New Delhi: Several incidents of pillaging and arson allegedly committed by Hindutva groups have come to the fore in the coastal Odisha town of Bhadrak. According to reports from the region, violence escalated in the aftermath of communal tension between Hindus and Muslims triggered by a Ram Navami procession on April 5.
While there has been no direct clash between Muslims and Hindus, large-scale destruction of property over the last two days, the imposition of Section 144 (that prohibits any assembly of more than four people) has ushered in a sense of foreboding among the residents. Markets have been shut since then and offices remain closed.
According to Alok Barik, a reporter with the Odia daily Dharitri, the communal tension surfaced a day after the procession when Hindutva groups – primarily the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal – sought police action against those who had allegedly circulated blasphemous social media messages against Hindu deities Ram, Sita and Hanuman.
The derogatory comments, the Hindutva activists alleged, were posted on Facebook by three Muslim youth in response to a Bajrang Dal activist Ajit Kumar Padhihari’s post, which hailed Ram.
However, even before the police started to act on the matter, a rumour that a few Muslim men had set a shop owned by a Hindu ablaze triggered a cycle of rioting by Hindutva mobs at various commercial areas of Bhadrak.
“The mob singled out shops owned by Muslims and burnt them down,” said Tapan Mishra, a reporter in Bhadrak.
Following the first cycle of violence, the police constituted a peace committee comprising administrative officials and members of both religious communities. However, the first meeting remained polarised on religious lines, with Muslim members denying any involvement in the riots and Hindu members demanding the police arrest the three Muslim men who had allegedly posted the derogatory comments.
Minutes after the meeting, the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists, who had quickly formed a group called the Hindu Suraksha Samiti after the first cycle of violence, alleged that some Muslim men who were not part of the meeting had gathered outside the police station and shouted slogans of “Pakistan Zindabad”.
This became the tipping point for the second cycle of reactionary violence. Minutes after the meeting failed, the Hindutva activists took out a large bike rally to assert their dominance in the town. They then dispersed into various groups and indulged in large-scale destruction of commercial properties owned by Muslims. They also set ablaze police patrol vehicles. This led to the imposition of curfew in Bhadrak.
A mid-level police official, who refused to be named, told The Wire that the police was seriously looking into the sensitive matter but before they could even begin investigating, the riots broke out. “Before we make arrests in such cases, we try to verify whether the social media accounts are fake or genuine. If they are found to be genuine, we look for those people and arrest them for violating the Information Technology Act. But none of this happened as the riots started on the same day when the complaint was filed. We got no time,” he said.
The official could not confirm whether the rumour of Muslims burning down a shop owned by a Hindu after the procession was true or not. Nor could he confirm whether “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans were raised. “We did not receive any official complaint of arson from any Hindu shop owner on April 6 or 7,” he said.
Currently, Bhadrak has been put under an indefinite curfew. The police claims that it has managed to control the volatile situation as of now.
The turn of events has led to suspicions that the riots may well have been premeditated. Ram Navami and Muharram processions have often led to communal tensions in northern and eastern India. In the last six months, Bengal, too, has become a volatile ground for communal rioting.
Recent images of children carrying swords and javelins during Ram Navami processions in eastern India indicate a militant turn among Hindutva forces, who are often the primary organisers of such rallies. The residents of Bhadrak too noticed the unprecedentedly aggressive Ram Navami procession this year, with clearly militant symbolism.
Odisha goes for assembly polls in 2019. In the recently-held panchayat elections, the BJP made impressive gains. With a failing Congress, the saffron party hopes to unseat the three-time consecutive chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his party, the Biju Janata Dal in the next elections.
Political commentators are of the view that in such a political context, communal polarisation will only help Hindutva forces and their electoral front, the BJP, in expanding their base. Muslims in Odisha make up only 2% of the population. However, they constitute around 35% in Bhadrak. And that makes the town volatile ground for communal violence.
The last time Bhadrak saw a riot was in 1991, also during Ram Navami, when members of the procession had a tussle with a Muslim man passing by. In all these years, no significant communal incident has been reported. However, as elections draw closer, incidents in Bhadrak can soon become a motif for religious polarisation in the state.