“What was my fault? Why did they set my shop on fire?” asked Mansoor Ahmad Sherwani, 60, as he stood outside the municipal corporation office in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj town, dismayed after attending a peace committee meeting called by the authorities on Sunday afternoon.

The questions were rhetorical. Sherwani was emphatic about the answer. His three-storeyed shop in the town’s commercial hub had been torched on Saturday morning, Sherwani declared, “because I am a Muslim”.

On Sunday, more than 48 hours after Kasganj experienced its first communal violence in living memory, the town remained under strict vigil. Police personnel were deployed in every nook and corner. Markets, shops and offices were shut and most residents stayed home as the police carried out raids in teams looking out for more suspects in the violence.

The clashes between Hindus and Muslims on Republic Day started when a group of men waving saffron flags and the Indian tricolour set out on an unauthorised motorbike rally, the police said. They ended up disrupting a Republic Day function in a Muslim-dominated locality in the town. It led to arguments that sparked violence in another locality, around 1 km away. Guns were fired by both sides, the police said. The ensuing violence left a man named Chandan Gupta, dead, and several people injured.

The police have not yet commented on the nature of the weapons recovered in connection with the case.

The violence proceeded sporadially for the next 48 hours. Several shops, most of them owned by Muslims, and vehicles were set on fire across the town by mobs defying prohibitory orders that banned the assembly of more than four persons in public places. Hundreds of police personnel from Kasganj and neighbouring districts were deployed in an attempt to bring the situation under control.

Among the establishments that was destroyed in the violence was Sherwani’s shoe shop in the town’s commercial Ghanta Ghar hub. Sherwani was not in his shop when it was attacked on Saturday morning, but one of his neighbours gave him details. He was told that the mob first took out the batteries of his inverter, uninstalled the CCTV cameras and took out his cash box before they poured petrol around the premises and set it afire. The mob then turned its attention to the neighbouring shop. Sherwani’s neighbour, who is also Muslim, and his employees tried to resist. They all got beaten up, Sherwani said.

When the district administration asked Hindus and Muslims to join Sunday’s peace committee meeting, Sherwani was one of those invited. The proceedings left him dissatisfied. “...My presence in the peace committee meeting did not mean anything,” he said. “The senior police officials were very reluctant to engage with representatives of both communities. I could not even get a chance to express the fear and anxiety which my family feels today. I was just assured that the men who burnt my shop would be identified and punished. That all they had to say.”

A shop that was gutted in the fire in Ghanta Ghar area. Credit: Abhishek Dey

What happened on January 26?

The flashpoint for Friday’s violence, the police say, was Badu Nagar, which is home to around 300 lower-income Muslim families. Most of them work in the grain markets, automobile workshops and shops in the city centre. Others own small shops in the locality.

On the morning of Republic Day, residents began to put up chairs at the Veer Abdul Hamid intersection in their neighbourhood in preparation for a flag-hoisting ceremony at noon. Around 10 am, a group of around hundred bike-borne men wielding saffron flags and the Indian tricolour rode into the area, residents said. The men insisted that the chairs should be moved so that their rally could pass, residents said.

When the residents objected and asked the bikers to participate in their function, the other group refused. This led to a heated argument, during which certain slogans were chanted, resident said.

In a video clip of the incident that had surfaced on Saturday, the slogans that are audible are “Bharat Maata ki Jai” (Hail Mother India) and “Hindustan mein rehna hoga, Vande Mataram kehna hoga” (If you want to live in India, you will have to chant Vande Mataram”). Some Muslims contend that signing the nationalist song Vande Mataram, which deifies India as the motherland, amounts to worshiping an entity other than what Islam holds as the one true god. Several news reports claimed that the Muslim group had chanted “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long live Pakistan) in retaliation. The father of the young man killed has made similar allegations. The police have so far not commented on the slogans chanted during the argument.

But when Scroll.in went to Badu Nagar on Sunday, at least a dozen people who witnessed the clashes, some of whom were visible in the video clip, denied that Pakistan-related slogans had been chanted. Two of them did, however, say that they had heard Pakistan being mentioned. While one said that he had not been able to figure out who chanted that and in what context, another said that one of the members of the motorbike rally asked the Muslims to go to Pakistan if they had problem chanting Vande Mataram.

“Why would any of us chant ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ if we were celebrating Republic Day ourselves?” asked Arif Hussain, a resident of Badu Nagar who runs an NGO that works to spread awareness about HIV-AIDS. “But that does not mean than anyone can bully us into chanting Vande Mataram. We will only say that out of our own will. Why do we Muslims have to prove our patriotism to them?”

