Ram Navami celebrations in Bhadrak, Odisha have always been organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliate organisations and are also associated with memories of communal violence in the town. This year, the festival was celebrated aggressively against the backdrop of the BJP’s landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and the town witnessed another communal clash. Even so, the majority of Bhadrak’s residents have refused to fall prey to the machinations of communal politics.
Bhadrak town in the district of the same name in Odisha has a sizeable Muslim population constituting 39.56% of the total population of 1,21,338. Centuries of living together have led to the development of a shared culture and its expressions in many ways and forms in the day-to-day life of the people. However, this harmony has been disturbed periodically. The town experienced two major communal clashes—one in 1946 and the other in 1991—with a more recent one taking place in April. What is common is that all three clashes ocurred against the backdrop of communal tension in the larger political scenario in the country and were triggered by petty local events.
The 1946 violence took place against the backdrop of the Muslim League’s demand for a separate state. In 1991, the political atmosphere of the country was communally charged, centred as it was on the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid issue. In that charged atmosphere, Ram Navami was celebrated for the first time in Bhadrak town, organised primarily by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). On the very day of the celebration, the town plunged into a major clash between the Hindus and the Muslims which led to the loss of many lives. It also spread to the nearby town of Soro and other rural areas.
This time too, the communal clash took place two days after the Ram Navami celebrations. The following is a brief account of how it all started and the role played by communal forces.1
From the time it was first introduced, the observance of Ram Navami in Bhadrak has always been organised and monitored by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliate organisations. This year, the scale and grandeur of celebrations was unprecedented and continued for seven days, whereas earlier they lasted for three days. About one lakh people, nearly 10 times compared to the previous years, participated in the processions. Given that the population of the town is a little over a lakh, the participation of such huge numbers points to efforts to mobilise people from outside. Saffron flags were seen all over the town, including atop government office buildings throughout the week. On the final day of the celebrations, about a hundred medhas (floats) participated, accompanied by about 80 music bands playing high decibel music. Processions which had earlier wound up by 12 pm, continued till 3 am. During the processions, religious chants such as Jai Sriramand politically-loaded slogans like Hindustan mein rehna hai to Ram naam kehna hai were also raised. In the words of the president of the Hindu Suraksha Samiti (HSS), “After the UP election results, our youth were very excited. Their enthusiasm was very high. And here in Odisha, we did well in the recently held panchayat elections. So this year’s celebration was a special one.”
No untoward incident took place on the day of the festival. The Muslim community even felicitated the leaders/medhas in the processions when these passed through their localities. But beneath the veneer of this normalcy, there was apprehension in the Muslim community that something untoward might happen. Volunteers engaged by the Chauda Mohalla Committee (an apex body of Muslim mohalla committees of Bhadrak) were carefully chosen—people who would not get provoked easily. Most shops owned by Muslims were closed on the day.
Added to the effects of aggressive celebrations during Ram Navami, tension was also simmering among a section of the Muslim youth for another reason. The Urs (death anniversary of a saint) celebrations of Nasim Sarkar, a spiritual leader revered by certain sections of the Muslim community, were planned for 16 April, and posters announcing this were put up in the town. During the period of the Ram Navami celebrations, some of these posters were found to be torn and defiled, allegedly by Hindu youth. Besides, around the same time, there were offensive postings on the social media about Islam, again, allegedly by some Hindu youth. But the matter was not brought to the notice of the police.
In such a tense atmosphere, on the day after Ram Navami, that is, on 5 April, certain remarks apparently insulting the Hindu deities Ram and Sita appeared on social media. It was alleged that a Hindu student had posted on his Facebook wall a picture of the Ram Navami celebrations with the accompanying text, “Jai Sriram” and some Muslims had posted derogatory comments on it. On 6 April, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) brought it to the notice of the police and demanded immediate arrest of the accused. Reportedly, two written complaints were lodged on the basis of which the police registered a first information report (FIR). One complainant, a Class 10 student, declared himself as an active member of the Bajrang Dal. It was reported that the police took time to act upon the complaint since the matter involved a cybercrime but the complainants insisted on the immediate arrest of the accused. Moreover, an impression was created that the police were reluctant to take any action at the behest of the local member of legislative assembly (MLA) and his son, as one of the accused was the son of a ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader. By the time the FIR was registered, alongwith the students, the activists of the Bajrang Dal, VHP and HSS were also agitating outside the police station demanding action. Soon after the FIR was registered, a section of the agitating crowd went on to block the National Highway 45. This was followed by attacks on Muslim-owned shops near Bant Chhak. After this, the police declared Section 144 (the Code of Criminal Procedure) in the town and detained some of the rioters.
The next day, the district administration convened a meeting of the peace committee at the collectorate where the local MLA, chairperson of the Bhadrak municipality, the inspector general of police (IGP) and superintendent of police (SP) Bhadrak, additional district magistrate (ADM) and some community leaders were present. It was officially announced that 23 shops had been burnt down, and that the municipality would be arranging a vending zone for the affected shop owners.
