In April 2022, processions to celebrate Navratri and Hanuman Jayanti turned into communal flashpoints across the country. In many cases, Hindu supremacist groups organised processions where Islamophobic songs were blasted out. When these processions neared mosques or dargahs, violence ensued.

Muslim residents in some areas say the participants in the processions tried to enter these religious structures to plants saffron flags. In some places, Muslim religious structures were vandalised or set alight. In places where the Bharatiya Janata Party controlled the state or local administration – like Khargone in Madhya Pradesh, Khambhat and Himmatnagar in Gujarat, Jahangirpuri in Delhi – the violence was followed by so-called anti-encroachment drives. Most of the shops and homes knocked down by the bulldozers belonged to Muslims.

These episodes of violence have led to anxious conversations among Muslims on social media. Much of the conversation revolves around video recording the offences of the revellers who tried to enter the mosques. Instal closed circuit television cameras in mosques, said one Twitter user. Start a YouTube live around mosques when a procession is approaching, use professional cameras so that faces in the rally can be identified, said another.

Yet mosque management committees in at least three states – Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – are fearful. Many mosques actually had CCTVs and footage of the violence directed at them, they point out, but this is of no help if the police do not investigate the cases.

Khargone: ‘CCTV footage not being investigated’

The Dhan Mandi mosque in Khargone was fitted with a CCTV. Footage from April 10 shows a mob on the street hurling stones towards the mosque. The camera shakes as a stone is flung at it. Police personnel stand around on the street, doing nothing to stop the mob.

A 35-year-old Muslim resident of the town detailed the damage to the Dhan Mandi Masjid: “The mosque gate was set on fire, the cameras were broken, the gates at the back were damaged.”

He refused to be identified. So did all other Muslim residents of Khargone that spoke to – they feared being arrested. As of May 4, 177 people arrested for the violence in Khargone, most of them Muslim.

The police did register an FIR on April 12 addressing the vandalisation of the Dhan Mandi mosque. Offenders are booked under Sections 295 (injuring or defiling a place of worship), 427 (mischief causing damage) and 436 (mischief by fire or explosive) of the Indian Penal Code.

No arrests have been made under this FIR.

Khargone Superintendent of Police Rohit Kashwani said that the police was considering all evidence, including CCTV footage. Muslim residents of Khargone say otherwise. “All we want is for them to look at the footage honestly, find the culprits and initiate action against them,” said the 35-year-old.

Jama Masjid, the other mosque that was allegedly attacked on April 10, also had a CCTV installed. But there has been no complaint about the attack yet.

A member of the Jama Masjid management committee sounded resigned: “There is no point in even going to the police. They have created an environment where we are petrified.”

On April 11, the local administration started a demolition drive in the area. Shops lining the Jama Masjid walls were demolished.

Shops lining the Jama Masjid compound were demolished on April 11. Picture credit: Supriya Sharma

Still, Muslim residents of Khargone are glad they have CCTV footage.

“If we did not have this then we would have to just listen to all the allegations against us, put our head down and accept them,” said the Jama Masjid mosque management committee member. “With this footage we are in a place to go back to the authorities and try one more time to convince them [that we are innocent].”

According to the member of the Jama Masjid mosque committee, they had kept the main door of the mosque shut on April 10, “fearing something untoward would happen”. But mosque gates in Khargone would be shut during religious rallies even before April 10. In a town prone to communal clashes, mosques have long developed habits of caution.

A saffron flag on the Takiya masjid in Gujarat's Himmatnagar. (Special arrangement)

Himmatnagar: Long shadows of 2002

In Himmatnagar on April 10, there were two rallies to mark the end of Navratri. The first was organised by the International Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the second by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

By the end of the day, four dargahs and a mosque had been vandalised, said Muslim residents of Himmatnagar, who account for about 20% of the town’s population. They also alleged saffron flags had been planted on the mosque. On April 11, demolitions followed in the locality that had seen clashes. Once again, the local administration claimed it was cracking down on encroachment.

Imran Syed Ahmed Aljiwala, a 42-year-old corporator from Himmatnagar, said the Muslim community had refrained from retaliation. He took comfort in the fact that the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organisation of Islamic scholars, had petitioned the Supreme Court against the demolition of Muslim properties.

