The Rise of Organized Communal Violence in Bihar
Key findings of a report by United Against Hate
NEW DELHI: Arriving in Bihar earlier this week amidst protests and proclamations by the opposition that he is here ‘to disturb the peace’, Mohan Bhagwat, the Chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began his four day tour of the state. Intending to interact with students of educational institutions and apprising them of the activities of the organisation, Bhagwat’s tour comes in the wake of a turbulent time.
In the month of March, the state of Bihar had witnessed a flurry of communal violence that erupted in the wake of the Ram Navami festivities. Nine, out of the 38 districts of the state, were affected by what appeared to be a pre-planned attempt at disrupting the peace and instigating clashes amongst the people.
Armed processions coupled with incendiary sloganeering, became trademarks of the mobs that vandalized properties belonging to people of the Muslim community. Desecrating a mosque in its wake, the clashes went on to leave behind several hundred injured including police officers, across the nine districts of the state.
In a report by the United Against Hate organization, which documents the incidents that took place, an indication is evolved of how the communal violence was reportedly organized in its functioning and abetted by people of political repute.
Several days before the Ram Navami festival, members of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), the Bajrang Dal and the RSS took out an unauthorized procession which went onto indulge in arson leaving behind 35 people injured. The mob was headed by Arijit Shaswat Choubey, son of the Union Minister of Bihar, Ashok Choubey.
Fueled with momentum, the days that followed saw the rise of clashes across the state which were carried out in a similar fashion.
March 24: In Siwan, an alleged attempt was made to hinder a procession resulting in stone-pelting and leaving behind three vehicles burnt.
March 25: In Aurangabad, stone-pelting ensued after a procession was attempted to be stopped. Almost 50 shops were destroyed and 25 people injured.
March 27: In Samastipur, a mosque was vandalized in the Rosera town with the mob later hoisting a saffron flag on the minaret. Ten people including a probationary IPS officer were injured and three vehicles were set ablaze.
At the same time, in Munger, gun-fire broke out between two communities over an inflammatory song that was played along with derogatory slogans. Properties and vehicles were burnt.
March 28: In Silao, heavy stone-pelting took place over the route of a Ram Navami procession leading to the usage of tear-gas. More than 20 people, including a policeman, were injured.
Meanwhile, in Sheikhpura, participants of a Ram Navami procession clashed with police after their demand to use a route other than the permitted one in Girhinda area of the district was rejected. Police resorted to lathicharge.
According to a report by Catchnews, the strategy with which the processions functioned were similar in each of the instances mentioned above. There were large marches, in many cases armed, and passed through Muslim-dominated areas playing anti-Muslim songs. The violence would begin with stone pelting by either the procession itself or by the residents in the area. This would lead to clashes leaving behind injury to person and property.
The processions would also be equipped with sound systems through which provocative songs were played in order to rankle the Muslim community. Moreover, slogans depicting the rise of Hindutva and the ‘bowing’ of Muslims or eviction to Pakistan, were chanted in unison.
The larger, much sinister picture of the violence, was drawn by the abetment of people with political repute. In Bihar, it was Arijit Shashwat of the BJP, son of union cabinet minister, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, who led a violent procession through multiple Muslim localities of Bhagalpur, on 17th March 2018. The police filed criminal cases against Shashwat who later surrendered after his father declared to the media that he would stand by his son.
Apart from Shashwat, BJP MP Sushil Kumar Singh from Aurangabad and BJP’s former state minister, Ramadhar Singh, both led Ram Navami processions on 26th March 2018 that later targeted mosques in its route and led to large scale arson and destruction of property, selectively of Muslims, as reported by the Indian Express .
Another BJP member, Anil Singh, leader of Hindu Seva Samiti, and the prime accused in Aurangabad violence, was booked along with 148 others for inciting and leading violence, as reported by the Indian Express. Singh escaped from police custody, on 31st March 2018, and it was only later that he surrendered. Along with him, BJP leaders, Dinesh Jha and Mohan Patwa with 10 others, were arrested on the basis of CCTV footage in Rosera town, booked for inciting the violence.
At almost every site, there was active involvement of Hindutva groups that collectively belonged to the Sangh Parivar. Police FIR in Silao (Nalanda, Bihar) mentions Dhiraj Kumar, local Bajrang Dal convenor, as well as Shubham Singh Rajput, Bajrang Dal convenor from Biharsharif, as named accused in the case, of the 69 total identified.
Additionally, Police FIR in Rosera (Samastipur, Bihar) mentions Bajrang Dal members, along with other local leaders, all un-named, as raising provocative speech-es, inciting crowds to violence against Muslims, and generally leading the rioting. (Case no 99/18 dated 27/3/18, Rosera PS). FIRs in Aurangabad (99/18 and 101/18, dated 30-03-18) records some of the accused belonging to Bajrang Dal as well as (Gandhinagar Ward 33) Vanar Sena Samiti.
It goes without saying that the role of the administration is to ensure that communal harmony remains untainted at all costs. However, from the onset of the clashes, both the District and State administrations remained unable to quell the discord. Despite warrants of arrests being issued by courts, the law enforcement was ineffectual in arresting Shashwat. Later, after much posturing by the BJP, he surrendered. From here onwards, the bleak tonality for law enforcement was set and processions were carried out blatantly in other parts of the state.
Video footages from Aurangabad clearly displays the lack of law enforcement officers which paved the way for much of the violence.
Moreover, the administration did possess an idea of the organized manner in which the processions were about to be carried out.
Bihar Home Secretary, in an interview to United Against Hate, confirmed that the administration was “aware of swords being present at the processions in large numbers. Don't know exactly how many. It is hard to track sales online. Swords never been seen before at the processions".
In the aftermath of the violence, the method of prosecution adopted is one that is meant to act as a ‘balancing act’ as opposed to following along the lines of a proper investigations. The provocations made by the processions have been toned down in the FIR reports and youths of both communities, Hindus and Muslims, have been mentioned as the anti-social elements intending to disrupt peace. Excluded in many cases, however, are the names of the local leaders and organizers of the processions.
Notably, since July of 2017, when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar quit the Grand Alliance and formed the government with the BJP, the incidents of communal tensions have increased. The report by The Indian Express, indicated that more than 200 cases of communal tensions have been recorded by the police since then, including 64 in 2018 itself.
This indicates a palpable discord within the state communities, fueled further by vested interests. Moreover, the UAH report indicates that as the polarisation continues rampantly in Bihar, the use of festivals as platforms for instigating organized communal violence has begun. The failure of the administration and consequently, law enforcement will only go on to propel the disharmony between the communities, if left unchecked.
Amidst the political power struggles that the state is already undergoing, it will also become evident how communal tensions invite a particular vote bank support.
Indulging in “vote bank politics”, as Bhagwat remarked about those opposing his trip today, could set Bihar up in a dangerous trajectory even though it is a statement that comes with the greatest touch of irony.