Activist claims the increase in the Muslim population after the 2008 constituency delimitation led to insecurity among Hindus

Almost two months since six people were killed after communal violence in the north Maharashtra district of Dhule, the aggressive-yet-vulnerable countenance of the town has resurfaced. Citizens, both Hindu and Muslim, reveal that behind the volatility is the small town’s neglected struggle for an identity.

A small fight at a local eatery in the busy Machhi Bazaar area turned violent on January 6, which was then followed by police firing that killed six people, and injured more than 100, including policemen. All the six dead were Muslims, which prompted minority leaders to allege that the police action was biased. The State government promised a judicial inquiry, and yet no steps have been taken so far to nominate panel members.

Disillusioned populace

Chand Shaikh, a 30-year-old rickshaw driver who lost his leg in the police firing recounts the day with horror and disillusionment. “I just happened to be there and now I am rendered useless for the rest of my life. Who will support my family?” he asks.

It is with a sense of deja vu that the people of Dhule recount the first big communal clash in 2008, which claimed 11 lives. It was at this time that the fault-lines within the small town, which remained largely peaceful even after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, began to show.The first signs of an impending outburst were perhaps seen after the formation of the Hindu Rakshak Samiti (HRS), a right-wing organisation that brought together members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. According to Milind Mundada, a member of the now-almost-disbanded outfit, the reason for the formation of the samiti was “to reiterate the strength of Hindus in Dhulia [as Dhule is known among non-Marathi speakers]. “Their [Muslim] population was increasing every year and we felt that we should do something to control their hold over the city,” Mr. Mundada said. From 2005 to 2008, the organisation continued to expand.

In October 2008, when Muslim leader Shabir Seth took out a procession to celebrate his return from Mecca, the HRS organised a meeting on the same day. The two groups clashed over an offensive poster put up by the HRS, thus resulting in a riot, which went on for five days.

Mr. Mundada and his associates confessed to having participated in the violence that followed. “There was chaos everywhere. Our people were being beaten up. We couldn’t just sit quietly,” he said.No one has been convicted yet, and the main accused of the riots are out on bail. Three of those who have been accused of orchestrating the riot even won the municipal elections in 2008 from inside the jail. While Shabir Seth won as an independent candidate, Hiraman Gawli won on BJP ticket, and Mahesh Mistry on a Shiv Sena one. (Both Gawli and Mistry were members of the HRS).

The intertwined nature of politics and crime in the district is not hidden from its citizens, especially those who are uneasy witnesses to this liaison.

“There is no leader whom we can trust. Politicians only remember us around election time. But the freebies they give to buy our votes do not last forever,” 36-year-old Sadik Shaikh said. Shaikh lost his 18-year-old brother in the 2008 riots. “To add insult to injury, the Rs.8-lakh cheque which was supposed to be our compensation was snatched away from us, [on the ground] that my brother is an accused in the case,” Shaikh told The Hindu last week.

Victims of the recent riot fear a similar fate. “Our cheques did not have the signature of the Tehsildar. What does the government want to prove by playing dirty games with us?” asked Jaleel Ahmed, who was hurt in the police firing. He was supposed to receive Rs. 30,000 as compensation and is still waiting for another cheque to be issued.

The role of the police has come under scrutiny in the last two months, thanks to videos made by eye-witnesses which show, in detail, how those in uniform lathi-charged innocent people, destroyed property and looted shops that had been shut after a curfew was imposed in the town. Six policemen were arrested in a single case of looting from a shop last month. But Masood Ansari, one of the eye-witnesses who submitted the videos to the police, is not satisfied. “The more serious offence of shooting to kill [which is clear in the video] and assaulting innocent people has been conveniently forgotten by the State government,” Mr. Ansari told The Hindu. A police official, Mohan Pawar, who according to Mr. Ansari was caught on camera shooting above the waist, was transferred to Nashik in the week following the riot.

While the government is unwilling to take any strict action against the apparent communal bias of the police, the uniformed forces have also found support in the Dhule Bar Association. Lawyers made a special representation to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan in January, stating that the video clips circulated against the police were ‘doctored’ and that they stood by the police forces. “If the reputation of the police is damaged, who will protect us?” Advocate Sunil Jain said.

On the other hand, 13 Muslim corporators tendered their resignations to the Muslim religious head in the aftermath of the riot.

According to social activist Avinash Patil, this “is a worrying trend. It sets a dangerous precedent when one set of important people in public support police high-handedness, and on the other hand, local representatives rush to religious heads for solutions.”

Fight for resources

Hindu and Muslim groups are also fighting to lay claim on limited resources and opportunities in the town.

Dhule, with an area of 46.46 sq km, is the smallest district in the State. The unemployment rate in urban Dhule is 26.17 per cent, compared to 7.6 per cent for urban India. There has been no industrial development to speak of. The MIDC area employs 5,000 people. The small-scale industries of powerlooms, which give employment to around 10,000 people, mostly Muslims, are reducing every year according to civic officials. While there have been complaints of electricity theft, a powerloom owner The Hindu spoke to in the centre of Dhule said, “We do not get any other concessions. What can we do other than steal?”

Even the proposed investment of up to Rs. 30,000 crore for energy projects would not potentially provide much employment, a civic official said on condition of anonymity.

Call to addressroot causes

According to Mr. Patil, the delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies in 2008 led to an increase in insecurity among the Hindus, as the Muslim population in Dhule swelled.

“In essence, it is a struggle for identity. When it is not addressed in terms of employment and opportunities, it manifests itself in violent forms.” If the testimonies of the citizens are anything to go by, the volatility of this small town will only keep on rising, unless strong efforts are made by the administration to address the root causes.