On the night of June 5, a 16-year-old from Kolhapur shared a friend’s post on Instagram – a 12-second montage of images of a king and a scene from a rally where a man held up a poster featuring the royal. According to his family, he shared it because he found the background music funny – it was a Haryanvi song titled Baap to Baap Rahega.

The day after, when parts of Maharashtra were celebrating the anniversary of the coronation day of Shivaji, the Instagram post went viral.

The post angered Hindu outfits in Kolhapur, who claimed it featured images of the 17th-century Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, and, therefore, was meant as an insult to Shivaji who had fought several battles against him. A protest delegation went to two police stations.

A bandh was called the next day.

By evening, the Kolhapur police had detained the 16-year-old from Sadar Bazar and four other underage boys for outraging religious sentiments and inciting violence.

On June 7, a mob of around 5,000, according to police estimates, began to gather at 8 am at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Chowk in Kolhapur. Around 11 am, they began to ransack Muslim-owned shops, vehicles and homes.

Shivaji Chowk in Kolhapur, from where the riots broke out on June 7.

The aftermath

On Friday, two days after the riots, Kolhapur’s streets returned to their normal hustle. Except for dark-blue police vans stationed in multiple lanes, there was little indication that a riot had broken out in the city.

Much deeper in the labyrinth of lanes, however, residents showed us proof of the violence – large stones that were hurled at their homes, shards of broken glass windows, and dents on bikes.

The Kolhapur police have arrested 34 people in connection with the riots, and remanded them to seven days of police custody. Around 80 vehicles have been found damaged in the violence and property worth over Rs 7 lakh damaged, said police superintendent Mahendra Pandit.

“Right now, our force is busy maintaining law and order,” Pandit said. “Once that is in control, they will scan through CCTV footage to identify more rioters.”

In a separate FIR, the police have named eight accused for posting the video on various social media platforms.

A senior police official has, however, confirmed that the video posted by the eight accused did not feature images of Aurangzeb – but of the 18th-century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. “The headgear is of Tipu Sultan, not Aurangzeb,” the officer said.

The mother of one of the underage boys booked for sharing the video said he never took part in any communal activities.

Of the eight, five are minors who are currently detained in an observation home. One of them is the 16-year-old, whose father said his son does not even know who Tipu Sultan is: “He does not understand what or why this is happening to him.”

Senior police officials said the boys were being detained to protect them from “mob lynching”.

Local residents, political leaders and social activists in Kolhapur say the social media post was just a tipping point. Communal tensions had been simmering in the city since June 3 after news of an inter-faith relationship between a minor Hindu girl and a Muslim man went viral.

Kolhapur, like the rest of Maharashtra, has seen sustained mobilisation by Hindutva groups in recent months. An umbrella group called the Sakal Hindu Samaj has been organising rallies to oppose inter-faith relationships and calling for an economic boycott of Muslims. In November, it held two rallies in Kolhapur. Nearly 100 such rallies, where speakers have stirred up prejudice against the Muslim community, have been held across Maharashtra.

The inter-faith relationship

On June 3, a case was registered at Karveer police station in Kolhapur under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act against a 22-year-old Muslim youth for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a minor Hindu girl. The complaint was lodged by the girl’s mother, said investigating officer Manisha Narayankar.

In the complaint, Narayankar said the mother alleged that her daughter was stalked, kidnapped by the 22-year-old and beaten up. “The girl has some physical injuries. Reports from the medical examination are expected soon,” Narayankar said.

On the night the complaint was registered, a huge mob gathered outside the home of the 22-year-old. His father, a local maulana, locked his house and fled.

The man is in police custody and the girl at a shelter home for children. Earlier this week, she turned 18.

On June 4, messages on social media, calling this incident “love jihad” spread across the city.

“Love jihad” is a conspiracy theory propounded by Hindu supremacist organisations that claims that there is an organised plot by Muslim men to seduce Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

Local corporator Adil Faras said he had “warned the police that such viral messages could lead to communal tensions”.

Sub-inspector Narayankar said the case is under investigation and the girl is yet to record her statement in court.

Scroll spoke to neighbours and acquaintances of the man and the girl to piece together what had happened.

The maulana’s neighbour, who requested anonymity, said the 22-year-old youth has been in a relationship with the Hindu girl for three years. “In 2021, they had eloped. Maulana saheb stopped talking to his son since then,” the neighbour said.

The girl’s family lodged a complaint in 2021, and the police booked the man for stalking and criminal intimidation under Sections 354 D and Section 506 of the Indian Penal Code respectively. He was released on bail after three months, Narayankar said.

