Politics

Ground Report: At Heart Of Attack On Balrampur Durga Puja Procession, A ‘Border’ That Divides Two Communities 

Participants in Durga visarjan procession show their wounds/Swati Goel Sharma
Snapshot
  • Harkhadi village of Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur district has a decade-old ‘rule’ that no Durga idol can pass in front of the mosque.

    This bigotry seems to have sanction from the administration.

A mobile-shot video recently shared widely across social media platforms shows a mob violently hurling stones and bricks at a truck. A mosque with towering minarets stands in the backdrop of the mob while a saffron flag is attached to the truck.

It emerged that the video is from Harkhadi village of Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur district, where the Muslim community attacked their fellow Hindu residents taking out a religious procession, injuring several men and women. The village is around 200 kilometres from state capital Lucknow.

Stills from the videos showing attack on Durga visarjan procession Stills from the videos showing attack on Durga visarjan procession

The official Twitter handle of the Balrampur police informed that the incident took place on 8 October and a first information report (FIR) has been registered at the Pachpewda police station.

On the statement of one Akhileshwar Pandey, 24 miscreants, along with many other unidentified people, have been booked. Sections include 147 (rioting), 148 (armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 153a (promoting enmity between two groups), 295a (actions intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting their religious beliefs), 336 (endangering lives) and 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) of the Indian Penal Code and under section 7 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

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Eight men have been arrested while four teams have been formed to catch the rest, the police informed.

When this correspondent enquired, station house officer (SHO) of Pachpewda station Yogendra Singh Yadav declined to name the arrested men. As per the complainant, all the arrested men named in the FIR (number 179/2019) are from the Muslim community.

Pachpewda police station Pachpewda police station

The video, of course, shows only a part of the unfortunate incident. What triggered the attack remains unanswered.

This correspondent visited the area on 10 October and accessed several videos of the incident, and took statements of the injured and eye-witnesses.

One video shows a man hurling roadside muck at the Hindu procession. Another shows a Muslim resident saying that a certain Haji Maqbool chastised Muslims for having colour splashed on them and instigated them into violence. Another shows Hindus dancing to a song that insists on the Hindu claim on Ram Janmabhoomi.

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The visit also revealed an ugly truth that confronts the secular foundation of our nation.

The village has a decade-old ‘rule’ that no Durga idol can pass in front of the mosque. This bigotry seems to have sanction from the administration.

The mosque and the road in Harkhadi village The mosque and the road in Harkhadi village

Every year, a line is drawn on the road on either side of the mosque to define the no-go area for the idol. The vehicle carrying the idol takes the diverted, much longer route to reach the other side of the mosque.

What Unfolded Before Durga Visarjan

It was Dashami, the day after Navaratri when the Durga idol is immersed in water — the practice is called Durga visarjan. The village has a registered Durga puja samiti headed by Akhileshwar Pandey.

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The samiti keeps an idol of Durga in a temple every year for nine days. On Dashmi, villagers take out a procession before immersing the idol in a pond. The idol is carried in a four-wheeler and is accompanied by a ‘DJ truck’ — a truck installed with a DJ music system. Devotees dance to music and play with sindoor and colours during the procession.

In this small village comprising 214 households, almost all the 109 Hindu families (the rest are Muslims) participate in the procession, Pandey says. Apart from brahmins, the village has yadavs, baniyas, kurmis and harijans.

He says when the samiti was formed in 2008, the members had to give in writing to Pachpewda police that the Durga idol would divert from a narrow lane just before the mosque.

The DJ truck is a recent trend. As it is too big for the narrow diversion, it is allowed to cross the mosque but the music must be turned off till it is past the second line, marked with white lime. And no gulal-abeer can be used.

Isko Hindustan-Pakistan ka border hi samajhiye (consider it a Hindustan-Pakistan border only),” says Pandey. “We never liked this rule but had no option but to accept it then.”

Rajesh Yadav shows the diversion for Durga idol just before the mosque Rajesh Yadav shows the diversion for Durga idol just before the mosque

Mayawati, national president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, was chief minister of UP that time.

Hindus may have accepted the partition in letter but have not done so in spirit. And hence the diversion becomes a mini-Wagah.

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Videos show that just before the first line, the DJ truck stopped for quite some time while devotees danced to the music. They grooved on Bollywoodised devotional songs, a few of them holding what looks like swords, and splashed colour on each other. Videos suggest it went on for at least 10 minutes.

