Mass anti-Muslim violence under Delhi’s nose

The swift and savage attack on Atali Muslims confirms the latest trend in technique, administration’s lapses as usual, and misery of victims, reports Bilal Bhat from ground zero.

Atali, Ballabgarh:  About 40 km from New Delhi, Muslim quarters of this village in Haryana look like a war-ravaged ghost town, with desolate streets, debris all around and abandoned, ransacked homes. The village had been home to over 500 Muslims till 25 May when a frenzied mob of Jats attacked the neighbourhood.  The stated “cause” of the brutal attack was a mosque being constructed at the centre of the village, next to a small temple and the village pond. The mosque bore the scars of the attack - its newly constructed walls and scaffolding were damaged, partially burnt and a stone plaque bearing its name blackened with soot.

Scene in Atali after the riot

Riot victims recounted that around 5.30 pm on 25 May, a mob of Jats attacked the Muslim neighbourhood, ransacking and burning dozens of houses. The mob rampaged through the village, attacking Muslims and setting their vehicles and houses on fire.

Atali Muslims in Ballabgarh police station

“We were offering namaz in the mosque. There was a huge noise. A mob with bricks, sticks and swords was approaching us. They showered bricks on us. We ran for our lives, but to no avail, as the large mob confronted us. They caught hold of us and started beating us. I could see blood oozing from victim’s wounds. They attacked us with sticks and swords,” said Shabir Ali, who was injured in the attack.  

“The attackers’ faces were covered, but I identified one of my neighbours rioting. This happened in front of police who were deployed in the village on the orders of the district magistrate to oversee the construction of the mosque. But, they left us to die and fled from the spot,” lamented another survivor.   

The new mosque was being built to replace the small, 60-year old mosque, which had become insufficient for larger congregations like Friday prayers. Their forefathers had settled here 400 years ago and they had been praying here since even before the small mosque was built on Waqf Board land, one elderly Muslim said. 

In 2009, before the previous sarpanch elections, Jat and Pandit villagers filed a case in the chief judicial magistrate’s court praying for an order restraining the construction of a larger mosque. The mosque’s pillars had been erected by then, but further construction was stopped. Later, when the court ruled against the petitioners, a second petition was filed before the sub-divisional magistrate questioning whether the land belonged to the panchayat or the Waqf Board. The sub-divisional magistrate gave a decision last March clarifying the land belonged to the Waqf Board.

“We wanted to built a larger mosque, but Hindus started objecting to it. They built a temple on the Waqf land just opposite the mosque. We never opposed it. About 10 years ago they started opposing the renovation of the mosque and obtained a stay on the work. We won the case finally. We had waited all these years for court verdict to construct the mosque. Only after the court verdict we started construction, “ said Muhammad Ikhlas, one of the villagers.   

The better built homes, decorated with Islamic motifs, were targeted for maximum destruction, while homes without Islamic markings were not harmed, revealing a deeper agenda. The area reeked of charred wood as half-burnt pages of scripture flapped around amid abandoned utensils, household goods and decaying cooked food.

 Police personnel guarding the village claimed it was a “small affair”, unduly politicised. A 75-year old farmer, Hassan Mohammad, was attacked with axes, two days after the first bout of rioting that had left at least 15 people injured. This attack took place in presence of police and security forces supposedly keeping a “tight vigil”. These seriously wounded victims with extensive burns and cuts, including Hasan, were admitted to Hospital, Faridabad.  

About 13 km from the village, the riot-hit families were camping in a make-shift tent in front of Ballabhgarh police station. Under a scorching sun men sat in groups on a lawn at the entrance of the police station. A little away, about a hundred women and children sat on a rug spread on the asphalt, with a thin cloth tent sheltering them from the sun. Children, many still in the school uniforms they were wearing three days ago, huddled around the women. In one corner, there was a small heap of bananas and plastic pouches of drinking water provided by social activists.

Victims recounted that it was a neatly planned and executed attack. Parveen, a woman in her mid-20s, said “On seeing the terrifying mob, I rushed inside my home and locked the doors. While peeping through the window, I saw men carrying gas cylinders and petrol bombs. After setting vehicles on fire, they broke window panes and threw petrol bombs inside to burn us alive.”

