No End to Communal Violence in Bihar: A Report on Sitamarhi

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Violence in Sitamarhi.

Without communal polarization, anti-Muslim hate, and Hindu consolidation behind it, the miserably failed NDA regime does not hope to garner votes to retain power. 

Prof Mohammad Sajjad 

On 19-20 October 2018, Sitamarhi fell prey to a gory communal violence, once again. It is one of the most sensitive parts of north Bihar which is prone to communal violence. It has a long history of communal violence, at least since 1895. Just like the communal violence of October 1992 in Sitamarhi, this year’s violence too had its genesis in the Hindu procession (to immerse the Durga idol) insistent on taking it through Muslim localities of the small town, rather than through conventional routes, ratified by the district administration.

In Sitamarhi, traditionally, there are many akharas which organize Durga Puja. Each akhara takes out its separate processions to immerse the idol. In 1992, one such akhara, the Bhawani Akhara had its President the incumbent Deputy Superintendent of Police, Nagendra Chowdhry, which eventually precipitated violence (See Asghar Ali Engineer, “Sitamarhi on Fire”, EPW, November 14, 1992).

In October 1967, Sursand, a thana of Sitamarhi (it was then a Subdivision of Muzaffarpur district), had undergone such violence. (A detailed historical account of all these violence of Sitamarhi during 1895-1992, is given in my book (2014), Contesting Communalism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857.)

This insistence on taking out the procession through a Muslim locality was enough of a forewarning to the administration on the inevitability of the violence. Yet, the administrative lapse in preventing the violence became jarringly evident.

The akhara of Madhuban took out its procession in the evening of 19 October 2018. It was, according to local people, armed and shouted usual incendiary, anti-Muslim slogans. A rumour spread out that on its route, stone-pelting was done by the Muslims around the Nonia toli, on the procession. This rumour got huge traction the next morning, on 20th October, when another akhara took out its procession to immerse the idol by 11 A.M. It was joined by an even larger crowd, angry and charged; the situation was visibly explosive.

The administration did nothing to counter and destroy this false propaganda against Muslims. Reportedly, even internet was not suspended till then. This procession resorted to hooliganism, set some Muslim huts on fire, only after looting. They lifted the goats too. In fact, in recent instances of anti-Muslim violence in rural Bihar, there has emerged a trend that the rioters lift the goats, which for the poor are still quite a ‘wealth’. (This is what had happened in the violence of Azizpur (Saraiya, Muzaffarpur) on January 18, 2015 (See my essay, “Caste, Community and Crime: Explaining the Violence in Muzaffarpur”,  EPW, January 31, 2015).

Sitamarhi after the riot. Photo: CPIML – Liberation, Bihar Page on Facebook

Thus, the violence, arson and loot, on 20th October, went on from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. A 80-year-old poor man, Zainul Haq Ansari, having visited his daughter at Rajopatti in Sitamarhi town, was returning back to his village, Bhoraha. He went missing. His kins registered an FIR with the police.

Only two days later did they come to know that a dead body needs to be identified in the Muzaffarpur Sadar Hospital. The kins failed to identify it as it was burnt beyond recognition. Subsequently, when the internet was restored by the district administration, a video of the mob killing him, became viral, which helped identify the dead-body as Ansari’s. It is said, with reference to the now censored video, that his throat was slit to kill and then there was an attempt to burn him. This video was circulated by a Patna-based vernacular portal, Millat Times. The Patna police served a notice to the portal for having uploaded the video for circulation. The Muzaffarpur police forced his family to bury the dead body in Muzaffarpur itself rather than taking him to his native village, Bhoraha in Sitamarhi. This has created huge outrage. Only after that, the Sitamarhi police claims to have arrested a few suspects in this regard.
(Also see The Quint, November 2, 2018, a report by Malavika Balasubramanian, carrying some heartrending photographs of the victim, Zainul Haq Ansari)

Spurt of violence in Bihar in recent years 
In recent years, ever since the chief minister Nitish Kumar broke away from BJP in July 2013, Bihar has suffered several incidents of communal violence. In November 2015, he aligned with the RJD-Congress to be re-elected to power. In July 2017, he broke away from the RJD-Congress and re-joined the NDA to continue as chief minister. From January to April, this year, there was a series of communal tension and violence across Bihar. In Bhagalpur, it began with an incendiary procession led by Arijit Shashwat, son of the Union Minister Ashwini Chaubey, on March 17, 2018. In February, RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat visited Bihar and camped at Muzaffarpur for few days. There, he also spoke out that the RSS militia was much more efficient and powerful than the Indian Army.

