The events that unfolded in the town of Rohru in Himachal Pradesh’s Shimla district in the last week of 2018 are a grim pointer to how the scourge of hate politics has wrapped its tentacles around the peaceful hill state thanks to the immunity being enjoyed by right-wing forces.
Reports said that a severed head of a calf had been found on the roof of a building in the town on December 26, a Wednesday. A mob then targeted and ransacked Muslim shops and kiosks in Rohru market that night and on Thursday morning, with right-wing activists taking the lead.
It was the administration’s intervention that brought things under control as a large police force was rushed to the spot to cut the tension. The police have registered cases but no arrests have been made yet. Reports say that among those booked are members of Hindutva organisations.
On December 28, a semblance of normalcy was restored when the administration convened a meeting of representatives of both Hindus and Muslims in the area. The market, too, remained open. But sources say that many of those whose businesses were targeted have fled and are scared to come back.
Many questions remain unanswered, but the most obvious is this: how did a severed head of a calf find its way into a building in a town where it would be discovered? Whether the animal was slaughtered fresh, had died of a fall or natural causes, will be answered after forensic analysis.
An editorial in the Tribune pointed out after the incident:
“After the Supreme Court put states on their toes by seeking periodic reports on mob lynching, an old trick seems to have been re-dusted: a standard operating procedure for spiking Hindu-Muslim communal tensions till the 1980s was to throw a severed head of a calf or a pig in their respective hot spots.”
While both mainstream political parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – have maintained a stoic silence on the whole episode in Rohru, only the Communist Party of India(M) has taken a political stand and has called for a thorough probe into the matter.
In a statement, Onkar Shad and Sanjay Chauhan, who are state and district secretaries of the party, said, “For sometime, the RSS and its affiliates have been trying to destroy communal brotherhood and spread and atmosphere of fear in the country. We assume the developments in Rohru to be the result of the same mindset.”
The CPI(M) has also sought security and compensation for the victims.
The Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP was busy celebrating its one year in power in the state on December 27 and had organised a ‘Jan Abhar’ rally in Dharamshala that was addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reports say that Jai Ram Thakur has asked the top brass of the police to thoroughly probe the matter.
The Congress, on the other hand, had spent the day observing a ‘Nikamma Divas’ and submitting a chargesheet against the BJP government to the governor.
A strategy at play?
But was the assault on the around 20 Muslim kiosks and shops part of a pre-planned strategy as many are speculating?
Many of the Muslims who have made Himachal their home in Rohru and other towns are from Uttar Pradesh and other heartland areas. Mainly barbers, fruit and vegetable sellers, for many, it has taken decades to build a living from scratch. Over time, a few of the barber shops upgraded to salons and beauty parlours, while the vegetable carts were replaced by more steady kiosks.
According to a source, the trouble actually began around three weeks before the severed calf head was “discovered,” as messages started to circulate about illegal activities taking place in the salons. Women were advised to not go to the beauty parlours. But the malicious rumours failed in their purpose, which is perhaps why more drastic steps were allegedly taken.
“The Muslims are scared and many of them have fled the town. Those indulging in the arson had been threatening people from making videos and taking photographs of what was going on. In this entire affair the role of the police that should have been pro-active was not even active as the violence spilled over to the next day after it began on Wednesday evening,” Sanjay Chauhan told this reporter. He said that a majority of the shops targeted have been rented out by Hindu owners.
“This is a very serious matter in which the Bulandshahr instance is reflected. Things are advancing towards mob lynching in a peaceful state like Himachal,” said the lone CPM MLA Rakesh Singha.
Over the last few years, there has been a whisper campaign going on against the Muslims who have come to Himachal in search of livelihoods from other states. While there are many Kashmiris working as porters, large numbers have migrated from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and even Rajasthan to eke out a living from the construction boom that has been ongoing on in the form of residential flats and societies. Others sell fruits, vegetable and carpets etc.
Hateful messages have become commonplaces – where it is being alleged that the increasing numbers of migrant Muslims are usurping the opportunities of the locals. For right-wing forces, polarisation on religious grounds has become easier and no effort is being spared to create the fear of the ‘other’. This is backed by the general campaign on cow vigilantism that has reared its head in many parts of India with scores of lynchings.
A few months ago, security fears were raised over presumed employment of some Rohingya refugees for door to door garbage collection in Shimla.
Instances like Rohru echo what many observers have been saying about the changed tactics of the right wing in the state. Even neighbouring Uttarakhand, where too there is a negligible Muslim community in the hill districts, has witnessed a spurt in such instances in Rudraprayag, Mussoorie, Rishikesh and Kankhal in Haridwar.
Rajeev Khanna has been a reporter for the last 23 years, with a special interest in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat politics, and has worked in print, radio, TV and online media.