Khargone: Communal Violence Leaves Many Displaced, State Action Targets Muslims

The state too is allegedly targeting Muslims after the violence, by refusing to file FIRs based on their complaints and demolishing properties owned by community members.

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Khargone (Madhya Pradesh): Nasir Ahmad Khan (63), a retired assistant sub-inspector of police, was watching the Ram Navami procession from his three-storey building in Tavdi Mohalla of Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district when violence broke out in Talab Chowk.

When the police resorted to a lathi charge and fired tear gas shells in a bid to disperse the mob, Nasir was still watching. After the police action, the mob entered the narrow lanes of Qazipura, Sanjay Nagar, Anand Nagar, Bhausar Mohalla, Khaskhaswadi and his Tavdi Mohalla – located within one km from Talab Chowk.

The densely populated Tavdi Mohalla has a sizeable population of both Hindus and Muslims, most of whom belong to marginalised castes.

Before Nasir could understand what was happening, stone-pelting began in his neighbourhood.

“A mob of over 50 people led by by my neighbour Anil Patel and Ganesh Verma began pelting stones at my house and trying to break the iron gate to come inside the compound. They were hurling not just stones but also communal abuses. I shouted and asked Anil, ‘Tu kya kar raha hai, hum log padosi hain (What are you doing, we are neighbours).’ Minutes later, Anil’s wife joined the mob. With an intention to provoke the mob, she said, ‘Ek hi Musalman hai is gali mein, jalado isko ghar ke sath (There is only one Muslim in the lane, let’s burn him with his house).’ I was shocked and speechless,” Nasir told The Wire. Anil is associated with the right-wing Hindu group Bajrang Dal, he added.

In a two-page police complaint submitted to the Kotwali police station on April 10, about two hours after the incident, Nasir claimed that when Anil was pelting stones, a group of over 40 youths led by a young local, Kanha Bharo (20), began pelting stones from the rooftop of Dhangar Samaj Dharmshala. Holding up empty bottles of petrol bombs, he said, “They threw over five petrol bombs which burnt my kitchen made of bamboo.”

After trying for an hour, Anil allegedly barged inside Nasir’s home with over two dozen men and set the four motorcycles parked in the compound on fire after removing the petrol from them. “I was scared when they entered my compound. There was only a wooden door between me and the mob. As they got closer to my gate, a police siren blared and they ran away,” he recalled.

The home of Sadullah Beg, who is standing in the debris, after the administration demolished it. Photo: Kashif Kakvi

Nasir’s elder brother Basheer Ahmad Khan, who also retired from the police department, alleged, “They would have burnt us alive if the police did not reach on time. The police not only saved us but also put out the fire and urged us to file a complaint.”

In his police complaint, Nasir named Anil Patel, his wife and his son Swapnil, accusing them of arson, stone pelting and rioting. He also demanded action against Mahesh Verma and Kanha Bharo. But three days after the incident and Nasir’s complaint, no FIR has been registered.

Nasir and Basheer are among 26 people whose houses were set on fire after the violence broke out during the Ram Navami procession, according to the police.

Within hours of the incident, district collector Anugrah P. announced a curfew in some pockets of Khargone city. The incident left over three dozen people injured including seven policemen and superintendent of police Siddharth Choudhary, said Tilak Singh, DIG Indore division.

“Over 26 houses, 12 vehicles, five shops, a godown and several religious places were either vandalised or were set on fire,” said Tilak.

Despite heavy police deployment and curfew, the incidents of arson and stone pelting continued till 3 am, said eyewitnesses. Recalling the horror of the incident, Nawab Khan (65), a resident of Sanjay Nagar, said, “I was in my house with my wife and a son when my neighbours began running after locking their doors. As I rushed towards the door, a stone hit my wall. I rushed back in, locked the door and informed the police.”

Also read: ‘Organised Violence’: How Mosques, Dargahs, Muslim Houses Were Vandalised in Gujarat on Ram Navami

A driver-turned-shopkeeper, Nawab said, “When I was waiting for police protection, a mob of over half a dozen men tried to barge inside the house. When they failed, they set my kirana store on fire. At the end we escaped from the back door.”

