Kasganj: The Anatomy of a Communal Riot

Anti-Muslim sentiment precipitated by the riot may help the BJP diffuse caste contradictions in central Uttar Pradesh and challenge Yadav dominance at the grassroots.

Shops owned by Muslims seen after the riots. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Shops owned by Muslims seen after the riots. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Kasganj (Uttar Pradesh): There is an uneasy calm in Kasganj, a small district town in the western fringe of central Uttar Pradesh. The town witnessed an unprecedented communal riot on January 26. Although only one person was killed, many were left physically injured and mentally scarred. While the social fabric seems almost irreparably torn, with Hindus and Muslims in the area facing their worst-ever trust deficit, it is the local economy that lies shattered.

Since the day the riot broke out, the bustling markets have mostly remained shut, crippling the largely Hindu-dominated trade. A majority of large Muslim shops have been looted and burnt down, forcing their owners to stay indoors. The few Muslim businessmen and workers who escaped the riot have not ventured out as they are too scared to be noticed in a still communally-sensitive Kasganj market.

Despite its 25,000-strong Muslim population, the social and political alienation of the minority community lends a dystopian look to what was once a vibrant commercial small town. The so-called border between Hindu and Muslim areas is now as distinct as it can be. Although religious friction has existed in Kasganj, just like most other small towns in north India, it has acquired a political dimension over the last few years.

“In the last few elections, the Hindus, across caste groups, started to consolidate under the umbrella of the Sangh parivar. The saffron groups appealed to the Hindus and ignored the Muslims entirely. This mode of campaign cemented the lines between the two communities. The Hindus started to become aggressively jingoistic and Muslims, in response, felt the need to prove their patriotism on every occasion,” said Madih Sherwani, a former Aligarh Muslim University professor.

He said that despite such polarising campaigns, the two communities remained mutually dependent due to trade linkages. “These connections,” Sherwani said, “have managed to somehow keep the social fabric intact.” Following the altercation between Hindu and Muslim youths on January 26, what Kasganj has been witnessing is a systematic obliteration of these symbiotic economic arrangements.

The unfolding of the riot

As the spat broke out on Republic Day, a section of the television media went into overdrive to report the incident as one in which Hindus were beaten up by Muslims of the area for organising a ‘Tiranga Yatra’. This led to a vituperative campaign against Muslims on social media. However, as has been widely reported, the facts were quite the opposite.

As the residents of the largely Muslim-dominated Baddu Nagar area of Kasganj were preparing to start their flag hoisting ceremony, they were confronted by a bunch of 50-60 motorbike-borne Hindutva activists, who insisted the residents stop their function to let the rally pass through the colony.

“Although a much wider road is merely a 100 metres away, the bike-borne men insisted they wanted to pass through the narrow lanes of our colony. Most of them were carrying saffron flags while only a few had Indian flags. We told them to wait for a bit as our function was just about to start. We requested them to participate in our flag-hoisting ceremony in the meantime but they asked us to remove the chairs, which we had arranged for the ceremony, so that they could go first,” said Mohammad Kalim, a tailor who was present at the scene.

Also read: Probe Team Finds ‘Trail of Engineered Hate, Violence’ in Kasganj

“We offered that we could remove a few chairs to clear the way for one bike to pass at a time. But then they insisted that all of them wanted to go together. Their insistence agitated a section of the residents, mostly youth. Gradually, a heated debate started between the two groups. The bikers then started abusing Muslims, called them names, and raised extremely communal slogans. In the heated exchange, they asked all residents to go to Pakistan, demanded that we should host the saffron flag first. As one of those men threw saffron colour on one child, a fight broke out. Since we outnumbered them, they left their bikes and fled,” he added.

“Why should we go to Pakistan? India is our country too. We have had Hindustan’s salt and can die for it,” Kalim kept interjecting his narration with this sentiment.

The squabble, in which no one was seriously injured, lasted for around 15 minutes between 9 and 10 am. The matter soon escalated as Hindutva activists began to mobilise men in huge numbers near Bilram gate, one of the most commercial junctions of the town, following the quarrel. Armed with bricks, stones, country-made pistols and rifles, a mob of around 400-500 men, triggered by what they called an affront to Hindu pride, started to march towards Muslim colonies.

