The Riot and the Rot

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Faizabad saw a brazen attack on Muslims on 24 October. From what led to this carnage, it is clear that it was not spontaneous but orchestrated

The communal eruption on 24 October in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, needs no detectives. The perpetrators did not care to maintain their anonymity. In fact, they appeared anxious that their objective would be defeated if it was not clear to their intended audience who had stirred it up. For such violence to have an impact beyond the district borders, the rioters seem to think, every stone pelted, every fire-bomb hurled and every act of mob vandalism must bear a signature that is legible to people across the Hindu-Muslim divide, even if the state’s law-and-order apparatus feigns ignorance of it.

The violence in question broke out during the course of a Hindu procession carrying idols of Goddess Durga for immersion in the River Saryu. The violence was undertaken by a ‘flash mob’ of rioters who had mingled with the crowd before they got into the act. As if still unsure whether they had left enough imprints, the rioters broke open the locks of a mosque at Chowk, the heart of Faizabad’s business area, and left it thoroughly ransacked. Built in 1780 by Nawab Hassan Raza Khan of Awadh, the mosque has long been a symbol of communal harmony in the town—every year, Hindu women would go up the stairs of the mosque and shower flower petals on Durga processions passing by it. “This year, though, no Hindu woman came into the mosque to welcome the procession,” says Dr Mirza Shahab Shah, who looks after the mosque, “It was unprecedented, and raises the suspicion whether the attack was planned in advance… those who did it also saw to it that the mosque was vacant so that it could be vandalised without interruption.”

The local administration and much of the media lost little time in calling the outrage yet another example of mutual hostility between Hindus and Muslims, a supposedly regular feature of life in UP. This, however, is not the truth. What happened at Faizabad’s Chowk in the hours between roughly 5.30 and 10.30 pm on 24 October—as the state machinery looked the other way while mobs looted, ransacked and burnt shops owned by Muslims and then vandalised the 18th century mosque—was not a ‘Hindu-Muslim riot’. It was a calculated and cold-blooded attack on minorities by those who have a political stake in such violence, who see something to gain in setting the two communities against each other.

Locals at large seem to have seen through it. The restraint displayed by most residents of the town was notable; the mobs did not swell, and participation was restricted to the bunch that began it. This is more than can be said of the administration and some sections of the media. The very next day, Subhash Chandra, Inspector General of Police, Lucknow Range, had this to tell mediapersons in the state capital: “The exact reason behind the violence is not yet known and efforts are on to identify those who incited the mobs on both sides.” This two-side theory was echoed by statements of other officials as well, and newspapers went along for the ride. Local news channels chose to ignore the event (why they did so is unclear).

Suppressed was the fact of how the violence began. It had nothing to do with a communal divide. A few louts in the procession are said to have molested a girl, who, like hundreds of other devout Hindus lining the roadside, was watching it go past. The policemen on duty stood aloof, as the incident resulted in angry words being exchanged by two groups in apparent confrontation. Soon, the two groups—both Hindu—were seen pelting stones at each other. “Then suddenly some people in the procession started shouting, asking all vehicles to stop because [they said] Muslims had thrown some stones and one of them had fallen on the idol,” says Nirmal Kumar, a local who was part of the procession.

The procession came to a halt, people started running helter-skelter, and in the commotion that ensued a mob began torching Muslim shops. It was done with military precision and went on for hours. The police did not intervene beyond a token effort to maintain order; of the seven left injured that day, by police claims, two were policemen. No lives were reported lost, but then, a death toll is no measure of such an event’s significance.

The mosque at Chowk was not the only symbol of age-old Hindu-Muslim amity to be victimised. Another such target was a local weekly called Aap Ki Taaqat, perhaps the only one in India published in both Hindi and Urdu scripts (the latter opening on its obverse side). The weekly’s office, located in this mosque, was first looted and then wrecked. “On the masthead of the publication, we carry a slogan: ‘Hindu-Muslim doh bhai, Urdu-Hindi doh behen’ (Hindus and Muslims are two brothers; Urdu and Hindi, two sisters),” says its editor Manzar Mehdi.

Faizabad, the headquarters of the district in which Ayodhya is located, has long been admired for its resistance to communalism. Even in 1992, as riots broke out in many parts of the country after the 6 December demolition of the Babri Masjid in adjoining Ayodhya, Faizabad had remained calm. But things have changed in the town. This year, the entire ten-day period of Durga Puja was marked by loudspeakers blaring ditties of dubious religious intent, and the final day’s idol immersion trail had such slogans as ‘UP bhi Gujarat banega, Faizabad shuruaat karega!’ to go with it.

