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Published in the 1-15 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Riots and Rashtravad in Rajasthan

By Prof. M. Hasan

Jaipur: Governments may ignore, but it is generally realized that small sequences of communal tensions with various posturing act as building blocks for calamities. Vulnerable social and geographical conditions often become receptive hosts for such conflicts. The tribal region of Southern Rajasthan is an illustrative example of such vulnerability exploited by collusion of insidious social and political engineering. Regular visits of droughts in the region come with its cohorts of scarcities of jobs and food causing hunger, malnutrition, disease and migration. The region is essentially a poverty belt. The tribals have either no or very small agricultural holdings on hill slopes with little productivity due to poor soil and rains. Mainstream development has bypassed them. Irrigation projects, industries, mining, and transport routes have displaced them. They work as industrial, construction and mining workers at a pittance. For food and seeds they are burdened with loans at high interest rates from traditional moneylenders. Majority of them migrates to industrial towns in Gujarat - earlier in textile mills and now in hazardous chemical factories, living in hovels, suffering from alcoholism, diseases like TB, skin disorder or AIDS. Their resentment has rarely been understood by society making them alienated. Therefore, when provoked, their bottled-up resentment bursts in any direction with an intensity. 

During the last decade and half, under the garb of "social, cultural and educational" activities, communal virus via Gujarat has insidiously crept in eroding social peace and harmony. Communal conflicts in Asind (Bhilwara) and Kalinger (Banswara) and recently in Sarada village (July 29-30) of Udaipur district are part of the many trial tests for terrorizing and economically ruining Muslims through evil social engineering in which tribals are used as tools. Here I will focus on mechanisms of the the Sarada riot and the role played by divisive forces.

Braving risks, a group of local activists from reputed organizations like Astha, Manav Adhikar Sandarbh Kendra and PUCL visited the riot-affected Sarada village. It was also followed by visits of four members of Rajasthan State Minority Commission and a delegation of the Muslim Forum, an apex coordinating body of about 20 diverse organizations from all over Rajasthan for independent fact-finding. They visited the riot site and met community leaders of Hindus and Muslims, officials and social workers. For writing this article, I had talks with informed local social workers and public representatives who threw light on the dynamics of the incident. These independent reports uncover dangerous patterns in local politics requiring attention of civil society, State and Central Government. 

First facts: a local Muslim auto mechanic and his 'friend' photographer from Mina tribe in Sarada are prone to frequent violence. The mechanic's cabin was near the statue of freedom fighter Manikyalal Verma in the market. It was a source of inconvenience and contention. The mechanic is a BJP supporter during elections. The photographer had thrashed the mechanic, reportedly being instigated by an upper caste trader, a BJP activist. The trader was reportedly interested in somehow 'usurping' the plot of the mechanic on which the cabin, burnt during rioting, existed. (Grabbing or buying of properties at throw-away prices from distressed victims after riots is common.) The Muslim ,suspecting trader's conspiracy in getting him beaten up, assaulted him and set his diesel and kerosene shop on fire on 29 July. In the meanwhile, it was remoured that the Muslims had killed some tribal, thereby creating a strong provocation. 

Vehicles were pressed into service to carry people spreading remours, cash and liquor for mobilizing tribals. On 30 July, about 5000 tribals, more as an organized armed group rather than a spontaneous crowd, landed on Muslim basti, looting and setting on fire Muslim shops. A Muslim shrine was damaged; a flourmill and truck were burnt. Reportedly some firing also took place. Hearing this, police reached the site and acted swiftly, saving Muslim houses from arson and looting that some "instigators" had conspired for. The SP, Dr. Ravi Meharda, leading a task force, warned the arsonists to disperse. The mob was unrelenting. Fearing bloodshed and worse, police was forced to open fire. Eight tribal were injured, including some policemen. No casualty occurred. About 21-23 persons, including 14 Muslims, were arrested. But it didn't please the local BJP activists. The diesel trader had some altercation with the SP whom he wanted to act in a particular manner. The SP known for his integrity, stood his ground.

