COMMUNAL TENSION

'We aren't scared': A week after posters asked them to leave, Bareilly Muslims stand their ground

On Holi, pamphlets appeared around Jiyanagla, threatening Muslim residents. The writers claimed that BJP leader Adityanath was their guardian.

It was 1 pm on Sunday and 75-year-old Ali Mohammad was getting hungry. As he sat on a cot outside his hut in Jiyanagla village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly district, he urged his daughter-in-law Mehzabeen to speed up the cooking. On the menu: a simmering egg curry, red and thick.

That morning, hardline Bharatiya Janata Party leader Adityanath had taken oath as chief minister of India’s largest state. But the prospect of lunch made Mohammed seem blithely indifferent to the day’s news.

“How does it matter who the chief minister is?” asked Mohammad. “The party [Bharatiya Janata Party] must now prove that they deserve this remarkable victory in Uttar Pradesh. In our village, the first two things we need urgently are a decent road and jobs for the youth.”

More surprisingly, Mohammed also seemed nonchalant about the startling event that propelled his otherwise-nondescript village to national attention last week.

As residents woke up on the morning of Holi on March 13, they found pamphlets stuck on several walls and pillars threatening Jiyanagla’s Muslims with dire consequences if they do not leave by the end of this year.

“All Muslims are informed that they should leave the village by 30 December, 2017. If you do not leave the village, you shall be responsible for your actions. If you do not do so, we will do things in this village, similar to what Trump has been doing in America because Uttar Pradesh will now have a BJP government. So decide soon because you are no longer suitable for this village.”

— Translation of pamphlets.

The anonymous writer of the pamphlet claimed to represent all the Hindus in the village, adding that the message has been issued under the guardianship of Adityanath. When the posters appeared, the name of the Hindutva leader was not being discussed as a possible candidate for the state’s top executive job. But his reputation was well-known: he faces several criminal cases, including charges of attempt to murder, criminal intimidation and rioting.

When some villagers phoned the police the next day to report the posters, they refused to be officially listed as complainants, fearing for their safety. A police team that visited the village on March 14 found six posters – the other copies were already taken off by the villagers. But they had to take cognisance of the matter on their own.

Anokhe Lal runs a shop in the village.
Anokhe Lal runs a shop in the village.

A First Information Report was registered at the Shishgarh Police Station for criminal intimidation and for promoting enmity between groups. But the people behind the act have not been identified so far. On the face of it, though, both the police and many Jiyanagla residents believe that the posters were the work of a misguided young person.

“We have questioned all internet café owners and photocopy shop owners in areas close to the village but have received no leads yet,” said Inspector Dalveer Singh, in charge of Shishgarh Police Station. “One thing is clear that the person who wrote the content of the pamphlet has good knowledge of current affairs. The person knows the name of Donald Trump and the reasons for which he is in the news.”

According to Rewa Ram, the husband of Jiyanagla village chief Kalavati Devi, the incident was a bad prank and the village has no history of communal violence. “It is surely the work of some young miscreant,” he said. “Elder people do not have time for such things. The accused can even be an outsider as a lot of people had come to the village on the night before Holi, when the grand celebratory fire [Holika Dahan] was lit.”

Living in Jiyanagla

Situated around 65 kilometres from Bareilly city, Jiyanagla sits amid fields of sugarcane and wheat. The village, which has a population of around 3,000 persons, is dominated by members of the Kurmi agricultural caste. The Kurmis own the farms on the peripheries of the village. Some members of the community work as teachers in the village primary school, the intermediate college nearby and in nearby towns like Shishgarh.

The village’s Muslims, who number less than 300, own no farmland and mostly belong to the Saifi community, popularly known as Muslim Lohars. They work as carpenters and ironsmiths. They have no separate hamlets within the village.

Ali Mohammad used to work as an iron smith.
Ali Mohammad used to work as an iron smith.

Ali Mohammad, 75, is a fourth-generation Jiyanagla resident. When he was younger, he used to make and repair agricultural tools for the Kurmis. But his younger relatives, like other young Muslims in the village, prefer to work in the area’s numerous brick kilns or as construction workers in nearby towns. They are paid more highly for these tasks than they would be if they had continued to make agricultural tools.

Mohammed and several other Muslim residents of the village agreed that the village is peaceful and has witnessed little religious violence so far.

On Sunday, no pamphlets were visible anywhere in the village. Neither were the police.

“How can you find pamphlets now?” asked Pradeep Kumar, the son of the village chief. “The villagers got rid of the pamphlets as soon as they noticed them. The matter had to be suppressed at the earliest otherwise it could have gone worse.”

Kumar was sitting near the old village well with a group of elders, chatting about the sweets that they had distributed the previous evening when Adityanath was named chief minister. They all agreed that he is an “able leader”.

Residents  gather near the village well
Residents gather near the village well

Villagers claim they are still mystified about the appearance of the posters. When they saw the posters, they say that they asked if anyone had seen the miscreants who put them up, but no one had an answer. Some villagers claimed that they celebrated Holi only after they ascertained that the situation was under control.

Anokhe Lal, 50, who runs a shop in the village, said that the situation began to escalate when residents clicked photos of the pamphlets and shared them with friends and relatives in neighbouring villages through Whatsapp. This prompted the police had to register a case.

Among those who received the information through Whatsapp was Abid Hussain Sheikh, the chief of a village named Firozepur, 30 kilometres from Jiyanagla. Others in the village got the same message.

“It is a matter of shame that someone can stoop down to such level,” Sheikh said. “The police and district authorities must take immediate action instead of hushing down the matter.”

For now, though, none of Jiyanagla’s Muslim residents seem unduly perturbed by the pamphlets. Said Mohammed’s daugther-in-law Mehzabeen: “Those who pasted the pamphlets in the village must know that we are not scared.”

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