As of this writing, 42 human beings are dead and countless hundreds lie wounded in the hospitals of the nation’s capital because of the violence let loose on unsuspecting neighbourhoods by frenzied, organised, hate-crazed thugs and storm troopers in pursuit of political and religious agendas embedded into the very marrow of their bones by demagogues and prophets of blood.
This is not the first time that the Indian soul has been substituted by poison. Persons of my generation do not easily forget Moradabad, Aligarh, Meerut, Delhi 1984, Hashimpura, Trilokpuri, Chhittisingpora, Ahmedabad 2002, Bombay 1993 … Our history is written in vitriol.
The recent targeted killings and mayhem sanitised in the media as “riots” or “clashes”, stand out more vividly than the previous acts of barbarism because we saw them for the first time, and in real time, on social media. Rajdeep Sardesai astutely noted on Twitter: “I was asked today what was big diff between covering riots in 1992-1993 and now. My ans: there were no 24X7 ‘pseudo-nationalist’ propaganda channels to spread hate nor social media to amplify hate mongering…”
Apart from the growth of the BJP, the emergence of powerful regional caste-based parties, the rise of consumerism following liberalisation, the decline of the Congress, nothing really seems to have changed within the soul in the post-partitioned Indian nation.
I close my eyes and I am drawn inexorably into the womb of my native Badaun in Uttar Pradesh where I first witnessed and reported first-hand on a violent communal conflagration and tried my human best to understand and explain man’s inhumanity to man. As I watch in helpless horror Delhi’s burning, I am drawn into déjà vu and I relive the nightmare of my beloved Badaun. I recorded that in a first-person article I wrote for India Today which I reproduce here.
Badaun died last fortnight. Not that the western Uttar Pradesh town of 1 lakh residents, half Muslim and half Hindu, had much going for it. As a city it is a typical filth-choked, drain-clogged agglomeration of fly-infested bazaars and serpentine alleyways, a town of mechanics and traders, transporters, grain and cloth merchants, empty of industry but replete with semi-rural Harijan slums like Lotanpura and Muslim ghettos like Nayee Serai whose residents eke out a hand-to-mouth existence.
Yet, those who grew up there remember it as a pleasant sort of place. Flying kites in pre-monsoon breezes from the roof-tops of Jallandari Serai and Kacheri Road. Lining up for sugar-coated pedas at Mamman Khan halwai’s shop. Playing hockey at the parade ground. Here, in Badaun and the nearby tehsil town of Ujhani, Muslim and Hindu milled and mixed, respected each other’s masjids and mandirs.
On Eid-ul-Azha, Muslims would deliver the choicest cut of meats to Hindu households, and on Holi, Muslims dressed in the finest white khadi and silk churidaars and adorning colourful caps would troop to Hindu households for the traditional milan (meeting).
Hindus and Muslims spoke to each other in Urdu-laced Hindustani, with Doordarshan’s Hindi universally scoffed at as some incomprehensible tongue. After all, it was Badaun that gave birth to poets Shakeel Badauni and Fatri Badauni.
And it is to Badaun that Hindus have travelled to worship at the ancient Ziyarat of Sufi saints Bade Sarkar and Chhote Sarkar under the guidance of Muslim priests. The Ganga cuts a wide swathe at the boundary of the Badaun district. This is where lakhs of Hindu pilgrims head to participate in the centuries-old Kakora mela.
Really, Badaun is not Muslim. It’s not Hindu. Ask, in any of its outlying mohallas which communities live there, and the answer you would get is Brahmins, Kayasthas, Mahajans, Muraos, Kurmis, Yadavas, Jatavas, Thakurs, Gaddis, Julahas, Ansaris, Pathans. Never “Hindu” or “Muslim”.
And the citizens of Badaun had one proud boast. In recent years, Hindus and Muslims had rioted in adjoining areas like Shahjahanpur, Pilibhit, Moradabad, Allahabad and Barabanki. Not in Badaun. Even Partition saw limited tension here. The MP from Badaun is a Congress(I) Muslim, Salim Sherwani, the MLA, a Hindu, Pramilla Mehra, minister of state for tourism. Both won on a combined vote of Muslims and an alliance of Hindu caste votes.
Today this secular vote lies shattered. The Ziyarat lies abandoned of the faithful. Children no longer chase each other through the lanes of Khairati Chowk and Choona Mandi. They live in cloistered fear as Badaun limps out of 10 days of curfew. They have blood on their hands. Hatred in their eyes. Revenge in their hearts.