On April 10, according to Aljiwala, the mosque and dargah management committee went to complain to the police. “They went with written complaints, naming and recognising people,” he said. “Despite that, the police registered a complaint against unknown people.”

The FIR registered independently by the Gujarat Police the same day mentioned offences such as rioting, criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly and wounding religious feelings.

“When immediately someone does not come to register an FIR, we as the police register the FIRs ourselves and that is what was done,” said Abhay Chudasama, inspector general of Gandhinagar range, who has been in Himmatnagar to oversee law and order. “Videography and photos and statements are being and have been taken. People are being identified and arrested.”

Chudasama rejected claims that the police did not accept the statements of Muslims. “Their complaints would have been taken by the police as part of the investigation as well,” he said.

Himmatnagar Superintendent of Police Vishal kumar Vaghela added that at least 12-15 people had been arrested under this FIR and more “anti-social elements” were being picked up every other day.

However, Alijwala said that many mosques and religious structures already had CCTV footage, but the police were not investigating these or taking the testimony of Muslims.

“If they do not take our statements down, we will approach the court to register another FIR under section 156/3 of the CrPC,” he said. Under this provision, an individual can move court to get the police to register an FIR. He added that they had also written to the collector and police officials asking for police protection.

But Usman Bapu, the 67-year-old caretaker of the Gebanshah Peer Dargah was not expecting any police protection. Parts of the dargah were vandalised and burned on April 10. Local residents had contributed money and helped to rebuild it. Usman, who has slept outside the shrine for the last 15 years, said he had asked for no police protection.

“What can we do?” he asked repeatedly. “We cannot do anything. Allah is the almighty. He will ensure that the people who did this suffer losses.”

Ayub Bhai, the 84-year-old caretaker of the Zoravar Shah Dargah, also vandalised on April 10, also had no faith in the authorities. He had also been the caretaker of the shrine when it was burnt in 2002, when communal violence engulfed Gujarat.

“The dargah was to have protection after the riots of 2002,” he said. “Despite that, it was attacked again. Now again some police officials sit there but it does not mean anything. Only Allah is the almighty and he will do what is best.”

Gahmar: No CCTVs, no skull caps

In Uttar Pradesh’s Gahmar village, Muslims are an even smaller minority than in Himmatnagar. According to local estimates, there are only a few thousand Muslims compared to 1.5 lakh Hindus. The trouble here started on April 2, the beginning of the nine days of Navratri. Residents recall young Hindu men going on a procession called the Ram Kalash Yatra. Once again, inflammatory songs were played and a saffron flag planted on the local mosque.

A video from the incident shows someone standing on the first floor of the mosque waving a saffron flag. Other revellers are seen on the staircase and on the floor below. The police took cognisance of the incident and registered an FIR against unknown persons for promoting enmity between groups. According to the station house officer at Gahmar, one person had been arrested but later released on bail.

According to Sudhir Neta, the former village head, everyone who had been detained or arrested was released now and “all is good between the two communities”.

But Muslims in Gahmar are still fearful. The mosque has no CCTV. A 30-year-old Muslim man who lives next to the mosque and looks after it said they knew about the rally but did not expect matters to get out of hand.

Members of the community are now divided on what to do, he continued. Younger people say that they should approach the police; the elders warn against it. They are also scared of installing CCTV cameras.

“The view is, even if we install a CCTV camera, they [the Hindus] will get angry that we are taking such steps and our problems will only increase,” said the 30-year-old, who identified himself only as Ayaz.

Matters had been tense for the last two or three years, he recounted.

When maulvis, or Muslim clerics, crossed Hindu localities they were made to take their skull caps off. There was no choice but to comply since Muslims were a negligible minority in Gahmar. “We eventually have to stay among them, so what do we do?” he asked.

Another Muslim resident who did not want to be named said he now worried about going to the mosque for prayers. “No one came from there [the Hindu residents of Gahmar] to offer any peace or apology for what they did,” he said. “The Muslims of the village did not even register the FIR, the police did it themselves. But there is still heightened tension ever since they did that.”

There is now intense fear among Muslims in Gahmar. The women in Ayaz’s home insist he say his prayers at home and not go to the mosque. “The fear is that whenever we go out, we could be attacked or killed,” he said.