On April 28, Iftiyakh Sayid’s godown was reduced to rubble. He had used the warehouse to store agate semi-precious stones, the main commodity of trade in the decrepit coastal town of Khambhat in Gujarat. The 80 foot-by-20 foot warehouse was nearly a decade old. Days ago, the town administration suddenly ruled it was an “illegal encroachment”.
In addition to Sayid’s warehouse, the Khambhat administration bulldozed 16 other godowns on April 28, all of them owned by Muslims. “I am on the streets, I have lost everything,” said 40-year-old Sayid, who estimated that he had suffered losses amounting to Rs 9 lakh.
This was the second instance in less than two weeks of the authorities razing down property owned by Muslims in Khambhat.
The cycle of events that led to the Khambhat demolitions follows a pattern observed across the country this April. In states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, processions to celebrate Navratri and Hanuman Jayanti became communal flashpoints.
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A Ram Navami riot left both Hindus and Muslims hurt. But Muslim properties were singled out for demolition.
In most cases, processions organised by Hindutva groups sparked communal violence as they passed by mosques or Islamic shrines. In places where the Bharatiya Janata Party controls the state or the local administration, this violence was followed by the demolition of Muslim-owned properties tagged as “illegal encroachments” overnight.
In Khambhat, the communal conflagration broke out on Ram Navami on April 10. On April 15, the Khambhat administration brought down several kiosks in which poor Muslims operated small businesses. The kiosks lined the road that was the site of the communal violence. According to the owners of these businesses, these demolitions were conducted without any prior notice.
A sarpanch complains
Twenty one Muslim men have been arrested for the April 10 clashes on the edges of Khambhat town so far. Many of them belong to families whose kiosks were destroyed on April 15.
Take 72-year-old Mohammad Abdullah Malik, who had been selling tobacco products and snacks in a kiosk for four decades. This, after Malik’s left hand was crushed in a cloth factory, leaving him with few other avenues of employment. Malik’s 21-year-old son, Tehbaz, was arrested on April 14 for alleged offences during the Ram Navami clashes in Shakarpur village, on the outskirts of Khambhat town. On April 15, Malik’s stall was knocked down.
Shakarpur’s sarpanch, or village chief, Dinesh Patel, said he approached the local administration asking for the “encroachments to be removed”. “They saw what happened live, so they agreed to my point,” said Patel, a BJP member.
Apart from the kiosks, the authorities also felled several trees. “The anti-social Muslims would sit under the trees and disturb our people,” said Patel, by way of explanation.
Patel was a key organising member of the Ram Navami procession by a local Hindutva group that calls itself the Ram Sena. Patel is close friends with the Ram Sena chief, Jaiveer Joshi, and his father, Jairaj Joshi. Patel arranged a meeting between this reporter and Jairaj Joshi, who invoked violence against Muslims several times during the conversation.
“They have started this fight,” he said. “We will end this.”
Demolitions may still continue in Shakarpur, quietly, out of the national media spotlight. Apart from those already bulldozed on April 15, several smaller Muslim-owned businesses have also been issued eviction notices by the panchayat, Scroll.in has been told.
‘Law and order demolitions’
Who exactly ordered the April 15 demolitions and why? Each wing of the local administration denies responsibility.
Khambhat’s sub-divisional magistrate, Nirupa Gadhavi, refused to share details about the processes followed and laws invoked in the demolition drive.
Khambhat’s Taluka development officer, AP Modi, who deals with rural revenue matters, was more candid. The decision to demolish properties belonging to the accused flowed from the “law and order” situation, he said.
“If I give orders for any property within a panchayat to be demolished, there are different procedures which I have to follow,” said Modi. “But in law and order issues, the order of SDM [sub-divisional magistrate] and the deputy SP [superintendent of police] is final.”
The Khambhat Deputy Superintendent of Police Abhishek Gupta, said the police only played the role of “providing security” for the demolition team deployed by the district administration.
Gupta, however, conceded that there had been “many complaints” about “nuisance people who sit under the trees and in the shops harassing people”.
A second round of demolitions
The second round of demolitions, on April 28, took place in the main town of Khambhat. It was helmed by Khambhat’s city survey superintendent Ekta Patel.
