Communal violence in Akot: a pre-planned conspiracy
The Milli Gazette Online
Published Online: Dec 13, 2012
A Fact-Finding Committee comprising a professor and some students of Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (MGAHV), social activists and journalists, visited Akot (district Akola in Maharashtra) on 23 November 2012. An incident of communal violence occurred on 23 October in Akot in which four persons were killed and several injured. Twenty two homes of the Muslim community and about 25 shops belonging to both the Hindu and Muslim communities were set ablaze. All the deceased were from lower middle class background.
The pitch for communal violence was laid down on 19 October. There were 65 Durga Puja mandals celebrating the nine-day-long Navratri festival in the whole of Akot town. Every mandal is affiliated to a particular caste-based community, e.g., Mali, Kunbi and Dhobi communities, etc. A Muslim boy inadvertently spitted while passing alongside a mandal belonging to Dhobi and Bhoi communities whose honchos belonged to the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He was accompanied by his friend of same age. The spitting did not even reach closer to the idol but a few droplets of saliva certainly fell down on the curtain. The boy was caught by the mandal workers, was beaten up and held hostage at the venue. A crowd gathered after the ensuing ruckus and a person named Shoaib reached there to understand the goings-on; he intervened to a certain extent and tried to placate the mandal workers. He urged them to consider the age of the boy who was just seven or eight years old. The mandal workers even said that today these people are spitting on the idol, and tomorrow they would do so on our faces. Shoaib, however, managed to settle the matter and free the boy from their clutches.
The news of the incident spread in the surrounding areas after half an hour or so. A person named Aijaz, who is a tailor by profession and whose shop is located close to where the incident occurred, came over to the workers and sought to find out what was it all about. He then returned to his shop.
In another half an hour or so, the police arrived at Aijaz’s shop and enquired about the details like name and address of the boy. Aijaz was aware of the incident but had no idea who those kids were they. Hence he expressed his ignorance to the police, who then went back. The police returned after half an hour and started interrogating Aijaz again. When Aijaz expressed his ignorance this time as well, the police took him to the Akot police station. Meanwhile, Sanjay Gawande, Akot’s sitting Shiv Sena MLA, arrived at the police station accompanied by around 250-300 followers belonging to Bajrang Dal, VHP and an organization called Chhava (cub) and soon sloganeering started. Heated altercation took place between the crowd and the local police officers. Yielding to the pressure put by the MLA and his followers that ‘the kids should be rounded up’, the police started beating Aijaz with broad belt (popularly known as “Bajirao belt” in police lingo). Due to mounting pressure, the police brought Shoaib to the police station and he revealed the names and addresses of the boys involved. The police lost no time in rounding up the kids along with their fathers at the police station.
Looking at their age, on-duty senior police officers said that these kids themselves are ‘Bhagwan ka roop’ and they would certainly have spitted inadvertently and not deliberately. The MLA too slackened down looking at the kids but opened a new ploy at once that the kids may be innocent but the real mastermind is someone else and the police must nab the real culprit who has committed sacrilege towards the Durga idol. After this, the MLA and his followers retreated. The police kept Shoaib and Aijaz in their custody for whole of that night booking them under section 107. Both of them were released on bail the next morning. That Shoaib had helped settle the matter and Aijaz had reached the venue to understand what had happened turned out to be their sole crime. Thus two completely innocent individuals were made scapegoats to appease the ‘feelings’ of the Shiv Sena MLA and the people belonging to the Hindu communal organizations. This, however, was the turn of events on 19 October after which the issue died down and peace prevailed despite which the Muslim community remained terrified to a large extent.Political circumstances
The polling for the by-election for one seat of the municipal council in Akot town took place on 21 October. There are, in all, 31 seats in the Akot Municipal Council for which the elections were held in December 2011. Shiv Sena and BJP had managed to grab two seats apiece. The winner from one of those seats was Shiv Sena candidate Jyoti Manoj Raghuvanshi, wife of Manoj Raghuvanshi, from Ward No 5. The Congress candidate, a Muslim woman, who lost the election, challenged the election of Manoj Raghuvanshi’s wife in the court. The basis for the challenge was that Jyoti Manoj Raghuvanshi has more than two children (a state law in Maharashtra debars those who have a third child born after 2001 from contesting in any public election). The Congress candidate’s challenge was not misplaced and upon investigation the allegation was found to be true, so the election was nullified. Now the contest this time was between Shiv Sena candidate Manisha Rahul Raghuvanshi, who also belongs to Manoj Raghuvanshi’s family, and Congress candidate Salma Nishat. When the results were declared, Congress won the seat.
