Smoke billows out of the charred brick and mud houses of Azizpur village in Bihar’s Muzzafarpur district four days after a mob attack left four Muslims dead. On Sunday, a mob of 4,000 people armed with traditional weapons and kerosene cans stormed the Muslim-dominated village. More than 30 homes were set on fire. At least three people were burnt to death. The victims included 70-year-old Mohammad Altaf and five-year-old Rabbani. A teenaged boy trying to escape was hit on his head with a blunt object. He died in a wheat field. 

The violence erupted soon after the body of a Hindu youth, 19 year-old Bhartendu Sahni, was found in a paddy field belonging to a Muslim farmer. Sahni, who lived in the neighbouring village of Bahilwara, allegedly had an affair with a Muslim girl of Azizpur. He had been missing from home for a week.

“When I heard about the recovery of a body from the fields, along with other villagers, I rushed there,” said 67 year-old Mohammd Sanaullah, a resident of Azizpur. “Within a few minutes, we saw a large crowd charging towards our village. Before we could understand anything, they attacked us.”

Salma Khatoon said it was around noon that the mob arrived outside her house. “They broke the iron gate. We hid ourselves in a room and bolted from inside. They started breaking the door. Then, my husband Akhtar Ali opened the door and with folded hands asked what was their fault. But the attackers assaulted him and dragged him out towards fields and then tossed him into the flames.” Her son Shamim Ali and grandson Shams Mustafa are still missing and are suspected to have been killed. 

The size of the mob and the lethal nature of weapons used against them have led the people of Azizpur to believe that the attack was a planned one. Some even accuse the police of conspiring with the attackers. “The police reached the village three hours after the attack,” said Zubaida Khatoon, a 55 year old woman. Azizpur consists of poor and lower middle class families. With most of the men away for work outside the state, only women, children and old men live there. The older people said they could not recall such communal frenzy even during periods of intense religious tensions.

Communal tensions on the rise

For nearly two decades, Bihar remained largely free of communal riots. Both Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and Janata Dal United’s Nitish Kumar managed to keep in check religious tensions. For about eight years, Nitish had the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But in June 2013, BJP parted ways with the JD(U). Since then, incidents of communal tensions have been rising in the state. An Indian Express report published in November 2014 said that Bihar saw over 170 incidents of communal clashes after the split between JD(U) and BJP. 

“The rise in the number of violent incidents suggests that the JD(U) government, which is now running without a cadre-based BJP, is not able to nip such incidents in the bud, unlike earlier, when leaders of the BJP would be asked to “engage community leaders at the grassroots level,” the report said. “The clashes also reflect a growing distrust between the Hindus and Muslims now that they owe loyalty to different political parties.”

Officially, BJP’s Bihar unit has sought to distance itself from rabble-rousing Hindutva leaders. When the BJP MP from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, kicked up dust over so-called love jihad during the bypolls in the state, BJP state president in Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, told a journalist that had Adityanath made the remarks in Bihar, “we would have contradicted him.”

And yet, in December, Adityanath visited Vaishali district, which borders Muzzafarpur. At a three-day event organised by the Dharma Jagran Manch of the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh, he exhorted Hindu temple heads to work for “Hindu unity”.

Political caution

For the moment, senior leaders across the political spectrum in Bihar are choosing their words carefully. On Wednesday, chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi visited the village and appealed to the residents to maintain peace. Cheques of Rs 5 lakh were handed over to the kin of the deceased.

BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi who visited the village on Tuesday skipped comment on the communal nature of the violence, chosing instead to blame the political infighting within the JD(U) government for the “worsening law and order situation”. “Bihar is burning while Nitish Kumar and Manjhi are fighting,” he said.

The police has arrested 14 people from Bahilwara village. Central paramilitary forces have been deployed in the area. An enquiry committee has been formed to investigate the violence. “Nobody will be allowed to disturb the social harmony,” said Gupteshwar Pandey, the additional director general of police.

Ferment and fear on the ground

But on the ground, political lines have begun to harden. “This was not a communal riot but an organised attack on Muslims,” said Ali Raza Ansari, a local RJD worker. Another RJD worker Manoj Sharma alleged, “The local police and administration is totally saffronised.”

Such are the tensions that even a story of redemption could not remain unscathed by fear.

On the day of the attack, Shail Devi, a widow who lived in Azizpur with her two daughters, gave shelter to over a dozen Muslims of her neighbourhood. When the rioters arrived at her small brick house, she announced loudly that she was the widow of Jaglal Sahni. The rioters withdrew hearing a Hindu name.

Calling her ‘Jhansi ki Rani”, the chief minister, on his visit to the village on Wednesday, gave her a cheque of Rs 51,000, and announced Rs 20,000 each for the education of her two daughters Rita Kumari and Rupan Kumari.

But Shail Devi instead asked him to give her police security. Fearing retaliation, she had taken shelter in the house of septuagenarian Aas Mohammad. “What wrong did I do?” she asked in Bhojpuri, “I only gave shelter to some people.”