Metres away from Nawab’s home, the home and vehicle of Manju Bai were set on fire by the mob hours later. A stone’s throw away, the autorickshaw of Amit Bhandole (30) was charred.

Manju Bai (42), a resident of Sanjay Nagar, said, “After the reports of a clash in the Ram Navami procession, I left home with my daughter to go to one of our relatives’ homes, as we feared an attack.” When she returned around 9 pm, the gates to her house were open, some portion of her house had been burnt, and utensils and a gas cylinder stolen.

Houses and shops were burnt in the violence. Photo: Kashif Kakvi

Another resident of Sanjay Nagar, Manjula Bai (45), whose house was burnt to ashes, said this is the third time her house has been set on fire since 1992. She said, “Whenever a communal clash breaks out, my house is an easy target. We wanted to move away but stayed as a house under the PM Awas Yojna on this plot was approved.”

As the news of communal violence spread in Sanjay Nagar, Manjula left home for a relative’s house. On the way, a stone hit her forehead. “They burnt everything. I am left with nothing. Now, I have to build things from scratch – until the next communal incident takes it away again.”

Targeted state action

The action that has followed the violence – from the police and the administration – appears to be targeting Muslims.

The following morning, addressing reporters in Bhopal, home minister Narottam Mishra said, “Jis ghar se pathar aae hai, us ghar ko hi patharo kaa dher banaenge (The houses from where stones were thrown will be reduced to rubble).”

Hours after Mishra’s comment, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan also gave a strong message: “Stringent action will be taken against the rioters. They will be made to pay for the losses to both public and private properties.” He added that the Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property and Recovery of Damages Law has been passed by the government in December, and a claims tribunal is being formed to recover the losses.

A day after Chouhan’s statement, a notification of the claims tribunal in Khargone was issued by the government under the new law. As per the law, a claims tribunal headed by a retired judge will hear cases related to damaged property and recovery.

After the chief minister and home minister’s statements, the district administration went on a demolition spree. Within two days of the incident, over 32 shops and 16 houses belonging to Muslims, which were served notices for illegal construction, were razed. “The illegal constructions which were served notice by the municipal corporation were razed and this will continue. We have a zero-tolerance policy towards criminals,” said collector Anugrah P.

However, many of the shopkeepers alleged that their shops were removed arbitrarily. “Six months ago, the municipal corporation measured the area but no notices were issued. But a day after the incident, when the city was under a strict curfew, 12 shops which were part of the mosque complex were razed,” said Hidayatullah Mansuri, chief of the masjid committee who had a shop there.

Properties being demolished after the violence. Photo: Kashif Kakvi

Among the 12 shops which were demolished, one belonged to Narendra Sureshchand Gupta. He has been running his kirana store for the last two decades. “I was on rent there. Without any notice or prior verbal information, our shops were demolished. I somehow managed to empty the shop but many of my fellow shopkeepers were unlucky,” said Gupta.

“Is there any law left in this country or the government is willing to bulldoze everything for their gain?” Gupta asked.

The district authorities also bulldozed the home of Hasina Fakhroo and her 35-year-old son, Amjad Khan, which was constructed under the PM Awas Yojana recently. She is among the 12 people whose houses were razed in Khaskhaswadi locality after the violence.

The district administration has said that the drive has nothing to do with the communal violence. But a tweet from the Khargone Jansampark office contradicts this, by saying that the demolished houses belonged to “rioters”.

In the last three days, 33 FIRs have been registered – only three from the Muslim side – and as many as 104 people have been arrested, of whom 70 were sent to jails, DIG Tilak Singh told The Wire.

The police officials said that no one from the Muslim community was coming forward to register FIRs. But Amjaz Azad, a social activist from Khargone city, alleged that the police are suppressing the minority.

Making a startling allegation, he said, “All the shops, eateries and homes which have been demolished in the last three days belong to the minority community. Over 104 people who have been arrested are Muslims. Close to 30 FIRs were registered from the majority community but we are struggling for two days for a single FIR. Those who are going to register an FIR are being shouted at.”

Mohammad Akbar Khan, a resident of Sanjay Nagar, too claimed that the police turned him away after hearing his name when he had gone to lodge an FIR.