In my earlier columns (The Wire, April 2, 2018; and February 8, 2018), I have argued that those parts of Bihar, with a history of having elected Muslim candidates for Bihar Assembly/Lok Sabha, seemed to have been more prone to such violence. Sitamarhi-Sheohar is one such part of Bihar. It has a long history of having elected more than one Muslim legislature at a time.

Nitish Kumar-led administration, now a tame ally of BJP, seems to have [wilfully?] lost its control on its administrative machinery. Adding insult to injury, amidst the ongoing series of communal violence, K. S. Dwivedi, the then SP of Bhagalpur (1989) has been elevated to the DGP of Bihar in March 2018. This elevation had created a lot of outrage and furore.

Amidst media blackout, some socio-political activists cry out
Some political activists of Sitamarhi have now begun to raise their voices on social media and local vernacular media. Tanwir Alam has been raising his voice. He has raised few questions: Why was Vikas Burman, the SP of Sitamarhi trusted to tackle the communal violence, who according to him, had failed miserably in controlling the two waves of communal violence in Nawada, in 2016-17.

Nawada is represented in Lok Sabha by a fire-brand Bhumihar leader, Giriraj Singh, who is also in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Besides, in Nawada, two Yadav leaders, one with JDU and another with RJD, clash and compete with each other to keep Muslim flocks behind them. This has pushed it into throes of almost perpetual communal tension in recent years. (This was reported in detail by Rajneesh Kumar, BBC Hindi, April 2, 2018)

It is said that the Nawada police had resorted to brutalities even with JDU MLC, Salman Raghib’s family. Yet, it is accused by the local Muslims, that Mr. Raghib maintained silence only to save his own position as an MLC and did not want to embarrass his leader, Nitish Kumar.

Another political activist, Shams Shahnawaz, an aspirant for Assembly election from a seat in Sitamarhi district, has lodged a complaint with the National Minority Commission to look into the violence. He has also said that mere compensation to the survivors of Zainul Haq Ansari will not do; the killers must be booked. The government has offered a compensation of Rs. 5 lakh to the survivors of the lynch victim Zainul Haq Ansari.

Silence of the RJD-Congress: Political untouchability of Muslims?
What is even more surprising is that even the opposition leader, Tejaswi Yadav, has not responded to the Sitamarhi violence as yet! He has not even tweeted on this. Doesn’t it signify/testify the political untouchability of Muslims, in the face of Hindutva onslaught? Let it be noted that Tejaswi’s RJD is supposed to be most consistently Muslim-friendly. In October 1992, when Lalu Yadav was the chief minister, he had personally camped in Sitamarhi to control the communal violence. He also made a famous statement that even if 10 Yadav’s had to sacrifice their lives to save just one Muslim, they must do it, if they really want to see a Yadav continue as the Bihar chief minister. Ever since then, for the next two decades, Bihar didn’t see any big communal violence.

True, Lalu did falter in booking the culprits of Sitamarhi violence 1992 and also of Bhagalpur violence 1989-90. He announced an institutional inquiry into the Sitamarhi-Riga violence of 1992, by S. R. Adige, IRS. Sadly, it remained a mere announcement. Just as in 1946-47, despite the then Premier of Bihar, Shri Krishna Sinha’s announcement to institute an inquiry by David Ezra Reuben, the then sitting judge of High Court, Patna, it yet again remained merely an announcement. India has consistently failed to book the culprits of communal violence.

