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Feature: What explains the scale of communal violence in Bihar on Ram Navami?

What Explains the Scale of Communal Violence in Bihar on Ram Navami?

Nalanda (Bihar): At least four districts in Bihar witnessed communal tension on the occasion of Ram Navami this year, with Bihar Sharif in Nalanda, the home district of chief minister Nitish Kumar, seeing the worst of it.

In Bihar Sharif, just about 70 km from Patna, not only were more than a dozen shops and godowns set ablaze, but the more than 100-year-old Madrasa Azizia, with a library of 4,500 books, was also burnt. Stones were pelted at a mosque adjacent to it.

Shakir Qasmi, principal of Madrasa Azizia, says that in the 4,500 books, there were some rare ones and the rest were course books. Due to the fire, he continued, cracks have appeared in the walls of the building, so now it will have to be repaired.

During the clash, a young man was killed in the firing and several were injured.

Internet services have been shut down and Section 144 is still in force in the violence-hit areas of Bihar Sharif, although shops have been allowed to open from 6 am to 2 pm for the last three days. Except for medicine shops, retail outlets close at 2 pm. Vehicular movement comes to a standstill and silence prevails. The only sound is from the police vehicles that pass by with sirens blaring and the anti-riot squad conducting a flag march.

Local people say that after 1981, there has never been this level of violence in the city. Humayun Akhtar Tariq, about 55 years old, has been running a hotel in the heart of the city for the past three decades, with a dental clinic inside the hotel. The rioters have damaged his hotel. He says that he is not sad that his hotel has been damaged; he is sad that his trust has been broken.

“For 32 years I believed that I am safe here, because Hindus live around me. But today this belief has disappeared. Will get the hotel repaired, but restoring trust is difficult,” he said.

Naresh Kumar had a small shop two minutes away from the hotel, where he used to do paint work. His shop was also badly damaged. A bicycle and other items kept inside the shop were destroyed. He says that since 1990 he was running this shop, but nothing like this ever happened before. “I closed the shop in the afternoon due to the Ram Navami procession and went home. After some time I got a call that my shop had been set on fire,” he said.

Naresh asked, weeping, “All Muslims [in the area] would give me love and call me painterji. I never faced any difficulties here. Miscreants in the Ram Navami procession snatched my only source of livelihood. Now how will I survive?”

Naresh Kumar at his destroyed paint shop in Bihar Sharif. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray

Where and how the clash started is not yet known, but a local journalist who was present at the scene said, “Many organisations had tableaux, accompanied by a procession. The first two processions passed safely. After this the procession of Bajrang Dal was coming out, I think the violence started.”

People from both communities have blamed the district administration’s inaction and lack of preparedness. Locals say that the procession was huge, but only a dozen constables and trainee police personnel were deployed.

Police have registered more than a dozen FIRs in this matter and arrested about 150 people. Ashok Mishra Superintendent of Police, Nalanda has rejected the allegations that not enough personnel were deployed, calling it “baseless”.

Sasaram in Rohtas district also saw communal clashes on March 31 during a Ram Navami procession and the government had to shut down internet services and impose Section 144 in the city as a precautionary measure.

In Bhagalpur too, stones were pelted between two communities during a Ram Navami procession. There was a communal clash in Gaya as well.

Meanwhile, in some districts, the violence was averted as the administration took precautionary steps before the procession. In Gopalganj district, a flag march was organised by the police before a few days before Ram Navami, to avoid any untoward incidents on the procession day.

In Siwan, police flew drones the day before the procession and removed bricks and bottles from buildings’ roofs. Police also installed about 40 CCTV cameras in sensitive areas in the wake of the procession.

A police officer in Siwan said on the condition of anonymity, “We will [continue to] take strong precautions before such religious processions so that clashes can be averted.”

A common feature on Ram Navami across the state this year was larger than ever before crowds. Political analysts are linking the increased crowd and communal tensions during Ram Navami with the 2024 general elections and then the assembly elections in Bihar.

Humayun Akhtar Tariq’s vandalised hotel in Bihar Sharif. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray

Kanchan, a Gaya-based journalist, said, “I have been a journalist here for many years, but such a huge crowd has never been seen before in a Ram Navami procession.”

Sujit Kumar, a local journalist from Nalanda, told The Wire, “The Ram Navami procession has been taking place in Bihar Sharif town for many years, but this time the crowd was like never before. This violence has not happened suddenly. The conspirators of this violence are definitely targeting the upcoming elections.”

Another Nalanda-based journalist said on the condition of anonymity, “A tremendous atmosphere is being created here in favour of the BJP. When the violence broke out, women involved in Ram Navami celebrations were heard saying ‘Modiji ki police lao tab shanti hogi (Bring Modi’s police, only then peace will come).”

Nalanda Police registered an FIR against three leaders of the Bajrang Dal and BJP over the violence.

A deserted road in Bihar Sharif as Section 144 has been imposed. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray

Sasaram-based journalist Anurag Saran also says that this time, the procession had gathered a larger than normal crowd. He said that there was a minor clash in Sasaram, but it has been exaggerated on social media. “I think there is definitely a political motive behind promoting this on social media.”

Senior journalist and political analyst Chandan elaborated on this, “During such religious processions, violent incidents are carried out to fulfil political objectives so that both communities vote on divided religious lines. The BJP definitely benefits from this.”

However, the practice of using Ram Navami processions for politics is not a new one. Just a year before the 2019 general elections, there was fierce violence in Bihar’s Aurangabad, Nawada, Sheikhpura, Nalanda and Samastipur districts.

In October 2019, a mosque was stoned and many shops were set on fire in Jehanabad district, and another mosque was attacked in Sitamarhi. A 70- year-old Muslim man was burnt by rioters. This time’s violence, experts believe, was pre-planned and targeted at the upcoming elections.

After Nitish Kumar walked out of NDA last year and formed the Mahagatbandhan government, the BJP in Bihar is planning to fight the upcoming elections alone. But the caste equation is not in the BJP’s favour. The BJP has recently made Samrat Chaudhary, a Kushwaha, the state chief to disturb the Luv-Kush (Kurmi and Kushwaha) vote bank which has largely been voting for Nitish.

On the other hand, the Nitish government has initiated a caste census whose outcome, according to social scientists, may further diminish the BJP’s prospects in the state. So the BJP’s only option to increase its vote share is to polarise people on religious lines. Violence of the kind witnessed on Ram Navami only accelerates that polarisation.

Whatever may be the reason, the state government cannot run away from its responsibility, Chandan said. “The government has all the information about sensitive pockets of the state. So why didn’t they take strict measures to avert this violence? It seems the government let this violence happen,” he added.

Umesh Kumar Ray is a Patna-based journalist.

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