Bhagalpur 1989 is remembered as the forgotten riot. It slipped through the cracks between Delhi 1984 and Mumbai 1993. By 1990, reports were already calling Bhagalpur the forgotten riot, pushed aside by the Lalu Prasad government in Bihar, which spent its energies on putting up an ideological resistance to the anti-reservation agitations sweeping across the country.

Later, in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar, Bhagalpur would go through feeble resurrections around election time. Soon after he became chief minister in 2005, Nitish Kumar set up a new commission of inquiry under Justice NN Singh, as if to send out the signal that his government would prioritise minorities along with its other backward constituencies. In 2013, a few months before the Lok Sabha elections, he doubled the pension for 384 riot-affected families. Now the state polls are around the corner again, and the NN Singh committee report, submitted after several extensions, was tabled in the assembly last Friday.

The report recommends action against 125 IAS and IPS officers. It also indicts the Congress state government of the time. We’ve heard this story before in the Justice Srikrishna Commission report, which probed the Mumbai riots. A Congress government guilty of “effete political leadership” and an “in built” communal bias, a state apparatus either negligent or complicit which meant the riots spread like wildfire, the casualty lists swelled with names from the minority community.

Yet in popular memory, it was Mumbai that became inextricably linked to the blood and fury that accompanied the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The noise over Bhagalpur hardly travelled outside the state. It should not have been so. If the Mumbai riots were the bitter aftermath of the demolition, Bhagalpur should have warned of Babri.

October 1989

In his book, Mofussil Junction, Ian Jack calls Bhagalpur a “mean and unrewarding town built on the silts of the Ganges in Bihar”. A report compiled by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights in 1996 notes how Bhagalpur district had a history of communal violence, breaking out in 1924, 1936, 1946 and 1967. But it had never spread to the rural areas of the district before. The years leading up to the riots had seen horrifying state brutality: at least 30 undertrials from Bhagalpur town were blinded by the police in 1980.

It was in this sullen landscape that the Ramjanmabhoomi mobilisations gathered force. Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad travelled through the district, collecting bricks for the Ram temple and conducting pujas. In August 1989, there were tensions during Bisheri Puja and Muharram celebrations in Bhagalpur town. Then the rumours started, of 200 Hindu bodies dumped in a well in Parbatti, an area in Bhagalpur town. Javed Iqbal, in a photo essay on the riots, says it was later found that there were 12 bodies, not 200, and they were all family members of one Mohammad Javed. On October 24, Ramshila processions cutting across the countryside were to converge in Bhagalpur town.

The riots are said to have started when one of the “peaceful processions” passed through the Muslim locality of Tatarpur, where hidden miscreants lobbed bombs and brick bats at them. Several aspects of this account are contested. First, Tatarpur was not part of the route officially sanctioned for the procession but the police and administration let it pass through anyway. Second, members of the procession reportedly sported swords and chanted slogans like “Baccha baccha Ram ka, baaki sab haraam ka" (We are all children of Ram, the rest are illegitimate), not exactly striking a peaceful note. Third, according to some sources, the bombs could not be traced and nobody was killed in the incident.

But it was reason enough for the rioting to begin. From October 24 to 27, when the army was finally called in, the state receded as violence raged across the district. In Chanderi, Muslim residents huddled together in one house as the mobs drew near. After the security cover was called off, they closed in, killing at least 70 people in one night. In Parbatti and Timoni, Muslim families fled as their houses were looted and set alight. Those who stayed behind were cut down by the mobs, who did not spare children and old people. The cauliflowers fields of Logain would later become famous. They covered a mass grave containing more than 100 bodies.

The violence continued into November, spreading to at least 195 villages. Official sources put the death toll at around 1,000. Others sources say nearly 2,000 were killed. According to the PUDR report, 93% of the dead were Muslim.

Omissions of inquiry

The blurring of the Bhagalpur riots started early, as facts got lost in conflicting probes. The government took refuge in that sarkari staple, an inquiry commission. The Bhagalpur Riots Inquiry Commission was set up by December 1989, to look into the causes of the violence, apportion responsibility and investigate administrative lapses, if any. The commission ran into several delays and was reconstituted midway. After five years, two reports emerged from this commission, each with significant inflections.

