AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA
The timing of the recent riots in Bareilly indicates that they could have been engineered for political gains.
A shop set on fire by a mob during the communal riots in Bareilly on March 12.
For nearly three hours every day, the curfew-bound Bareilly city sees a flurry of activity. Shops open hastily, people run up and down the narrow streets to stock up on essentials, buses and autorickshaws appear on the roads. Suddenly, before one comes to terms with normalcy, it is time to shut the shops and get back home as police patrol jeeps buzz around announcing the closure of the day. An important trading centre in the Rohilkhand area of western Uttar Pradesh, the city has been under curfew ever since communal riots rocked it.
It all began on March 2, when Hindu and Muslim groups clashed over the route of the Barawafat procession in a place called Chahbai in the city. The violence soon spread to other areas, and both groups hurled lathis and stones at each other before they began burning shops and vandalising houses.
The Barawafat procession is traditionally taken out on the day of Milad-un-Nabi (birthday of Prophet Muhammad) by the Sunni Muslims of the Barelvi sect. Barelvi is a movement of Sunni Islam that originated in South Asia in 1880 to promote the region’s distinctive Islamic practices, which are deeply influenced by Sufism. It does not follow orthodox Islamic practices unlike the Deobandi, Ahle Hadith and Nadwa movements in Sunni Islam.
It is said that Barelvi Muslims constitute 80 per cent of India’s Muslim population. Since the movement was greatly inspired by the writings of Ahmad Riza Khan in the early 20th century, it takes its name from his hometown, Bareilly. The Barawafat procession in the city is significant because it is the seat of the holiest shrine of the Barelvis, the Dargah-e-Alahazrat.
On this particular day, Muslims from all over Bareilly district march to the city in small decorated groups called anjumans. Every anjuman has its own distinct style and identity. Roughly 135 such groups of 100 to 150 people take out their processions and gather in a locality called Kohadapeer, from where a joint procession, Barawafat, moves to the dargah. Every year, new anjumans are added and the crowd keeps swelling; a lot of devotees come from other regions of India and from abroad, too. The entire procession is coordinated by the organisation Anjuman Khuddama Rasool Tanzeem (AKRT).
On March 2, reportedly, when one such anjuman from Gulab Nagar tried to enter the Chahbai region, which was not on the usual route, residents of the area opposed it. AKRT vice-president Qasim Kashmiri said the change of route occurred because the main road to Kohadapeer was closed for work on the railway tracks. “This led to a dispute, following which the residents of Chahbai held a meeting whether to allow the processions or not. There were both Muslims and Hindus at the meeting. They were about to allow the anjuman to pass through the area, but before they could do that the riots broke out,” Superintendent of Police (City) Rakesh Kumar Jolly told Frontline. “We had to call the Rapid Action Force [RAF] and the Provincial Armed Constabulary [PAC] units from adjoining districts to control the riots.”
It is alleged that a few residents started pelting the anjuman with stones from their terraces, and members of the procession retaliated. Things got out of control when people in a few anjumans, which had already gathered at Kohadapeer, got to know about the incident and rushed to Chahbai. Soon, violence broke out and spread to other parts.
On being asked whether procession routes are fixed every year, Additional District Magistrate (City) Ram Manohar Mishra said: “The routes from Kohadapeer to the dargah are fixed and published, but fixing the routes of so many anjumans is difficult considering the fact that there are so many new ones every year. But from next year, we plan to have those routes also fixed and we would ask all the anjumans to take prior permission.”
With the curfew, an uneasy calm prevailed over the city until March 8, when, in a strange turn of events, the police arrested Tauqir Reza Khan, the maulana of the Barelvi sect and the leader of the Ittehad-e-Millat Council (a political party), who was also the chief guest of the Barawafat. The Muslims organised a non-violent protest against the arrest, after which he was released on March 11. The police claimed that he had made inflammatory speeches on the day of the procession but later released him for lack of evidence. This led to a mobilisation of Hindus in the city. Riots broke out again on March 12 and Muslim property was burnt.
Meanwhile, Senior Superintendent of Police M.K. Bhasal was transferred and Deputy Inspector-General of Police Rajeev Sabharwal, who is also the DIG of the State anti-terrorism squad, given the additional charge of the district. District Magistrate Ashish Kumar Goel was replaced with Anil Garg. Garg said: “We do not want to continue the curfew, but we are phasing it out slowly to avoid any risks. Our first job was to control the riots and we have done it successfully.” The police are phasing out the curfew, which was on even after nearly 20 days of the first incidence of rioting.
A senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Frontline that there was ample evidence of the riot being engineered “if we look at the sequence of events”. “If you look at the pattern of the riots, both communities did not clash directly even once. Even on March 2, people were throwing stones from a distance. After that, organised groups were just burning and vandalising shops and houses. In the last 20 days, there were no casualties and only some injuries. The second stage of the riots was not between two communities but between the mobs and the administration. The procession was only a trigger,” the officer said. “Bareilly is supposed to be the most peaceful city in Uttar Pradesh, but for the last four or five years we have been seeing small fights or debates taking a communal turn.”
He further said rumour-mongering was at its worst during the past 10 days, all with the intention to trigger riots. “But we had to use the maximum force to prevent any untoward incidents,” he said.
The political scientist Paul R. Brass, in his seminal work “The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India” (in 2003), has shown how rumour-mongering played a significant role in organising riots in Aligarh in the 1980s. His hypothesis of an engineered riot might hold true in the case of Bareilly too.
Sequence of events
In most of the media reports, the sequence of events in the Bareilly riots begins from March 2. But things can be seen in a different light if the events are traced to a week earlier. For the last three years, the Hindu festival Holi and Milad-un-Nabi have been falling on the same date or on consecutive dates. Because of this, the administration has been requesting the AKRT to postpone the procession for a few days and the latter has been cooperative. But Muslim groups have been divided on the issue, with one group adamant on bringing out the procession on the birthday of the Prophet. This group is headed by Subhani Reza Khan, the legal heir to Dargah-e-Alahazrat.
This year, Milad-un-Nabi and Holi fell on consecutive dates, and Subhani Reza Khan took out a small procession on February 27. The next day, the police arrested a few people after dirty clothes were thrown into one of the local masjids.
The police in action during curfew hours on March 12.
On the morning of March 2, the day of the main procession, the Hindu Jagran Manch, a cultural wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blocked Qila Road, demanding the release of the people who had been arrested. It claimed they were innocent and were victimised by the inspector, Moin Ahmed, who had arrested them. Qila Road happens to be the area through which most of the anjumans pass.
A day earlier, on March 1, the traders’ association had gheraoed the main police station of Bareilly as the police had ordered the removal of the Holika ash from Burra Bazaar, the biggest market in the city and the route through which the Barawafat passes. (Hindus burn logs of wood a day before Holi to mark the death of Holika, who, they believe, is the demon sister of Hiranyakashipu, who tried to kill Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlad on his orders.) The traders’ association of Burra Bazaar demanded that the ash should remain there for three days. The police allowed it to remain there, but encircled it with concrete slabs to clear the road partly for the procession.
“Chahbai was not the only place where our anjumans were blocked. There were reports of such blocking at three other places,” said Qasim Kashmiri. “Participants in the procession started to go towards Chahbai not on hearing that the anjuman was being blocked but on hearing that the masjid there had been destroyed.” The police confirmed that the masjid had been burnt, but said that it happened after the Chahbai dispute occurred.
Tauqir Reza said the riot was a sponsored one. He told Frontline: “I was arrested on March 8 when the city was getting back to normal. This was done to trigger another riot. The first information report on March 2 [the police arrested 183 Muslims and some Hindus] did not have my name, but later I was accused of making inflammatory speeches. All I did was to say that the processionists should have patience and to urge the police to control the violent mobs once the riot broke out. I reached the procession at around 5 p.m. when the riots were already on, from 3-30 p.m.”
Rakesh Kumar Jolly, Superintendent of Police, confirms this. “The riots first broke out at 3-15 p.m. We did not think that such a thing would happen, but we were able to manage the riot in one and a half hours.” He also said that there was no video footage of Tauqir Reza’s speech but the police were told by reliable sources about an inflammatory speech he had made.
Politically, the timing of the riot is most suited to the Hindu right wing. Santosh Gangwar, a six-time Member of Parliament of the BJP from Bareilly, had lost for the first time to a Congress candidate, Praveen Singh Aron, in the 2009 elections. Aron has made public statements that the riot was sponsored by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
Digvijay Singh, the Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, too said ever since the Muslims had voted for the Congress “the BJP has been itching for communal riots”. He said the district administration had held discussions with the Muslim leaders of Bareilly and the latter had agreed to postpone the procession by two days. Yet, adequate security arrangements were not made and the administration did not even try to stop the throwing of stones at the procession. “When things started calming down, Maulana Tauqir Reza Khan was arrested and the situation flared up again. Why did they [the Bahujan Samaj Party regime] not arrest RSS/BJP fellows?” he asked.
