In Communally-Sensitive Bhagalpur, A Non-Riot

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Nujahid Ansari, Aslam Niyazi and Sajjan Kumar Sah, who worked for peace after ‘beef’ was thrown into a Hindu area in Bhagalpur, Bihar.

This article appears in The Wire on the 17th of October, 2015.

The minute you tell the people of Bhagalpur town of Bihar that you want to do a story to counter the narrative of communalism in the mainstream news, they welcome you with open arms.

On the 26th of September and the 30th of September, Bhagalpur town saw two mobs form over the deliberate buffet placement of particular forms of meat in a town that has seen widespread communal clashes and pogroms. An almost month-old piglet, with his hind leg tied, and its neck cut, was thrown into a mosque, and three days earlier three beef shanks (legs) were thrown onto a street in a predominately Hindu area.

Mobs formed, shops shut down in fear, mobs threatened violence, mobs demanded the miscreants be found, yet something else happened.

A calmness prevailed over the brooding hatred of divided communities, and it was no coincidence that it was the older generation of Hindus and Muslims who lived through the 1989 riots that helped placate the mobs.

This was the first time the careful placement of controversial meat or someone’s food were used to spur communal incidents in Bhagalpur, (Bhagalpur has seen repeated communal incidents over inter-religious marriages, and during the interlapse of durga puja, moharram for decades). That the incident took place just a fortnight before polling on the 12th of October, most residents claimed that someone was doing ‘rajneeti’ but one wonders whether the mere instigation is enough to polarize the vote.

Most people feel the Bharatiya Janta Party in Bhagalpur town is in trouble, due to the breakaway faction of Vijay Kumar Sah who ran as an independent against the BJP’s Arijit Shashwat, and whose rallies saw over five hundred motorcycles across town, against the two hundred or so of the BJP. The Congress’s Ajit Sharma also stood a strong chance due to this in-fighting and the consolodation of Muslim votes, yet I shall restraint myself from one of the most popular activities in Bihar today: talk about who is winning, who might lose in which area, and generally talk for millions of people. It’s really a sport.

‘Why would anyone throw beef in a Hindu area?’

Tanti Bazaar in Champanagar, Bhagalpur is an unremarkable road separating the Muslim bhoonkars (weavers) from the Hindu bhoonkars that also hosts a large Jain temple. It was around dusk when in the cover of darkness, three beef shanks appeared to be left on the road.

Within minutes, there was a mob of young people, locals and outsiders, clamouring for the administration to arrive. They apparently called for apt retribution, screaming at the few local Muslims around: ‘what would happen if we throw a pig in your locality?’

Nujahid Ansari, who lives a mere five minutes away was called by the police and told to go and deal with the matter. He is part of the Bhoonkar Sangarsh Samiti, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as well as the local peace committee. He wanted to take the meat away himself but was restrained by the crowd who wanted the administration to appear first. His next action was to send reliable people to nearby chowks, and make sure that the Muslims returning home from work, did not walk into the angry mob.

Uday Shankar, another middle-aged resident’s first response to the incident, is the oft-repeated and sometimes suspect statement that Hindu-Muslims here have always been with each other, ‘yaha ke log, itne joode hai, hum taani aur bharni ke jaise hai.’ (We’re as united here as the intercross of fibre on cloth.)

‘All the boys who were aggressive were twenty to twenty five years old.’ He adds, and confirms a visibly upset Sajjan Kumar Sah, who also debated with the mob.

Sajjan Kumar Sah was one of the first people to notice what had happened as the meat was thrown right in front of his workshop.

As he began to appeal for calm, a young man who Sah refuses to name, yelled at him saying, ‘aap chup raheye, aap toh Ansari bann gaye.’ (You keep quiet, you’ve become an Ansari.)

People like him, braved insults and continued to persist for peace and only returned back home when the situation was under control, as the administration and the police were swift to arrive (the District Magistrate was quick to point out that law and order was more important than his ‘official duties). Unlike 1989, they did not act partison or instigate the mobs, as enquiry report after enquiry report had implicated the then Superintendent of Police K.S. Dwivedi (now an Inspector General in Bihar).

The present Superintendent of Police, Bhagalpur, 37 year old Vivek Kumar’s actions followed the letter: he heard about both incidents when he was in the headquarters, and instantly directed the civil society shanti committees, policemen and women from eight to ten police stations, the rapid action force, the CRPF , and then only left to the site. ‘People from both communities had shown lots of maturity,’ He adds, ‘whatever the anti-social elements wanted, they failed.’