The videos also show a large Muslim crowd gathered at the spot and some others standing on the terrace, watching the devotees dancing and celebrating.

Stills from videos showing Hindus dancing in the procession Stills from videos showing Hindus dancing in the procession

Lyrics of one of the DJ songs say – “Ram Janmabhoomi par haq hai bas Dashrath ke lalla ka, jaake pooch Quran se Pappu kya hai pata tere Allah ka…(Only Dashrath’s son has claim on Ram Janmabhoomi, go ask Quran what’s the address of Allah…)

Another video shows some members from both communities engaged in a spat near the line. It can’t be deciphered from the low audio what the argument is about.

The video shows a man from the mosque side picking up muck from the roadside and throwing it at the Hindus. This causes some agitation, but the situation appears to be calm. Another video shows that in the middle of the spat, those standing on the terrace begin to hurl stones in the direction of Hindus.

Within moments, full-scale rock-pelting begins from both sides.

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Hindus, who appear to be outnumbered, bear the brunt of the violence given the volley of stones and bricks landing on them from terraces.

Most videos that are available were shot by one Ajay Gupta, whose phone is currently with the police.

“They were prepared in advance. Else how could they throw so many bricks and stones from the terrace,” says Suraj Prakash Pandey, who also gave a written complaint to the police, naming 25 people.

Akhileshwar Pandey, head of Durga puja samiti in Harkhadi village (holding the portrait). On his right is Suraj Pandey Akhileshwar Pandey, head of Durga puja samiti in Harkhadi village (holding the portrait). On his right is Suraj Pandey

Suraj, however, did not mention the possibility of the attack being pre-planned in his complaint. His statement says the attack happened suddenly and the attackers passed obscene comments about Hindu deities.

Suraj is injured in the head. He says Langad Chaudhary and Haji Maqbool - both from the Muslim community - attacked him with a sword and made a deep cut in the head. He says he has been receiving death threats. He shows a post on Facebook where one Raza Khan has tagged him and written that so far, only his head has been damaged but if seen again, he would be killed.

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Asked about the swords carried by Hindus, Suraj says they are toys. He asks a boy to run and get one such sword from his house. The boy obeys. The sword is made of iron and is blunt on either side.

“These swords can’t make a cut. We hold them as part of tradition. One of these swords, a bigger one, was taken away by the police,” he says.

(Left) Still from a video of procession. (Right) A boy shows a sword used in procession  (Left) Still from a video of procession. (Right) A boy shows a sword used in procession 

Rajesh Yadav, who was part of the procession, says it was the other community that violated the “border”. “They should not have crossed the line. And if they did, they should not have made a big deal of some colour falling on them. The spat started over abeer-gulal. Then they resorted to stone-pelting,” he says.

Did the Ram Janmabhoomi song trigger the spat?

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Rajesh says no one paid much heed to lyrics, including the devotees. The spat began over colour, he repeats.

Akhileshwar, who has sustained injuries on his chest, says the other community “backstabbed” Hindus. “Muslim youths participate in the procession every year. They even accept prasad. I don’t know what got into them this year. They cheated us and attacked us when we were least expecting it,” he says, “like they cheat in Kashmir.”

Durga visarjan participants show their wounds Durga visarjan participants show their wounds

Akhileshwar and others claim the attackers raised slogans of ‘Hindustan murdabad’ and ‘Pakistan zindabad’ while pelting stones. No video, however, corroborates or refutes this.

Hindus say over 25 people have been injured. Susheela Gupta, injured in the head, says women and children too joined in the violence.

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Muslim Colony Is Near-Deserted

On 10 October, it was impossible to get the version of the other side. Almost all houses in the ‘Muslim mohalla’ were locked. Hindus said they had temporarily shifted out fearing police crackdown. In the only Muslim house that was open, a man said he works as a teacher at the local primary school and, being a government employee, is not allowed to speak to the media. He requested not to be named.

The locked houses owned by Muslims The locked houses owned by Muslims

At Pachpewda police station, SHO Yogendra Singh Yadav declined to talk citing lack of time. He gave his phone number but has not answered any of the several calls made. A cop on duty, when asked about the community fleeing the village, said they would be back in a matter of days.

