Ear to the ground

Fear and loathing in Chhapra: How a peaceful Bihar town became a communal tinderbox

The BJP’s quest for power is largely to blame.

Over the past four years, religious tension has steadily increased in Chhapra, Bihar. For evidence, see how this once peaceful town in Saran district now celebrates Ram Navmi or Maha Shivaratri: the high point of the festivities is large processions of young men wearing saffron headbands brandishing swords and shouting “Jai Shri Ram” to a soundtrack of techno music.

Most chants, though, are not remotely religious, said Jeelani Mobin, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s head of Chhapra Zilla Parishad. “Doodh maango, kheer dengay. Kashmir maango cheer dengay,” goes one slogan. “Ask for milk and we’ll give you kheer. Ask for Kashmir and we will cut you down.”

In such a charged atmosphere, even petty disputes take on communal overtones. “Recently, a Muslim boy killed a monkey that had been biting passersby,” Mobin offered an example. “A village headman began saying ‘Hanuman has been killed’ and a mob quickly took shape.”

In Wajidpur, a small village about half an hour from Chhapra, Mohammad Shamsher, 22, was stabbed by a group of Hindu boys on the day of Holi, March 13. Shamsher died on the way to hospital. Two days later, his family told Scroll.in they still did not know why he had been murdered. But what had transpired just after the stabbing was telling.

Over the last four or five years, the Bajrang Dal, the muscle of the Hindutva network known as the Sangh Parivar, has established itself firmly in this part of Bihar. If there is any incident involving Muslims, its members quickly reach the spot. This is what happened on March 13. Shamsher was stabbed at half past six in the evening. At around eight, a Bajrang Dal posse assembled in the lane leading to the 25-odd Muslim houses and the mosque.

“They were on bikes,” said Mohammad Manu, a Muslim villager. “They were carrying swords and shouting, ‘Maro! Aag laga do! Masjid tod do! Miyan ko kato, Babar ki aulaad!’”

“Kill them! Set fire to their houses! Demolish the mosque! Kill the Muslims, the children of Babar,” they shouted.

This is a recurring scene in Wajidpur, said Shamsher’s uncle Mohammad Sayeed. In the last four years, the Bajrang Dal has shown up whenever there was a dispute between the village’s Muslims and Hindus.

It is much the same in Chhapra. According to Mobin, two or three incidents are communalised almost every month. Most of the time, however, the local administration ensures that the tension does not boil over. Even when it has, as in last August when the video of a Muslim boy desecrating Hindu idols went viral, the damage was limited to arson and rioting. That time, the boy’s house was attacked and at least 67 shops belonging to Muslims were torched. But there were no deaths.

“The way things are going, everything would have been burnt by now if this administration was not so active,” said Mobin.

After the Wajidpur stabbing too, the police had ensured that the Bajrang Dal followers did not go beyond sloganeering.

Still, this pattern of intimidation has driven the Muslims of Chhapra town and surrounding villages into a state of constant dread. Older Hindus in Wajidpur seemed worried as well. As a Rajput man visiting some Muslims in the village put it, “If we do not fix all this quickly, there will be a riot.”

“Until just two-three years ago, people would cite Saran as an example of communal harmony,” Mobin rued. “There was peace here.”

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Fog of fear

Chhapra and Wajidpur are not the only places in Bihar losing their peace. “Even in Gopalganj, Bettiah, Motihari, Champaran or Narkatiaganj, whenever there is an incident, Bajrang Dal volunteers reach in large numbers within an hour,” Mobin said.

Nearly 300 km east of Chhapra, in Bhagalpur town, even incidents of road rage are communalised now, said Uday, an activist with Paridhi, a non-governmental organisation that works for communal harmony.

Arshad Ajmal, director of Patna-based Al-Khair Charitable Trust, which works for communal harmony too, noted that new Hindu festivals such as that of Santoshi Maa are being celebrated with gusto across Bihar. The celebrations are often marked by large processions, complete with weapons and sloganeering. “Different towns in a district take out the procession on different days,” Ajmal said. “It takes about a month or more to cover the whole district.” Naturally, tension builds up.

Across Bihar, the nature of communal violence is changing as well. Before the 1989 Bhagalpur carnage, Ajmal said, a handful of reasons sparked riots. “In sensitive areas, they would be triggered by processions if there was already a conflict between followers of the two religions,” he said. Another trigger was graveyards. “As villages grew and people needed more land, they would try and encroach upon graveyards,” Ajmal added.

Generally, these were “small riots”. “From start until curfew was lifted, it would sometimes take a week,” Ajmal said. “Most of the time, things would get back to normal sooner.” Also, such riots were localised.

Over the last three or four years, while riots that claim lives have declined in number, the frequency of “local level” communal violence has seen a jump. This has created an atmosphere of fear that the earlier riots did not. Back then, Ajmal said, the situation gradually returned to normal. “Even if people had been killed, nobody would consider leaving the place,” he said. “That is changing now. There is tension and a climate of fear.”

Indeed, Sayeed of Wajidpur said, “We are wondering if we should leave and settle in a place which has more Muslims.”

For now, all the community can do is to counsel precaution to their own. “We tell our youth, ‘do not stand there when these processions are going on,’” Mobin said. “Close the shops and stay home. But how long can this go on? If the administration does not crack down, how long does patience last?”

The same question occupies the Muslims in Wajidpur. “Every time there is an eruption, we tell the boys to stay calm,” said Sayeed. “But how long can we keep this up? We stayed calm for so long and there was a murder.”

It is nearly three months since this reporter left the village, but calls keep coming from the Muslim residents asking for help. The Bajrang Dal is still visiting. “They are now telling us to withdraw the cases or they will burn our houses down,” said one villager who asked not to be named.

A cynical game

Is the government not doing anything about this? The administration does move swiftly to ensure trouble does not boil over when there is an incident but it is reluctant to crack down on the activities of organisations like the Bajrang Dal. Why not? “In a secular country, people have the right to their religion,” said a district magistrate who asked not to be identified. “We can stop a procession if it is anti-national. But if it gets communal, we can only take action post facto. It is not like they will give us a detailed list of what they plan to do during that procession.”

To Mobin, that sounds like a cop-out. “I called Laluji,” he said, “and I asked him, ‘How long can this go on? It is troubling that this is happening under your government’.”

According to Shiv Dayal, editor of the Patna-based magazine Vikas Sahyatri, the ruling coalition is playing a cynical game. “If Lalu pulls out, he loses power,” he explained. “If Nitish cracks down, he might alienate the BJP and its voter base.”

Questions to Kumar about this went unanswered.

Now, the big question is: why exactly is communal tension rising in Bihar? The explanation lies largely in the BJP’s quest for power. To break the dominance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) – which has ruled the state since 2005, in alliance with the BJP until 2013 and now with the Rashtriya Janata Dal – the national party is trying to replace the horizontal stratification of the electorate (per caste) with a vertical one (per religion). The groundwork is done by a clutch of outfits close to the Sangh Parivar which whip up communal passions to mobilise a new cadre and realign voter loyalties.

It is a complex process of social engineering, the dynamics of which are explained in the next piece in the Ear To The Ground series.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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