A local resident from the girl’s neighbourhood said the two resumed seeing each other after his release. “They began to live together a few months ago,” the person said. “But, a few days ago, they had a fight and she returned home. That’s when the mother decided to lodge a second complaint,” the person added.

The maulana’s neighbour, too, confirmed that the underage Hindu girl and the 22-year-old Muslim were living together. A resident of Nehru Nagar also said that the two lived in a flat in the area for a few months.

After the mother lodged a complaint, a first information report was registered on charges of rape (Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code) and sexual assault and mental torture under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Sections 3, 4, 5 and 12).

The news of his arrest went viral in local WhatsApp circles of Kolhapur on June 4. Two days after the arrest of the 22-year-old man, the social media post by the underage boys added fuel to a simmering fire.

“It is this incident that has set off communal tensions in the city,” said the father of the 16-year-old detained for the social media post. “And we are all suffering.”

The minor boys

A few months ago, the father of the 16-year-old teen, who lives in Sadar Bazar, bought him a second-hand mobile phone.

“He became addicted to social media,” said his father, an autorickshaw driver. “Eventually I stopped topping up the phone’s balance.”

The 16-year-old, who has just finished his Class 11 exams and is in the middle of a summer vacation, began to log into his accounts through phones of neighbours and family members.

On June 6, the father said he had gone to offer prayer in a nearby mosque when a police team took his son into custody. “I had not heard of Instagram before this,” he said.

He said his son would re-share the WhatsApp statuses of his friends frequently. “If it is one boy’s birthday, all the friends share the same birthday post,” the father said. “This is what they did this time too.”

He denied that the 16-year-old had meant to provoke anyone with the post. “When I asked him, he said he did not know that day was Shiv Rajyaabhishek [the anniversary of Shivaji’s coronation],” the father told Scroll.

Among those named in the FIR is his friend and classmate, also 16 years old. His parents are in Bhopal and he lives with his grandmother in Kolhapur.

His uncle told Scroll that they have not informed his parents yet.

When he realised that their post was creating a stir, he deleted it, his uncle said. “Whatever they did, it was an innocent mistake,” the uncle said. “They are scared, not even eating, and ready to do whatever the police tell them.”

In Akbar Mohalla, a mob gathered outside the house of one of the underage boys, asking his family to hand him over.

A third friend, who lives in Sadar Bazar in Kolhapur, and studies in the same class, uses his family members’ phones to log into Instagram and Facebook accounts. “He likes to keep changing his display picture,” the mother of the third minor said. “All young boys and girls are obsessed with social media platforms in our neighbourhood.”

The minor is the third child in the family of six, who live in a one-room house. His father does welding jobs at a workshop. The boy deleted his Instagram account after the flare-up. According to local residents, he was the first among his friends to post the video on Instagram on June 5. The police, however, are yet to confirm this.

In a two-storey house in the same neighbourhood, the fourth friend, another 16-year-old, lives with his large family of 20 members.

When Scroll visited his home, his mother, aunt and grandmother were waiting for news from the juvenile justice board where the children were produced on Friday.

“We are poor people. We don’t know who Tipu Sultan is or what my son has posted,” the mother said. “I only know that there has never been a police case against anyone in our family. Our children have not been taught to hate any religion,” she said.

The fifth boy lives in Akbar Mohalla and is not related to the four minors. He dropped out from school after Class 5, soon after his mother died in an accident.

“He would play football in the lane or hang out with his friends,” his grandmother said. “He did not work.”

His father owns a wooden furniture workshop and the minor often used the father’s phone to post on Instagram or Whatsapp. On the afternoon of June 6, hours after the post went viral, a mob gathered outside his house.

When his elder brother stepped out, the mob threw stones at him and injured his lip. “I was shocked to see that some of them were from my college,” the elder brother said. “They demanded that we hand over my brother. My brother had gone to the mosque to pray. We asked him to stay there.”

After the police dispersed the crowd, the family asked the 17-year-old to delete his posts and account and took him to the police station. “If some people find it objectionable, we are sorry. But our child did not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings,” his father said.

Police superintendent Pandit said the phones used by the boys have been sent for forensic examination to retrieve deleted data. “Based on that, we will decide whether the content draws any charges or not,” Pandit said.

The families of all the five boys said their children were detained between the evening of June 6 and the morning of June 7.

Despite the arrests, a call for protest by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad along with a few other Hindu outfits continued till late night on June 6.

“The police should have put up blockades to avoid the crowd from gathering at Shivaji Chowk,” said Nationalist Congress Party leader Rajesh Latkar. “But they failed to act fast.”