On May 26, when officials suggested shifting them to the village school while their houses were repaired, the victims refused to move in. “The Jats are keeping a watch. They will trap us inside the school and attack us again,” said Hashmat Ali.  

Young men in the village were providing water and juice to the policemen and the anti-riot force. We were stopped at many places. “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” This is what we generally heard from security forces. A group of men menacingly questioned our presence. Luckily, we managed to avoid an ugly situation.

Some Hindus felt the pain of the violence, but they could do nothing except helplessly watching the incident. Somesh Sharma, a 40-year-old shopkeeper, whose shop is situated opposite a damaged Muslim house narrated:  
 “Whatever happened was wrong. From my childhood, I have grown up with Muslims. Muslims in the village used to take part in our festivals. We would celebrate Raksha Bandhan together. We lived like one family attending marriage ceremonies of each other. Vote and religious politics have created this problem. Locals said this problem began at the time of last sarpanch elections. As the next sarpanch elections are approaching, this issue has been raised again.”  

In conversations with this reporter, most Hindu villagers had a similar narrative. Naval Kishore, in his early 20s, told this reporter, “Since childhood I have heard from my elders that these people have come from outside. When their population in the village grew, their demands also increased. They kept asking for a graveyard. Then they made a temporary shed where they used to offer prayers. We told them not to construct a mosque on it as it belongs to our ancestors. They ignored our warnings. Tension rose when they started to construct the mosque. People from different villages assembled in the mandir.  They decided to organise a shanti march to convince them to stop their work. The first attack in the form of stone pelting came from our side. They also retaliated. And that’s how things turned ugly”.    

The two Muslim households that were among the most well off in the village suffered maximum losses - the families of Haji Sabir Ali who owns a pump business and works as a contractor with the Electricity Board, and that of his relative Ishaq Khan. Their property was completely gutted, including several air conditioners and three of Ali’s cars. “They were Faqirs, they used to beg and starve. Now, it seems they have become contractors,” Hindu villagers surrounding this reporter taunted. 
Genesis of the conflict

The Hindu villagers said a small Muslim shrine stood on the spot in the past. After the Mumbai riots in 1992-1993, a place of worship of Muslims at the same spot was burned by the Jats. Muslims in the area reconstructed it.  

During the 2010 panchayat elections, the construction of a new mosque became a point of contention between the Jat and Muslim community in Atali. Most villagers spoke of the 2010 events in the context of the panchayat elections due again next August. “The Muslims have almost 400 votes,” said Yusuf Khan, a riot victim in the camp. “In the forthcoming election, both candidates know that this vote matters in a population of 3,000.” Both candidates in the forthcoming sarpanch election are Jats – Rajesh Chaudhary and Prahlad Singh – the same as the last time. Villagers said that though Prahlad Singh had supported the construction of the mosque in the previous election, this year he was opposing it.

“This mosque has existed for at least 60 years. It is there in all revenue records and this land belongs to the Wakf Board,” Yusuf asserted.

The victims alleged police complicity. Naimuddin, 36, one of the three men admitted to the BK Hospital has serious injuries on his face, hands and body. He was working on the mosque when the riots erupted.  Speaking with difficulty, he recalled the incident: “I saw a mob approaching us. I was laying the roof when these men climbed up. I tried hiding from them. At that moment I heard the local policemen and the SHO talking to the rioters. “Tumharay paas do ghantay ka wakat hai, jo karna hai karo” (You have two hours time. Do as you wish), the SHO said and, along with other policemen, left the spot.”      

Government’s callous attitude
Eyewitnesses named and identified about 20 culprits who were involved in instigating violence. Yet, no one had been arrested so far. The administration had another take.

“We have started investigation. So far we have identified some of the culprits. FIR has been registered against them and soon they are going to be nabbed. Law will take its course. It is a bit time-consuming process. People have to cooperate with us”, said Dr Priyanka Soni, SDM Ballabgarh. Then she talked about a compromise being worked out: “We are busy with the reconciliation process. We are trying to bring the two communities together. So far two meetings have failed to achieve any result. We are also working on the relief process”.

The riot victims huddled in the camp alleged the government was shielding the culprits. They also blamed the administration for its tardy relief.

(Editor’s Note: Most of the victims had been brought home by the administration following a compromise early in the first week of June.) 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2015 on page no. 1

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