of Muslims wherever they live and confront them if the situation so demands.” At the same rally, the HYV’s state president Sunil Singh, announced: “In order to finish Islamic terrorism, Hindus must finish madrassas and mosques where training is given for terrorism… Shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’ whenever you hear the aazaan [the Islamic call to prayer]… Workers of the Hindu Yuva Vahini will not allow Muslims to live in Hindustan.”

Such rhetoric is new to Balrampur, a district created by the Bahujan Samaj Party in its last few months in power before the Samajwadi Party took charge of the state. “Balrampur has always been a peaceful place,” says Zakhamat Ali.

“Earlier, neither Yogi nor his outfit was visible here. But for past five or six months, they have become hyper-active in this district. Local officials touch his feet and take no action against him or his men. I have been doing journalism for the past 35 years, and I have never seen such a communal atmosphere in this area. What you see in Balua may not be the end of it. If adequate measures are not taken, the situation may worsen by the time elections approach.”

Indeed, Balrampur is not an isolated case. Unusual developments have taken place not just in its surrounding areas, but in Ayodhya as well. On 20 December, for example, a bunch of unidentified miscreants damaged the mausoleum of Hazrat Shish Paigambar, a dargah in Ayodhya that local Muslims hold in esteem. The same night, a young man called Mohammad Danish was found murdered in a nearby mosque, Jinnati Masjid, located nearly 500 metres away from the dargah. Danish used to live in that mosque.

This was the first time since the Babri Masjid demolition of 6 December 1992 that a religious structure had been damaged in Ayodhya. About a week after this incident, the police claimed to have solved the mystery by arresting two young men, Mohammad Irshad and Azad Ahmad, from Haibatpur village, about 2 km away from the mausoleum and mosque. The police claimed that Irshad, the son of the muezzin of Jinnati Masjid, committed the murder with Azad’s help. In order to divert attention and make his crime look like an act of communal assault, asserted the police, Irshad demolished part of the dargah as a red herring.

Faizabad District Magistrate Vipin Kumar Dwivedi says Irshad has confessed to the crime in police interrogation. But some local Muslim leaders as well as residents of Haibatpur have alleged that the entire episode was engineered by communal forces to disturb the peace, and that the police are trying to throw everyone off the trail of truth.

According to Tanjim, sister of Azad Ahmad, “Our father died the night before [on 19 December], and was buried around 3 o’clock the next day. After that, all of us, including my brother, were busy looking after relatives who had come to attend the funeral. Do you expect that three hours after burying his father, my brother would have been in a mental state to participate in a murder, and that too, in a mosque—and then desecrate the mausoleum?”

This is not the only question that locals are asking. Another big question, they point out, relates to the very manner Irshad is ‘being framed’ for killing Danish. “Even if Irshad had to kill Danish, why would he do it in a mosque being looked after by none other than his own father?” asks Khaliq Ahmad Khan, convener of the Faizabad-based Sampradayik Hinsa Virodhi Forum (literally, ‘forum in opposition of communal violence’). “The mosque is in the midst of a graveyard surrounded by a jungle,” he says, “Had he really wanted to kill him, he could have taken Danish into the jungle. The theory of the police is bullshit—intended to shield the real culprit.”

If the questions are many, so are all the strands of what happened. And they are so tangled that it is virtually impossible to disentangle them. According to the police, the Balrampur violence was a clash between two villages and the Ayodhya incident a mere personal attack. And yet, this belt of UP has seen communal tension rising by the day, with almost everyone on edge.

In places where incidents are not turning communal on their own, extra efforts are being made to make them look so. Take the case of Tanda town in Ambedkar Nagar, another district near Faizabad. Over the past couple of months, this town has been witness to a series of Hindu-Muslim clashes, with periodic bouts of arson. Relations between the two communities nosedived on 4 December last year when a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Ram Mohan Gupta, was shot dead at his chemist shop by unidentified gunmen. After the killing, activists of the VHP and HYV blocked traffic on the Tanda-Akbarpur road in protest. These activists, locals say, raised anti-government and other communally inflammatory slogans.

In March last year, Ram Mohan Gupta’s uncle, Ram Babu Gupta, also a VHP leader, had been killed in a similar fashion, after which sporadic communal clashes had been reported from some villages near Tanda, forcing the administration to keep the areas under curfew for over a week.

After the death of Ram Mohan Gupta, local VHP and HYV activists sat on a dharna to protest what they claimed was the government’s ‘minority appeasement’ policy. Soon, state leaders of the BJP, VHP and HYV came out in solidarity. BJP state president Laxmi Kant Vajpayee, who visited Tanda on 5 December, the first day of the dharna, said: “It is the appeasement policy of the state government at work, so the administration is unsuccessful in controlling crime by members of a particular community.”

In his own way, Adityanath, too, joined the agitation. On 16 December, he held a meeting at Akbarpur, the district headquarters of Ambedkar Nagar, and issued a 15-day ultimatum to the local administration: if the Samajwadi Party MLA of Tanda, Azim-Ul-Haq, was not arrested within this period, Adityanath said, he would lead a march upon Tanda.

Though the ultimatum period ended on 1 January, Adityanath is yet to reveal his plan of action. Meanwhile, the agitation against ‘local crime’, as it is being portrayed, has become a point to garner support for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. A pamphlet being distributed to those who visit the dharna site is headlined ‘Hindutva ki Dharma Dhwaja ke Sajag Prahari’ and it features Hindutva slogans and photographs of Ram Babu Gupta and Ram Mohan Gupta, both before and after their death. On the top of these pamphlets are photographs of Modi, Adityanath and VHP leader Ashok Singhal.

It is quite clearly a campaign for Modi. While ‘crime’ is its ostensible target, it has an underlying political message. Local residents know this, and perhaps that is why the dharna site has such sparse local attendance. Worse still, the site is in the Aliganj area of Tanda, and that too, bang opposite one of the town’s main mosques, the Jama Masjid. Little wonder that most people in the area live in fear of another bout of communal violence.

This fear looms over this entire belt of UP, including the districts of Faizabad, Ambedkar Nagar, Basti, Gonda and Balrampur. “As we move towards the 2014 elections, you will find more such incidents in the region,” predicts Acharya Satyendra Das, chief priest of the Ramjanmabhoomi temple at Ayodhya. “These days, any development here is ascribed to politics. There is a section of people who do not think about the consequences. To them, furthering their politics is everything, even if that means the killing of innocent people.”

Ayodhya, at the centre of this region, has long been one of India’s most tumultuous spots, a nerve centre of religious sentiments that tend to reverberate across the country. Right now, the town seems to be entering a period in which it could be even more volatile than usual.

As Lok Sabha elections approach, the danger may be worse than many think.