On the way, someone in the mob fired at Mohammad Naushad, a daily-wage worker who was on his way home. Naushad, who is admitted at the government medical college, Aligarh, sustained a serious injury on his right leg. He was able to save his life as he mustered enough courage to flee the area despite his injury.

As the mob moved towards the Muslim colony through the main market, which was shut on the occasion of Republic Day, it destroyed public property and attacked Muslim-owned shops. In the meantime, Muslims too prepared themselves to face the mob. Reporters from Kasganj said that there were multiple rounds of firing from both sides. During this exchange, 19-year-old Chandan Gupta was killed. Hindutva groups allege that one Salim Javed, a noted textile trader of the area, fired at Gupta, but the police has not been able to find any evidence yet. Javed was arrested a week ago.

The clash lasted for about an hour until the police took charge of the situation. Successive clashes occurred while a majority of the forces were attending their own flag-hoisting ceremony at the police lines, around ten km away from the town. Although the kotwali or police station is located only 50 m away from the scene of the riots, the mob remained out of control for almost an hour until more forces were deployed.

The aftermath

By the evening of January 26, the riot metamorphosed into a full-fledged Hindutva offensive. Gupta’s corpse was brought home draped in the tricolour to send a specific message – that he died a martyr. Communal tensions were further fuelled by inflammatory speeches by numerous BJP representatives – including all three BJP MLAs from Kasganj district and the constituency MP, Rajveer Singh, who reached the town almost immediately.

Former chief minister Kalyan Singh’s son, Rajveer aka Raju Bhaiyya, is a stalwart amongst the majority Hindu Lodh community of the region. His address, alleging that the riot was a preplanned attack on Hindus, has since become infamous. While promising to take action, he referred to Gupta as “hamaara aadmi” or our man even as he exonerated the Hindu community of all guilt. He also cast doubts on the local police and said that the enquiry would be conducted by officials outside Kasganj.

A photo of Chandan Gupta in his family's home. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashastha

A photo of Chandan Gupta in his family’s home. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Following his speech, the Hindutva mob went on a rampage. By January 31, a large number of shops, particularly those owned by affluent Muslims, had been looted and set on fire. “The riot became an excuse for the mob to cripple Muslims economically. A large number of Muslims depend on businesses here and a majority of them have since fled the town. With their livelihood gone, they have no reason to come back. Rich Hindu traders have already started offering meagre money to buy off their shops,” said Laiq Khan, a doctor. Kasganj market, with most of the Muslim-shops gutted and Hindu-owned establishments thriving, is a testament to Khan’s words.

Meanwhile, Hindutva organisations like Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been organising tiranga yatras all over central Uttar Pradesh, demanding that Gupta’s killers be punished. In the week that followed the riot, these groups have organised at least 20 such rallies in the districts of Etah, Etawah, Kasganj, Ferozabad, Agra, Aligarh, Badaun and Bareilly. This has led to further polarisation.

Subsequently, the rioting has spilled over to villages and other towns, and until the first week of February, reports of Muslim properties being either plundered or burnt kept emerging. Mosques in the area have also been ransacked, including two in Kasganj. The situation bears a strong resemblance to the forced displacement of Muslims in the aftermath of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.

Police complicity?

The selective support of political representatives has sent a clear message to Kasganj residents. While Hindu areas remain bustling, Muslims are reluctant to come out of their houses, let alone go to work. Several platoons of Rapid Action Force (RAF), the state’s Police Armed Constabulary (PAC) and police officials comb the streets.

Alleging police complicity, Muslim residents complain that the police picked up many innocent Muslims from their homes even as they seem lenient towards the Hindus. “Aslam, a teacher in the local school, was feeding the policemen tea and biscuits until January 30, when he too was picked up. The police raids on our houses are even worse. During kurkhi (property becoming attached to the court) of houses belonging to accused individuals, the police abused their families and left homes shattered. So many of our children are being harassed by the police,” claimed a resident of Baddu Nagar.

Mumtaz, an elderly resident of Baddu Nagar, added, “I can believe that the police could not control the riot on January 26 as most of them were at police lines. But what prevented them after that? All our shops were burnt in the week after. Look at the areas where most rioting happened. The shops in Baradwari and Nadrai Gate, which were damaged the most, lie within a 50-m radius of both the police station and tehsil office. These are prime administrative areas. By 26th evening, the RAF, PAC and all other forces had already been deployed. How could they not stop the riots? The mob rioted with complete impunity.”