It was a process of saffronisation, and by that evening, the air was surcharged with a noxious mix of religiosity and politics. For the administration, it seems, nothing unusual was afoot. No preventive security forces were deployed, nor any attempt made to clamp down on the slogans. And when the riot began, all the police did by and large was watch.

This development is significant not only because it has happened just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, but also because it marks an uncanny coincidence. For, Faizabad was in flames merely hours after RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat declared in Nagpur that “only a Ram temple will come up [on the disputed site in Ayodhya]” and that “anything to be built for Muslims must be outside the cultural boundaries of Ayodhya”. The RSS chief’s message was clear: the Ram Janmabhoomi issue was to be raked up again as the country approaches another Lok Sabha election. In other words, hard Hindutva was to be fielded again.

LK Advani, the BJP leader most closely associated with the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, did not take much time to fall in line. On 28 October, four days after the violence in Faizabad, he thundered at a poll meeting in Himachal Pradesh that the BJP would help construct an elaborate and beautiful temple at Ayodhya after a final Supreme Court verdict.

Legally, the statements of both Bhagwat and Advani constitute contempt-of-court, since the apex court is yet to rule whether the disputed land belongs to Muslim or Hindu claimants. Politically, these statements seem to be in sync with the apparent attempt of Faizabad’s rioters to revive the dispute. If the timing of these are too striking to be ignored, so also is the pattern of communal rabble rousing that led up to 24 October. It is easy to join the dots.

Altogether, 42 shops were gutted that evening in the Chowk area of Faizabad, and all but five belonged to Muslims. “All Hindu-owned shops were burnt accidentally. These could not have escaped because they were adjacent to the Muslims’ shops set on fire,” says 20-year-old Deepak Kumar, who was part of the procession.

Deepak and his friend Ashish did their utmost to put out the flames. “But we could not do much because it was so difficult to get water to douse the fire,” Deepak says, “We were aware of the danger, but we could not run away like the others. Around 10 o’clock, some constables noticed us, and they chased us away.” The arsonists meanwhile were allowed to carry on, he adds.

That was it, then. The police found reason to chase away the two boys who had staked their lives in their quest to save the town’s secular ethos, a culture they valued and upheld while working with their friends Afaqullah and Guffran under the banner of an NGO, the Awadh Peoples’ Forum, which seeks to promote communal harmony in the district. The same police, however, saw no reason to stop the perpetrators of the crime. This was apparently the demand of their duty as well; the next day, Faizabad’s District Magistrate Deepak Agrawal, in his order clamping Section 144, sought to justify police inaction by saying that “the rioters could not be checked because the police force was not adequately present” at Faizabad’s Chowk.

Among the outlets targeted that evening was Star Bakery, which had come up in place of Star Hotel, the town’s first victim of Hindu communalism after independence. The eatery’s owner, Mohammad Bashir, was dispossessed of the property in late 1949 by the then District Magistrate of Faizabad KKK Nair, who had a reputation of using state tools to hound Muslims. This was around the same time that an idol of Lord Rama appeared overnight in the Babri Masjid, the stealthy handiwork of Hindu communalists (refer to ‘It Happened One Night’, Open, 13 December 2010).

Nair had Bashir’s property turned over to someone who started an eatery there called Gomati Hotel. But Bashir, who opened a bakery at home to sustain himself, did not give up. He went to court and won his original site back. Today, it houses that bakery business, run by his grandsons under the supervision of Bashir’s son Mohammad Ahmad. The business has done well, but Star Bakery has been an eyesore for Hindu communalists. “Never before had Star Bakery been attacked so badly by communal forces,” says Ahmad, “but it is a temporary victory of theirs, just as it was when they illegally took Star Hotel away from my father in 1949.”

Apart from Faizabad town, two other locations in the district—Bhadarsa and Rudauli subdivisions—saw similar attacks that evening. Though Rudauli escaped with only minor damage, at Bhadarsa as many as 55 shops were torched by a mob. “All shops burnt at Bhadarsa belong to Muslims,” says Star Bakery’s Ahmad, who also happens to be chairman of the Municipal Board of Bhadarsa. “Yet it is mostly Muslims who are being arrested by the administration here.”

