Saturday, January 3, 2015

Javed Iqbal: Bhagalpur riots, 25 years later - Once Upon A Mass Grave..

In India, massacres aren’t forgotten, they’re nationally integrated into collective amnesia. In October 1989, Parbatti, a locality in Bhagalpur town in Bihar, saw a well full of bodies cut into pieces, which local reporters were quick to announce were the bodies of Hindu students murdered by Muslim mobs, when they were eventually identified as the family members of Mohammed Javed. All twelve of them. There were never any ‘200 students murdered’; that was a rumour, for which the 1995 Riots Inquiry Commission Report by Justices Ram Chandra Prasad Sinha and S Shamsul Hasan explicitly blamed the administration, the press and the police for disseminating false information in an already communalized situation.

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What happened on the 24th of October 1989, one afternoon in Bhagalpur town, could be described as a riot but what followed for the next month was nothing but an organized massacre of one group. For weeks in Bhagalpur, there were preparations made for the Ram Janmabhoomi. An active Vishwa Hindu Parishad was conducting collections of bricks, with eet poojas across the district. All were to converge on the 24th of October for a Ramshila procession in Bhagalpur town. The situation was already communalized, with police encounters of Muslim criminals, a murder of a Muslim auto- rickshawalla, skirmishes over Moharram and Dusehra, resentment against beef eating, and a brewing gang war between what were described as Muslim and Hindu gangs, politically patronized and vying for control over Bhagalpur, which had a strong aspirant Muslim middle class. 

And it was under this backdrop that the administration and the police allowed the Ramshila procession to march through Tartarpur, a Muslim locality, where they were screaming slogans like ‘Baccha baccha ram ka, baki sab haram ka.(We are all children of Ram, the rest are all illegitimate) and ‘Jai Ma Kali, karo Tartarpur Khali (Praise Kali, goddess of destruction, empty Taratpur).’

Around the Muslim English School at Tartarpur, there were bombs and brickbats allegedly thrown onto the procession, and then it was bedlam. According to the Inquiry report of 1995:

“There could be miscreants who might be Muslims or Hindus or both. The total analysis of the evidence certainly creates an aura of doubt over the whole episode notwithstanding the real evidence. It may be some miscreants of doubtful communal hue may have thrown bombs, some stones, and crackers to create mayhem but nothing more can be said.’

‘In the ultimate analysis we feel that the first bombing from the Muslim school appears to be doubtful, except some miscreants may have thrown some missiles and crackers from somewhere in the vicinity to create mayhem as stated above.’

It didn’t matter then. The local press and parts of the national press spread the news even though there was also no clear evidence that bombs were thrown onto the ‘Ramshila’ procession of ‘bhajan singing peaceful marchers’. The Commission would point out the lack of injuries that could be caused by shrapnel or fire; as for the peaceful marchers, many witnesses such as Kapildev Mandal pointed out that the procession was led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, that was armed with swords, lathis, spears and pharsans. Kapildev sticks to his testimony even today, but like many others, refuses to name the people he saw in the procession.

Over the next few weeks, organized mobs of thousands would burn over 250 villages down, and mass killings would take place across the district, with the official dead around a thousand (with 90% Muslim), with some estimates that the number was higher. Two villages, Logain with around 118 dead and Chanderi with around 70 dead, would receive decent press coverage over the years, and with strong witnesses they would see prosecutions over a decade and more later. As per documents maintained by a businessman in Bhagalpur, there were also the killings at Bhatoriya, which had 85 dead, Rasalpur, with 30 dead, Padghari with 27 dead, Chajghora with 25 dead, and Silampur-Amanpur with 77 dead. All of these killings saw prosecutions, bails, and settled cases with killers roaming free.

There was also a pattern around Bhagalpur: the high death tolls were all indicative of people huddled together, en masse, in a house where they felt they would be secure, when the mob would descend upon them. Elsewhere the killings were random and unplanned – the murder of passengers thrown off trains coming into Bhagalpur, acts perpetrated by both Muslim and Hindu gangs according to Deepak Kumar Mandal, a member of the Socialist Unity Center of India. Others mention how the displaced Hindus settled into Ramnagar and the displaced Muslims settled into Islamnagar, yet no one seemed to know where those villages/localities are.

Everyone has a story of their own, one story about what happened, where they were, whether they ran, or whether they stood their ground, and when it comes to those who were responsible for the riots and pogroms, unanimously two names always feature in every conversation: Kameshwar Yadav who is now in prison and Mahadeo Singh who has passed away.

It is an open secret that Kameshwar Yadav, one of the main accused of multiple killings across the district, was not just patronized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad on whose support he ran for the assembly seat for Nathnagar in 1990 on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket, but he was also protected by Lalu Prasad Yadav for more than a decade after the riots. It was only Nitesh Kumar’s government that started to open these so-called cold cases, that had him prosecuted, that had Bhagalpur shut down with protests against his arrest, for four days. Yet many of the accused in other cases still roam free. It is also an open secret that many of the Muslims who faced violence in the riots voted for Shanawaz Hussain of the Bharatiya Janta Party, for two Lok Sabha terms in a row, but abandoned him on his third for he hadn’t fulfilled promises they hoped he would fulfill. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he lost by 9,485 votes to Rashtriya Janta Dal’s Bulu Mandal.

