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Khargone (Madhya Pradesh): On April 10, violence engulfed the small town of Khargone.
While the town was celebrating Ram Navami, a rumour spread that the police had stopped a religious procession near the local Jama Masjid.
In response, a second procession moved down the same path. More militant, it aired provocative songs and slogans, and even pulled along a tableau showing a scene from The Kashmir Files. The Muslims responded with stones. And the riot began.
In the days that followed, subsequent developments in the town monopolised most attention. The state went on a demolition drive. In tandem, a clutch of local Hindu right-wing groups declared an economic boycott of Muslims. Some Hindus put up boards saying they wouldn’t sell to Muslims. A list of Muslim-run shops circulated on social media, asking Hindus to not buy from them.
With these developments occupying headlines, the origins of the violence escaped scrutiny.
A puzzling new time
In the middle of May, The Wire went to Khargone.
Close to a month had passed since the violence but saffron flags still fluttered over some houses and shops.
Over the last five years, this small town of about 150,000 people has seen communal tensions rise due to a set of poorly-understood changes.
One. Over the last five or so years, Khargone has seen a spike in the number of Hindu right-wing organisations. “Five years ago, only the Shiv Sena was active here,” said one local, on the condition of anonymity. “Today, we have the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, Gau Raksha Dal, Karni Sena, VHP, Sakal Hindu Samaj…in all there are about eight or nine such sansthans.”
Others disputed those numbers but agreed the number of “kattar-pathi” organisations has risen. “Shiv Sena, VHP and Bajrang Dal were here from the beginning,” said Raju Sharma, who heads Shiv Sena in Khargone. “These other groups, like the Sakal Hindu Samaj, Gau Raksha Samiti and Karni Sena, have come up in the last four or five years.”
Two. While Khargone has seen periodic eruptions of communal violence in the past, matters would return to normal after two to four days. Economic ties would resume as ever. Since 2018, however, talk about an economic boycott of Muslims has started. This started with real estate. Between 2011 and 2015, as a part of the town’s real estate boom, developers began cutting colonies. “In 2018, people from these organisations began going to developers, asking them to not sell plots to Muslims,” said the local quoted above.
Three. The town began to see more incendiary messages on social media. This has especially intensified over the last year, said Ashutosh Purohit, a local reporter.
Four. Of late, the administrative response has changed as well. In 2015, after stone-pelting incident violence on Dussehra, curfew had been put in place for a couple of days, said the local quoted above. “Once it was lifted, everyone got back to life as usual.”
This time around, parts of Khargone were under curfew right till Eid – May 3.
These changes have to be understood. Even five years ago, Khargone was a peaceful town. “Everything was going smoothly (Sab kuch smooth chal raha tha),” said Pankaj, a shopkeeper in the town. “This was a place where everyone got along.”
And then, like large parts of India, fissures in the town abruptly deepened.
A closer look at Khargone
In 2020, said the local quoted above. a Maulana was beaten up.
In 2021, as Hidayatullah Mansuri, chief of the town’s masjid committee told Kashif Kakvi, Khargone saw “over half a dozen incidents… when mosques and Muslims were targeted during festivals.” Stones were also pelted, he told Kakvi, “on the funeral procession of an imam”.
In March 2022, after the BJP won four out of five assembly polls, crackers were thrown inside the Talab Chowk Mosque. A month later, in April, the town saw violence on Ram Navami.
To understand this rise in the number of communal incidents, the spike in the number of Hindu right-wing outfits is one starting point.
Three of these – Durga Vahini, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal – are publicly affiliated to the BJP and RSS. The local outpost of the Shiv Sena, set up by Raju Sharma in 1988, is linked to a larger party as well.
The rest lack such linkages. Sakal Hindu Samaj was set up in 2021, said its former adhaksh Trilok Dandir, to stand with Hindus whenever they need help.
The Gau Raksha Samiti, created in 2019 by local leaders of right-wing groups and BJP leaders, runs gaushalas and informs the police about cattle shipments into Maharashtra. It also, as the media has reported, gave the call for the second procession on Ram Navami which resulted in violence.