Their souls are ruled by rumour. Every firecracker hurled by a mischievous child is a machine-gun attack. Vultures atop the town’s water tanks are gun-wielding fanatics of the “other” community. Truckloads of warriors are supposed to have stolen into Badaun and Ujhani from other districts.
Who would believe that Badaun’s riot of September 28, in which 30 lives were lost, was sparked off, of all things, by the introduction in the Vidhan Sabha of Urdu, a language which Badaun has loved?
Its timing was foolish for it came when Badaun, even though the majority of its people did not give their feelings rabid expression, had begun to show signs of communal infection from the fundamentalist Hindu revivalism afoot countrywide, as well as from the shortsightedness of local Muslim political leaders.
Better than its citizens, local criminals who typically gain political respectability by engendering communal riots and then emerging as community “leaders” had been able to judge Badaun as fissionable material.
It started with a peaceful BJP-inspired march on September 27 mostly by students of the SK Inter College to the collectorate—amid some ugly pro-Hindu sloganeering—to present a petition opposing the Urdu bill. It was an obviously communal situation in which Hindus were equating Urdu with the Government’s pampering of Muslims.
Next day at 9.30 a.m., a 200-strong procession of slogan-chanting students, joined by criminal elements, marched from Islamia Inter College to SK College. It is still being debated whether this procession should have been allowed. But given the history of Badaun’s communal peace, District Magistrate Sisir Priyadarshi and Superintendent of Police N.R. Srivastava did not expect violence.
It occurred when the marchers tried to force their way into the other college. They clashed. With brickbats, with knives. Priyadarshi and Srivastava rushed to the spot. Within half an hour the violence had spread downtown to the Chahsaraka area, the main chowk. Armed combatants began firing at each other from roof-tops, indicating an element of preparedness.
Some 5,000 people were participating in the battle within the next hour with no more than 50 policemen conducting lathi charges and firing in the air. By the time reserves arrived from Bareilly, some 70 km away, Badaun was on fire. More than 200 shops were gutted, and places of worship damaged.
Before relief could arrive, a train was held up near Badaun Railway Station and 13 people were butchered. The man arrested in connection with the incident was Ram Sewak, a Kurmi criminal-turned-politician, a history sheeter with several murder cases pending against him, a former Lok Dal “diehard” as police dossiers describe him, and of late a Janata Dal activist.
“Why this in Badaun?” Prabha Shankar, Badaun’s most eminent lawyer, is asked. He responds: “It’s obvious that Hindus are not ready to tolerate their own government treating them as second-class citizens.” Shankar is not a communalist.
Perhaps he doesn’t know the “pampering” he talks about, apart from the vote bank benefit to the ruling party, has a social element to it because more than 60 per cent of Muslims in the country live below the poverty line.
But he does articulate a commonly-held Hindu belief that minorities have been appeased while the majority has been restrained from asserting itself, and that some day, because of mass conversions and non-acceptance of family planning, the minorities will gain an edge.
And there have been no efforts by the Government to explain that given the 1941 census base—and not the 1951 in which Muslims were undercounted—the rate of growth in Muslim and Hindu populations has been about the same.
It is this kind of thinking that has caused the majority community to develop a minority complex and given credence, even in places like Badaun, to the Hindu revivalist movement. The political behaviour of the Muslims in Badaun has perhaps also been shortsighted. Their voting patterns have tended to isolate them. Though the Muslims of Badaun have voted for Hindus, they have tended to vote as a community.
These patterns, of late, have disturbed Hindus of Badaun district. During municipal elections in June, Muslims turned out en masse to elect a Muslim causing some Hindu insecurity over the fact that with a Muslim MP and Muslim chairman there was a deliberate effort to create a Muslim raj.
This paranoia was exploited in Ujhani a few weeks later by Janata Dal politician Sri Krishna Goyal. He made a communal speech that so galvanised the Hindus that they were able to elect a Hindu municipal chairman even though Muslims had rallied en masse behind Dr Nihal Ahmed.
In microcosm, this was the communal divide. And in Badaun it is sharpening as the elections draw near. For the first time Hindus and Muslims have drawn blood. Out of sheer insecurity, Muslims will flock together even more, perhaps to the Congress (I) side.
Hindus have already begun demanding from their elected leaders the release of some 60 people jailed for the killings. Some even see the criminal Ram Sewak as a Hindu hero, and the message of Hindu-Muslim disharmony is spreading into Badaun district’s villages where Yadavas and Thakurs and Muraos are being told that their identity is Hindu, that they should vote as Hindus.
What the future holds is anybody’s guess. But, Badaun used to be Indian. Today it is Muslim and Hindu.
Lead illustration: Anthony Lawrence