Bhagalpur Riots, 25 years later

By Dr. Suresh Khairnar

The communal riot which started in Bhagalpur on 24 October, 1989, is now completing its 25th year. After 1947, this was the biggest Hindu-Muslim riot. Bhagalpur had witnessed Hindu-Muslim riots even earlier -- in 1924, 1936, 1946 and 1966. But all of them were limited to a few lanes and mohallas in city areas and the administration succeeded in quickly containing them.

Decaying corpses on street

The 1946 and 1966 riots were controlled by the district administration within a few hours. But the story of 1989 riot is completely different. The communal situation in Bhagalpur had started deteriorating from 1983 due to some reason or the other in which anti-social elements of both communities, some people from educated classes of both communities and politicians from all parties were active. The beginning was made by the publication of a book named “Boya ped babool ka” written by Professor Dhanpati Pande in which derogatory comments were made against Hazrat Muhammad which incited Muslim feelings. The Patna court judgment in favour of the book further vitiated the communal atmosphere and a Muslim youth fired a shot at the Patna court judge which missed him, but the youth was caught and a case was filed against him. This incident communally charged the atmosphere in Bhagalpur.

Muslim males being rounded up by police

In 1986, Ram-Janki Rath was taken out in the city of Bhagalpur by VHP and RSS. Permission to take the Rath Yatra through Muslim areas was not given which infuriated RSS and VHP. The permission to take out the procession for the immersion of Goddess Durga through Muslim areas of Tatarpur was similarly declined but the procession was nevertheless taken out through Muslim areas from 1987 onwards which increased communal tension.

In April 1989, a similar procession of Ramnavami was taken out by Hindus of Parvati through the Muslim areas of Tatarpur in spite of decline of permission by the administration. This also added fuel to the communal fire.

There was police action during this incident and some people were arrested from both the communities but the Hindus were soon released at the behest of the SP which again infuriated the Muslim community.

On 12 August, 1989 disputes were created on the occasions of Muharram and Vishari Puja. The partial attitude shown by the administration in favour of Hindus again instigated Muslim feelings and they decided not to take out Muharram procession as a protest.

Vishari Puja, which was never held on a huge scale before, was now planned by RSS and VHP in August 1989. The administration knowingly did not pay any attention to these preparations, thus creating the grounds for the October riots. The continued negligence of these developments by the administration and even by the so-called “secular forces” led to the riots of October 1989.

On 24 October, time for Shilapuja had arrived, the preparation for which was going on since August 1989 by VHP. Bihar was a Congress-ruled state at that time and the chief minister was S.N Sinha. He had given orders to the administration to maintain peace and order. A meeting of peace committee was called in which Muslims objected to the procession being taking out through Muslim areas, but the administration assured the Muslims that only 50 people would participate in this procession and there would be no slogan shouting. These assurances proved wrong.

On 22 October, thousands of people participated in the procession during which many objectionable slogans were raised. The intensity of slogan shouting increased when the procession reached Fatehpur, a Muslim majority area. A bomb exploded as a result of which people started running helter skelter. Stone-throwing followed on a large scale and shops were  looted. All this happened in the presence of SP and DM.

The news spread like wildfire in the city creating an atmosphere of fear all around. Children were taken away from schools, shutters of shops were downed.

Although orders were issued since 19 October to deploy police in sensitive areas, but the orders were never implemented. No actions were taken against police officials for dereliction of duty.

By 24 October, an atmosphere of fear had engulfed the town. Muslims started to gather at Tatarpur Chowk. A huge Shilapuja procession was coming to this chowk shouting filthy slogans against Muslims.

Muslims requested the administration to stop the procession but the request was turned down. People indulged in stone-pelting and the procession was disrupted which by now had entered Shujaganj Bazar and had started looting Muslim shops.

All this happened in front of policemen who remained mere spectators. Subsequently riots spread to all over the city in which Muslims were targeted. Those who could not escape were massacred. At Parvati, 18 Muslims were killed and the dead bodies were dumped in wells. A series of rumour mongering started.(1) A rumour spread in the city claiming that the SP had been killed, (2), another claimed that 400 Hindu students from Bhagalpur University staying in hostels run by Muslims were killed. Yet another rumour claimed that College students of Bhagalpur women’s college have been raped. These rumours were spread systematically by young swayamsevaks riding motorcycles in rural areas (3).  

These rumours helped spread riots throughout the city and adjoining districts of Munger, Sahabganj, Dumka and Godda etc. All this while the administration remained quiet doing nothing to stop the rumours.

On 25 October, at Mujahidpur, Mararpur and Nathnagar railway stations, hundreds of Muslims trying to escape Bhagalpur were looted and killed, reminding of Partition days. On the same day police officers instigated their new recruits to attack and ransack Muslim homes in Bhikanpur in which two people (both government employees from the minority community) were killed. Now, about 50 people were arrested and sent to jail on charges of participating in the Tatarpur incidents of 24 October. Cases were filed against the Muslims of Bhikanpur that they wanted to loot arms and ammunitions from police stations and that, therefore, police had fired in self-defence in which two Muslims were killed. The wives of the two Muslims killed approached the police but FIR was not lodged. 

Thereafter, they approached court and only after the court order an FIR was filed. A CID enquiry found the police guilty and the police officers were charge-sheeted.

