Odisha Grapples With Communal Violence Brought On By Demographic Change

Jaideep Mazumdar

Jun 19, 2024, 05:32 PM | Updated Jun 20, 2024, 10:12 AM IST

Bricks and stones hurled by Muslim mobs at Hindus and cops on a road in Balasore
Bricks and stones hurled by Muslim mobs at Hindus and cops on a road in Balasore
  • Unprovoked attacks on Hindus have occurred with alarming and increasing frequency in Odisha in recent years.
  • Balasore, a small coastal city in northern Odisha, has become the latest communal hotspot in the state.

    Recent communal riots, triggered by an attack on Hindus and policemen by radical Muslim mobs on 17 June, have left many properties destroyed and a few people grievously injured. 

    Trouble broke out in the afternoon. Hindus suspected that a couple of cows had been slaughtered by a section of the city’s Muslim population in the Mallikashpur area, which is famous for the mausoleum of a Sufi pir.

    It was Eid-Ul-Adha, the day when animals are sacrificed by Muslims. 

    As news of the alleged slaughter spread, a large crowd of Hindus gathered and tried to collect water from the drains that, they asserted, had turned red with the blood of the slaughtered cows. 

    A large posse of policemen also reached the area and collected water from the drains for testing. Protesting Hindus said they also found the horns and hoofs of the cows in the drains. They blocked the Balasore-Chandipur highway in protest. 

    Even as the police tried to persuade the protestors to lift the blockade, a group of radical Muslims attacked the protesting Hindus with stones, bottles filled with acid, iron rods, and swords. 

    Though the police quickly brought the situation under control, trouble broke out again that evening and the next morning, with Muslims attacking Hindu properties in Golapokhari, Motiganj, and some other areas of the city of about 2.1 lakh people. 

    Hindus also retaliated in some places, and the riots would have spiralled out of control had the administration of the district, which borders Bengal to its north, not clamped a curfew on 18 June afternoon. 

    According to the latest reports from Balasore, which is about 13 kilometres inland from the high-security Integrated Missile Testing Range at Chandipur on the sea coast, no more incidents of violence have occurred since that afternoon.

    However, communal tensions are yet to subside in the city with a Muslim population of nearly 15 per cent. 

    The latest incident of communal violence in Balasore is not an aberration. Over the past 15 years, many towns and cities in Odisha have been wracked by communal violence, almost all of it triggered by attacks on Hindus by radical Muslim mobs. 

    In April of this year, Muslim mobs in Balasore carried out an unprovoked attack on a Hanuman Jayanti procession in the city, leaving scores of Hindus injured. The police, acting on the orders of Naveen Patnaik and V K Pandian, did not arrest the attackers. 

    Similar unprovoked attacks on Hindus and Hindu religious processions and ceremonies have occurred with alarming and increasing frequency in Odisha in recent years. 

    The reason for this turmoil, say sociologists and politicians, is the slow and steady change in the demography in many parts of Odisha. 

    The Demographic Change

    Though Muslims form barely 3 per cent of Odisha's population, many areas in the state have seen an exponential rise in the population of Muslims over the last 15 years. 

    The demographic change has occurred due to the steady influx of suspected Rohingyas and Bengali-speaking Muslims — all of them suspected to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — through Bengal. 

    Balasore, for instance, had about 9 per cent Muslims in 2011. According to census figures, the city’s Muslim population stood at 12,995 that year. The latest estimates put its Muslim population at a little over 30,300, or about 15 per cent of the city’s population. 

    In 2011, the population of Balasore was 144,373; its estimated population now is a little over 2 lakh. So, while the numbers have risen by 57,627 in 13 years — a rise of approximately 40 per cent — the city's Muslim population has registered a rise of over 133 per cent in the same period.

    “This steep rise in Balasore’s Muslim population is because of the large-scale influx of Muslims from Bengal. They provide cheap labour, and all contractors, farmers, and factory owners employ them,” Bimal Kanti Dash, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary in Balasore, told Swarajya

    Retired police officer Ashutosh Mohanty, who resides in the Pragati Nagar area of Balasore, told Swarajya that discreet inquiries by the police a few years ago revealed that many of the migrants from Bengal were Rohingyas and the rest were all illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. 

    “A note was prepared and submitted to the higher authorities in 2018-2019 before the onset of the (Covid) pandemic, but nothing came out of it. These migrants from Bengal come in to work as labourers in various sectors, especially in the construction sector. Since they are cheap and also very hard-working, employers prefer these Muslim migrants over the locals,” said Mohanty. 

    This is also the case in other parts of Odisha. Even the state capital, Bhubaneswar, has witnessed an exponential rise in the number of Muslims, solely due to the large-scale influx of Muslims from Bengal. 

    Bhubaneswar’s current population is estimated at 12.57 lakh, an increase of a little over 3.7 lakh (41.76 per cent) over the last 13 years. (The last census was conducted in 2011.) The population of the city at that time was a little over 8.86 lakh. 

    In 2011, 24,819 Muslims formed about 2.8 per cent of the city’s population. As per the 2024 estimates, the Muslim population in Bhubaneswar is nearly 44,000, a little over 3.5 per cent of the total population.

    Thus, while Bhubaneswar’s overall population registered an increase of 41.76 per cent in the last 13 years, the Muslim population rose by over 77 per cent during the same period.

    Once again, this exponential rise is attributed to the unabated influx of Rohingyas and Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bengal. 

