Lathi-wielding men of Mahabir Akhada carried placards mocking Sonia, Manmohan and Nitish suggesting they were catering to ‘minority votes’

On Sunday night, a traditional Hindu religious procession on the occasion of Nag Panchami at Bettiah in north Bihar turned violent. There were stone-pelting and clashes between sections of Hindus and Muslims. Local government vehicles, of the District Magistrate and the Superintendent, were burnt down. And curfew had to be imposed.

While there were multiple versions of the exact trigger for the incident, The Hindu now has in its possession photographs, which show that the procession had a strong, explicit, political subtext, with provocative political messages. This, it is alleged, infuriated sections of Muslim residents in a particular area, leading to clashes.

Lathi-wielding men of the Mahabir Akhada led a convoy of tractors, which had individuals carrying political placards, mocking United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar suggesting they were all catering to ‘minority votes’.

In one tractor, a man, identified as ‘Nitish government’ is seen holding a placard with the message: “We are even ready to make minority voters our son-in-law.” Another man, pretending to be the ‘Congress government’, holds a placard stating, “For minority votes, we will put the country at stake.” And a third man is dressed in a lungi and a skull-cap, obvious markers of a Muslim identity, with a sheet plastered on his chest, identifying him as “minority vote-bank.” A man pretending to be Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is sitting in a chair, clad in kurta-pyjama with a slash of saffron, watching the other three figures.

The domestic politics was interspersed with mocking the government’s foreign policy approach. In a second open vehicle, a poster at the back reads, “Indian politics over the continuous killing of Indian soldiers by Pakistan.” In a reference to his first statement in Parliament last week, a man who is identified as Defence Minister A.K. Antony holds a message stating, “Terrorists had come in the uniform of the Pakistani Army.” A turbaned man, ostensibly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has his mouth sealed with a tape and is bending over, with hands folded, even as a woman identified as Ms. Gandhi has a stick pointing to him.

Traditionally, these processions are aggressive, with participants displaying their martial arts skills and carrying sticks and other traditional arms. But this kind of ‘blatantly provocative political content’, according to local observers, is a new element.

When the motley crowd of policemen on the beat saw the posters, an officer apparently asked the Hindu activists to remove them but they were snubbed and the crowd moved on.

When it entered Jora Innar chowk, a densely-populated area with a mixed settlement of Hindu trading castes and Muslims, very close to the Kalibagh temple — an area traditionally believed to be a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stronghold — the situation turned tense and stone-pelting began.

Abhay Mohan Jha, a senior journalist based in the town, told The Hindu on the phone, “This is a clear sign of politics getting married to religious festivities. This is an obvious result of the recent split of the National Democratic Alliance in Patna and the social schisms developing on the ground. But it was highly avoidable since the potential for trouble was obvious. The police should have been more alert.”