By some accounts, many persons who were not members of the peace committee had entered the meeting hall and occupied the seats as a result of which, there was no room for some genuine members. While the “chaotic” peace committee meeting was held inside the meeting hall, many young men had gathered outside despite the prohibitory order. Some were onlookers while nearly 150 Muslim youth had also gathered to know whether their grievance regarding the defiling of the posters of Sarkar Baba was being addressed by their community leaders. When they came to know that this matter was not raised in the meeting, the young men got agitated and proceeded towards the Madina Maidan, located in the Puruna Bazaar (the place where community decisions are often taken) on their motorbikes, shouting slogans like “Bulu Pattnaik zindabad” (Pattnaik is a BJD youth leader and son of Jugal Kishore Pattnaik, the sitting MLA (BJD) of Bhadrak) and “Islam zindabad” and, by some accounts, “Pakistan zindabad, Hindustan murdabad.” It is important to note that all this happened when the local political leaders as well as the top brass of the police and district administration were present in the town.
While the administration was conducting the peace meeting, leaders of the BJP and its affiliates were mobilising Hindu youth, through social media and mobile phones and to which the police failed to pay attention. Hindu youth began gathering on the streets shouting, “jor se bolo Jay Shri Ram.” As on the previous day, the activists of the Bajrang Dal and VHP were also part of the demonstration. Most of the shops owned by Muslims were already shut due to the Friday afternoon prayers. Around 5 pm, the crowd began attacking Muslim shops in the Kacheri Bazaar area. As this message reached the Muslim majority areas, groups of young men, many of whom were already on the streets, began attacking Hindu shops in Chandan Bazaar and nearby areas.
Thus, began a chain of looting and arson. The main affected areas were Kacheri Bazaar, Bant Chhak area, Chandan Bazaar, Laha Pati and Charampa / Station Bazaar where mostly roadside shops were attacked. The looting and arson did not spread to the residential areas. One mosque was attacked and partially damaged in Station Bazaar, and a temple was affected in Laha Pati though no human life was lost.
Response of the Government
The local police and the district administration did not respond with the required seriousness, until the evening of 7 April. However, the state government swung into action once it became clear that the situation was going out of control. The same evening, the home secretary and the director general of police (DGP) rushed to Bhadrak and mobilised additional forces for the town. Curfew was imposed the same night. Order was issued for the immediate posting of a new district collector to take charge of the situation. It must be noted that the district administration was headless during the riot, since the collector had retired from service since 31 March, and no replacement had been posted. The SP and the inspector in charge of the Town Police Station and the ADM, who were on duty when the riot took place, were transferred.
Daytime curfew was in force for a few days, but night time curfew was in place for over a month following the violence and during this period, about 275 people were arrested including the state secretary of the Bajrang Dal, the district unit secretary of the BJP Yuva Morcha and a BJD councillor. There were allegations that many innocent people were also arrested. Apart from the anger felt by the concerned communities and family members of these innocents, the economic hardships faced by the families, particularly those of the poor, are a matter of serious concern.
Five days after the violence, on 12 April, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik visited the town and declared that the damage due to the riots would be assessed and adequate compensation would be provided. The compensation amount, it was announced, would range between a minimum of ₹20,000 and a maximum of ₹2,00,000 and was greeted with discontentment among all sections of the victims.
Dynamics of the Riot
A noticeable feature of the riot this time was the active participation of the youth, including students, in the looting and arson. The general perception among both the communities is that the hold of traditional leadership has been breaking down and there is no alternative in place for the youth. There is also increasing unemployment. As a result, vote-seeking political parties are luring them with money to work as their foot soldiers.
The recent communal clash was also partly due to the local dynamics of electoral politics—intra- and inter-party rivalries. There are reportedly two factions in the local BJD, one led by Prafulla Samal and the other by Jugal Kishore Pattnaik. It is said that Samal is trying to contest the next election from Bhadrak while Pattnaik is trying to consolidate his Muslim vote bank. Each is trying to outsmart the other. Similarly, within the BJP, there are a number of aspirants for the Bhadrak assembly seat who are trying to get the voters on their side by whatever means that are available.
Rumour-mongering played a part too. In Charampa area, a rumour that Muslims had destroyed three temples in the Puruna Bazaar area was deliberately floated by Hindu youth, while attacking a mosque and Muslim shops. It must be noted that no Hindus had been attacked in this area. In the Kacheri Bazaar vicinity, when Hindus began destroying Muslim shops, people talked about Pakistani bombs being deposited in the Puruna Bazaar area!
However, many ordinary citizens from both communities came forward to prevent the violence in their areas. The role of the residents of Puruna Bazaar, a Muslim-dominated area, in preventing violence was appreciated even by the president of the HSS. In his own words,
It is an admitted fact that the Muslim dominated Puruna Bazaar remained peaceful because Muslims took the lead and protected the area from unruly youth. Some Muslims actually threatened to beat up their own youth if they indulged in damaging the Hindu houses and shops of their locality. That is the bhaichara (brotherhood) of Bhadrak town.
Unlike the riot of 1991, this time the violence did not spread throughout the town and could thus be curbed soon. This underlines the fact that the common people did not participate in it. Nevertheless, there are worrying trends as well. One is the use of students and unemployed youth as cannon fodder to further gains in electoral politics by cynically creating and manipulating communal sentiments. This will have dangerous consequences. There are also signs that households living in areas dominated by the other community no longer feel safe and some families are thinking of shifting out. This will lead to ghettoisation that will damage the town’s social fabric. Moreover, as Hindutva and majoritarian politics deepen and expand nationally, one cannot rule out the danger to the locally rooted syncretic culture of the town.
Note: This commentary is based on a report by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Odisha, Weeping Salandi (June 2017).
Pramodini Pradhan is an activist and Convenor for PUCL Odisha; Sailen Routray is an educationist. Both are based in Bhubaneswar.