Riot took place on the next day of “Ramanabami” celebration on April 6 and 7, which the District Administration failed to prevent. Had the administration taken immediate steps and promulgation of Section 144 be strictly observed on 6th April and then also on 7th April such incidents could have been avoided.
Religious processions that cause kind of communal tension should not be allowed.
Those charged with violations and offences should be booked and punished according to the law of the state. It should also be ensured that there is no escape route for them. And the state should constitute a SIT to investigate and punish the rioters.
While investigating the actual cause of the riot of Bhadrak, a coastal district of Odisha, the team from Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan (GASS) came to know of two friends, Ankit and Asif Khan, who were entangled in a personal quarrel about their respective religions, which led to caricature in the social media (Facebook) on 6th of April, 2017. On the same day, a large group of hooligans gutted and burnt down around 23 small shops on the side of the National Highway. On 7th April, hundreds of shops, storehouses and few vehicles of both the communities were destroyed and burnt down. The long tradition of mutual understanding in Bhadrak turned into communal animosity within no time. A fact-finding team comprising 4 members, two each from the Bhubaneswar and Balasore units, of Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan (GASS) went to Bhadrak to investigate and to appraise the incident. The team extensively covered areas in and around Bhadrak town and talked with various sections of people, including victims of communities, local intellectuals and leaders of religious organisations. The team also met the family members of those arrested, local police, the IIC and the District Superintendent of Police.
The team looked into three important aspects: a) cause of the communal tension and subsequent situations, b) present condition of the victims and c) role of the police and administration.
The communal tension and riot that took place is no new incident in Bhadrak. In 1991, the town and its surrounding areas came under communal tension when Ramanabami pooja was observed the first time in Bhadrak. It was the inaugural year of the Ramanabami pooja. This year, in 2017, the Ramanabami Committee was celebrating the silver jubilee of that festival and the riot erupted on the third day of the festival. Every year the Ramanabami pooja procession brings panic within the minority Muslim community because of provocative slogans given by Hindutva forces during the procession. Taking caution to prevent any untoward incident, every year the Chauda Mohalla Muslim Zamat, which is a platform of representatives from Muslim mohallas, engages volunteers at each square on the day of Ramanabami to make sure that the procession passes through their respective squares peacefully.
As per the 2011 Census, the Muslim percentage in Odisha is just 2.1%. However, in Bhadrak it is about 39% and the population of Hindus is 60%. It is well known that the Muslim percentage in Cuttack, Kendrapada and Bhadrak are more in comparison to all other districts of Odisha. The total population of the Bhadrak municipality is 1,21,338, its sex ratio is 951 and the literacy ratio among males is 84% and that of females is 75%. The literacy rates are better than any other part of Odisha. People of both the communities are engaged with trading activities involving small and medium business.
In the context of communal vulnerability, many members of the Muslim community of Bhadrak are known as too conservative. The story of Nazma Bibi of Kantabania may be reminded afresh. It was on 3rd July 2003, Mr. Sher Mahammoad (Sheru), husband of Nazma, uttered Talaq thrice in his inebriated state. Next day he realised his mistake and wanted to continue his relationship with Nazma. He approached his area Maulabi to rectify his own mistake. But the Chauda Mohalla Muslim Zamat opposed Sheru and forced him to abide by the rules of Talaq. Nazma then approached National Women’s Commission for redressal and the Commission intervened. The Zamat took out a procession of about 10,000 people in Bhadrak Municipality area on 3rd June 2004 against the intervention of the Commission. Also, once in retaliation to an incident that occurred in Denmark about a photo of Mohammad, its reaction was expressed in Bhadrak.