Naushad, who injured his leg in the riot, told The Wire, “I could clearly see that the mob which fired at me was accompanied by a few policemen. I suspect a policeman with a two-starred uniform fired at me.”

Also read: The Tiranga of the Hindutva Bikers in Kasganj is Not Mine

Similarly, Mohammad Akram Habib, a resident of Lakhimpur Kheri who was caught in the January 26 riot while he was travelling to Aligarh, said, “I was attacked at Nadrai gate. The police check post was only 200 km away but no one came to help me. I had stopped in Kasganj to perform the afternoon namaz. A random Hindu man allowed me to pray in his home and alerted me not to go further as the situation was tense. But when I saw a few vehicles going, I also followed them. I wanted to reach Aligarh fast to be with my pregnant wife, who was due to deliver the baby on the 26th. As I approached the Nadrai gate area, a mob started running towards my vehicle. I could be easily identified as a Muslim because of my beard. I was more worried about the daughter of my maid, who was accompanying me to Aligarh. So I tried to escape but could not. They broke the glass panes and beat me up with pistol butts, stones and sticks for at least 15 minutes, even as I kept pleading with them.”

“Finally when they let me go, I drove straight to the police checkpost and asked for help. But to my shock, a low level official told me that ‘Today, you will not be given any help’. But a senior official soon came and ordered his juniors to take me to the nearby missionary hospital. I could hardly see anything but I had to drive myself to the hospital as the police officials could not drive my car. So I followed their vehicle to the hospital,” he told The Wire in the Aligarh medical college, where he was shifted immediately.

Akram lost one eye that day. His wife went into shock and could deliver the baby only two days later. More than 120 people have been arrested by the police, a majority of who have been charged with disrupting peace. However, out of the 50-odd people who are accused of rioting and arson on the basis of lodged FIRs, only 12 are Hindus.

Community voices

In the aftermath of recent communal riots in north India, the BJP has succeeded in carving out a politically advantageous position every time. Kasganj is no different. The party has managed to make Gupta’s death an evocative and emotional rallying issue for Hindus across castes.

Khurafati log hai Muslim (Muslims are mischievous). They do not want peace. It is better they leave the place and go somewhere else,” said Ramswaroop Gupta, a hardware trader and a BJP supporter. Similarly, Vishnu Gupta, another trader, called the riot “a result of the administration’s failure to prevent Muslims from going berserk”.

Only a few Hindus see the riots as a political conspiracy, but most feel that the government’s failure to rein in the Muslims has precipitated the situation. Ever since BJP representatives visited Gupta’s house and decided not to enquire about those who are injured from the Muslim community, the house has emerged as a central place for regional Hindutva activists to gather.

Sushil Gupta. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashastha

Sushil Gupta. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

“The government has announced a compensation of Rs 20 lakh for my son’s death, but we want the government to declare him a martyr. He died while fighting to save the Indian flag’s honour and his dead body came draped in the flag. His elder brother should also be given a government job,” said Sushil Gupta, Chandan’s father, as most people around him concurred.

He said that Gupta was a college student but his focus was social work. “Every year, he organised blood donation camps through his organisation, Sankalp Foundation. In fact, he donated his blood to Muslims at least thrice. Like every year, he woke up at 4 am to mobilise people for the tiranga rally. But they never pass through the Muslim colonies. I don’t know what they had planned this year. Perhaps with the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and the Yogi (Adityanath) government in the state, they thought the tiranga rally could also pass through Muslim areas. But fate had something else in store for him.”

Both Hindus and Muslims claimed that while Gupta did not have any direct association with the Hindu right groups, he was often seen with Hindutva activists.

Muslim residents too perceive the riot as an administrative failure, but one owing to the impunity enjoyed by Hindutva activists under the state’s BJP government. “The tiranga yatra was unauthorised. The police confirmed that the rally was not permitted by the administration. Why was the rally allowed to happen, then? Ever since the riot broke, the Sankalp Foundation’s office bearers have been issuing threats to Muslims, warning them of dire consequences on Facebook,” a Muslim advocate told The Wire, asking not to be named.