Shiv Sena candidates have emerged as winners in four out of five Assembly elections since 1989 and the elections for Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly are due in 2014. Shiv Sena’s sitting MLA Sanjay Gawande has become fairly unpopular during the last three years of his tenure. The outcome of the Municipal Council elections last year, in which Shiv Sena could manage only two seats out of 31, was a testimony to his unpopularity. Sanjay Gawande’s unpopularity was again the reason behind Shiv Sena’s defeat in the recent by-election.
Following the 19 October incident, the rumour was rife in the town that the Muslims will commit some kind of mischief during the procession for the idol immersion. For example, the rumour even had it that the Muslims have gathered a plethora of stones which would be hurled at the idol during the immersion. Communal organizations, local shopkeepers and petty traders together played a major role in running the rumour mill.
The idol immersion was scheduled for 23 October. A procession was planned where hundreds of people where going to take part. The administration had made strict arrangements for the day. Wherever there was a mosque or a Muslim settlement on the course of the procession, barricading arrangements were made and troops were deployed in large numbers.
People were moving in a procession for the idol immersion programme. Suddenly, exactly at the place where the incident of spitting had occurred, workers of a mandal started saying that a stone was hurled and it struck them. Police started looking around at once but there was no stone hurled from anywhere and the procession was made to move ahead. But the news of “stone pelting” spread like a wildfire and stampede of sorts occurred, but the police brought the situation totally under control. Members of the Fact-Finding Committee tried to find out from senior police officers whether really any stone was pelted or any stoning happened, to which they replied in the negative mentioning that it was just a rumour.
While the idol immersion was still on, around 7-8 pm rioters attacked a dingy settlement on the outskirts of the town called “Barde Plot” mostly inhabited by Muslim and Bari communities. The rioters set 22(1) houses on fire and killed two persons. The rioters killed an 80-year-old paralytic man Haji Mohammed Yasin who could not run to save his life. His 75-year-old wife Zulekha Bi, who tried to save him, was attacked by a sharp weapon on her leg and an iron rod was also used to attack her. She was grievously injured in the attack and was admitted to Akola civil hospital in an unconscious state. A 16-year-old boy Mohammed Zafaruddin, who had just returned from day’s work, was also killed by the rioters. Victims informed the Fact-Finding Committee that the rioters were carrying burning torches, iron pipes, swords and kerosene cans. The Fact-Finding Committee recovered small bottles from gutted houses of Muslims which, filled with chemicals, were used to hurl at each house. The rioters had prepared for their act well in advance.
The police reached the venue after a short while and tried to bring the situation under control. The Hindu communal elements now attacked the police in retaliation in which the police personnel suffered injuries. Communal elements tried to stop the fire brigade vehicle from entering the area where the rioters had set Muslim houses on fire.
According to the police, one of the assailants, a 23- year-old man Yogesh Mahadevrao Nakhate who had entered too deep in the Muslim settlement also got killed. In the retaliatory action from Muslims next morning, an 82-year-old man Manohar Rao Budhe from the Kasar community was killed. At six o’ clock in the evening on 24 October, while curfew was in effect, nine scrap shops(2), out of which eight were owned by Muslims and one by a Hindu, were put on fire; five shops owned by Muslims and nine shops owned by Hindus were set ablaze in the vegetable market(3). The police have so far arrested around 50 people each from both communities booking them under various sections.
