In a massive protest against attempts to foment communal trouble in Uttar Pradesh, Muslims in nearly 40 villages of Pratapgarh district decided to refrain from organising Muharram processions on Sunday. For now, they have abandoned their tazias ‒ replicas of the tomb of Husain, the grandson of Muhammad, whose martyrdom is commemorated on the occasion.

The decision not to organise the processions was made as a gesture of solidarity with the residents of Shaikhpur village in the district’s Kunda subdivision, where the administration had allowed a man closely associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to organise a bhandara community feast in a temple located along the traditional route of the Muharram ritual.

“The temple is just outside the village, on the way to Karbala", the destination of the tazia processions, Shaikhpur sarpanch Zia-ul Mustafa told over the phone.

The organiser of the temple feast, Uday Pratap Singh, has been linked to several communal disturbances. He is the father of controversial Kunda MLA Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiya. His bhandra in Shaikhpur is a new ritual. He organised one for the first time only last year, also on the day of Muharram. Despite obvious tensions, the day passed off peacefully because of tight security arrangements.

Volatile situation

But this year, said Mustafa, against the backdrop of  obvious provocations to create communal disturbances in the region, the administration should perhaps have been “more sensitive”. He explained, “We couldn’t have changed the day of Muharram, but the day of the bhandara could have been changed since it is just one year old practice started by an individual.”

Mustafa alleged that it was apparent that the organisers of the bhandara aimed to create trouble. To avoid this, “we decided not to lift the tazia and take out our customary procession”, he said.

Uday Pratap Singh has been linked to previous outbreaks of violence. His name had figured in connection with communal riots that shook Pratapgarh in June 2012. It was reported that Kunda Deputy Superintendent of Police Zia ul-Haq, who was murdered in March 2013, was about to submit a report identifying Uday Pratap Singh and his son Raja Bhaiya as the masterminds of the riots. Nearly a month after the riots, Singh is said to have played host to VHP leader Pravin Togadia whose hate speeches led to fresh clashes in the area.

The apprehensions of the villagers of Shaikhpur were, therefore, not completely baseless. In the days before Muharram, communal violence broke out in several parts of Uttar Pradesh, including Banda, Ambedkarnagar, Kannauj and Fatehpur. On Muharram, Kanpur experienced tension after some Hindu groups took to the streets alleging that some posters and banners for a Bhagwati jagaran  had been ripped off the walls in one locality.

Sitting on a powderkeg

“Trouble was bound to arise had we taken out the procession,” said Mustafa, the Shaikhpur sarpanch. “So we decided to surrender our rights until we received a firm assurance from the administration.”

As the news spread, nearly 40 villages in Kunda subdivision decided to stand in solidarity with the residents of Shaikhpur and abstained from taking out tazia processions in their localities.

Attempts to break the deadlock began soon after Muharram. The issue was finally resolved late on Sunday when Pratapgarh District Magistrate Amrit Tripathi and Superintendent of Police Sunil Saxena assured the representatives of these villages that from next year, customary rights would prevail over the new practices. In return, the protesting villagers have promised to keep the peace.

“Now that the Muharram is passed, the question is how to dispose of tazias lying abandoned in these villages,” said Mustafa. “We have called a meeting of the representatives of all these villages to find a unanimous way to resolve the issue.”