Entire Bhagalpur was engulfed by communal riots by 24 October in which hundreds died, and innumerable properties were burnt but police did not do anything to stop the riots. Rather many of them were themselves involved in the riots. SP and DM were transferred by the chief minister. In place of SP Dwivedi, Ajit Dutt was ordered to join Bhagalpur as DIG with the additional charge of SP. The transfer of Dwivedi incited the Police force of Bhagalpur and they started shouting “Ajit Dutt, go back”.

On the same day, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Bhagalpur but he was detained at the airport by the rioters and police force demanding cancellation of Dwivedi’s transfer. The mob did not allow the prime minister to visit the riot-affected areas. The prime minister returned to Delhi after visiting the injured in a hospital.

After this incident, the morale of the rioters as well as the rebellious policemen rose to a high pitch and helped intensify the riots after 26 October. Riots spread to more areas. Nathnagar, Madninagar Sahabganj, Miantoli (Girjaghar), Jogsar, Naya Bazaar, Khanjarpur, Chanderi Logai. Nurpur, Bhatodia under Nathnagar kotwali, Sabbor, Jagdishpur police stations witnessed most deadly riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed, their homes and looms looted and burnt with the help of the police and local administration. After this, more outlying areas like Rajjon, Amarpur, Banka, Sahabganj and Godda thanas were affected.

Riots continued for over a month. Even after one month, small incidents continued for another six months. Muslims who alighted from trains at odd hours could not reach their homes. Rickshawallas refused to carry Muslim passengers. Muslim passengers started avoiding Hindu rickshawpullers while Hindu passengers avoided boarding Muslim rickshaws. The entire business establishment including medical services were vitiated for months together.

The Bhagalpur pogrom against the Muslim community paved the way for a series of political riots in India which continue till today - the largest being the Gujarat riot of 2002 in which the Muslim community was targeted in a well-organised pogrom by Hindu communal fascist forces killing more than a thousand (unofficially 3000) people and destroying homes and properties of thousands of Muslims.

The 25th anniversary of Bhagalpur communal riot has arrived at a time of triumph for the very same communal fascist forces which have engineered large-scale political riots in pre- as well as post-Independence India and have now installed themselves in seats of political power at the Centre as well as in many Indian states through the very process of parliamentary democracy that the secularists have always lauded as the most fair and just in the entire world.

These so-called secular forces are not likely to learn any lessons from their defeat and are likely to continue with the same discredited politics of status quo.

However, for genuine secular democratic and revolutionary forces this is certainly a time for reflection and a time to rethink their entire perspective on secularism. Those who have considered themselves as secularists and democratic have always believed that there is nothing wrong basically with the existing economic and political system in India, although it needs reforms to make it perfect. They also believe that the administration, Police, armed forces and the judiciary are true guardians of secularism and democracy, although some politicians and a few people in the administration, police, army and judiciary are communal as well as corrupt. If only the corrupt inefficient communal people running the police and administration are replaced with honest secular people and some reforms are introduced to make them more efficient, everything would be alright and India would become a paradise of secularism. However, if we think hard we would come to realize that establishing a truly secular and human society is not as simple as that.

On this occasion of the 25th anniversary of Bhagalpur communal pogrom, which is an extremely painful event in the history of India, the questions we should ponder over are

(1) How the communal, fascist, rightwing Hindu nationalist forces could install themselves at the helm of power if the basic fabric of our society is really secular as claimed by the “secularists”.

 (2) Are the political parties which claim themselves to be secular really so? Is it possible for any political party to remain secular in the arena of the existing parliamentary democracy where money, religion, caste and community play most crucial role? What kind of a democratic system do we need for the establishment of a truly secular and human society?
(3) Can “Sarva Dharma Samabhav” based on encouraging religious fundamentalism, bigotry and irrational superstition be the true basis of secularism?

(4) Can we establish a truly secular society, keeping intact the existing economic system based on exploitation of the working class, women and people of lower castes -- a system whose only motto is accumulation of more and more capital and profit for more and more exploitation of the oppressed and the weak?

(5) Are only communal elements in police and administration responsible for the riots and communal pogroms against Muslims and other minorities, or is it a deeply communalised society at all levels which is responsible for the recurrent occurrence of these riots? If our society and the masses are afflicted with the disease of communalism, casteism and hostility towards women how should we address this reality in order to establish a truly secular society?

These questions need to be taken up seriously on this occasion in our discourses on secularism. If we continue to hold on to our naïve beliefs about the existing economic, social and political system as an ideal for establishing secularism and do not think and act deeply on how to bring about a truly secular, democratic and inclusive society free from economic exploitation, casteism, communalism and based on true equality between men and women, then we are doomed to a grand failure and in that scenario no one can stop the onward march of the fascist, communal, ultra-nationalist forces to establish a dictatorial regime in which all the questions of human freedoms would recede into the background.

The choice is ours. Let’s take a conscious decision on our course of action on this occasion of 25th anniversary of Bhagalpur communal riots.

A three-day event is being organized at Bhagalpur during 7-9 November to discuss these issues.

For more information, contact Rahul (09570320225) and Uday (09431873219).
Dr Khairnar may be contacted at