She said the demolitions were not connected to the Ram Navami clashes and had been carried out under Section 61 of the Land Revenue Code, which is applicable when a person is found to be in unauthorised occupation of government land.
The official said the demolished structures dated back 15 years “according to the documents” submitted by the owners.
According to Patel, the notices asking for removal of the supposed encroachments were issued on April 21. However, the affected individuals claim they received copies only a day earlier on April 27. “There was no time to go to court, seek a stay order, or save our goods,” said Sayid.
Although all the properties knocked down belonged to Muslims, Patel refuted allegations of bias. “We are surveying every encroachment and we will issue notices to everyone in due course of time,” she said. However, no other business apart from those already razed has been issued notices yet, Patel said.
Allegations of bias
It is not just the civil administration that is having to contend with allegations of bias. The police’s actions have also come under scrutiny. There are two first information reports on the communal violence on Ram Navami, based on complaints by either side. The police have acted on one – only Muslims have been arrested so far.
Gupta said “the Muslim side started” throwing stones on the Ram Navami procession on the afternoon of April 10.
Videos from the day, shot on mobile phones just before violence broke out, show a crowd of several thousand, mostly young men, dancing in a frenzy in front of the dargah at Shakarpur. Devotional music set to techno beats is blared from loudspeakers rigged on top of vehicles in the procession
As the videos show, the procession almost came to a halt near the dargah and the dancing reached a crescendo. All the revellers seemed to be facing the dargah as they moved frenetically in the summer heat. As Gupta said, “People were continuously dancing there.”
It was at this moment, the police said, that things went downhill: a heated argument between the two sides acted as the precursor to a storm of stray stones. In the chaos, a 59-year-old daily wage labourer, Kanaiyalal Rana, lost his life.
Rana was a devout man, said his son Bhavesh Rana. “He had only gone to attend the procession – an innocent man died,” he said.
Hours after the clashes in Shakarpur, several Muslim shops and kiosks were burnt in the main town of Khambhat.
‘A grand show’
Communal clashes are frequent in Khambhat. Since 2002, when almost all of Gujarat was convulsed with Hindu-Muslim violence, the once-flourishing port city has seen conflagrations in 2012, 2016, 2019 and 2020.
In official parlance, these incidents are referred to as “riots”, suggesting both sides took equal blame and injury. However, walk through the town and it is the Bohri Muslim mansions that lie empty – their affluent owners have long fled. With the town’s economy a pale shadow of its former self and the increasing communalisation, it made little sense for them to stay on.
Yet, the Ram Navami processions, often a lightning rod for communal tensions elsewhere, had been largely uneventful in Khambhat. Residents say the processions were a fairly new introduction to the calendar. It was the Joshis who started these events approximately seven years ago.
Residents say that after a forced Covid-induced break of two years, the Ram Sena had gone all out to put up a grand show this year. Usually attended only by the residents of Shakarpur, around three-fourths of whom are Hindus, the Ram Sena went on a publicity drive this year. “Hindus from all over Khambhat” had made their way to be part of the rally this time, a young member of the group said.
He was not exaggerating. Till 2019, the rally didn’t see more than 500-600 people. This year there were more than 2,000 people, according to the police. According to Dinesh Patil, the number was “not less than 6,000-7,000”.
“Men, women, children, everyone was there,” he said.
A fire at night
Yet, the police insist the violence was “pre-planned” by Muslims. “People who were behind this, they were in the be-ready condition at the dargah,” said Gupta, implying that Muslim men were gearing up for a fight.
A week after the incident, Muslim women in Shakarpur – most Muslim men are behind bars while the rest are on the run – woke up in the dead of the night to a fire near their homes.
The twigs and branches of the trees that were felled during the demolition drive of April 15 had been set alight. “Luckily, the police came and woke us up, imagine what would have happened had the fire spread, all houses have gas cylinders,” said Zeba Bano, whose house stood metres away from the blaze.
Meanwhile, sarpanch Dinesh Patil claims he is not done yet. “They have broken the peace and they will be taught a lesson,” he said. “There are many other illegal encroachments in the village, I will remove them myself as the sarpanch.”