Pandit told Scroll they had deployed police across the city to maintain law and order.

The riots: ‘Muslim houses targeted’

In a bylane off Shivaji Chowk, where the angry crowd had gathered on June 7, are shops selling the city’s famed Kolhapuri chappals.

Ziya Sajan is the only Muslim to own a shop in the lane.

On that day, he says, rioters pelted stones, broke the glass door and stole footwear from the shop. “All other shops are intact,” Munir Ahmed, a worker at the shop, said.

For Sajan and others, the violence brought back memories of the riots in January 2018, following a gathering in Bhima Koregaon to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the defeat of the Peshwas by a small contingent of Mahar Dalit soldiers. Soon after the event, caste violence had broken out in the area and had spread to other regions in Maharashtra.

Jameel Bagwan and his son stand near a broken glass window in their home.

In 2018, his shop was vandalised and looted in the violence. “At that time, we had suffered a loss of Rs 20 lakh,” said Munir Ahmed.

Superintendent of Police Pandit confirmed that houses, vehicles and shops of Muslims had been targeted in the riots.

On June 6, Jameel Bagwan had installed a new glass window on the first floor of his three-storey house. A day later, the glass lay shattered and large stones lay scattered on the first-floor landing.

His son Ahmed recalled that as the crowd retreated from Shivaji Chowk following a police lathicharge, rioters started picking up stones and ransacking properties in smaller lanes. “We ran into the innermost room of our house and locked ourselves. We came out only after the mob had left,” Ahmed said.

In 2018, too, stones were pelted on their house, Ahmed said.

Neighbours to the rescue

In the adjacent house, Kapil Kesarkar recalled the panic amongst residents when the crowd on the main road continued to swell.

“We had saffron flags from the previous day’s celebration of Shiv Rajyabhishek” Kesarkar said. “We began hoisting it outside houses to tell the rioters this is a Hindu locality. When I tried to stop them, I could sense several were drunk.”

His childhood friend Yasin Bagwan, a fruit seller, lives across the road. Bagwan’s wife Asma said the rioters smashed their front door as she hid with her two children in one of the rooms. Kesarkar quickly placed a saffron flag outside their house before rioters could inflict more damage.

“People from different communities live together in this lane in peace,” said Kedar Burke, another resident.

Burke said they could not prevent the damage to the first three houses, including Jameel Bagwan’s, which the rioters targeted first.

According to local residents, a large section of the mob was made up of youngsters from nearby villages. Police records, however, show most of the 34 arrested are residents of Kolhapur.

A lane off Shivaji Chowk where local residents put up saffron flags outside Hindu and Muslim households to ward off the mob.

The politics

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has blamed the violence in Kolhapur on “Aurangzeb ke auladein” (children of Aurangzeb) glorifying the Mughal emperor, a thinly-veiled reference to the Muslim community.

But Opposition leaders saw the Kolhapur violence as being a part of a larger agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “They want to create unrest, rake up Hindutva issues to gain a foothold,” Latkar of the NCP said.

Kolhapur remains one of the few strongholds of the NCP-Congress in Maharashtra. Of the ten legislative assembly seats, four are with Congress, two with NCP, three Independent, and one under Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction). The two Member of Parliament seats also belong to Shinde’s faction.

Latkar said BJP has little influence in the MLA and MP seats, making Kolhapur a “political target for the upcoming elections”.

Elections are expected in Maharashtra’s 21 municipal corporations later this year, including the Kohlapur corporation, where the NCP-Congress won the last term. Assembly elections are scheduled next year.

Rohit Pawar, the NCP legislator, who visited Kolhapur on Saturday, said, “This [riot] is an indication of something larger being planned. The police could have imposed Section 144 in the city based on intelligence inputs but it refrained from doing so.”

However, BJP leader and Sakal Hindu Samaj member Ajit Thanekar said the riots broke out because the Hindu community was angry over police inaction.

“Since Aurangabad was renamed (in July 2022), there have been stray incidents where youth have torn Shivaji’s poster or circulated a video of Aurangzeb,” Thanekar said. “Every time the police refrains from registering a complaint.” He alleged that both the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress keep quiet whenever Hindutva sentiments are hurt.

Congress MLA Jayshree Jadhav, under whose constituency the riots broke out, refused to comment.

Local corporator Adil Faras said Kolhapur is known for its “inclusivity and liberal mindset”. “But that seems to be changing in the last few months,” he said.

Agreed Pawar: “The Hindu-Muslim fabric is unique here, and attempts are being made to rupture it.”

All images by Tabassum Barnagarwala.