Many offenders in the two violent incidents (Bhagalpur, 1989; and Sitamarhi-Riga, 1992), were said to be Yadav’s, the core support-base of RJD. In fact, some of the chief offenders, such as Kameshwar Yadav, the infamous accused of Bhagalpur massacre (1989), was even patronised by the RJD. Lalu-Rabri regime failed in tackling lawlessness (more specifically, vehicle-snatching and kidnapping for ransom) and in anti-Dalit massacres, but it did succeed in preventing communal violence.

It has had its electoral arithmetic as well, popularised as M-Y. It remains rock-solid, almost consistently unflinching, support-base of the RJD. The Muslims (around 17%) and Yadav’s (around 12%) together constitute a huge electoral combination and core support base for RJD. More importantly, in a fairly good number of the Assembly seats, the M-Y proportion is estimated (by the political workers and sub-regional vernacular newspapers) to be 40-70%. Yet, Tejaswi paying no heed to the Sitamarhi violence is indeed intriguing!

The Congress, though a marginal force in Bihar, and still supposed to be competing with the JDU and BJP in winning over the Bhumihars and Brahmins, has equally been “nonchalant” in this regard. Questions are being raised against the Congress for being soft and favourable towards its leader in Aurangabad (Magadh region), who is accused to have led the violent mob, in March this year. (See Rajneesh Kumar’s Report, BBC Hindi, April 1, 2018).

The Bihar Congress in-charge, Shakti Singh Gohil, instituted an in-party inquiry to look into the charges levelled against Anand Shankar. The report is yet to come out and Shankar continues in the Congress. Many activists have raised their voice against his continuation.

Betrayal of community institutions and leadership
The Imarat-e-Shariah (founded in 1921 by the nationalist Muslims, with a proud history of having opposed the Muslim League’s communal-separatist politics; it also ran its ministry during April-July 1937 through its Muslim Independent Party-MIP, headed by Md Yunus, 1884-1952,) has always been carrying out relief works among the victims of violence. It runs on community contributions. In recent years, they have been found wanting in carrying out such work. They are accused of having maintained silence on most of the violence in recent years.

On October 30, 2018, a functionary of the Imarat did visit Sitamarhi, but without any team of legal experts and social activists, who could really prepare a methodologically sound and credible fact-finding report. Point to be noted here is that the chief of the Imarat, Wali Rahmani, is the Secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which was a party in Supreme Court which heard the case of instant triple divorce. Having lost the case, Rahmani, did a series of huge mobilizations against the Supreme Court verdict, in most of the district towns; it then culminated into a rally, “Deen Bachao, Desh Bachao (Save Religion, Save Country)” in Patna on 15 April 2018. By the evening of the rally, Khalid Anwar, a close associate of Rahmani, was nominated by the ruling JDU as MLC. Khalid Anwar was the convenor of the April rally.

This exposed Rahmani-Nitish nexus if at all it was a secret till then. The picture, therefore, emerges that the Imarathaving allegedly become aligned with the NDA is just not speaking out on the violence, as it cannot embarrass Nitish Kumar and his mis-governance. It, therefore, cannot be expected to file any case in the law court against the violence in Sitamarhi.

The Idara-e-Shariah (Patna), another such organization, claiming to stand for religio-cultural concerns of Muslims, is nowhere to be seen. Other educated professionals of these districts in Bihar don’t seem to be prepared/inclined to work on these fronts in coordination with civil society organizations engaged in these fields across the country.

It appears that the current dispensation in Bihar and at New Delhi intends to keep the communal pot boiling. Without communal polarization, anti-Muslim hate, and Hindu consolidation behind it, the miserably failed NDA regime does not hope to garner votes to retain power. Corruption in Rafale deals, crises in the CBI, RBI, fugitive capitalists and many such exposes, seem to make the regime too desperate, hence, resorting recklessly to divisive and polarizing designs.

The moot question remains: shall the electorates see through all these nasty games of the incumbent regime?  This will decide the fate of Indians.

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(Professor Mohammad Sajjad is with Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, and is author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: This write-up was published in sabrangindia.in. He tweets @sajjadhist)

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