On April 8, elections are scheduled to be held in 1,828 gram panchayats in Gujarat. Vadavali, a village in Patan district of North Gujarat, is not one of them.

The village has a “samras” gram panchayat – a government scheme under which villagers choose their ward members and sarpanch through mutual consensus and not through an election. The practice in Vadavali is to pick a Hindu sarpanch for two and a half years, followed by a Muslim sarpanch for the same period.

As the term of sarpanch Minesh Patel ended, in a meeting held on the morning of March 25, the village chose Sultanbhai Qureshi as its next sarpanch. That afternoon, violence broke out.

A mob attacked Vagjipara, the main hamlet of the village where the new sarpanch lives. About 80-100 homes of Muslim families here were ransacked and gutted, three shops and 10-12 vehicles were burnt. Two Muslim men died and another 25 men were injured.

“The fact the villagers of Vadavali had amicably chosen a Muslim sarpanch was the bone of contention for some,” said Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer and member of the human rights organisation Jan Sangharsh Manch, who visited Vadavali on March 27 as part of a civil society fact-finding team to investigate the violence.

The report of the fact-finding team said the attack was focused on Vagjipara where about 1,200 Muslim families live. The main village is home to about 700 Patel families, 350 Muslim families, 200 Darbar families and another 150 families from the Prajapati, Rabari and Devi Pujak communities.

In an official report sent to the revenue department, the district collector of Patan KK Nirala has termed the events of March 25 as a “Hindu-Muslim riot”. Media reports have said the violence was triggered by a scuffle between a Muslilm student and a Thakor student outside an examination centre.

But the report of the fact-finding team said that a mere scuffle between students did not turn into a communal clash – rather, the violence was a well planned and organised attack on the Muslims residents of Vagjipara.

A charred two-wheeler. Photo credit: Damayantee Dhar

A mob from three villages

The fact-finding team, which was formed under name Vadavali Nagrik Adhikar Samiti, included Hozefa Ujjaini of the NGO Janvikas, Asim Sheikh of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, Govind Parmar, a lawyer and member of Human Rights Law Network, and others.

Hussainbhai Rahimbhai Sheikh, a survivor of the 2002 Gujarat riots, took the initiative of taking the activists to Vadavali, where the team was joined by two people from Vadavali village – Imranbhai Suntanbhai and Dilawarbhai Hussainbhai Qureshi – and Anwarbhai from neighbouring Khorsum village.

“Around 2 pm, a mob of 5,000 people from three villages attacked the Muslims of Vadavali,” said Hussainbhai, whose brother-in-law’s family in Vadavali had been rendered homeless after their house was burnt.

“The incident started when two students of class ten who had come to give their board examination at Nutan Vidyalaya high school got into a fight,” he added. The school was the examination centre for students of several neighbouring villages. The Muslim boy was from Takodi village and the Thakor boy was from Sunser village.

When the fight escalated, elders from Vadavali intervened and urged them to not fight. About half an hour later, a group of Thakors from Sunser village reached the spot, followed by another 200 to 250 people who threatened the Muslims of Vadavali. They left after roughing up some of the elders. But around 2 pm, a larger mob showed up. Hussainbhai claims it was 5,000 people strong and had people from four villages – Dharpur, Sunser, Rampur and Merwada – that are more than ten kilometres apart.

“Why would they attack Vadavali when neither of the two boys was from Vadavali?” he asked. “They clearly had some other motive.”

Said Pathan: “In a matter of few hours, it is not possible to gather about 5,000 people from three different villages, neither is procuring the amount of petrol and kerosene used to burn houses, nor is arranging for swords and other sharp weapons that the attackers had.”

The damage in Vadavali village is extensive. Photo credit: Damayantee Dhar

Speaking to the fact-finding team, survivors identified a resident of Vadavali who is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party as part of the mob. They alleged he played a crucial role in gathering people, weapons and fuel used to burn houses. They said a teacher incited the children and the elders, and a man affiliated to Shiv Sena threatened the Muslims just before the violence broke out. They also identified two young men of a neighbouring village who are jawans in State Reserve Police and were home on leave. “They were seen firing private arms,” said Pathan.

Even though the survivors identified these men in their testimonies to the police, the FIR does not name them.

The police has filed two FIRs – one against 31 people of Thakor community, and another against 14 people of the Muslim community. Fourteen people have been arrested.

Even large vehicles had been burnt. Photo credit: Damayantee Dhar

The question of relief

After the violence, many Muslim families fled the village and took refuge in the hospital or in neighbouring villages. Four days later, some started coming back as religious organisations set up relief camps in the village.

Imranbhai, whose house was burnt down, is now living with his family in a relief tent. “The local police did not help at all. They stood by as mute spectators while the attackers looted the food grains and valuables,” he said. The day the violence broke out, many Muslims of Vagjipara were visiting the nearby Hajipir dargah where a mela was taking place. “That saved many, else the number of casualties and the number of the injured would have been higher,” he added.

Dilawarbhai, another survivor now living in a tent, said: “Till the police from other districts came to our rescue, the situation could not be brought under control.”

Many women and children were still in a state of shock, said Hozefa Ujjaini, one of the members of the fact-finding team. “Most houses that were burnt down had been built by villagers from loans mostly taken by the women of the households,” he said. He saw many women go back to their homes to look for “anything that was not burnt and can be used”. The report has asked for counselling for the women and children.

The district administration has not begun any relief work in the village. The collector said a report had been sent to the revenue department asking for compensation for the families of the two men who had died, those who were injured, and for those who had lost their property. “We are awaiting a response from the department,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, the Hindus of the village – mostly Dalits and Koli Patels – have been arranging food for the Muslim families returning to the village and sending help to the injured in the hospital.

That is perhaps the only silver lining in a dark cloud.

One of the houses that was ransacked and burnt down. Photo credit: Damayantee Dhar

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been edited to remove an error that misstated the name of the new sarpanch of Vadavali village.