‘Victims of communal carnage still struggling, socially and financially’

Bhajanpur village is a few kilometres off Bihar’s showcase ‘four-lane,’ as drivers call the highway, a far cry from the State’s back-breaking roads of the past, near Forbesganj town. Residents tell us that those affected by the kaand incident, of two years ago, live a little ahead, in the Ansari basti.

A bumpy ride across the village leads to Ale Rasool Ansari’s home. Sitting in a plastic chair outside, as dusk falls, he is flipping through pages of a notebook. A short man with a long beard, his head wrapped in a white cloth, Mr. Ansari calls for his son, Manjoor, who comes walking with a limp, his shoulder oddly-positioned.

Factory-police collusion

“Four people died, nine got injured. Don’t remind us of that day,” says the local teacher, who gives private tuitions to students in Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, ‘and even some English.’ Narrating the incidents of June 3, 2011, Mr. Ansari recounts how Manjoor had gone along with village elders after prayers. “The factory-wallahs had closed our main road and erected a wall. We were not opposed to the factory but had asked them to open the road. They called the police, who shot at the protestors. Manjoor was seriously wounded.”

The factory is owned by Auro Sundaram Private Limited, which has been allotted land by the Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority. The company’s version holds that villagers engaged in violence, arson and vandalism despite being provided with an alternative route. Villagers argued that the firm blocked their old passage, and peaceful demonstrations were suppressed due to collusion between the company and government. ‘What more proof do you need of their nexus apart from the fact that the BJP was then in government, and a BJP person — son of an MLC — was a director in the company?” asks Mr. Ansari.

The incident sparked a backlash. Opposition leaders visited the remote village close to India-Nepal border. The State government was pressured into setting up a judicial commission. The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) said the incident had ‘shaken the confidence of minorities’ in the State, a claim Nitish Kumar’s government rejected forcefully.

Rahul Gandhi visited the village a month after the killings. As Mr. Ansari recounts, the Congress vice-president took him aside and said, “You must come to Delhi.” The teacher replied he could not afford it. “You don’t have to do anything. My people will be in touch.” A few days later, a Congress activist came with rail tickets and took the family to Delhi’s AIIMS. The young Manjoor was treated, and he improved significantly. Mr. Ansari says, “I owe the Congress a life-long debt. Rahulji saved my son. But Nitishji has not even visited us even once.”

Champanagar violence

Ziauddin is sitting in front of a shop at Champanagar, a Muslim dominated locality in Bhagalpur. Running a powerloom, he is worried about the lack of a market. He feels the Bihar government should do more to promote the traditional silk-weaving industry of the town. But his past experiences eclipse current priorities. ‘Despite weaknesses, I will support Mr. Nitish Kumar. He has controlled communal situation. And he has given us justice. We never want 1989 to repeat.”

Twenty-two years ago, Champanagar and adjacent Nathnagar witnessed unprecedented communal violence. Tensions were triggered by the Sangh Parivar’s Ram shila processions, laced with provocative slogans, through Muslim areas. Rumours played a big role in fomenting tensions. The administration was lax and, it is alleged, partisan. In all, 2,000 people were killed. And Bhagalpur got polarised and violent like never before.

At an NCM lecture in New Delhi on September 20, Mr. Kumar projected his efforts to provide justice to Bhagalpur victims and secure punishment for the guilty, as a key achievement. The administration, he said, assessed the state of legal cases, reopened investigation, went through the process of trial and even secured some convictions for key culprits. The Chief Minister spoke of providing a lifelong, monthly pension for the victims. “Confidence is restored today. If someone did something, he will get punishment. That feeling has to get instilled. Otherwise, you will not be able to stop such incidents.”

While noting Mr. Kumar’s efforts, Warisha Farasat, a researcher who has extensively worked on Bhagalpur riots, has written in the Economic and Political Weekly that ‘victims of the communal carnage are still struggling, socially and financially.’ “The most heartbreaking challenge for the victims…is their struggle against forgetfulness. The brutality of mass violence committed against the Muslims has faded out of public memory even as the victims await justice and rehabilitation.”

Mejahat Ansari, a political activist in Champanagar, speaks of the residual fear in the town. “When we hear of incidents like Muzaffarnagar [in Uttar Pradesh], people talk about what we went through here. We wish it never to happen to anyone. Mr. Nitish Kumar’s steps are in the positive direction.”

A full circle

Bhagalpur and Forbesganj cannot be equated. The former ranks as one of the worst communal incidents in independent India; the latter is a limited, localised clash. Thousands died in 1989 and the scale of destruction was enormous; four people lost their lives in 2011. The trust between Hindus and Muslims collapsed in Bhagalpur. Forbesganj did not impact inter-community ties but was a reflection of the ‘excessive use of force’ — in the narrative of the victims — by the State.

“After 1989,” Bhagalpur’s Congress president Talibh Ansari, sitting at his residence at Nathnagar, admits, “Muslims lost faith in us. Lalu Prasad stepped in to fill the void. And now, Nitish Kumar wants to capitalise on it by providing justice.” But Forbesganj, Janata Dal (United) leaders privately acknowledge, has damaged Mr. Kumar’s claims of sensitive governance. “Congress is seeking to revive the goodwill Muslims had for them in Bhajanpur, like we did in Bhagalpur.”

But beyond the political calculus, Bhagalpur and Bhajanpur represent, in their own ways, the tensions between communities, between capital and citizens, and test the State’s claims of neutrality. Negotiating these will be the real challenge for Bihar and its citizens in general, and minorities in particular.