    Most of these Muslim migrants from Bengal live in ghettos, the largest of them being the Saliasahi slum in the heart of the city, near its railway station. Saliasahi is also a den of criminals where police do not dare enter. It is also a notorious red-light area in the city. 

    All other major urban centres in Odisha, like Cuttack, Rourkela, Berhampur, Sambalpur, Bhadrak, Baripada, Balangir, and Bargarh, have also witnessed a huge increase in the percentage of Muslims living there. 

    A former additional director general (DG) of Odisha police, who did not want to be named, told Swarajya that while the growth rate of the state’s indigenous Muslims corresponds to the growth rate of Hindus, it is the huge and continuing influx of Muslims from Bengal that is skewing the state’s demography. 

    “These Muslims from Bengal — and almost all of them are illegal immigrants or the descendants of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, as well as Rohingyas — are brought in by labour contractors and employed as construction labourers, workers in factories, rickshaw-pullers, and even in the mines.

    "They are hard-working and do not have to be paid as much as the locals, so they are preferred by contractors and employers,” said the former police officer who now lives in Cuttack. 

    But a grave cause of concern, he said, is that most of these migrants from Bengal are radical Ismalists. “Unlike the indigenous Muslims of Odisha, these migrants are very orthodox and radical and are completely in the grip of radical clerics who preach a puritanical and regressive form of Islam,” the officer, who had once headed the police’s intelligence directorate, said. 

    He added that many of these Muslim migrants from Bengal were part of statewide gangs that were involved in crimes ranging from petty thefts and dacoities to extortions, kidnappings for ransom, contract killings, and human trafficking. 

    Another retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of the Odisha cadre, who is now settled in Kolkata, told Swarajya that the Muslim migrants from Bengal follow puritanical Salafi Islam.

    “They are highly radicalised, and many openly proclaim their intention of proliferating and increasing the percentage of Muslims in Odisha. Many of them target Odiya women and girls for marriage and conversion to Islam,” said the officer, who had also retired as an additional DG. 

    Migration Encouraged

    The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is accused of having encouraged the migration of Muslims from Bengal for its petty political interests. 

    “The BJD used Muslim migrants as a vote bank and was keen on increasing the size of this vote bank. That’s why it encouraged more and more Muslims to come and settle down in Odisha from Bengal. It did not matter at all to the BJD that these Muslims coming in from Bengal were either Rohingyas or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It did not matter that many of these migrants were involved in criminal activities and creating communal troubles,” said Odisha BJP president Manmohan Samal. 

    Samal said the BJD patronised the migrants and allocated money to them to build mosques and madrassas, from where radical Islam was preached. 

    “This is why we are witnessing a rise in communal incidents in Odisha. Though these migrant Muslims are still a small minority, they are assertive and aggressive, and thanks to the patronage they have received from the BJD government, they punch much above their weight and create trouble very frequently,” said a senior BJP leader who is also a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from coastal Odisha. 

    Chief Minister Patnaik had reportedly received a number of alarming reports about the activities of radical Islamists in the state and how the unabated migration of suspected Rohingyas and Bangladeshi Muslims through Bengal was posing a grave security threat. 

    Patnaik not only did nothing; his party leaders encouraged more migration of Muslims from Bengal and patronised the migrants as well as the radical clerics who had influence over them. 

    The outbreak of communal riots in Balasore is the result of this Muslim appeasement. “These Muslim migrants from Bengal felt emboldened enough to not only slaughter cows but also attack policemen and Hindus, even though they were in a small minority. They are so used to getting away with all sorts of crimes that they thought they could get away this time too,” said the former additional DG of police. 

    “They got away with attacking the Hanuman Jayanti procession two months ago. This gave them a sense of immunity from the law, and that emboldened them to act with such impunity this time,” said Nabakishore Das, a physician in Balasore. 

    But with the BJP government in power in the state, the police in Balasore have cracked down on the troublemakers this time around. A large number of those who attacked policemen and Hindus on 17 June have been arrested, and raids are underway to nab many more involved in the attacks on the properties of Hindus on both days. 

    Causes For Concern

    Serving and retired police officers and bureaucrats who spoke to Swarajya said that the Rohingyas and Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants who have come into the state through Bengal pose a grave danger to the state. 

    “They are quite radicalised and have extra-territorial loyalties. Islamic terror groups can find ready recruits among them. Their radicalisation makes them dangerous because their jihadi mindset can motivate them to carry out acts of terror and crimes against Hindus and other communities that they consider kafirs,” said the former IPS officer who is settled in Kolkata.

    A senior officer who had served in the special crimes unit of the Bhubaneswar Police Commissionerate and is now a DIG told Swarajya that “the jihadi mindset of many of these Muslim migrants makes them fearless of the police and security agencies."

    “They are brainwashed into thinking that harming kafirs will get them rewards in the afterlife, and even if they get killed, they become martyrs for the cause of Islam. Urgent de-radicalisation of these people is the need of the hour,” said the serving police officer. 

    It is important, say police officers, to discourage further migration of Muslims from Bengal, carry out an enumeration of the ones who are in Odisha, and put them under strict surveillance. 

    “The new BJP government would also do well to keep a watch on the Salafi clerics and discourage Muslim children from going to madrassas where they are taught the puritanical and regressive version of Islam,” said the former ADG. 

    Until such steps are taken, communal violence of the kind that occurred in Balasore will continue to disturb Odisha from time to time.

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