As for Sardar Patel Yuva Sangathan, it came up in Khargone, said Dandir, about five or six years ago. It focuses on the Patidar community.
It’s not clear if these organisations are entirely home-grown. Sardar Patel Yuva Sangathan is also active in Gajnikhedi (MP), Narayangad (MP) and Sarangpur (Gujarat). A Sakal Hindu Samaj is also present in Ajmer (Rajasthan), Betul (MP) and Rajnandgaon (Chhattisgarh). When asked about this, however, Dandir said Khargone’s Sakal Hindu Samaj is home-grown.
A stronghold slipping away
These outfits began to emerge at a time the BJP’s grip over Khargone was weakening.
This has to be understood. Between 2003 and 2013, Khargone was a BJP stronghold. The party’s grip began slipping in 2014 when it lost three seats to the Congress. And then, in the 2019 polls, the party lost all assembly seats here.
According to one set of observers, the rise of these outfits is a part of the BJP’s strategy to recapture these seats. “There are two kinds of people in the BJP,” said journalist Dhirendra Jha. “Those who stand for elections; and, for their success, those who are needed for polarisation.” According to Jha, the author of Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, “People standing for election will not go beyond a point. But, they will need others who can. People who can do work which goes exactly against the constitution – like this talk of boycott.”
These organisations, he said, are kept at an arm’s length from the Sangh parivar. “These organisations provoke but are not defended. BJP gains from that denial mode.”
According to locals, similar processes are underway in Khargone as well. “Assembly elections will be held again in 2023,” said a local reporter. “All this is to strengthen the party before the elections. Some people say this is to defeat MLA Ravi Joshi (Yeh sab chunaav mein majboot karne ke liye hain. Kuch ka kehna hain ki yeh sab Ravi Joshi ko hataney ke liye hain).”
These outfits have contributed to the ratcheting up of communal tensions. In the past, Sakal Hindu Samaj, notwithstanding its rhetoric about being set up to serve Hindus, has demanded a predominantly Muslim haat be shifted outside the town. In the run-up to Ram Navami, Shiv Sena created the tableau. Along with Sardar Patel Yuva Sangathan, Sakal Hindu Samaj called for the economic boycott. The Gau Raksha Samiti called the second, more militant procession on Ram Navami.
The larger polarisation project
Even as these local processes worked to polarise, larger processes aided them.
After the film, said Kamlesh Bhandari, the founder of Khargone’s Radha Vallabh Trading Company, both communities turned more hardline. “It has changed people (Logon ko pharak padha hain),” he said. “(Hindus) began thinking that if the population of Muslims increases, this will happen.”
Compounding matters, on the evening of Ram Navami, Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader from Delhi, visited the town of Bhikangaon, 50 km from Khargone. Not only did he make incendiary statements, his presence in Bhikangaon forced the Khargone administration to divert a section of the police force away from the town.
Later that evening, as the second procession neared Talab Chowk, the riot began.
Then came the demolitions
Even as these processes played out, there was another development.
On December 31, the Enforcement Directorate raided Dilip Buildcon, the infrastructure company said to be close to Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The company’s co-founder, Devendra Jain, was arrested as well – on the charge of bribing an NHAI official – and kept in custody for a week.
About 6-9 months ago, a former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh told The Wire, the Adani group made an initial offer for about 35% of Dilip Buildcon’s shares. In October, a team from Adani Enterprises checked into Taj Bhopal and stayed for about two months, going over the financials of Dilip Buildcon.
The talks, described in local media as well, remained inconclusive – and the Adani team had headed back.
A few days later, the raid happened.
In business and political circles of MP, the news was received with shock. In India, raids on companies belonging to rival politicians have been relatively normalised – but not raids on a firm perceived as close to a fellow party member.