On Friday, when the group of motorbikers was surrounded by a large number of residents in Badu Nagar, some of them rode away but others fled on foot, leaving their vehicles behind. The motorbikes were later seized by the police, eye-witnesses said.

While residents of Badu Nagar alleged that the participants of the bike-borne rally were members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the district administration and the police have not made any statements about their affiliations so far – despite having taken as many as 70 people into custody till Sunday evening.

A police team in Kasganj. Credit: Abhishek Dey

The first reports of gunfire being exchanged came from the Bilram Gate area, around 1 km away from Badu Nagar, around half an hour after the initial argument had taken place on Friday. Two persons, identified as Chandan Gupta and Naushad, sustained bullet injuries. Gupta died in the hospital, while Naushad was later sent to Aligarh, which has better medical facilities. He is still under treatment.

But what made the situation spiral out of control, said the residents of Badu Nagar, was a statement by the Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh’s Etah, Rajveer Singh, the son of Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh, at Gupta’s cremation on Saturday morning. “This cannot be forgiven at any cost,” Singh told reporters there. “I have never seen such rage but our men [the Hindu bikers] were not at fault in this incident. This incident was planned and one of our men have lost his life.”

After Gupta’s cremation, mobs set several shops and vehicles on fire. One group tried to set fire to a mosque. Hours later, Uttar Pradesh Police told the media that a Special Investigation Team has been formed to probe the matter. They also said that two cases were registered in connection with the incident – the first, a case of murder and other charges, on the basis of a complaint by Gupta’s father, and the second was a case of attempt to murder, rioting, unlawful assembly and defiling place of worship with intent to insult religion among other charges on taking suo motu cognisance of the matter.

By Saturday evening, soon after the district administration claimed that the situation was under control, violence broke out again and three vehicles were torched by mobs.

Lack of jobs

Kasganj has not witnessed communal tensions in recent memory, police officials and residents of the town told Scroll.in.

One of the main triggers for the violence was the significant level of unemployment, contended Chaudhary Nurool Hassan, 64, a former municipal councillor from the town. “Someone who has work would never get into such things,” he said. “But where would the people get work in Kasganj? The district hardly has any industries and the public sector is saturated.”

Suresh Varshney, the president of the Kasganj Vyapar Mandal, said that Kasganj district is primarily a transit point for wheat, textiles and aluminium utensils. “The wholesale traders acquire the goods from districts close to Kasganj such as Aligarh and Etah and sell them in eastern Uttar Pradesh and some other states,” he said. “The district has negligible domestic consumption.”

He added Kasganj has a large number of automobile workshops and a small market with some retail outlets. Most people who have jobs are employed in this unorganised sector, Varshney said. People who fail to get jobs at home migrate to other towns.

Raees Ahmed Hashmi, an Urdu lecturer in the town’s Azad Gandhi Inter College, claimed that “Kasganj is a story of overall underdevelopment”. He said that the poor teaching in primary schools had encouraged the rise of a few private schools. But these, he noted, are too expensive for poor people to afford.

Only 40% of Hashmi’s students go on to enrol for ourses higher education, of which not more than 15% pursue professional courses, he said. “The dropouts never leave Kasganj and most of the ones who do not pursue professional courses come back here and ultimately start looking out for work in the unorganised sector,” the lecturer said.

Though Muslims form approximatey 20% of the town’s population, they own only around 30 of 300-odd shops in its main Ghanta Ghar market, residents said. Despite this, said Varshney of the traders association, Hindu and Muslim businessmen have always worked together. He added: “We do not want such incidents to ruin that. It affects business.”

But another Kasganj resident, Rajnikant Maheshwari, who was also at Sunday’s peace meeting, disagreed. “Primarily, it was not about unemployment,” he said. “It was about sentiment. On occasions like Republic Day, such rallies are often organised and they [Muslims] should have allowed the Hindu rally to pass.”

Despite the lack on consensus on a specific cause for the violence, many Muslim residents agree on one thing: that they have been left shaken.

“The incident has now created immense fear among the Muslims in the town,” said Masood Hassan, 34, who owns a private school in Kasganj. “The Muslim shops were specifically targeted and attacked, while the Hindu shops were spared. They were about to burn a mosque and even attacked a passer-by after they identified him as a Muslim by the beard he sported.”

A bus burns after Chandan Gupta's funeral on Saturday. Credit: PTI