Here in Bhadrak, the Hindu community doing big business is as conservative. They have been giving slogans of “Hindu Unification” with an intention to protect their business and their profit. They hesitate to speak against dalit atrocity. But ‘Hindus are insecure here’ says Bidyadhar Sahu of Hindu Suraksha Mancha. He fought for Zilla Parishad Member in the last Panchayat election as a BJP candidate. Once he was the Councillor of Bhadrak Municipality in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket. He does not agree that Ramanabami procession is escalating communal tension in the town. At present, Mr. Ray Ramananda Mahapatra, a lawyer by profession, is the president of the “Ramanabami Committee” who was incidentally the former District President of BJP. The team also came to know that all other functionaries of the Ramanabami Committee are linked with various Hindutva Organisations. For example, Mr. Bishnu Sethi, a former BJP MLA and Mr. Durga Mohapatra, district chief of Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangha are functionaries of the Committee. It may also be reminded that Mr. Manmohan Samal, a former state Minister was the President of the Committee for a considerable period. During the period of anti-Christian violence in 2008 just after the killing of Laxmananada in Kandhamal, the Hindutva wing vandalized Carmel English Medium School situated in Bhadrak town.
There are also binds of friendship and considerable fellow-feelings among Hindus and Muslim. Participation of both communities in common religious programes can be observed. Hindu believers are members of Mansur Baba Majjhar Committee. But the distance between the communities is increasing. At some Mohallas or lanes of the town either Muslim percentage would be more or Hindus. But one would see a number of new temples (Hanuman, Ganesh and Shani) and a new Mosque in every 50 to 100 meter of the lane. The local committee members of these religious institutions are members of respective religions only. Another interesting aspect is also observed that people are identifying themselves as “Odia”, “Pathan” and “Marwaris” in informal conversations though all of them have stayed in Bhadrak town for generations.
Causes of Riot
It has already been stated that the immediate cause of the present riot was the quarrel on social media between Ankit and Asif. In retaliation of Asif’s caricature of Hindu deities (Rama and Sita), cadres of ‘Bajarang Dal’ built pressure on local town police on 6th April to arrest Asif under Information and Technology Act (or cybercrime). According to the local people, the police did not pay any heed to their demands because Asif’s father belongs to the ruling Biju Janata Dal. The activists of Bajarang Dal went and burnt 23 shops, mainly of chicken centres, saloons and stationary shops, of the Muslim community situated on both sides of the National Highway.
In view of retirement of the District Collector, the Deputy Collector took steps and imposed Section 144 in the town. He called a meeting of the Peace Committee the next day that is on 7th April by announcing on television channels. This Peace Committee was attended by respectable persons of the community, including Mr. Jugal Pattnaik, local MLA and Mr. Abdul Bari of the Zamat. The committee failed to arrive into any conclusion. Meanwhile, a group of about 100 Muslim youths took out a motor bike rally defying Section 144, of course followed by police jeeps. The important question here is how can a rally was permitted ignoring Section 144 that was already imposed. When our team raised this question before the officer of the PS, he said “Because of non-availability of enough forces the police could not check them rather followed the bike rally so that a clash (with Hindu community members) would not happen.” The team did not accept this reason.
The team members interacted with people of the area and came to know that in protest against “giving permission” to such a rally, right-wing activists started looting and burning shops of Muslim minority community at one part of the town. When this news spread over mobile, the minority community youths started looting and burning shops owned by Hindu people. As a result shops of Muslim shopkeepers of Baanta Chhak, Nua Bazar, Kacheri Road, Charampa and Court Lane were looted and burnt. Whereas shops at Panaadachhak and Lahapati including a temple and ware houses at Chandan Bazar of Hindus were looted and burnt. As per the government report that came in media, more than 400 shops, a front side of a temple and a mosque, few vehicles including a truck, auto rickshaws and a few storehouses were burnt down. Officially it is stated that property worth 9 crores has been lost. But the team feels that it would be more.
The investigating team discussed the matter with the local police authority who acknowledged that widespread looting and burning of properties happened between 6pm to 9pm of 7th April. But the situation came under control with reinforcement of curfew in the area including ‘shoot at sight order’. During the riot of 1991, several lives were lost and houses were burnt in Bhadrak town and its surroundings areas also. During that time the area was under curfew for 45 days but the present one continued up to 36 days. But this time riot happened for a few hours only on 7th April, 2017. The rioters burnt shops and no life was lost.