This correspondent has accessed a video of a Muslim resident, which residents identify as one Bhosu, giving a statement to a local reporter. Bhosu says “the Musalmans started the stone-pelting and it’s entirely their mistake”.

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His statement says the two sides were standing on their side of the “border” when a man came up with the suggestion that the idol should be taken in front of the mosque.

“This agitated some Muslims. However, there should not have been any problem with that suggestion,” Bhosu says. He further says that Haji Maqbool chastised some of them for having colours splashed on them and told the crowd to launch an attack, promising he would bear the cost later.

Bhosu Bhosu

Bhosu’s house was locked when this correspondent visited.

As per Hindus, Haji Maqbool is a local strongman. He is rich and his son is contesting for the post of village pradhan this year.

“His son Nizam Khan lives mostly in Mumbai and sends money home. Maqbool knows Nizam will benefit from this violence as it will completely polarise the polls and thus he instigated the attack,” says Sudhir Yadav, who also got injured.

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Maqbool has been named in the FIR and is absconding, residents say.

Four cops, including two women, are guarding the Muslim colony adjoining the mosque that wears a deserted look. Inside the colony, the only other house that isn’t locked apart from the teacher, belongs to a Hindu family.

The near deserted ‘Muslim mohalla’ The near deserted ‘Muslim mohalla’

Pujari Maurya, so named as he was born on a festival day, repeats the claims of other Hindus in calling the attack “an act of backstabbing”. He shows wounds on his back that he says he sustained in the attack.

Maurya expresses satisfaction with police action which, he says, was “unthinkable” during the erstwhile Samajwadi Party rule.

His daughter says that during petty spats, the majority Muslims of the colony threaten them with consequences “once their government is in power”. “Yogi as chief minister has left them baffled. They keep telling us that we will have to pay when their government comes back,” she says.

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“The recent violence shows their frustration,” she says.

The correspondent could not obtain the Muslim side of the story due to the deserted colony. However, nothing can justify taking of law in hands and pelting of heavy bricks that could have killed people.

The Harkhadi violence is among many similar attacks on Hindu processions reported across India.

Suraj Pandey (in red) and others point at a terrace from where stones were pelted Suraj Pandey (in red) and others point at a terrace from where stones were pelted

For instance, a Dusshera procession was recently reportedly attacked with stones in Malpura town of Rajasthan’s Tonk district. Reports say it happened after the procession passed by a Muslim-dominated area. Tonk district, incidentally, witnesses such attacks every now and then.

In Bihar’s Gaya, a Durga visarjan procession and the cops guarding it were reportedly pelted with stones after it reached the Jama Masjid area. Besides Gaya, a Durga procession came under attack in the state’s Jehanabad district.

Such attacks, in fact, are routine and are reported year after year. Certain sections of media and intelligentsia have attempted to rationalise such acts of violence.

Instead of pinning the blame on attackers, they have blamed it all on ‘provocation’ — on ‘Ram lalla’ songs or mere entry of Hindus into ‘Muslim areas’.

Such rationalisations have a pattern; they cover up bigotry of members of a particular community.

The Godhra massacre was rationalised as reaction to the Hindutva rise.

The 1993 Bombay serial bomb blasts was rationalised by “contextualising” it with Babri Masjid demolition.

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In the same vein, some may be tempted to rationalise the Harkhadi violence by contextualising it with provocative songs or the provocative sight of a Hindu deity or music or colors — all of which are prohibited in Islam as per certain interpretations of the Quran.

If the intelligentsia justifies violence, the state justifies internal “borders”. The argument is that it’s the only solution to avoid communal flare ups.

Hindus in Harkhadi village say they feel insulted by the “border”. In the house right across the mosque, lives a Hindu family. A woman member, who requested not to be named, says the maulvi doesn’t allow even women to take out small processions in front of the mosque, such as for ‘kuan pujan’, a custom performed to welcome the birth of a male child by worshiping a source of water. The street is also out of bounds for Holi revellers, she says.

The maulvi, residents say, is also named in the FIR and is absconding.

Incidents like Harkadhi show that so-called communal harmony is like a thin crust over a volcano which erupts at the slightest scratching on the surface. It also throws up the need for de-radicalisation, removal of internal borders, and respect for customs of the majority community by all sections of the society.

Else, communal harmony will have no existence beyond the empty rhetoric of the fabled ‘ganga-jamuni tehzeeb’.

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