According to people in Bhopal’s business and political circles, the rationale for these talks – and the subsequent raid – lay in politics. According to a political observer in Bhopal, Modi and Shah do not want Chouhan to continue as chief minister – and so, were trying to weaken him by taking away Dilip Buildcon. “They want Jyotiraditya Scindia,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Chouhan’s government donned a more hardline avatar – that of “Bulldozer Mama”.
Since March 20, his administration has stepped up demolitions of not just those accused of rape but also those charged with communal violence – as in Khargone where buildings of Muslims were razed.
According to the observer, the “bulldozer mama” avatar has added to Chouhan’s popularity.
Understanding the hate machine
Rising polarisation in Khargone updates our understanding of how bigotry is being deepened in India.
The media – and movies like The Kashmir Files – heighten majoritarian anxieties and result in organisations like the Sakal Hindu Samaj. These outfits, gaining clout due to their proximity to both political power and administration, can operate (and profit) with impunity.
This point came up earlier this year when two tribals were killed by the Gau Raksha Dal, on the suspicion of cow smuggling, in Seoni, MP.
At that time, tribal leader and Congress MLA Arjun Singh Kakodia told the Indian Express: “This is all a business. The largest animal market in Seoni district is in Barghat area, which sees business of Rs 10 lakh per week. This market is visited by local farmers who buy and sell cattle… The vigilante outfits don’t rescue cattle and send them to gaushalas. They are sold at these animal markets for a profit.”
Indian Express also reported that local police was working with the group. It quoted Kurai Police Station in-charge Ganpat Singh as saying: “We are short of 15 men… We do depend on tip-offs from vigilante outfits and coordinate with them.”
In Khargone too, the groups have operated with impunity. In the town, social media messages keep trying to foment hate. “Recently, there was an incident when a bike hit a pedestrian near the bus stand,” said Pankaj. “The news spread so quickly on WhatsApp – that something had happened in Khargone – that the SP had to clarify that this was a normal incident and that anyone misleading the people will face strict action.”
And yet, even as the administration threatens action on social media rumour-mongers and erects walls between communities, a local police officer confirmed to The Wire that it has not acted against the fringe groups destabilising the peace.
Calls for economic boycotts, for instance, violate Section 153B of the Indian Penal Code.
All of Madhya Pradesh is seeing such changes, said a RSS member who lives in Bhopal.
“Yeh Khargone ki hi nahin, poorey MP ki kahani hain,” he said. This scope might be even broader. As many as eight states in India saw violence this Ram Navami.
At one level, this is a tiredly familiar tale. Communal violence is one way to flip societies from, say, caste-based polarisation to a religious one – and has played out elsewhere in India as well, be it UP, Assam or Bihar.
As these processes go unchecked, however, Khargone is being pushed into a newer, altogether more unnerving, direction.
After the violence in April, not only did threats of boycott expand beyond real estate, they also acquired a more coercive tone. “Personal calls bhi aaney lagey,” said Pankaj. The callers, all unknown to him, not only admonished him for being close to a Muslim in the town – “You are close to traitors. Keep a distance (Aapki nazdiki hain deshdrohiyon se. Dur rahey)” – they also carried a warning. Something wrong might happen to you, said one caller. “Aapke saath kuch galat na ho jaye.”
This reporter asked him if this is the first time he had experienced such a demand. He said yes.
Most people in Khargone want peace, Kamlesh Bhandari had said. What we are seeing now, however, is an outcome where neutrality itself is being frowned upon. Hindus are being told to either participate – or get considered as the Other.
The goal is to co-opt the silent majority.
The Wire shared these local apprehensions with the local administration, asking for its response. This article will be updated when they respond.
These boycott calls, however, have not been very successful. About 2/5ths of the people in Khargone are Muslims. An economic boycott will bring real economic costs to the Hindus as well. In areas where Muslims are a smaller proportion of the local population, such boycotts might indeed see greater participation.
M. Rajshekhar is an independent reporter studying corruption, oligarchy and the political economy of India’s environment. He is also the author of Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and How They Cope.