Most of the damage has been done to shops in the main Vijay Bazaar area of Nawada in Bihar

As armed forces fan out across Nawada, many locals of the Bihar town see the indefinite curfew, imposed after five days of communal clashes, as the State’s failure to contain the violence that began innocently enough on Saturday but flared up on Monday. Safety, for them, is the last thing to be found.

“The government has imposed this curfew to hide its failure to control the festering situation. The matter [could have been] settled on Day One. But the inability [of the police and administration] to act against the perpetrators has stoked the situation further,” Rashiduddin, a resident of the Darji tola (tailors’ quarters) told The Hindu.

A petty fight that began at a roadside dhaba last Saturday, escalated into a violent confrontation between two communities. Arson, vandalism, firing and skirmishes were reported as rumours circulated about deaths of people from the two communities.

Mohammad Iqbal, 24, was killed in the crossfire on Monday, while a teen Kundan Rajak died in police firing on Saturday.

“The police watched as perpetrators set fire to shops and ransacked them. Most of the damage has been done to shops in the main Vijay Bazaar area. You have the office of the Superintendent of Police and District Magistrate in the bazaar. How did so much vandalism take place in such a key area where there was already a lot of police deployment?” asked Mohammad Ashraf, a tailor.

Mohammad Sharfuddin’s cotton emporium was ransacked on the hospital road, another key location in the town. Residents of Darji Tola said the mob raised slogans supporting Narendra Modi and decrying Nitish Kumar.

Community targeted?

Many questioned the nature of the clash in which one particular community was seemingly targeted.

“All the shops near the collectorate were of the minority community. So where was the administration? Even Iqbal’s murder took place in the presence of the police. The property of the other community that is in this area is safe,” said Mohammad Rizvi, a masjid secretary in Par Nawada area.

According to the administration, the fight at the dhaba started when a group of youth demanded non-vegetarian fare. The owner Pankaj Yadav alias Duldul declined it citing religious reasons.

He told The Hindu: “This is the month of Shravan and there was a death in my family. So I was not serving non-vegetarian food. The group [of five boys] started abusing us. They also asked us for Rs. 5,000. We chased them away. Perhaps smarting under the insult, a mob returned the next morning to attack us. My eatery and nearby flat were ransacked,” he said.

Fuel to the fire

A reported attack on a group of pilgrims too is believed to have added fuel to the fire.

In the Par Nawada, a stone’s throw from the Bundelkhand police station where a pitched fight took place on Monday, residents debunked the official extortion story. They alleged that the group of boys were with a woman and a tiff over a personal matter was given a communal colour.

Some pointed to the glaring incongruity of minority persons preferring to eat at a non-minority outlet on the occasion of Id. They questioned the role of the Bundelkhand police station and the media in misrepresenting the events.

“The police station operates from a rented place and operates as per the wishes of the private landlord. We have been demanding for long that the police station should have an official building. The media only reported the death and loss to property of one community, blotting out the loss to minority community. How do people claim their losses?” Mr. Rizvi said.

“Anytime you go to that police station, they just open fire on you and then shift the blame saying the station was under attack,” Kalimuddin, a tea vendor claimed.

Nawada town comprises community ghettoes divided on religious and caste lines and topographically by the Khuri river. One side of the river is minority dominated, while the other has the majority population. The town comprises clusters of colonies for Darji Tola (tailors), Dhobi Tola (washerfolk), minority, upper caste and Yadav caste.

For the last two years, the town has been on the boil, with communal tension marking every festival. Last Holi and last two Ram Navmis saw minor conflicts. In 1986, there was a major riot, after which a peace committee meeting ruled that either the SP or the DM should be from the minority community. However, in recent transfer of officials, this ruling was ignored.

Asked if the media had played a partisan role, a local media associate said, “These clashes have been so frequent and the minority is always on the offensive. So this time the media decided to take one-sided view.”

For instance, as per some media reports, the Bundelkhand police station was set on fire and the deceased Iqbal had come to attack the police station. When The Hindu visited the place, the police station showed no signs of damage and the personnel sitting their denied that it was attacked.

On Monday, Iqbal’s old parents were preparing for their son’s funeral.

“Some boys came and told me he had been shot. He had gone to the police station to complain to the police of misbehaviour with our relatives who were coming home that day,” Iqbal’s father Mohammad Shamsul Haq, a well-known resident in the locality, said.

The Hindu could not get in touch with Kundan’s family. Some local sources said the family had been warned against speaking to the media.

Trapped

The people of Nawada have literally been trapped inside their homes with no way to get any provisions.

Tea vendor Kalimuddin wondered how to get the next meal. Without any means to procure milk, six-month-old Tuba has been surviving on sugar water and biscuits.

“We cannot go out to get milk. So all we are giving her is sugar water and biscuits,” Tuba’s grandmother Jaibunissa said.

The town wore a deserted look with fear stalking the empty streets. Companies of armed personnel and riot control police with tear gas shells were ubiquitous, warning popping heads to keep indoors. A couple of shots were also fired in the air when two youths were seen to come out of their lanes. The night before, tear gas was shells were fired in many colonies.

The government has invoked the National Security Act and indefinite curfew is under way in Nawada.