The incident

It was around 11 am of April 10 when a heated argument broke out between the police and a Bharatiya Janata Party officer bearer for partially barricading the Muslim-dominated Talab Chowk area ahead of the Ram Navami procession carried out by the Raghuwanshi community.

The argument ended after BJP state vice-president Shyam Mahajan allegedly threatened additional superintendent of police (ASP Town) Neeraj Chourasia – “Tera transfer karwa ke rahuga (We will have you transferred)” – and the procession moved ahead and culminated peacefully at the city’s Ram Temple around 12 pm.

Also read: ‘Never-Before-Seen Majoritarian Aggression’: English Editorials Call Out BJP-Aided Hatred

The Raghuwanshi community, who claim to be descendants of Lord Ram, are a sizeable population in Khargone. They have carried out Ram Navami processions for decades through Khargone, using the same route. “We don’t have a problem with them (Muslims); neither do they have problems with us. We have been taking the same route which passes along the Talab Chowk masjid but nothing wrong ever happened,” said Manoj Raghuwanshi, organiser of the procession. “But this time, police action and the subsequent heated argument fanned the rumours.” According to him, the last communal incident was reported here on October 22, 2015, on Dussehra.

After the argument, a rumour was allegedly spread that the police stopped the Ram Navami procession at Talab Chowk. Soon, this led to a call to assembly at Talab Chowk at 3 pm to “save Hindus”.

For spreading these rumours, four government officials including three contractual employees were sacked, said Indore commissioner Pawan Kumar Sharma, a day after the incident.

After the rumours, a second Ram Navami procession was organised in the same area under the banner of the ‘Gauraksha Samiti’, which included several right-wing groups. People carried posters of the controversial recent film The Kashmir Files, with the slogan ‘Jago Hindu jago (Wake up, Hindus)’.

Several videos and CCTV footage of Talab Chowk showed the procession, with DJs, standing before the mosque while waving saffron flags and playing loud music. This continued till 5 pm, when the stone pelting began.

The district authorities have failed to explain what triggered the incident but locals and eyewitnesses claimed that provocative songs and police inaction were responsible. “They were carrying swords, sticks and saffron flags and playing provocative songs,” an eyewitness told The Wire.

This was not the first time when the Muslims in the area were allegedly provoked. On March 10, when BJP won in four out of five states in the assembly elections, crackers were thrown inside the Talab Chowk mosque during the Vijay Rally carried out by party members. Members of the masjid committee submitted a complaint at the Kotwali police station in connection with the incident.

“In the last one year, over half a dozen incidents had occurred when mosques and Muslims were targeted during festivals. Last year, stones were pelted on the funeral procession of an imam, but despite complaints nothing had happened,” said Hidayatullah Mansuri, chief of the masjid committee.

Town inspector of the Kotwali police station, B.L. Mandloi, who received a severe head injury in the violence near Talab Chowk, said, “The procession was asked to leave between 2-3 pm but it got delayed until 5 pm and clashed with evening prayers at the mosque. It was around that time that a crowd of over 1,000 people assembled in procession outside the Talab Chowk mosque after which the situation grew tense and stone-pelting began.”

The news of stone pelting and arson spread like a wildfire and gripped the old city.

Superintendent of police Siddharth Choudhary, who was at Talab Chowk, reportedly ordered a lathi charge to disperse the mob when stone pelting began from both sides. According to official sources, Choudhary along with his eight gunmen rushed to Sanjay Nagar which was a kilometre away from Talab Chowk around 7 pm when reports of arson and stone pelting were coming in. “It was then he was shot in the leg. No one knows who fired the shot owing to the chaos,” said an officer who was accompanying Choudhary.

Attacking the BJP for the failing to prevent communal incidents, former Union minister Arun Yadav, who hails from Khargone, said, “The home minister is only good with the tongue. He doesn’t know how to run the administration and his failure is leading to the communal violence.”

He further said, “The law for the ruling party sympathisers is different from the others. The government does not take action against their supports irrespective of their crime.”

Yadav, who met DGP Sudheer Saxena on Wednesday with a delegation of Congress leaders, concluded, “I have have urged the DGP to uphold the law. Do not discriminate people on the basis of the religion and caste.”

Kashif Kakvi is a journalist with Newsclick.