Gangwar, in turn, had this to say: “What has been done to Hindus is intolerable. Again, Muslims are being appeased. We will campaign against this injustice and demand that the culprits be punished and Hindus be compensated.”
It is important to know that the riots after Tauqir Reza Khan’s release broke out only in those areas of Bareilly where the Lodh and Kurmi castes are dominant. These communities are part of the traditional support base of the BJP, but the party’s grip on them has been getting weak of late. The Lodh community, for instance, has three important leaders in the Samajwadi Party, the BSP and the Congress. So is the case with Kurmis, though Gangwar still remains their most popular leader. Political analysts say the riots have brought the communities back to the BJP fold once again.
Rohilkhand is one of the few areas in the State where the BJP is strong. Therefore, it is important for the party not to lose its base in the area.
A former editor of the Hindi daily Amar Ujala said, “Bareilly does not have a history of riots like other places in Uttar Pradesh. However, in the past few years, I could sense some communal belligerence here. Neighbouring Pilibhit district saw the much-reported hate speech of Varun Gandhi last year. Over the last decade and a half, the RSS has been engrossed in opening Saraswati Sishu Mandirs [RSS schools] all over the area. With the Hindu campaign going on, things have become polarised. Muslim leaders like Tauqir Reza, who have been talking of the human rights of Muslims and their victimisation in the State, have also helped double their popularity.”
Battle for Rohilkhand
That the BJP is taking Rohilkhand seriously can be gauged from the fact that the central leadership of the party appointed both Gangwar and Varun Gandhi as secretaries recently.
The BJP central leadership also sent a three-member team to probe the cause of the riots on March 14, but it was prevented from entering the city. Many believe that the purpose of the team was not to conduct a probe, but to pitch Hindu hardliners in the BJP against the Barelvi religious leadership so that emotions could be incited once again. Apart from Maneka Gandhi (MP, Aonla), the team consisted of Yogi Adityanath (MP, Gorakhpur) and Rajendra Aggarwal (MP, Meerut), both known for their diatribes against Muslims.
Another noticeable fact is that Tauqir Reza, for the first time, had openly declared support for the Congress and withdrawn his candidate in the last elections. Muslims, who form 33.9 per cent of Bareilly’s population, therefore had a tremendous role to play in the Congress’ victory. Aron defeated Gangwar by just 9,338 votes. The riots are said to have helped polarise the people on communal lines, which is expected to help the BJP in the long run.
Political analysts say that the two parties that have benefited from the riots are the BJP and the BSP. While the BJP has managed to consolidate Hindu votes, the BSP has managed to stave off an advancing Congress as Muslims are hurt by the inaction of the Congress MP during the riots. Moreover, the strategic arrest and release of Tauqir Reza has given the feeling to Muslims that their voices were heard by the BSP regime.
The unhappiness with the Congress was evident in many Muslim leaders’ voices in Bareilly. Accomplices of Tauqir Reza told Frontline that the Congress did not do anything to support Muslims in their times of distress.
In the past few years, there have been a few communal conflagrations in the State. In 2007, a minor clash erupted between Hindus and Muslims during the Barawafat in Baradari, an area in Bareilly city. In early 2009, Faridpur, a town in Bareilly district, saw another such incident during the Barawafat. This year, Muslims were stopped during the Barawafat in Rudrapur, a town 80 km from Bareilly, in Uttarakhand.
The Barawafat has always been a sensitive issue for the region’s Muslims, but none of the previous incidents had escalated to such a scale as this. But despite all this, the Hindutva campaign of the Sangh Parivar has never quite gained momentum in recent history because of the caste politics in the State.
Political equations seem to be changing now with the recent aggression of the BJP with its Hindutva campaign. Yet, Bareilly is striving to get back to normal. Md. Niyam of Chahbai, a washerman, said: “I was told by my Hindu friends to leave the colony once the dispute started. It was because of them that my family is alive today.”
Bareilly is, perhaps, one of the few cities where Muslims do not live in ghettos. All colonies here have both Hindus and Muslims. It is because of this they have a high level of economic interdependence, a big enough reason not to get polarised.