When the members of the Fact-Finding Committee met victims and enquired about the identity of the assailants, it emerged that most of them belonged to Bari community (Hindu OBC) and were outsiders. The Bari community is singularly involved in production of betel leaves in the district of Akola. A major portion of the community still belongs to lower-middle class and lack of education is widely prevalent among them. Late Mahadevrao Bodke, an influential leader of the community, belonged to the RSS. The city head of Bajrang Dal, Gajanan Makode, Shiv Sena city chief Anant Meshan and persons occupying important posts in other communal organizations all come from the Bari community. The Bari community as a whole is a traditional supporter of Shiv Sena. The Bari and Muslim communities live side by side and their settlements are adjacent to each other in the area where riots started. A communal incident occurred right in the middle of a busy marketplace in 1999 leading to stampede in which an 80-85-year-old elderly person from the Bari community died. The communal organizations gave a political tinge to this incident. It helped the communal organizationsin communally radicalize the whole Bari community which was used as an instrument against the Muslims to further their communal agenda in the recent riots as well.
The Fact-Finding Committee met members of the Hindu community and tried to figure out reasons behind the incident and their mindset during the course of riots. It turned out that not a single person has concrete and realistic information, yet the whole community considers Muslims to be responsible for the incident. For example, “the idol of goddess was desecrated deliberately”, “stones were hurled at the idol”, and “the Muslims were the first to strike” etc. During the course of conversation, the Fact-Finding Committee came to know that Muslim youth were arrested for being associated with SIMI at both Akola and Akot but a majority of them have been acquitted. Yet the arrests of the youth for being associated with SIMI and alleged terror network helped a great deal to spread the rumour among Hindu masses that SIMI operatives are behind the recent riots too. Overall, the Hindu communal elements have utilized the SIMI phenomenon handsomely and carried out communal polarization of the society as a whole. Most of the Hindus were found to harbour the traditional image of Muslims which the RSS stands for.
The Hindu communal organizations are trying hard to fuel communal tension which was created in the aftermath of Babri Masjid’s demolition. They have greatly extended their mass base in this area. In Akot Taluka alone, 400 cadres of RSS, 150 of VHP, 200 of Bajrang Dal, 100 of Chhava organization, 150 of Maratha Mahasangh are primarily active in furthering their communal agenda by unconstitutional means. Besides, organizations like Shiv Sena, BJP and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) too, which are active under electoral politics, have an adequate mass base.
Shiv Sena’s social base lies among the other backward classes in whole of Maharashtra. From the beginning, the Maratha community has been dominant in Congress all over the state. After independence, the Congress’ policies denied any space to the backward classes. Shiv Sena was the first party to grant that space in politics to the OBCs. Chhagan Bhujbal, who started his career with Shiv Sena and switched over to Congress and belongs to Mali community, has publicly acknowledged that he owes his current position to none other than Bal Thackeray.
A professor from the Degree College in Akot told the Fact-Finding Committee that the communal organizations have greatly strengthened their position in all the areas of the region where Muslims are in sizeable proportion and situations of communal tension are created in a well-planned manner. The communal organizations put forth the argument to Hindu community that if Hindus fail to unite, the Muslims would have an upper hand.
This phenomenon of the Hindu communal organizations often creating the situations of communal tension wherever Muslim population is proportionally higher is visible all across the country.
The Fact-Finding Committee conversed with Muslim community, its leaders, victims and also with common Muslim citizens. The fact that the Muslim community is deeply terrorized came to fore during the course of these conversations. The Shiv Sena MLA Sanjay Gawande and his followers have been booked under a few lighter sections for gheraoing the police station. Neither the government nor the police have taken any strict action against him or his followers for their role in scripting the prologue to the riots. The Muslim community has now all the more retreated into its shell. The role that secular polity was expected to play in such a situation seems to be lacking in Maharashtra. The Congress party has formed Hanuman Sena to counter the communal forces in the region. [Hindi Daily Dainik Bhaskar carried a story on 24th October under the heading ‘Hanuman Sena causes political stir’ – As a parallel organization to Bajrang Dal, Hanuman Sena can cause heartburn for the BJP. The relationship between the Shiv Sena and the BJP is getting soured day by day. In the light of this, it is believed that Shiv Sena can cause damage to the BJP in certain affairs by using Hanuman Sena as armour. The possibility of Bajrang Dal activists switching their allegiance is closely watched. The formation of Hanuman Sena was announced in Nagpur two days ago. Former Minister Satish Chaturvedi announced in the presence of Rajendra Mulak, State Minister for Finance & Energy and Shiv Sena District Chief Shekhar Sawarbandhe that the Hanuman Sena would be taking an aggressive role over developmental issues… But it’s being said that Hanuman Sena has been organized with an objective of creating an alternative for Congress in which Bajrang Dal activists can also be accommodated besides the Shiv Sainiks… These organizations have been helpful towards BJP so far, but discontent is simmering in both the organizations for some time now. …Bajrang Dal activists complain that they are being restrained from their active work in the name of discipline. Their position in the BJP circles is on decline. It’s being said that a few disgruntled activists themselves have sent sms to Bajrang Dal activists urging them to join Hanuman Sena].
