Alchemy of a riot: fuel to ire, reason to dust

On September 14, nobody wanted to listen to anything in Masuri village of Ghaziabad. When guns went blazing, reason was the first casualty; six others followed


Ajay Singh | February 1, 2014

Lush and serene surroundings at the Adhyatmik Nagar railway halt, located nearly 20 km away from New Delhi by the side of National Highway 24 connecting Lucknow, is a deceptive veneer that conceals a hideous social fault line. That was exposed on September 14 when six youths were killed in police firing ostensibly in self-defence to keep at bay an irate mob of Muslims in the nearby Masuri area of Ghaziabad.

The story that built up the serious conflagration on September 14 began, ironically, from a place called Adhyatmik Nagar, “abode of spiritualism” in English, and bears uncanny resemblance to other scores of stories on communal violence in India. By all account, it appears to be a classic case of the conformation of the existence of institutionalised riot system (IRS) in post-Independence India, a theory propounded by Paul Brass, a famous US scholar and social scientist on India.

Around 12.30 pm, Abdul Gaffar crossed two parallel railway tracks running along the railway crossing to reach the nearby Rafikabad mosque to offer Friday prayers. Gaffar was quite cautious while crossing this busy railway tracks on which run hundreds of trains daily linking Delhi to eastern parts of the country. Four years ago, he survived a major surgery on his brain though he lost a bit of mental vitality in the process. He is a hafiz trained to teach Quran to the faithful. Since the surgery on his brain which left a deep scar on his head, Gaffar confined himself to family affairs and now runs a small grocery shop. In the area, he is known as dim-witted though he seemed quite intelligent and sharp.

As soon as Gaffar crossed the tracks and reached the other side of the Adhyatmik Nagar railway halt, he was confronted by some school-going children. Recounting it, Gaffar says that those children handed him some torn pages of the holy Quran on which something was scribbled in Hindi. “I cannot read Hindi, so I collected the pages and rushed to the mosque to offer prayers,” he tells Governance Now.

After offering his prayers, Gaffar approached the imam of the Rafikabad mosque, Habibur Rehman, and showed him the pages. According to Abdul Quadir, muezzin of the mosque (the person who calls the faithful for the prayers), the imam’s first reaction was to “bury those pages” silently. On being asked what exactly was scribbled on the pages, Quadir said that somebody had written “lafz-e-suar (words of pig)” on those pages and had left a mobile number in English numerical.

The sagacious advice of the Imam to bury those pages and the matter found no takers as a group of youths gathered outside the mosque and demanded punitive actions against this act of sacrilege. In the meantime, the muezzin and some local youths called up the mobile number scribbled on the torn page to verify about the identity of the owner. What appeared to have irked the crowd is the exchange of abusive language with the person on the other side which, according to the crowd, confirmed the culpability of the phone-owner. Tempers ran high.

As the din of war cries and punitive action against the “unknown culprit” for the blasphemy grew louder, reason and rationality became the casualty. How these pages were found? Who gave those pages to Gaffar who claims to be mentally-      challenged? Such questions lost their relevance. An inquiry by Governance Now shows that the local people believe that the torn pages were recovered from the railway tracks. Gaffar says that he was told by a group of school-going boys that they had recovered them from the tracks. However, the identity of those boys is a mystery. The recovery of the torn pages from the railway tracks is also a mystery as there is no eyewitness account to corroborate the story. Given the high frequency of trains running those tracks, it is almost impossible to pin down the perpetrators of the crime.

As crowds of hundreds gathered outside the Rafikabad mosque got restive, provocation came from an unruly group. A parallel was drawn on this act of sacrilege with a movie that depicted Prophet Mohammad in a bad light and triggered violence in Libya and the Arab world. After the evening prayers, the agitated crowd moved to the adjacent Dasna and blocked traffic at the NH 24. However, after an intervention by local elders, the blockade was lifted and people walked towards the Masuri police station which administratively controls the entire area.

The manner in which the tension was allowed to build up for six hours preceding to outbreak of arson and violence runs on a familiar script for those conversant with the literature on communalism in India. It is pertinent here to take into account the unique demographic composition of Dasna and Masuri, two places in the Ghaziabad district. About 85 percent of the population is dominated by Muslims while rest of population belongs largely to the Hindu community, particularly scheduled castes and OBCs.

Of late, Dasna has attracted a new kind of population – Muslim migrants. For those working in Delhi, Dasna provides an affordable abode and an easy access to the capital. This population is seen as a combustible component in the local demography which is largely rural. Those living for generations are easily identifiable while nobody knows about the newcomers, pointed out Dr Mohammad Rafiq, a medical practitioner who talks proudly about ancestry of Rajput Muslims in the area.

Though Dasna, Masuri and adjoining villages have had Muslim dominance historically, the area remained trouble-free even at the time of partition. Just as a large part of western UP comprising Meerut, Bulandshahar, Aligarh, Bijnore and Moradabad is considered prone to communal disturbances, Dasna and Masuri remained largely peaceful primarily because of local people’s dependence on agriculture. But the induction of new population has upset the social equilibrium and turned this rural zone into a veritable ghetto adjoining urban Ghaziabad. In this context, it was easy for trouble mongers to activate the dormant instituionalised riot system (IRS) to test the threshold of communal tolerance.

