Police Say Peace Has Been Restored in Maharashtra's Satara, But Muslim Community Still in Fear

Muslims from Pusesavali village had told the police that they feared for their lives because of prevailing communal tensions. On September 9, their worst fears came true.

Mumbai: After five days of beefed-up police security and over 72- hours of internet shutdown across Satara district in western Maharashtra, the district administration said that “peace has finally been restored”. But Muslim residents of Pusesavali village, where violence broke out on September 9 killing one youth and leaving several injured, fear that the uneasy calm can turn violent at any moment.

On September 9, a mob of Hindu men ran amok in Pusesavali village in Satara district after an objectionable post against King Shivaji allegedly went viral on social media. Tensions based on the post, allegedly put out by a Muslim youth, soon became a full-blown riot. The mob, comprising Hindu men from Pursesavali and neighbouring villages of Thorvewadi NV and Wadgaon Jairam Swami, converged around 8 pm in the village and began ransacking houses and commercial units belonging to Muslims.

Thirty-two-year-old Nurul Hasan Shikalgar, an engineer and a man who ran a local earthmover, was among the Muslim men at the mosque gathered to offer the Isha (day’s last) Namaz. “The mob had sticks and stones in their hands. The mosque doors were shut but they applied forced and entered the space. They hit us with sharp objects,” said a 26-year-old man who suffered serious injuries to his head and has been undergoing treatment at a local hospital. Shikalgar too was hit on his head many times. “Even before we could offer him help, Nurul had died,” said the man.

Nurul Hasan Shikalgar.

Shikalgar’s uncle Shiraj confirmed that by the time they found the young man’s body, it was lying “lifeless” without a pulse or heartbeat. Shikalgar was declared dead at the local Krishna Charitable Trust Hospital in Satara. Disturbed by Shikalgar’s death, his family and other community members gathered at the hospital and refused to move the body for cremation till the time police arrested the attackers.

Earlier, rumours were spread, especially on WhatsApp, that Shikalgar had a role in posting objectionable posts on Shivaji. But a senior policeman, privy to the investigation, confirmed to The Wire that Shikalgar had absolutely no role in this. “We looked into things and can confirm he just became a victim of mob violence,” the senior officer said.

Shikalgar was one of the few educated Muslim men from Pusesavali village. In a village of over 1,300 families, less than 10% belong to the Muslim community. Most of them run the local village businesses, like retail stores and automobile spare parts shops. Shikalgar’s father Liyaqat teaches at a local Urdu school. His mother worked as a nurse at a local government hospital and only recently retired.  Shikagar was married for less than a year and his wife, Ayesha, is five months pregnant. The couple were expecting their first child.

What happened in Pusesavali village was not a sudden incident. Tension was building up for over a month, villagers say. The police too confirm that they had “anticipated the worst”. The first inflammatory post, allegedly against a Hindu goddess, first emerged on social media on August 15. This post, allegedly put up by a young man from the Muslim community, was soon taken down and the police had arrested the person. He was let off on bail eventually.

Following this incident, a representative from the Muslim community had approached the police. In the representation, Muslims claimed that they “feared for their life”. A senior policeman, privy to the investigation, confirmed having received a letter. An officer said, on the condition of anonymity, “But in the letter the men claimed that they had threat to their lives from the Hindus. It was a generic statement.”

Only that it wasn’t.

The Muslim community’s fears came true on September 9. Locals The Wire spoke to say that the way in which the mob had gathered, it didn’t appear to be a sudden provocation. “The preparedness with which they came looked as if it were a pre-planned attack,” a local youth from the Muslim community, whose shop was one of those destroyed in the attack, told The Wire.

A senior police officer said that as soon as the post was seen on social media, the person allegedly responsible was summoned to the police station. “We were in the process of ascertaining his involvement and were questioning him. The attackers meanwhile barged into the village and began attacking the Muslim community,” the officer said.

There are different versions on the origins of the social media post. While the police claim they acted on it within hours, reporters covering the incident say the post first emerged two days prior to the incident and that the police failed to take immediate action.

The police have now registered three different FIRs after the September 9 incident. One is against Muslim men allegedly involved in posting objectionable content against King Shivaji. Another FIR in against men involved in Shikalgar’s murder and the attack at the mosqu,e and the third case is against men involved in attacking the policemen. “We have apprehended over 35 persons in all three cases,” the police officer told The Wire.

Aftermath of the violence on Satara. Photo: Special arrangement

Until Wednesday, journalists covering the violence on ground had to travel to nearby Pune district to file their stories. Even access to Pusesavali village was denied, making ground reporting that much harder. Santosh Shirale, the district correspondent with the online section of Maharashtra Times, said he had to rely on local contacts to relay information. “For two days, I just could not file any reports. And finally, when I managed to gather credible information from the ground, I travelled almost till Pune to send my story to the editors in Mumbai,” Shirale said. Since Pusesavali continued to be inaccessible, Shirale said it is difficult to ascertain the actual impact of the violence.

After the internet was restored on September 14, the police say they closely monitored social media activities. “No untoward activity was seen through the day; the district remained calm and people were waiting to resume their daily activities,” a senior policeman shared.

Along with the internet shutdown, the local administration also applied Section 144 of the CrPC prohibiting public gatherings. This, however, didn’t deter Hindutva leaders from making provocative statements. After local BJP leader Vikram Pavaskar’s name began making the rounds as a person allegedly behind the attack, radical Hindu organisations said they would demonstrate publicly if Pavaskar was “wrongly implicated”. Pawaskar’s father Vinayak is a senior Hindutva leader in the region. “If you try to malign our religion, we will retaliate,” Vinayak Pawaskar said at a press conference.