In such a scenario, religious organizations have taken a lead in relief work in terms of providing legal and financial assistance to the arrested. In the wake of this, there is an increased scope for various Islamic organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami, Ahl-e-Hadees, Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat, and Tablighi Jamaat who work towards propagation of Islam.
Women have been the worst sufferers due to Muslim community’s retreat into its shell. For example, only those women can step out of their homes who do not have any male members in the family. Educational opportunities have also been reduced considerably for Muslim women. People informed the Fact-Finding Committee that until around 20 years ago, Muslim women would go to movie theaters but it stopped once the streak of riots started. Overall, the movements of the Muslim women have been severely restricted from the 1990s itself.
In the Akot riots, petty shopkeepers and traders played a major role in rumor mongering. All over the country, the traders and shopkeepers involved in the retail sector are feeling a sense of insecurity due to the impending FDI in retail as per the new economic policies. This feeling of insecurity among petty shopkeepers and traders was capitalized by communal organizations in a way that the political forces like BJP, Shiv Sena, and MNS only can safeguard their interests, and in so doing these organizations took their communal agenda to these sections. While Congress is eager to implement FDI in retail at both the Centre and state levels, BJP is against FDI in retail just because it is in opposition at both the places. Shiv Sena and MNS are supporting the FDI in retail on a condition that companies like Walmart should only employ the ‘Marathi Manus’.
Vidarbha has seen the largest number of farm suicides than any other part of the country. The agrarian crisis has deepened further due to neo-liberal economic policies. A large portion of Vidarbha has been witness to communal tension after the decade of 1990s in some way or the other. The communal forces have strengthened their base in a few areas of Akola, Buldhana (Khamgaon), Amravati, and Yavatmal districts. There is no industrial development worth its name in the whole region. Barring cities like Mumbai, Nasik, Aurangabad, Pune and Thane, agriculture plays a major role in the economies of most of the districts in Maharashtra.
Upon hearing of riots taking place somewhere in Maharashtra, one gets befuddled that it’s an industrially advanced region. But a majority of this region is still reeling under pre-industrial stage. Due to extensive cotton growing in Vidarbha, textile mills were set up in Akola and almost all other districts. All of them have completely shut down their operations now. Due to abundant supply of water and coal in a few areas of Vidarbha like Nagpur, Wardha and Chandrapur, power plants are being set up for power generation so that more power can be transmitted to those areas of the region where industrial production is taking place on a large scale.
Ranjan Kawande (lecturer) and Ayub Miyan Deshmukh informed the Fact-Finding Committee of a temple in Akot which, for its maintenance, had received financial assistance from the Hyderabad ruler Nizam. Not just Akot — in fact, the Nizam was first to offer financial assistance for establishing Sri Shivaji Education Society in Amravati. In the same way, the Nizam extended financial help for constructing a Gurudwara in Nanded. The financial assistance provided by a Muslim ruler to the temples, Gurudwaras and an education society run by Hindus could have been a stellar example of communal harmony, but in the 1990s, when new economic policies come into effect and it was said that Market will function according to its own rules and the State will not interfere in its affairs. But, on the other hand, the State or the polity consistently forms an alliance with religion (communalism). All of this culminates in the form of communal violence in Akot and all other places in the country.