The members’ report, compiled by Justices RCP Sinha and S Shamsul Hasan, indicts communal organisations and sections of the media for spreading rumours. It locates the riots in a longer history of communal politics. It holds the administration guilty of incompetence and indifference, of letting the procession through Tatarpur and failing to maintain the curfew later. It finds Superintendent KS Trivedi “wholly responsible for the riots that occurred”. The fact that the BJP and VHP campaigned against his transfer is held up as proof of the police force’s communal affiliations. Several other figures of the district administration are also blamed for lapses.

The chairman’s report, presented by Justice RN Prasad, advises Indian Muslims to sever ties with “ISI agents… if they wanted restoration of trust in them”. It finds the administration blameless and does not question the official version of the Tatarpur incident. Neither report tried to ascertain the number of the dead.

It took 16 years for 10 of the accused to be sentenced to life in jail. After Nitish Kumar ordered that 27 cases be reopened, 14 people were convicted in 2007 for the massacre at Logain. In 2009, Kameshwar Yadav, once feted for preserving communal harmony, was convicted for murdering a 15-year-old Muslim boy. Other cases drag on, with victims fighting in vain for compensation or even the recognition that crimes had taken place, that life, property and livelihoods had been lost.

Guilty secret

In 1995, the Lalu Prasad government accepted the Justice Prasad report as the official version, choosing not to probe the question of administrative culpability. Indeed, in the post-Babri era, all the parties active in the state seemed to enter a tacit pact not to bring up the Bhagalpur riots. So the violence of 1989 seemed to fade from the larger politics of the state and beyond. But it left a memory trace that showed in the politics of the next two decades. Some parties mined this to perfection in Bhagalpur, others lost out.

For the Congress, which presided over the violence, it was curtains in Bihar.  Then Chief Minister Satyendra Narayan Sinha was forced to step down and the Congress sought to undo the damage by replacing him with Jagannath Mishra, said to be popular with Muslims for making Urdu the official second language of Bihar. It didn't work.  The Muslim vote shifted firmly from the Congress to Lalu Prasad, then part of the Janta Dal. Sinha later wrote bitterly of state party leaders "fanning" communal tensions for personal gain.

Lalu Prasad's glory days began in the wake of the riots but even he is perceived to have gone soft on the prosecutions. A number of the prime accused belonged to his community, the Yadavs, who became politically prominent in the district soon after the riots. But as the man who halted L.K. Advani's rath yatra in 1990, Lalu didn't need to prove his secular chops. He was projected as the protector of minorities, and the Muslim-Yadav alliance endured for 15 years. For most of the '90s, this ensured political gains in Bhagalpur, even though Lalu had done precious little about justice for the riots.

The BJP, which was linked to the agitations that led to the riots, waited out the better part of the '90s. But the party had deep roots in Bhagalpur, a major centre for trade and fertile ground for the growth of the RSS in Bihar. The polarisation left behind by the riots also helped create an active Hindutva constituency. From the late '90s, the Bhagalpur Lok Sabha constituency has returned a BJP candidate. In 2006, it became that rare constituency which voted for a Muslim BJP candidate, Shahnawaz Hussain, even though it was not a Muslim majority district. The Hindutva vote, combined with a section of the minority vote pulled by the Muslim candidate, helped the BJP win.

Yet in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the issue of riot prosecutions was drowned out by the "Modi wave". In the end, Shahnawaz Hussain lost by a narrow margin to the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Shailesh Kumar Mandal. According to one analysis, the Muslims voted in a block to stall the Modi wave.

At the national level, the 2000s created new polarising figures, as Advani gave way to Modi, and new images of communal violence, as Mumbai 1993 gave way to Gujarat 2002. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar tried to use the Bhagalpur prosecutions to establish his secular credentials. But the 2014 Lok Sabha polls seem to suggest the old anxieties have merged into the new. It remains to be seen whether the NN Singh report can throw the fading memories of Bhagalpur into sharp relief once again.