‘Are you aware of what had happened in 1989 in Bhagalpur?’ I asked him.

‘Of course.’

‘So what motivated you to act with such diligence when you heard about this?’

‘That this just doesn’t go out of control.’

It was when I met Sajjan Kumar Sah he first recalled the riots/pogrom of 1989: how he and few young men would patrol the area, where just 2 kilometres away, Muslim localities were being attacked. ‘Doh mussalmaan bhaag rahe teh, aur unke peeche thode logo talwaar leke aa rahe teh.’ (Two Muslim men were running away from people with swords.)

Sajjan Kumar Sah remembers that he saved the life of 70 year old Inamul Haque, and this time had identified those who wanted to kill him as ‘BJP-minded’ people. He goes on to add that whoever threw the beef to provoke people were neither Muslim nor Hindu, but inhuman.

‘Why would anyone throw beef in a Hindu area?’ Asks Nujahid, ‘And why that part of the animal? The legs? I don’t think any Muslim could have done this. If a Muslim wanted to provoke the Hindus why would he throw the most cherished part of the animal? He could throw bones, he could throw the waste.’

‘Don’t put any photos of the pig on WhatsApp!’

It was at Shahi Masjid at Jabbar Chowk, Bhagalpur, when around 8am, that labourers working on the second floor of the mosque, discovered a piglet with its throat cut left on a rug. They quickly informed the Imam, twenty-five year old Mohammed Ulfad Hussain, whose first action was the shut the gate of the mosque, and then call the people whom he trusted the most.

Yet rumours began to spread, and within thirty minutes, there were hundreds of people gathered near the mosque.

Dr. Sallauddin Ahsan, the Principal of M.M. College Bhagalpur was one of the first to arrive on the scene, and began calling the police and the administration.

‘We wanted the administration and the police to just catch who did this,’ He said, and then adds, to reveal the fear of one’s identity, ‘The DSP was the first senior officer to arrive, but he was also a Muslim. So we decided to wait for the SDO or DM who is Hindu. Otherwise they would’ve thought that we Muslims did this to ourselves.’

Within minutes, hundreds of security forces had cordoned off the area and prevented people from coming towards the mosque, which is off the main road. Yet those who knew the nighbourhood managed to come to the mosque and climb the roof of the neighbouring house to try to get a look at the body of a baby pig. When the media arrived, a whole mob managed to get inside the gate of the mosque along with camera persons, but were swiftly chased out. Yet not without photos.

With all the clamour about Digital India, there was a unique moment of mature self-censorship, as people like Dr.Sallauddin and Professor Hasnayn Alam saw that their relatives in Delhi and the Gulf began to put the photo on Whatsapp and Facebook, and instantly called them and got them to delete it. They refused to share the photos they had with people they knew, and kept it only for evidence, to show that this was no accident but a deliberate attempt at provocation: the image clearly shows a slit neck and hind legs were tied.

‘People wanted to go do a chakka jam on the street, all the young boys, but we made sure they didn’t.’ Said Dr.Sallauddin.

‘The local media also behaved well, but tell me one thing,’ he asks, ‘Why is it that in the national media’s talk shows, that three Maulanas are given the right to speak for all Muslims?’

Post-Script

Who eventually picked up the animal’s meat?

In Champanagar, Nujahid Ansari had offered to do it, but the driver Alam who works with the police took it away.

In Jabbar Chowk, the ‘safai karmachari’ took the carcass away, and the caretakers of the Mosque cleaned the space.

All of it was taken to the police station, catalogued as evidence, photographed, and disposed of (I had asked if there are freezers in evidence rooms).

***

A few days ago, I received a story that is going a bit viral amongst Indian Muslims, whose author I am unable to trace:

“In a small village in India, a little fox told its father of his desire to eat human flesh. Next day father fox managed to get some pig meat and offered to his son. But the little fox didn’t have it. Then the father fox managed to get some cow meat and offered it. The little fox declined to eat that as well.

The stubborn little fox was adamant that he will not settle for anything other than human meat. That night the father fox left the pork in the front of a masjid and the beef in the front of a temple. By next day morning the entire village was filled with human dead bodies. The little fox ate human meat for a week and was so happy his father managed to get so much human meat.

Story might be hypothetical, but the Fox is for real. Author unknown.”

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