On 31 July the state home minister, elected MLA from Udaipur, visited the village. As was expected from a man with long RSS background, the minister was all ears to the local BJP activists, particularly the diesel trader and his associates. Openly he ignored the Muslim victims: neither he met them nor saw their damaged properties. Emboldened assembled BJP activists shouted slogans in his very presence saying Ab to Modi ban-na hoga (It's time to act like Narendra Modi.) Instead of chastising the shrilling crowd, the minister further obliged them by transferring the SP immediately. Majority of peace-loving Hindus and Muslims resented this. As a strong protest, policemen boycotted food in police mess showing solidarity with an able and intrepid SP. The RSS parivar was jubilant. Between a crucial gap of four days, i.e., relieving of Dr. Meharda and joining of the new SP, hell broke lose on the Muslims, further polarizing the village, a basic philosophy of Hindutva parivar. 

Curfew was clamped for four days. The local police, acting under invisible instructions, tortured innocent Muslims. Only Muslim houses were searched. Even licensed arms were confiscated. Police misbehaved with women who were pushed out of houses. Locks of trunks and boxes were broken and, allegedly, valuables were taken away. Injured, scared Muslims didn't go to hospital for treatment fearing police arrest. Muslims didn't get relief like food, milk, medicines and access to hospitals. Police didn't even register FIRs of aggrieved Muslims. Government Muslim employees felt terrorized. They bleated, "We are more scared of the local police and BJP activists than the tribals." Fearing for their lives, ninety percent of the Muslim households, left the village for shelter in nearby towns of Udaipur, Dungarpur and Kherwara. The diaspora hasn't yet stirred the conscience of the state government. No one has got any compensation. They are mortally afraid to return to the village where communal goons roam under political patronage. 

Ignoring public's right to know the truth, the state home minister didn't make a statement about the riot situation in the state Assembly due to some 'understanding' between Congress opposition and BJP MLAs! According to an opposition MLA, "we didn't insist for the ministerís statement because two tribals had 'serious' injuries and could die. This possibly could have triggered further escalation." Hence, Opposition's silence! This quiet burial appears to be compelled more by consideration of politics of caste votes than by principles of good governance. It gives credence to the widely held perception that, despite avowed policy at top level, when it comes to embedded communalism at grassroots level, there is a little difference, in style and emphasis, between the Congress and BJP workers. 

After the Muslim victims had gone for days through a hell of arrests and torture, some birds started appearing. Members of the State Minority Commission were sent by their chairman when some NGOs and influential citizens from Jaipur pressurized him. However, the significant arrival was of Ashok Gehlot, the former chief minister and Union minister Nomonarain Mina, a former ADG of police in Rajasthan. They found that the story circulated by BJP workers that the Muslims fired from their houses was mischievous, simply because the topography of the place defied such possibility. 

Chief Minister Vasundra Raje didnít visit the site. Representatives of the Peoples' Union for Civil Liberty and Muslim Forum, among others, repeatedly sent fax messages to the chief minister and home minister requesting a meeting. When media generated continuous pressure by dogged and detailed reporting about her inaccessibility to them, the CM finally yielded to meet the Muslim Forum delegation on 13 August, not the PUCL representatives. The impression is that the Forum wasn't sure about her assurance. This was evident from her lifting the ban on trishul, preceded by trishul distribution ceremonies at several places including Udaipur, and even in Jaipur at a few meters distance from Chief Minister's residence. 

Democratic institutions and civil society in Rajasthan are gradually facing resistance from feudal mentality and a communal cabinet. Rajasthan's CM met Forum representatives only after good 13 days and after tens of faxes, while victims felt skewered. Even after two weeks of the riot and several reminders, PUCL didn't get audience with the CM. In peaceful times a Chief Minister may have privilege of extended hours of music, feast, film and cultural evenings. However, when people are facing threat to their lives and property, a sensitive and conscientious CM's first priority ought to be crystal clear. On 3 August, while Muslims were facing police torture and terror and fleeing to other places, the CM had invited ministers, reporters and MLAs for Lakshya film and dinner in elite Entertainment Paradise. Of course, MLAs from Opposition Congress Party also enjoyed the film and feast. The legacy of Niro thrives in a strife ridden backward state of Rajasthan. 

M. Hasan, former professor, Raj. State Inst. of Pub. Admin., Jaipur, may be contacted at irada_india@yahoo.com 

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