While talking with the SP, the team came to know that there were 98 FIRs registered by 16th May 2017. By that day 270 people were taken to custody. These arrested persons were kept in various jails like Nilagiri, Balasore, Baripada and Anandapur. A few politicians were also booked for “organising riot”. They were Shubhankar Mahapatra, Councillor of 15 number ward of Bhadrak Municipality; Manas Ranjan Mahanti, District Convenor of Bajarang Dal; Bikash Shrestha, General Secretary of BJP Youth Wing and Asim Parida of Congress Youth Wing.
The team talked with affected people of the riot:
Mr. Mubarak Khan (40yrs) has a stationary shop at Municipality area. As per his statement, a group of people about 100 to 150 came giving slogans “Jai Sri Ram”. They looted the shop first and then burnt it down. His loss of property was about a lakh of rupees. He had to support a family of 5 members but he has not yet re-opened his shop. He has received a sum of Rs 40,000/ as compensation from the local administration.
Mr. Shek Abdul Hak maintains a tailoring shop at Banta sahi square. He witnessed that a group of 30 armed people blocked the road between 6 pm to 6.30 pm of April 7with burning tyres. They looted and burnt shops including his tailoring shop in front of a few policemen. They were shouting the slogan “Jai Sri Ram”. He lost property of about 2 lakh rupees and he has to support five people in his family. But he was yet to reopen his business when the team met. He received a sum of Rs 60,000 from the government.
Mr. Jahur Hussein Khan had a mobile cell repairing shop at the Market Complex of Banga Bazar. His shop was looted and burnt down. He said nearly 200 mobile sets, kept for repairing, got looted. He lost property of Rs 4 lakh but received Rs 60,000 as compensation from the government.
Mr. Ashok Kumar Laha (55yrs) has a grocery near the Brundaban temple of Shankarpur under Lahapatty. As per his statement, a group of armed Muslim youths came and looted his shops. They came both from Chandan Bazar and Fakir Bazar side. Subsequently they looted the essence-stick store house of Nimai Charan Laha. Ashok Kumar Laha said he lost property of Rs 4 lakh but received only Rs60,000 from the government as compensation.
Mr. Sunderlal Gupta (77yrs) runs a godown as well as a big grocery shop – “Biswambar Dayal Sundarlal”- at Chandan Bazar. He described that a group of armed people came from both sides of the road and attacked. They looted and burnt down both godown and the shop. He registered a FIR and mentioned a loss of worth Rs10 lakh. But he said before the team it could be of rupees one crores. He repents that the Hindus were not at all united and also confessed that he started RSS branch in the town but closed it during Emergency period to avoid unwanted arrest. He also expressed concern that Hindus are not at all safe in Pakistan. He opined that withdrawal of force might deteriorate the situation once again. A few armed personnel of IRB (Indian Reserve Battalion) were stationed near his godown when the team met him.
The complain of excessive use of force
The incidents of communal violence took place between 6 PM and 9 PM of 7thApril inside the town area. Armed police forces reached at 9 PM and started flag marching. The police announced ‘shoot at sight’ order and curfew was imposed by the authority. After collecting information and video footage from various types of electronic media, the police started identifying and arresting rioters from 3 AM of 8th April. Some people from both the community complained to the team the use of excessive force and arrest of some innocent persons. The team met a few family members of them.
- As per statement of Taranum Bibi, her husband, Shekh Sabir (40yrs) has a fish shop at Shankarpur. She said to the team that he is innocent but was arrested by the police at 3 am of 8 April 17 on charge of rioting. He was beaten in front of his family members and was sent to Nilagiri Jail. She met him at Nilagiri jail and saw his hand plastered. She charged that it was excess use of police force.