Indications that the violence was orchestrated are also borne by the state of political play in the region. For a couple of months before 24 October—ever since the BJP lost the Assembly seat of Faizabad-Ayodhya—the district had been seeing desperate attempts by some fanatics of the Sangh Parivar to arouse ill-will. During this phase, visits by Gorakhpur MP and Sangh hardliner Adityanath to Faizabad and Ayodhya had multiplied. This was accompanied by a sudden expansion of Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini in the district.

Before the Assembly polls, neither Adityanath nor his Hindu Yuva Vahini had much to do with Faizabad. The latter’s presence was minimal. After the polls, however, the Gorakhpur MP was to be seen addressing rallies in the region on an almost weekly basis.

Yet, Faizabad had refused to yield. Despite all their efforts, saffron hardliners could not win over too many of the town’s residents. Harmony was a way of life here, and disruptions were unwelcome. But then, on 21 September, a dramatic event took place in the district—three old statues vanished from Devakaali temple. “No Hindu can steal an idol of any god or goddess,” declared Adityanath promptly, implying thereby that the culprits must have been non-Hindus (read Muslims). Two days later, the Hindu Yuva Vahini joined hands with the RSS, BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal to organise a bandh in the district. Several Muslim shopkeepers and hawkers were roughed up and harassed in other ways. “During the bandh, the administration allowed these people to vitiate the atmosphere,” says Mohammad Ismail, a local resident, “That day it became clear that communalists could now use force with impunity.”

On 12 October, two days before the Durga Puja festival began, Adityanath had reached Ayodhya. He issued an ultimatum the next day to the administration; if the stolen idols were not recovered within 48 hours, he said, he would march with his followers to Faizabad. With the Kendriya Durgapuja and Ramleela Coordination Committee of Faizabad working with his Hindu Yuva Vahini, he knew he could gather a crowd.

Adityanath later withdrew his threat (acting on which could have had him arrested), and led a symbolic yatra in Ayodhya itself. But his statements had already got some Hindus worked up. The missing idols were recovered on 22 October, with four people arrested for the theft, all of them Hindus: Karamjit Maurya of Ambedkar Nagar, Vijay Narain Pande of Azamgarh, Subhash Kumar Yadav of Jaunpur and Jaipujan Sharma of Jaunpur. This news did not help relieve the tension in the air.

By the time the Durga procession began in the afternoon of 24 October, the attack plan was in place. And so it began—in the chaos of an altercation. The rampant use of kerosene and petrol bombs to set shops aflame, as Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Jagmohan Yadav admitted to the media four days later, could only have been part of an arsonist plan. Such a large number of fuel-bombs could not have materialised on their own, and the immersion of an idol does not take any kerosene.

On 29 October, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav took note of the eruption. He blamed “some conspirators” for “the clashes” in Faizabad and asserted that he would expose their names. “Everyone knows who are responsible for the clashes,” he declared.

But then, ‘everyone’ includes the state administration, surely, and it could not have been unaware of the fumes of bigotry that had hung in the air for such an extended period before the riot. Given the arena in which UP’s ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) has honed its instincts, is it plausible it had no inkling of what was to come? Does allowing the execution of such a conspiracy not reek of a conspiracy in itself?

Is this, then, a story of conjoined conspiracies? One aimed at electoral gains for the BJP, and the other, for the SP? This is what the sordid sequence of events would point to. Remember, the state has seen a series of anti-Muslim riots ever since the SP trounced the BSP in UP’s state polls, and the former began gearing up for a general election. Nearly a dozen communal flare-ups have occurred under the SP’s watch in seven months since it attained power in UP.

Indeed, the BJP would stand to gain if it succeeds in polarising politics along a communal axis. But then, that might work in favour of the SP too. For, only if Hindu communalists are seen as active can the SP be sure that Muslims would be pushed by their fears to seek the party’s protection.

Just how cynical the politics being played out is, is hard to tell. The local administration’s leniency, at least for the first few crucial hours, towards the mob of Hindu rioters that evening is a matter of record. It is hard to ascertain whether this was aimed at having Muslim voters relapse into an insecurity (of Hindutva) that they had begun to outlive. Nonetheless, political observers believe that it has been with an eye on electoral benefits, especially for the Lok Sabha, that UP’s administration has proven so tardy in its response to communalism.

Faizabad is still not calm. Communal rumours are still winding through the district, swirling around and kicking up puffs of distrust. If this is not contained soon enough, it could rage in much the same manner that it had once before, 20 years ago, when it threatened the very foundation of secularism in India.