More than a month has passed, but those who lost just about every belonging are yet to pick up from where the blaze had left them.
On 12 January, a colony of about hundred houses in Bhainsa Town of Telangana’s Nirmal district burnt in communal fire, ignited by what residents call “a petty spat”.
Within 24 hours, several houses and vehicles in Korbagalli and adjoining lanes were reduced to rubble.
Reports quoted police as saying that a total of 13 houses, 24 two-wheelers, a car and an auto rickshaw were completely gutted. At least 10 people, along with four policemen, were reportedly injured in stone-pelting.
Thankfully, no lives were lost.
More than a month has passed, but those who lost just about every material possession are yet to pick up from where the blaze left them.
Radhabai, who is in her late 60s, can’t hold her tears as she steps inside her hollowed out house. All that is left are charred wooden logs and metal cases twisted by heat. A major part of the roof has collapsed.
It was around 11 pm, she recalls. She was sleeping. So were her husband, children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. She woke up hearing some noise and saw large stones landing inside the house. Soon she saw a mob of around 10 men at the door. Beards and skull caps.
Riots, her instincts told her.
“The men entered the house and ordered all of us to go outside,” she says.
“We scurried out like rats. It was a moment when we had to choose between our belongings and our lives.”
Lavanya and her sister-in-law Sangeeta say the men molested them when they were leaving the house.
Radhabai says the men assured her they would do “nothing” but, only minutes later, she saw with horror her house go up in flames.
“They had come prepared. They threw petrol bombs and burning logs of wood. Even a burning cycle,” she says.
‘Petrol bomb’ is a term she has picked up only lately. What she saw was that the mob threw plastic bottles and packets filled with a liquid inside the house, followed by burning logs.
The family has lost everything – clothes, blankets, shoes, utensils, stove, grocery, books, house papers and jewellery.
Lavanya says the fire brigade arrived around 3 am. The mob was still there. “They [attackers] cut the water pipe. Nothing could be saved.”
“They even beat up the cops who came to save us,” she says.
Radhabai picks up charred steel containers and shows the remains of rice. The next day of the fire was Sankranti. She had bought five kilograms of rice to prepare Sakinalu — a special snack prepared during the harvest festival.
The day of the fire was the last day of a three-day Iztema (a religious gathering of Muslims) being held in the district, which about two lakh people reportedly attended.
The violence, the family and neighbours say, was linked to that gathering.
For the past two days, unfamiliar men had been entering the colony in the night on Bullet (motorcycle), making a thumping noise and disturbing the residents. On the third day, some men in Korbagalli stopped the bikers. A spat followed, and the men left the place. It was around 9 pm.
Within an hour, a mob arrived and launched an attacked on the colony, residents say.
Lingoji, husband of Radhabai, says several men in the mob had covered their faces.
“They were all outsiders. They must have been from the Iztema,” he says.
“They were shouting Allahu Akbar and some other slogans which we couldn’t understand,” says Lingoji.
His relative Lakshman Nemtabad, who is also a butcher like Lingoji, says the men picked up their knives kept at home and pointed at them. “They let us go only after our women fell at their feet pleading for our lives,” he says.
The family is now living in a rented accommodation in the same colony. A non-government organisation, Sewa Bharat, helped them with clothes and utensils after the destruction, they say.
“We have got a two-room set for Rs 2,000 a month. I don’t know how we will pay the rent. We don’t have any income. We had to sell our goats too,” says Radhabai.
“The government has given us nothing. Some officials visited us, but not even a penny has reached us. [District collector] Musharraf Ali Faruqui also came but nothing has come out of the visit,” says Lavanya.
It is this alleged apathy of the government that a journalist, Sridharan Siddhu, highlighted in a video report that he uploaded on his Facebook account on 29 January. Siddhu said in the report that contrary to the statement by Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao that Bhainsa clashes were petty and did not deserve statewide attention, the reality on the ground suggested large-scale violence and property loss.
The Bhainsa Town police went on to file an FIR against him on charges of promoting religious hatred.
Bhainsa, which reportedly has half of its population as Muslims, is marked as a communally sensitive place.
After days of remaining underground, Siddhu managed a stay order on his arrest from the court last week.
The family says Siddhu’s report showed the “truth”. “We are feeling bad for him. He showed the truth, and only the truth,” says Nemtabad.
“You can see for yourself. Has anything changed for us?” he asks. (This correspondent visited the site on 8 February).
Their neighbours Pushpa and Raju, whose house too has been decimated, have a more harrowing tale to tell. They say the mob almost burnt their son alive.
Raju says that around 11 pm, a mob of about 50 unfamiliar men entered the house brandishing swords.
Raju, Pushpa and their two son were at the house.
The couple says that the mob, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘maar daalo kaat daalo’, urinated at the batter for Sakinalu kept near the gate. Then they barged into the rooms and went straight for the pictures and idols of deities kept in a shelf. They broke the frames and stamped on the pictures. They molested Pushpa, and attacked and wounded Raju.
“There was a table covered with cloth kept in a corner. The men told my younger son to hide beneath it. They told him he would be safe, but they went on to pour petrol on the table,” says Raju. “It was when my wife realised our son was missing that she screamed his name and pulled him out of the table. The petrol was dripping from the table top,” he says.
When the family, including a bleeding Raju, ran out of the house, the men took the kitchen cylinder out in the street and threw burning logs inside, he says.
The flames ruined everything they had built in all these years.
Pushpa lost her gold jewellery.
Raju lost his saving of Rs 5 lakh that was lying in the house. “A large part of it was my income from the farm. We farmers make the bulk of our earnings on Sankranti.”
