Around 1 pm on Tuesday, the Station House Officer’s office in Expressway Police Station in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, was packed with people. It was a meeting to help restore peace in Chhaprauli village, which is currently guarded by a large posse of police.

The previous morning, a group of men from the village had vandalised a madrassa in Chhaprauli, in Noida’s Sector 168, and assaulted the brother of the imam there. “There were around 40 of them,” said the victim Hafeez Sabah Hassan, 21. “They asked for the imam and then beat me up, saying they had a problem with the use of loudspeaker for azaan.”

The shattered glass on the windows of the room in which Hassan and his brother Ziauddin, 27, live is testament to Monday’s violence in Chhaprauli. The brothers are from Bihar. Ziauddin was called to the village by its 10 Muslim families last year to lead them in prayers and teach at the madrassa. Hassan came about a month ago to assist his brother, residents of Chhaprauli said.

At the police station on Tuesday, an elderly Muslim resident spoke of an “environment of terror” the attack had engendered for the village’s small Muslim population. A Hindu elder, on the other hand, questioned whether the madrassa had been legally built on what he said was graveyard land and the use of loudspeaker for azaan, the Muslim call to prayer. He also alleged that that miscreants from neighbouring villages came to the madrassa to pray on Fridays.

Muslim villagers at the madrassa. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey
Muslim villagers at the madrassa. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

Old faultlines

Nestled amid shiny skyscrapers and palatial buildings that house some of the most prestigious information technology brands in the country and private educational institutions, Chhaprauli is home to more than 300 Hindu families, mostly belonging to Chauhan and Gujjar communities, and 10 Muslim families of the Saifi community. The village also has a small Dalit hamlet, close to the madrassa. The Hindus and Muslims have lived in the village for at least four generations, the residents said. They also said the village has no history of communal violence.

Kaptaan Khan, 18, an undergraduate student of computer applications at a private university in Greater Noida, however, said there has been friction between the two communities, although it never got out of hand. Until now, that is. “Earlier, there was a madrassa in a Hindu-dominated lane, around 500 metres away from the new one,” Khan said. “The people there had a problem with it, so it had to be demolished. The new one was built in 2013 on a plot that used used to be a graveyard.”

Still, Monday’s attack on the madrassa was totally unexpected, Khan said, as a group of Muslim villagers who had huddled for a meeting near the graveyard nodded in agreement.

Ziauddin was brought to the village last year to teach at the madrassa. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey
Ziauddin was brought to the village last year to teach at the madrassa. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

Simmering tension

Around 2 pm on Tuesday, the meeting in the police station finally got over. Just then, something happened that left the police and the villagers flustered. Kalu Khan, the elderly president of the madrassa management committee, collapsed holding his chest. He was taken to hospital. Then, in the duty officer’s room, a heavily-built man in a crisp white shirt and trousers was seen hugging the imam. The man later identified himself as Kuldeep Chauhan to a handful of reporters who were present at the police station and asked them to leave the villagers alone. “It was all a family matter which has now been sorted out, and the media should not play this up,” he said.

Chauhan, along with a few other Hindu villagers who had attended the meeting, then took aside a Muslim resident and spoke to him. “We do not use loudspeakers for bhajan in the Shiv Mandir. Is not it?” they asked. “So why don’t you people get rid of the loudspeaker too?”

As the Muslim man stared at Chauhan, other Hindus in the group interjected, asking the man to convince the imam on behalf of his community to take back his complaint. Before the imam could be convinced though, an officer of Uttar Pradesh’s Local Intelligence Unit approached him with an absurd request – to pose for a picture shaking hands with the Hindu villagers that he could include in his case diary.

“They [men of the Hindu community] created the trouble” Ziauddin replied, rushing out of the police station. “Why don’t you ask them to pose for photographs?”

The imam left hanging the question of whether he would withdraw his complaint as also whether the two communities had reached a settlement.

The answer came on Tuesday evening, when the Noida police released a statement saying they had arrested two persons in connection with the attack on the madrassa. The arrested men – Om Dutt and Surendra Singh – are both residents of Chhaprauli, the police said.

In their statement, the police went on to describe the previously unreported chain of events leading to Monday’s attack:

“On Fridays, persons of the Muslim community from outside the village land in Chhaprauli to pray af the village madrassa and this causes congestion in the village roads, which the Hindu residents had objected to. On October 2, around 100 men from the Hindu community in the village had held a meeting in the village community hall and had asked the Muslim residents to join as well, in order to discuss the congestion issue. When the Muslim residents did not come for the meeting, some of the village youths got agitated and went into the madrassa premises, where they slapped the imam’s younger brother.”

However, the Muslim residents who who had gathered at the madrassa and the police station on Tuesday claimed they had no knowledge of such a meeting.