His fortunes were further scuttled by businessman Aman Khan, who has been leading, and organizing protests for proper compensation for the riot victims, both Hindu and Muslim, and claims it was his work that got Nitesh Kumar’s government to release funds for the families of those killed. He boasts that his house has hosted the likes of Rabri Devi to Nitesh Kumar, and that he got people to vote for Shanawaz Hussain for two terms and abandoned him on the third for he didn’t work for the people. He had shifted to Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party but after he joined Narendra Modi, he claims, ‘Humne usko tata bye bye kar diya.’ (then I left his party)

It is an open secret that Bhagalpur is a violently communal society, that the wounds of 1989 still define social and economic parameters, a society of communities drawn across religious lines, and the myths that spread in 1989 are still parts of two parallel collective consciousnesses. There are those who can forget and those who have no choice but to remember: the haves and the have-nots of memory, the upstairs-downstairs of nostalgia. The myths have been integrated into the mainstream, and like an inconvenience, the memory of the acts of killing, the loss of loved ones, continue to challenge the myths. Yet, there is no public space, no debate, no conversation; it’s business as usual.
There was a small event held in Bhagalpur town in October to remember what had happened, but it was almost a private affair, only a handful of victims were aware of it.

Professor Vilakshan who teaches Ambedkarite thought in Bhagalpur was then part of a leftwing student movement. He remembers the day he confronted a ‘Hindu’ mob that was congregating in Bhagalpur: ‘Why are you spreading the riots? Who gave you this money? Who will benefit? The upper-caste people, the Rajput-Brahmins and the Bhumihars, nothing will happen to them. Aur yeh Musalman kaun hai? Un mein se 90% Musalman hum hi logo mein se, hamare quam se, in loge kabhi hum logo ko yeh samaan nahi diya, who musalman ban gaye. Aap unko maar ne jaa rahe ho?’ (And who are these Muslims? These are people from our own, who left Hinduism because they never got anything from it. And you’re going to kill them?)

He eventually realized that it was Mahadeo Singh who had organized the people. ‘Mahadeo Singh, was a man of all parties, but in the beginning, he was mostly with the Congress. He used to organize dacoits, and on the silk business, he and his people had the biggest competition with Muslim businesses.’

Whatever semblance of justice there was escaped Mahadeo Singh, a man known for his involvement in the riots. The then Superintendent of Police Dwivedi who was also indicted by the First Commission of Enquiry is currently Additional Director General of Wireless and Technical services. During the peak of the riots, he was about to be transferred out of Bhagalpur just on the onset of the riots, a decision made by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; but after protests by the plainclothes police, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other members of the Sangh Parivar, that decision was overturned.

To the survivors of 1989, the memories are clear, the names of lost ones etched painfully, the desire for apt compensation is as strong as a desire for justice; a hopeless hope. The report from another Riots Inquiry Commission headed by Justice NN Singh was meant to engage with those realities but has, till date, only come up with extensions. Most speak with the realization of how the year ruined them and their families, with the displacement, the disenfranchisement: the ghettoisation that has led to a continuation of a communal society – just a month ago, a moharram procession in Gowradi led to clashes, and inter-religious couples continue to face the wrath from the so-called ‘love-jihad’ brigade.

The television media is quick to remind them of the Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the violence in Gujarat of 2002 yet the absence of their tragedy has not gone unnoticed to them. Not a single person said that the rioters, the killers, weren’t their neighbours; yet most wouldn’t wish to identify them. There is a fear to speak, to talk about what the present tense surrounds them with. With all the recent upsurges of ‘Love Jihad’, any conversation about inter-religious marriages has witnesses and survivors who wish that I turn the recorder off.

Write about it, but don’t take my name.

M says, ‘In Bhagalpur, just two months ago, there were people who came from Ranchi and Hyderabad who beat up a Muslim boy in Nathnagar for marrying a Hindu girl.’
‘People were marrying of their own accord,’ he says, ‘but they call it Love Jihad… and there’s so much politics about it, so much politics, you wouldn’t believe.’

‘If there were inter-religious marriages, there would never be any riots.’

There is even a stronger history to it, just in 1995, a few years after the riots, a young Muslim man from a known Congress family was shot at the chowk for marrying a Rajput girl from a prominent family of Bhagalpur. And the re-run of the riot his mother feared, was then averted when the Rajput girl went back to her home. His killers were never punished, and they continue to be neighbours of the only Muslim house in the locality which is falling apart.

‘I don’t know why he married her, or why she caught my son,’ Said his mother.

After the Allahabad High Court judgement on the Babri Masjid issue, the administration was swift to order the police to deploy themselves around Bhagalpur, and seven policemen stayed at their house for protection. Nothing happened that day.

‘It were the Muslims who’re to blame for what happened.’ Said her daughter about 1989, ‘Why did they throw bombs at the Ramshila procession?’

The myths around what happened in 1989 still permeate most conversations; there were bombs, and the Congress who were in power were entirely to blame, and it destroyed them entirely. They haven’t won a single seat since 1989. Yet for some, the memory of what happened continues to be a thorn to the mainstream narrative.

‘I still remember what the BSF commander said when we found my father’s body,’ says Wasif Ali, (82), a retired professor from the Agricultural University of Bhagalpur. Wasif Ali’s family started to leave Parbatti a full month before the full-blown riots of October 24th and the pogrom that followed. He himself barely escaped being caught by a mob a few weeks earlier. ‘Laal scooter walla jaa raha hai, maar usko,’ He recalls, as a mob that had congregated at Parbatti tried to accost him as he was travelling by. That was all before the 24th, and yet the administration didn’t take any preventive actions.

It has now been three months since he got a stroke, sixteen years since he retired from teaching, and twenty five years he fought for justice in whichever way he can. It took him a mere five minutes to begin telling the story of the riots, with each pause between words like little flashbacks to an imagery of trauma only he had seen. He speaks in a calm baritone, slowly, in impeccable Urdu, over the sounds of a television report talking about Narendra Modi and a kitten meowing intermittently.

He recalls how everything was turning communal a whole month before October... 

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