The Muslim burial ground in Haryana’s Patla village is in a frightful state. It has a boundary wall on just two sides. The few unmarked graves dotting it sit amidst trash, construction debris and wild grass and shrubbery. Cattle belonging to residents of this village in Sonipat district, 53 km from Delhi, graze here.

In April, with a grant from the discretionary fund of Sonipat’s Member of Parliament – Ramesh Kaushik of the Bharatiya Janata Party – the local administration had attempted to complete the boundary wall and build a shelter inside the graveyard in April. This led to intense tension between Hindus and Muslims in this corner of Sonipat, which borders the Rajiv Gandhi Education City that promises “world class” education.

By the middle of June, parts of the shelter’s walls had been constructed but the lintel beams were yet to be put in place. Hindu villagers are convinced that Patla’s Muslim families were building a mosque in the graveyard that would have evolved into a madrassa or Islamic seminary. Late on the evening of June 19, they gathered in large numbers, rallying support from neighbouring villages like Sewli and Jakholi, and brought down the structure’s walls.

“There were over 200 boys,” said Waheed, a resident of Patla. “If the police had not pulled me into their car and saved me, I could have been killed that day.” Since then, Haryana police vans have been stationed at the entrance of the village daily.

The shelter after it was damaged by the villagers. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).
The shelter after it was damaged by the villagers. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).

Dozens of Muslim families who had come from Bihar to work in the developing Rai block of Sonipat left the day after the demolition. They had been living in rented properties in the village, some for over a decade. Some had children in senior classes of the local government school, said Noor, 58, Waheed’s older brother, who is a community leader of sorts. “The villagers went at night on June 20 and told them: ‘We will kill you if you stay any longer,’” said Noor.

Begh Raj, a former bus driver in his 50s, who lives next door to the graveyard, was direct and unapologetic about what he thought of the matter. “Topi-wale ko hamne bhaga diya,” he said. We have driven away the ones with the skull-caps. Raj owns a few buffaloes that are tied to stakes planted in the graveyard. “If they try to build the mosque, we will kill them, you can write it down,” he added.

On June 22 evening, Hindu residents of Patla and neighbouring villages gathered at the village square, Chauhan Chaupal, and shouted anti-Muslim slogans.

The people who had left the village could not be contacted.

Fewer than 10 Muslim families count themselves as original residents of Patla. They own homes in the village, but not farmland. Noor and Waheed belong to one such family and said they have lived with their Hindu neighbours, most of them Rajputs, for generations without any conflict.

The village’s de facto chief, Badle Ram said that the fact that Noor has given his son a Hindu name, Amit, was evidence of the amity between Hindus and Muslims in the village. The position of village pradhan is held by Badle Ram’s daughter-in-law.

Nine days after the incident, Waheed was still upset about it. “This is the first time something like this has happened,” he said. “Our own village people did this. We are under tremendous pressure. We are living but feel like we do not have the right to.”

Waheed said he leases a small plot of land that he farms at a loss. He also runs a general store. Noor owns buffalos and sells dairy products. Occasionally, he visits Delhi to sell his produce at Azadpur Mandi, the city’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

Graveyard, grant and mosque

In April, during one of his trips to Delhi, Noor and a friend visited Sonipat MP Ramesh Kaushik in Delhi to request for a grant from the MP Local Area Development funds. “We told him that while other villages are being developed, our village graveyard is in a terrible shape – garbage is dumped in it and animals get in and dig up the graves,” said Noor. The cemetery occupies over six acres of land and is over 150 years old, he said.

The graveyard at Patla village. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).
The graveyard at Patla village. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).

Kaushik’s office approved the grant, which was shifted to the Block Development Office and the government’s junior engineer drew up a plan.

Construction began in April itself. The village’s Muslims had no inkling of the anger brewing then. Badle Ram said that the village panchayat was not involved with the project and that the “public grew upset when they saw there were eight pillars instead of the six [in the plan] and the workers put beams over them”.

The villagers admitted that they have never seen the plan.

“They must have thought there would be loudspeakers and a madrassa,” said Badle Ram. “A verandah was sanctioned but they were building a room.”

Noor emphasised that the village’s Muslim community had no role in designing the structure. “The naksha [the design] is with the JE [junior engineer] and it was the government that was making it,” he said.

But the Hindu villagers did not believe this. “The approval of the grant was only for the outer boundary wall, not for a mosque,” said Beg Raj. “Muslims here collected money from amongst themselves and were building it. They would have preached from here, held classes and people would have come from all over.”

Begh Raj and his buffaloes just inside the cemetery. The wall separates the cemetery from the road. (Credit: Aabid Shafi).
Begh Raj and his buffaloes just inside the cemetery. The wall separates the cemetery from the road. (Credit: Aabid Shafi).

But both Noor and Waheed countered that was not the plan. “You cannot build a masjid inside a kabristan anyway, it is not allowed [in Islam],” said Noor. Secondly, the grant was generous enough, and the community did not feel the need to contribute. Initially they were told that about Rs 8 lakh had been sanctioned. But during the many meetings with the authorities following the demolition on June 19, Noor discovered the sanctioned amount was actually around Rs 10.4 lakh. “We did not spend a paisa on this, why should we?” he said. “The structure was for keeping ropes and shovels [so that] those accompanying the dead could take shelter for a few minutes if the weather was bad.”

Kaushik told that the “grant was for a boundary wall and that is what will be made”.

On the evening of June 19, as village youths gathered to tear down the incomplete structure, Badle Ram had attempted to intervene. “I had said, let us first talk to the community, then let us ask the officials to show us the plans, but the kids did not listen,” he said. “They did not stop even after the police came. Then they made inflammatory statements at the meeting. They should not have.”

Noor said that members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had been present that day, but Badle Ram denied it. “The matter did not go that far,” he said. “Now we are all trying to resolve this so the conflict does not grow any further. We are meeting panchayat leaders from other villages and trying to come to an agreement.”

Villagers met Kaushik on June 28 and the zila parishad chairman on July 1.

Kaushik also dismissed the June 19 episode as a “minor incident that has been resolved”.

De facto village chief Badle Ram. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).
De facto village chief Badle Ram. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).

On prayers

But the incident is weighing heavily on the Muslim residents of Patla. “I am so stressed, I have not eaten or slept properly for days,” said Waheed, tearfully.

The first time Waheed sensed a change in the air was during Ramzan, which was observed from mid-May to mid-June this year. That period was when he and his brother organised namaaz every day on the terrace of their home, a single-storey structure. They invited an Imam for the prayers, and on some days had over 30 men attending. “We had done this once before as well, about 15 to 16 years ago, but there was no problem then,” said Waheed. “This time, the others treated us with suspicion, asking why we must gather to pray daily.”

The closest mosque is in Rasoi, about 3 km away.

Residents whose homes surround the graveyard said they were concerned about prayers being held five times a day if a mosque was built in the area. Their concerns were echoed by their children, including Beg Raj’s nephew, who is about 10 years old. “Our home is right here, you know,” said a woman sheepishly, asking not to be identified, and gesturing to the back of the cemetery.

Waheed does not blame politicians or the government for the tension in the village. He thinks people just do not have enough to do. A large chunk of Patla’s agricultural land was acquired by the government to develop the Rajiv Gandhi Education City next door. The village now sits on the edge of this acquired land. Farmers who lost land to that project bought flats and plots in town with the compensation. “Earlier, the entire family would be engaged in farming,” said Waheed. “Now they earn from rent and stir this kind of trouble. People have too much time and money.”

The police have been posted at Patla village since June 19. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).
The police have been posted at Patla village since June 19. (Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).