- Sari Bibi accused police that in front of them her husband, Shekh Hazi Shekh (60yrs) and his two sons, Shekh Abahayat (30) and Shekh Taimur (28) were forcibly taken from house by the force.
- Saida Khatun complained that his father, Shekh Sajik (45), was arrested forcibly by a group of 14 armed policemen. He was the only earning member of the family and they were facing a lot of hardship.
It may be pointed out that among the arrested 270 people, till 16/05/17 a large number of Hindu community people were also there. The family members of those also had the similar complaint against the police. But no one from the family members of the Hindu community came forward for any interview identifying themselves. While discussing with the SP (Superintendent of Police) of Bhadrak the team raised this complaint of ‘excess’ before him. The SP strongly supported the police action and claimed having specific evidence against each arrest.
Conclusion of the investigating team
Bhadrak riot reminds the prolonged anti-Christian communal violence of Kandhamal in 2008 and inaction of police including Rapid Action Force which allowed to continue the riot for months together. In comparison to that, the local administration and police came into action immediately in Bhadrak. For that there was no such violence after 8th April. During the riot of 1991, the human casualty at Bhadrak and surrounding areas was large. But in 2017 no such casualty happened. Another reason of this development is that many secular minded people became active to dilute the situation. They had wide scale relationship with the common people. Among them it may be mentioned the role of Mr. Nirakar Jena, senior lawyer by profession, Mr. Sachidananda Mohanty, Lawyer, Mr. Istar another lawyer, Mr. Dipak Sahu, a shopkeeper, Mr. Hariprasad Nanda, Mr. Zamir Akhtar Khan, Mr. Mustak Gabbar, Prof. Radharani Mahapatra etc. which could be truly praiseworthy.
However, the investigating team observes –
- The unfortunate incident occurred just after the celebration of Ramanabami about which the administration failed to prevent. Had the administration taken immediate steps and promulgation of Section 144 be strictly observed on 6th April and then also on 7th April such incidents could have been avoided.
- The celebration of Ramanabami is a tool for a group of people to disturb the normal atmosphere. It is creating fear among the people of minority community.
- During the period of riots rumour always plays a vital role to spread violence. Video and photos of Id celebration in Dhaka of Bangaladesh was posted in social media as video/photos of Bhadrak. But the police paid no heed to this and nobody was arrested.
- The amount of compensation paid to affected people is not at all sufficient. A sum of Rs 15,000/ to Rs 2,00,000 had been paid to 443 persons. As per the government estimate, total loss of property amounts to Rs 9 crore which is too less than actual loss.
- Immediate crackdown of police has helped to control the situation but there maybe few innocent persons also among them. The police have seized only one traditional weapon. It may be reminded that nobody is yet to be punished for the grave riot of 1991 in Bhadrak district.
- The district administration is yet to call a meeting of peace committee.
The investigation team demands:
- A cyber crime case should be registered against Ankit and he should be booked immediately.
- The carelessness of the District authority is manifested. Official action should be initiated against those officers.
- More and justified compensation may be paid to the affected people.
- No religious procession that is creating any social tension on communal line should be allowed in future.
- A special investigation team (SIT) may be formed. All rioters should be booked and punished.
- All these riot related cases should be tried at a fast track court to punish immediately.
The present riot was no new episode at Bhadrak. It is a fact that it was confined in Bhadrak town only and there was no casualty. It is also to be noted that a group of secular force including volunteers of “Sarvodaya” and ‘Rastriya Juba Sangathan’ have played a commendable role to bring back peaceful situation at Bhadrak. They are performing a street-play ‘eka achihna shaba’ (an unidentified corpse) on the streets of Bhadrak to bring social consciousness against communal atmosphere. The play seems to touch the hearts of many bystanders. But such efforts of these secular forces are becoming insufficient against the grave situation. Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan appeals to all democratic, secular and human rights groups to come forward and resist such unholy forces of the present day.
Dr. Golak Bihari Nath