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Premium on peace

Nanded in Maharashtra has been a communally sensitive area for more than 10 years now. MEENA MENON examines the causes of the latest riot in November and the efforts on to find a solution.


ON a Friday afternoon in November, in Parbhani in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, two young men on a motorcycle threw crude bombs into a place of worship, injuring over thirty people and breaking a peace that's lasted since 1967. Riots broke out soon after and by evening, curfew was already imposed.

Marathwada remains one of the most communally sensitive regions in Maharashtra and while Parbhani quietened down in a couple of days, riots broke out in the adjoining district of Nanded. The holy city of Nanded has witnessed riots every two or three years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

A congested web of narrow lanes and shops in Itwara, Old Nanded, which has the largest jewellery market in Marathwada, or Sarafa, has always been a hotspot. Hindus and Muslims live and trade side by side since decades in this Muslim dominated area where peace has increasingly become a fragile commodity.

Nanded Superintendent of Police Anup Kumar Singh says one of the injured from Parbhani was brought to Nanded for further treatment on November 21 itself, the day of the bomb blast, and later escorted to Hyderabad, where he died. In Nanded, some people used that as a reason to give inflammatory speeches and enforce a bandh the next day.

Sudhakar Tak, secretary of the Sarafa Association, a trade body of gold and silver jewellers, who was later arrested for firing at the mob, says "Our local peace committee met that very evening and we decided against a bandh. However, later on some people incited the mobs and by November 22 morning, a group of young men went around asking us to close our shops. A violent mob brandishing swords and rods gathered and started stone throwing — one of the stones hit my son and I was scared they would loot my shop- I fired from my licensed revolver for the first time."

A Shiv Sena party worker, he claims the Hindu community has faced constant threats since the Babri Masjid demolition. He also says there were brutal attacks on some Hindu families this time and some of them were leaving the area. "I will not leave this place as it is my home for fifty years. I think we have to live together but in an atmosphere of safety," adds Tak.

In the narrow bylanes of Sarafa, business is as usual after the riots. A Muslim shopkeeper who prefers to remain anonymous says, "I feel the atmosphere is free and frank and am not scared. I also feel the local people are not responsible for what happened. It is all politics."

A sentiment Abdul Waheed, a jeweller, agrees with. "We businessmen don't even know what is a stone. We have love and affection for each other. I had a wholesale cloth shop outside Itwara, which was burnt down in September 2000 during riots. I lost Rs. 8.5 lakhs worth of material and Rs. 2.5 lakhs worth of property. I did not get my money back and had to leave the place and set up shop here five years ago."

"People don't hate each other as a rule, they are instigated. A lot of youth are illiterate and unemployed and easy prey. They say we support Pakistan. We have to live here and we don't have anything to do with Pakistan," he adds.

The riots in Nanded began on November 22 and curfew was imposed for the next few days before Id — a time when business is high in Itwara. It was businesses, which took the brunt of the riots, and many shop owners suffered heavy losses. Abdul Khayyum who runs a sweet shop at Barki chowk, says, "Four days before Id is the time shops are open all night and business is at an all time high. I usually sell eight to ten quintals of sweet boondi in a single day and make a profit of Rs. 25000. But this time the shop was closed from November 22 till November 26 and we lost at least Rs. 60 to 70,000."

Before Id, Mohammed Ali Road, running from Barki chowk to the famous Nanded Tower, is usually crammed with at least a 1000 handcarts. This year the road was empty. "I had bought Rs. 20,000 worth of goods for Id but I did not sell anything. Garibi men Id guzara (I spent Id in poverty)," says Abdul Khadeer.

Zaleelbhai, a tea vendor, says "I took a loan of Rs.1600 from various shops and bought goods to sell during Id but now I can't even repay my debt. For 30 years I have sold things at this chowk but this is the first time it was closed during Id. We are small businessmen, we don't know why riots happen — some people from our community do wrong things and the rest suffer." The last major flare-up in Nanded was in September, 2000, during Ganesh Visarjan (Immersion) where riots injured 126 people and damaged property worth Rs 1.04 crores. This time, the loss of property was about Rs.10 lakhs, says Mr. Singh. Over 30 policemen were injured, some seriously. "This time we saw young boys from both communities with swords, youth between the ages of 18 and 25. Ninety per cent want peace — but there are a few with vested interests who want riots. The only solution is stop pointing fingers at each other. Ultimately it's a question of rights and wrongs. We have to hold on to peace," he adds.

After the riots, a peace march was held on December 4, at the initiative of the newly constituted Nagri Sadbhavna Samiti which had participation from all communities. According to Shobha Waghmare , state president of the Women's Front of the Shetkari Sanghatana, inflammatory speeches by certain leaders caused the tension in Nanded. "They are concerned only with their vote bank. Hindus and Muslims have been living here for a long time in peace but in the last 10 or 11 years things have changed. There is increasing distrust, intolerance and people are getting more and more divided on caste and religious lines, encouraged by politicians," she says.

Dr. Venkatesh Kabde, former Janata Dal MP from Nanded and one of the initiators of the Samiti, says, "The common man is not interested in this divisiveness — for instance while Old Nanded was under curfew, normal life was not disrupted in other areas of Nanded city. We still have instances of communal harmony — a Muslim man who was trapped inside a mosque during the riots was fed by a Hindu family."

"Now our focus is preventive action. Riots in Nanded occur every two to three years and it is a matter of concern. The rise of the Shiv Sena may have something to do with it. Earlier the Sena was not a force to reckon with like it is now. Usually at festival time, sentiments run high and someone exploits it to their advantage."

Peace has become premium in Old Nanded and political leaders have no small role to play in this. In an increasing climate of communal tension, it is imperative to hold on to it at any cost, before it becomes too late.

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