Kasganj's Nadrai Gate area, where maximum rioting happened. The junction is only 50 metres away from the police station and tehsil office. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashtha

Kasganj’s Nadrai Gate area, where maximum rioting happened. The junction is only 50 metres away from the police station and tehsil office. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashta

He said that the police raids in Muslim households were very severe. “Clearly, we know which way the investigations are going. We had an inkling that something was about to happen. A week before the riots, Hindutva activists suddenly raked up a two-year-old issue. Muslims had objected when they tried to build a gate leading up to the Chamunda temple in the town. They were proposing that the gate should be erected almost 200 m before the temple through a thoroughfare around Muslim houses. Naturally, we raised a complaint and the administration passed a restraining order.”

However, a week ago, the police suddenly put up barricades at the spot where the gate was proposed and asked people living in the area to use other long-winded lanes to reach their homes. This led to the renewed demand for a gate by a few groups. When the Muslims agitated again, the administration removed the barricades. But the tension between the two communities started to simmer from thereon.

Another resident of Baddu Nagar, Md Faheem, said that the Muslims of the colony had been organising a flag-hoisting ceremony over the last three years on both August 15 and January 26. “Last Independence Day, a similar bike rally entered the colony but there was no scuffle as our ceremony had finished by then. But this time around, they entered when we were about to begin the function and that raised temperatures.”

Political endgame

Every communally-volatile situation seems to further feed the unbridled Hindutva aggression which has now spread to large parts of central UP – areas that have been traditional Yadav strongholds, at least over the last two decades. When the Samajwadi Party patronised the Yadavs, political issues centred around agriculture, as most members of the community were farmers themselves. SP had managed to integrate its caste-based OBC politics and farmers’ concerns while lending a voice to the Muslim community, thus churning up a successful electoral formula.

However, the formula collapsed under an organised Hindutva campaign mounted by the BJP in the assembly elections last year. With Adityanath as the chief minister, BJP’s electoral formula is a simple one – consolidate the 80% Hindu population. As was reflected in its ticket distribution in the polls and overt Hindutva assertions made by saffron representatives in Kasganj, BJP has made it clear that it does not need Muslim votes to win.

In this context, a belligerent Hindutva campaign following the riots in central UP may further alienate Muslims from the mainstream, but would also help the BJP challenge Samajwadi Party’s age-old equations. In short, Hindu consolidation in the aftermath of riots will help the BJP challenge Yadav dominance.

Also read: Kasganj: Will Adityanath Abide By Rajdharma?

A senior journalist from UP who did not want to be named told The Wire, “If one can remember, the BJP has come to dominate the Jat-dominated western UP completely after the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. Today, no one hears about the issues of sugarcane farming, a concern which stalwart Jat leaders like Charan Singh, Mahendra Singh Tikait or Chotu Ram had successfully brought to the national forefront. The BJP has usurped that farmer-friendly Jat politics, in which Muslims also played an integral part. It replaced it with Hindutva, which has buried concerns of bread and butter and foregrounded false issues like Love Jihad or escalating Muslim population. At present, the animosity between Jats and Muslims is such that the Jats have no option but to keep their livelihood concerns aside and vote for the BJP.”

“Similarly,” he added, “the Hindutvaisation of Yadavs will push livelihood issues to the background in central UP too. One may note that the BJP, over the last six months, has been facing the wrath of central UP’s potato farmers. Potato crop is central to the economy of central UP and the government has made no effort to control its plummeting prices. What better way than a riot to distract attention from such issues? The riot will allow the BJP to diffuse the Yadav dominance in the region, hide caste injustices and cement its presence further.”

In the fight for political hegemony, however, the social fabric of UP is changing irrevocably. Even as Hindutva activists mount their aggression with growing political support, Muslims have chosen to lay low to prevent further escalation. The political message that Hindu nationalism is the only form of patriotism has traversed deep into the villages of UP. The slogan of ‘Vande Mataram’ or ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ have come to be recognised as copyrighted by the Sangh parivar. It isn’t a concern anymore that these are raised alongside slogans like “Muslims, go to Pakistan” or “Hindustan mein rahna hai toh, Modi, Yogi kahna hoga (If you want to stay in India, you must cheer for Modi and Yogi)”.

Hindutva groups often see the saffron flag as interchangeable with the national flag, as incidents during the Kasganj riots demonstrated. With only a year left for the 2019 general elections, circumstances indicate that Uttar Pradesh, with the maximum number of parliamentary seats, is sitting on a communal potboiler.