Bhadrak is slowly limping back to normalcy a week after communal violence battered and bruised the coastal Odisha city. The place is still under the spell of a curfew which was imposed after the violence broke out on 7 April after derogatory Facebook posts against revered Hindu deities surfaced.
Assorted commentators with leftist sympathies have blamed Hindu organisations for the violence. They have also alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is responsible for inciting communal violence ahead of its national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar, scheduled for 15-16 April. But facts emerging from ground zero tell a different story.
On 4 April, a Ram Navami rally was carried out peacefully across the city. It was attended by a whopping 100,000 devotees. A day after Ram Navami, three youths – of a particular community – posted derogatory comments on Lord Ram, Goddess Sita and Lord Hanuman on the Facebook page of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer named Ankit Padhihari, who is a Class 10 student.
The next day, two separate complaints – one by Padhihari and another by the Hindu right activists belonging to Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal – were lodged in the town police station demanding immediate arrest of the culprits. But the police refused to oblige, leaving room for tensions to simmer.
Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was enforced on 6 April to avoid any further untoward incident. But the situation turned worse after a peace meeting convened by the district administration on 7 April failed to bring out a resolution. While the Muslim side was duly represented, no Hindu leader was called to the meeting. Apart from the officials of the district administration, the meeting was attended by Bhadrak member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Jugal Kishore Pattnaik and some Biju Janata Dal (BJD) counsellors among others. What transpired after the peace meeting was beyond anyone’s imagination.
Even as the prohibitory order was in place, over 300 youths, belonging to a particular community, went on a bike rally. The starting point was the Collector’s Office. A police vehicle was also seen escorting the bikers. In that rally, slogans like ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Hindustan Murdabad’ were raised. As it moved through the city, the bike-borne youths went on a rampage, setting ablaze scores of shops owned by Hindus, and vandalised two temples. Soon, retaliation followed from the other side. A number of shops owned by Muslims were gutted down.
When the situation spiralled out of control, Odisha government had to announce a curfew in the arson-hit city. The centre immediately swung into action, rushing paramilitary forces to Bhadrak.
Currently, 37 platoons of the police force and two companies of the Rapid Action Force and the Central Reserve Police Force each have been deployed in the city and its vicinity to maintain law and order.
Three days after the complaints were lodged, the police arrested Asif Ali Khan, one of the three accused of publishing inflammatory Facebook posts. Two others are still at large. Hundred arrests have been made in connection with the violence.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is drawing a lot of flak after the incident, has meanwhile visited the city and promised “stern action” against those responsible for the violence. He has declared “appropriate compensation” for those who have suffered losses.
Yet, this incident in Bhadrak is a clear case of carelessness on the part of Odisha government and ineptness on the part of local administration and police.
Veteran BJD leader Arjun Charan Sethi, an eight-time member of Parliament (MP) from Bhadrak, could not but speak the truth, albeit while breaking ranks with his party on the issue.
“There were serious lapses on part of the district administration and local police. Had the police and district administration taken timely action, situation would not have aggravated to this extent,” Sethi said.
The crucial post of District Collector & Magistrate of Bhadrak was lying vacant for more than a week before the incumbent took charge. That left the communally sensitive district virtually headless during the Ram Navami festival. And when Bhadrak was burning, Chief Minister Patnaik – who also holds the state’s Home Ministry portfolio – chose to leave for Delhi to give a pep talk to his party MPs, leaving the arson-hit city in the hands of his officials. “It was a small incident,” Patnaik later told reporters in the national capital.
Hidden behind the ineptness of the local administration and police inaction was a political hand. It is said that a powerful BJD youth leader called Asit Patnaik virtually hijacked the administration in the district.
Asit, the son of Bhadrak MLA, is the vice-president of the district unit of BJD. He allegedly shielded the anti-social elements who lit up the city. There are obvious political reasons to it. Asif Ali, one of the three accused arrested for inflammatory Facebook posts, is the son of Ajgar Ali Khan, a former BJD councillor. As skeletons tumble out of the closet, it has come to light that there was a meeting held at Khanka Sharif in nearby Dhamnagar, where Asit Patnaik and Dhamnagar MLA Muktikant Mandal are said to have met members of the minority community at a time when the tension was simmering. Given these facts, the violence in Bhadrak calls for an independent investigation.
At a time when the rise of the BJP in Odisha has virtually shaken the BJD, it is obvious that some BJD leaders are indulging in the dirty game of communal polarisation to cultivate their vote bank.
With a Muslim population of around 40 per cent, the highest in Odisha, Bhadrak sits on a communal tinderbox. The city saw communal rioting during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1991. Twenty-six years later, violence has returned to haunt Bhadrak.
Bhadrak of 2017 and Bhadrak of 1991 have some uncanny resemblance. Violence in both cases followed Ram Navami celebrations. In 1991, Janata Dal’s Biju Patnaik was Chief Minister, and now his son Naveen Patnaik is at the helm of the state. Jugal Pattnaik, who used to represent Bhadrak assembly constituency from Congress during 1991, is now a BJD MLA.
In the 1991 riot, the city’s then commercial hub Chandan Bazar was entirely gutted. The riot had claimed 17 lives. Curfew continued in the city for a month. Surendra Nath Panwar, a young IPS officer, had controlled the 1991 riot with an iron fist. This time, there is another able police officer, Inspector Manoj Kumar Rout, who was specially brought in to control the situation despite the presence of a galaxy of senior police officials. Thankfully, there was no life lost this time.
Situated at the banks of Salandi river, Bhadrak has a rich history dating back to ancient times. The city gets its name from Goddess Bhadrakali, who is seated in the outskirts of the city. Bhadrakali is known as the eighth incarnation of Goddess Durga.
After the reign of the last independent ruler of Odisha, Mukunda Deva, the city came under Afghan rule, then Mughal rule, a period of Maratha rule and then British rule, before India attained independence. In the Indian independence struggle, Bhadrak played a significant role.
Bhadrak has a prominent place in India’s maritime map as well. The city is a hub of trade, commerce, culture and literature. It is the perfect example of a place where Hindus and Muslims have lived together harmoniously for centuries.
But what happened recently has left a scar on the glory of the city.
“The anti-Hindu elements who defamed the Hindu deities, the anti-national elements who raised pro-Pakistani and anti-India slogans must be brought to justice. The Hindus have displayed a lot of tolerance,” said Manas Mohanty, convener of Bajrang Dal’s Odisha unit.
“Various RSS organisations are playing crucial role in relief and rehabilitation. But it is unfortunate that Hindu organisations are being blamed,” he added.
Emphasising that all religions preach peace, well-known Odia writer Dr Braja Mohan Mishra said, “No one has the right to slander the Hindu religion. In fact all religions preach peace. But to satiate narrow political goals, some political parties and politicians are deliberately creating the fissures. People must be aware of their sinister design.”
“The local administration and state government must play an active and impartial role in restoring the peace. There should be a permanent Standing Peace Committee to check any such incidents in the time to come,” Prof Mishra added.
Mohammed Abdul Bari, president of Chauda Mahala Muslim Jamat said, “Bhadrak has shown exemplary amity among Hindus and Muslims in the past. Both the communities cooperate in each other’s festivals. What has happened is really unfortunate and every effort should be made to not repeat such an incident in the future. Those who have tarred the social harmony of Bhadrak must be punished.” Bari, the winner of National Communal Harmony Award, had played an important role in restoring peace and harmony in the aftermath of riot in Bhadrak in 1991. Such efforts would once again be required.
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