The events, however, contradict US-based scholar Ashutosh Varshney’s proposition that the civic engagement with the local population is an effective anti-dote to communalism. In fact, much depends upon the quality of engagement which local representatives or the bureaucracy has with the community. For instance, while Dasna is a township which is managed by the Nagar panchayat, Masuri is a gram panchayat and falls into the rural parts of the Ghaziabad district. Sajjad Hussein, a Samajwadi Party leader, is serving his third consecutive term as the chairman of the Dasna Nagar panchayat which has its jurisdiction around the five-km area known as the urban limit of the township. With the Samajwadi Party running the Uttar Pradesh government, Hussein wields a considerable political and bureaucratic clout in the district. In terms of civic engagement with the local community, Hussein is the only interface with the local bureaucracy. He effectively controls around '1 crore or more allocated to the Dasna municipal corporation to provide civic amenities to the township.

Hussein was blissfully ignorant about the episode till 6.15 pm. “I came back to my house after offering ashar ki namaz when someone called up to tell me about the serious nature of the protest,” he tells Governance Now. Hussein immediately called up the station officer of the Masuri police station, PK Singh, to find out more. “While I was talking to the SO, I heard commotion inside the police station on phone and decided to rush to the spot,” he says. When Hussein reached the Masuri police station, SO PK Singh was surrounded by an agitating mob which persisted in its demand to produce the man whose mobile number was written on the torn pages of Quran.

“The SO pleaded with the crowd that it would take some time to activate electronic surveillance of the number and pin down the person,” Hussein says while giving us an eyewitness’s account. He took it upon himself to persuade the crowd to exercise restraint but beat hasty retreat when faced serious hostilities. “I was dubbed as kafir (unfaithful) for taking the side of the Hindu administration and ignoring the sacrilege,” Hussein says. In the meantime, the SO was in touch with the senior superintendent of police (SSP) who also pleaded with Sajjad Hussein to persuade the crowd to exercise restraint. Curiously, there was hardly any attempt to provide reinforcement through deployment of the riot forces.

Around 7 pm, it became clear that the crowds had become unmanageable and there were still no signs of the administration. At the same time, two most influential interfaces of administration with the local community – police and chairman of the municipal corporation – were not only ineffectual but also stood discredited in people’s eyes. And the reason for this was obvious. Hussein symbolises an archetypal politician whose self-serving politics and arrogant style had alienated local community largely. His close association with local bureaucracy, including police, is seen as a nexus that oppresses the local populace. On the other hand, SO PK Singh was known for his extortionist and wayward conduct in the area. However, his long tenure in this most sensitive police station remains a mystery.

Just when it became apparent that Hussein and SO PK Sigh had failed to win the trust of people, a section of crowd indulged in rioting and arson inside the police station. Some vehicles at the NH 24 were attacked and burnt while parked vehicles inside the police station were set ablaze. Surprisingly, senior officers ranging from the superintendent of police (rural areas) and additional district magistrate reached the spot but could do little except to scurry inside a room of the police station.

Sajjad Hussein who was holed up with senior government officials inside a room in the police station was the first to urge the police to resort to firing. “I requested them to fire at the mob which was instigated by slogans like “Nara-e-tadbir, Allah-o-Akbar”. Hussein even claims that muezzins of some of the adjoining mosques in rural areas also gave call for “jihad”. However, this claim remains unverified as local residents refuted this assertion. By all accounts, Sajjad Hussein’s utterances showed deep nexus between the bureaucracy and the political class which is seen as inimical and untrustworthy by the local community.

As the crowds grew louder, Hussein and officers panicked with heightened distrust and suspicion and ordered indiscriminate firing. Here also the failure of the elementary process of the governance was discernible. “The rifles failed to fire at first instance,” says a local police constable. The policemen cocked their rifles again and resorted to many rounds of firing. Asif, a 15-year-old boy who climbed onto his house’s roof to bring down his siblings, was hit by a bullet. His father Aslam tried to take his son to the hospital but could not do so. His son died in his lap while other family members watched helplessly. Waseem, a BCom student, was shot dead from a point-blank range. Aamir and Wahid, two other boys in their teens, met the same fate. Half-an-hour of police firing claimed six innocent lives. By the time, the reinforcement reached the spot and the anti-riot police arrived, the deathly silence prevailed in Masuri – often broken by heart-rending cries of those who fell victim to governance, which was untrustworthy and predatory in nature.

Once the gravity of the situation dawned on the administration, all senior officers rushed to the spot. Commissioner, Meerut division, Mritunjay Narayan and DIG Meerut Range Zaki Ahmed camped in the area and deployed the rapid action force (RAF), a special wing of the CRPF trained to deal with the riot situation. Though these officers tried to control the damage by holding dialogues with the community leaders, there was a major attempt to cover up the failure of the local administration.

As an afterthought, stories were disseminated in the local media as to how crowds of Muslims indulged in molesting women on the NH 24 and looting ordinary passengers. “Though we have heard these stories, there is no FIR or complaint to corroborate this fact,” says Zaki Ahmed who played a crucial role in calming the situation. Mritunjay Narayan, commissioner, also acknowledged that no such stories could be verified by evidence. However, both the officers admit that the police resorted to firing only to defend themselves. “Had they not resorted to firing, all officers and some public representatives would have been lynched by the mob,” says Zaki Ahmed.

What is intriguing is the silence of the Akhilesh Yadav government on the inept, or rather callous, handling of the situation. That there has been consistent attempt to stoke communal violence in the region was not a hidden fact. Only a month back, a similar attempt was made in neighbouring Hapur where torn pages of Quran with similar kind of scribbling in Hindi were found. The Hapur police chief took effective measures and contained the issue from snowballing into a serious problem. However, the trouble-mongers succeeded in their sinister design in Dasna and Masuri where discredited instruments of governance practically facilitated build-up of a communal conflict which widened the gulf between citizenry and the administration.




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