“I had planned to use the money to renovate the house,” he says.
The couple had bought the house only eight months ago, after exhausting their life’s savings.
Like Radhabai’s, Pushpa’s family too is living in a rented accommodation provided by neighbours. Her children have not gone to school since the tragedy, she says.
A resident who did not wish to be named, said that the mob made a woman — a widow who lives with her son — lift her sari and pee in front of them.
Residents of Korbagalli blame the violence on All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
They say that members of the Asaduddin Owaisi-led political party orchestrated the attack, to benefit from “polarisation” in the impending municipal body elections.
“Faizulla Khan, who is right-hand man of Jabir Ahmed, was there with the mob. Everyone saw him,” a resident, who did not wish to be quoted, said. Others in the colony supported the claim.
Ahmed, an AIMIM strongman, was vice-chairman of Bhainsa municipality at the time of the violence.
In the results announced on 25 January, AIMIM won 15 of the 26 wards. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) had reportedly made Bhainsa a ‘friendly contest’ for the AIMIM by either withdrawing its candidates or fielding “weak” contestants.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won from nine wards — a tally that was expected to be better before the violence.
Naresh Dasari, a native of the area who lives in Hyderabad, has been trying to help the victims through a non-governmental organisation (NGO). He says the violence was “pre-planned”.
“There are several unanswered questions. How did the mob arrive with petrol bombs in such a short span of time? Why did the government give permission to the Iztema when municipal elections were just 10 days away? Why is it that several Muslim families had locked their houses and gone away when the violence broke out?” he says.
Rival political outfits have been blaming each other.
BJP’s chief spokesperson K Krishna Saagar Rao, in a statement, held Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao responsible for “his utter neglect of law and order situation in the state and the way he has unleashed AIMIM goons from Old City to Karimnagar to Nizamabad and Adilabad under the guise of anti-CAA rallies…”
Arvind Dharmapuri, Member of Parliament from Nizamabad seat, tweeted:
In Bhainsa of Nirmal district(Telangana), stone pelter and arsonist mobs have selectively targeted hindu properties, vandalised and lit fire.The police were helpless in controlling the mobs as they belong to KCR backed MIM groups.@AmitShah @kishanreddybjp @JPNadda @BJP4India pic.twitter.com/4gHABRBMYm— Arvind Dharmapuri (@Arvindharmapuri) January 13, 2020
Owaisi on the other hand alleged that workers of a fringe Hindu outfit carried out "targeted violence”.
Within three days of the violence, the police reportedly filed six first information reports (FIRs) and arrested 59 people from both communities.
While investigations are underway, Union Minister of State (MoS) for Home G Kishan Reddy announced this week that he would assess the possibility of ordering a high-level inquiry into the violence.
Amid political bickering, the truth of Bhainsa violence is that scores of houses and vehicles have been destroyed, and many families have been displaced. The victims are struggling to rebuild their lives and allege government apathy.
Addressing the media on 16 February, Reddy cited a report recently submitted to the state government to say that 101 persons have been identified as victims of the violence, and damages by way of burnt property is about Rs 2.33 crore.
Afsari Begum, a single mother of two teenagers, says she woke up with the sound of heavy stone-pelting that night. She immediately locked both the doors, but realised that the mobs might break in anytime.
Around midnight, she rushed out with her children to a relative’s house in a colony not too far away. When she returned the next morning around nine, her house was a pile of rubble. Every corner of the house was smoke damaged.
Her sewing machine that would run her house is charred. Her children’s bags, books and uniforms are burnt.
“I am a widow. Why did they have to target me of all people,” she says.
Afsari says Rs 6 lakh in cash, that was to be deposited in the bank, turned to ashes. “The cash was given to me by my brother-in-law. It was from a property deal.”
“I had kept six tola of gold for my daughter’s marriage. Everything is lost,” she says.
Afsari says she does not know who burnt her house. “That is for the police to inquire,” she says.
Her neighbour tells this correspondent that Afsari’s house came under attack as the mob mistook it as belonging to another community.
On the morning of 13 January, several houses in Mullagalli and Shakilgalli were targetted in “retaliatory attack”, residents say.
Mohammad Akhtar and his brother were at the Iztema on the night of 12 January. In the absence of any man in the house, the women locked the house and took shelter in a different colony.
None from the family returned in the night at all. Neighbours assured them their house was safe.
The next morning, a mob threw petrol bombs and set the house afire, says Akhtar, based on what he gathered from the neighbours.
“Neighbours told us that when the mob set the house alight, the kitchen cylinder exploded. There was a loud bang,” he says.
Akhtar says the family was so terrified that they didn’t dare to visit their house all of 13 January. They returned only the next day, to discover that they had lost everything.
A Korbagalli resident, without wanting to be named, said that as word spread in Bhaisa about the violence, people from across the town began to gather for “revenge”.
“Our boys also showed some daring,” he says.
“If they hadn’t shown daring, the other side would have continued to unleash violence on our side.”
Asmana Jabeen shows her husband Mohammad Faheem’s burnt ‘passenger van’. “It was parked outside the house. They burnt it,” says Asmana, a mother of three daughters.
“We bought it for Rs 2.5 lakh. We have no money to buy another,” she says.
The house of Syed Jawed, an autorickshaw driver who lives in Shakilgalli, has been completely ravaged by fire. So has Rafique Ahmed’s house in Mullagalli.
Every victim family that this correspondent spoke to, said that the state government is trying to play down the violence and turning a blind eye to their misery. Besides token visits, government representatives have done nothing.