For a tense hour on a scorching afternoon on June 7, Yasar Pakhali of the Spartan Sports Club became a Spartan in deed — along with his friends, the 23-year-old kept vigil at the narrow entrance to Kolhapur city’s the minority Bara Imam pocket, which was under siege from a furious mob of Hindutva activists.
“A barrage of stones began hitting the houses in our locality. We immediately rushed out and blocked the entrance to prevent the mob from getting in. We stood our ground, just like the 300 Spartans,” Mr. Pakhali, an avid footballer who plays as midfielder for Spartan Sports, said.
For Mr. Pakhali and the residents of Bara Imam, the narrow lane leading to their locality was transformed into a veritable Thermopylae of mythic antiquity, where not an ancient or medieval but a modern war was being waged — a war on Kolhapur’s progressive ideals enshrined by its 19th-20th century reformer-ruler Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj (1874-1922).
“The attack was clearly pre-planned. The mob began targeting properties belonging to Muslim families…the police, who came on the scene much later, began hectoring us instead of taking the rioters into custody,” Mr. Pakhali’s friend Sahil Shaikh, speaking of the tardy police response, said.
Autorickshaw driver Rizwan Jamadar’s mangled vehicle, parked on the Bara Imam Road as usual, had become easy prey for the mob’s ire. “The rickshaw is my family’s sustenance. I have yet to recoup losses suffered during the COVID pandemic, and now this disaster. I am not sure whether I will get any compensation for the damage done to my vehicle,” the soft-spoken Mr. Jamadar said.
While Mr. Jamadar’s autorickshaw, and handcarts belonging to Muslim hawkers were being destroyed, a car belonging to a Hindu man, parked just opposite, was tellingly left unharmed by the rampaging mob.
A couple of lanes away, on Shivaji Road, Shaukat Bargir experienced the tensest 25 minutes of his life as a fusillade of stones was hurled at his small stationary shop and home. “Knowing that there would be trouble, I had shut my shop and our family was cloistered in our small home. Before the pelting began, I heard voices outside pointing out to the rioters that this was the Bargir house. My one-year-old grand-niece, Aayara, who was on the top floor, was hit just above the eye when a missile came hurtling through the window. The child was badly shaken. So were we. I have not experienced this in all my life in this city,” the 52-year-old Mr. Bargir, an active member of one of the city’s prominent Ganesh pandals, said.
The trigger for this jarring violence rupturing the city’s otherwise harmonious communities was an offending WhatsApp status message put up by a college-going Muslim youth allegedly glorifying 17th century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and 18th century Mysore state ruler Tipu Sultan.
The status message, accompanied by a provocative song showing Aurangzeb to be “greater” than the revered Maratha warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji, was re-posted and shared by some of the youth’s other college-going friends.
This post lit the fuse for Hindutva outfits to stoke the fumes of communal discord. Given that it was the 350th anniversary of the coronation of Shivaji as Chhatrapati (on June 6, 1674), proclaiming ‘Swarajya’ — independence from Aurangzeb’s mighty Mughal empire — the opportunity was apparently too good to pass.
While the police had acted on the night of June 6 itself, taking the juvenile in custody and pacifying Hindutva outfits not to stage a protest, thousands of activists belonging to these groups — including the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jan Jagruti Samiti, the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unit, the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena and even the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena faction gathered in large numbers at Shivaji Chowk on June 7, demanding Kolhapur city be shut.
“Statuses glorifying Aurangzeb, the scourge of Maharashtra, are akin to rubbing salt into Hindu wounds. Why are some elements trying to test the patience of the Hindu fraternity, who have behaved with restraint for so long? What is the meaning of trying to provoke the Hindu community by such antics on social media, and that too on the 350th coronation anniversary of Shivaji Maharaj. We will not tolerate any insult to Shivaji’s idea of ‘Hindavi Swaraj’,” Manjit Mane of Yuva Sena, the Shiv Sena’s youth wing, who participated in the protests.
The BJP’s city unit chief Mahesh Jadhav, one of the prominent protestors, warned that Hindus would take the law into their own hands if such “provocative” actions were not stopped.
“Kolhapur is a city of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj…there have been many incidents of ‘love jihad’ in recent times. And now, such a status message, glorifying Aurangzeb on the 350th coronation anniversary of our Maharaj…no Hindu will stay silent. The police will be responsible for whatever happens now,” Mr. Jadhav had said just prior to the outbreak of violence.
Ravikiran Ingawale, city president of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena said that “if Hindu-Muslim unity has to endure” then the Muslim leadership must come forward to maintain the peace and ensure that no one put up such ill-informed statuses.
By noon of June 7, the protests turned hostile with irate Hindu mobs fanning out of Shivaji Chowk and targeting Muslim-populated areas of Bara Imam, Akbar mohallah, and minority pockets in the Laxmipuri area.
Within an hour, unrestrained stone-pelting had damaged hundreds of minority-owned vehicles, shopfronts, establishments, residences in what turned to be Kolhapur’s ‘day of broken glass’, while casting a shameful blot on the lofty ideals of social equality of Kolhapur’s progressive thinkers, from Rajarshi Shahu to the late writer-rationalist Govind Pansare.
While acknowledging minor communal friction in the past, Muslim families say the difference this time was that minority establishments and homes were targeted in a pre-planned manner. Shops, vehicles, residential homes of Hindus sandwiched between their Muslim neighbours were left unscathed while minority businesses were calculatedly vandalised.
And yet, despite the sound and fury of Hindutva mobs on June 7, Kolhapur had rebounded to normalcy by June 9, with Internet services restored and all communities carrying on with their social intercourse like nothing had happened.
While admittedly shaken by the unprecedented bout of violence, several Muslim families acknowledge the solicitousness shown by their Hindu friends during their time of trouble.
According to local observers, despite Maharashtra being bedevilled by a string of small-scale riots and communal incidents in the past few months (Akola, Shevgaon, Ahmednagar, the temple entry case in Nashik), the failure of Kolhapur’s “manufactured riot” can be attributed to the remarkable restraint shown by the Muslim community and the city’s resilient social fabric.
“Everyone is aware that this is a political ploy ahead of the 2024 elections. The results of the election in neighbouring Karnataka (close to Kolhapur) have resoundingly proved that people are tired of this manufactured polarisation. This is certainly not going to work in Kolhapur where the BJP is straining every sinew to supplant the Congress by any means,” Aashqin Ajrekar, a prominent minority community representative and scion of Kolhapur’s Ajrekar family, explained.
While the suave, thoughtful Mr. Ajrekar admits to “a slow poison” seeping through Kolhapur’s progressive fabric, he is optimistic that attempts at crude polarisation by fomenting such riots will boomerang on the perpetrators in the long run.
“Several of my Hindu friends called me to enquire about our safety during and after the incident. We also told community elders to urge ignorant youths to stop putting up provocative status messages of any kind,” Mr. Ajrekar, a prominent face in the city’s Ganeshotsav celebrations, said.
Tailor Alim Shaikh, whose shop in the Bara Imam area, is nestled right below the BJP’s communication office, said that few locals were involved in the June 7 violence and that the “dirty work” was being done by outsiders — a sentiment echoed by many Muslims.
“This is just politics, nothing personal about it,” the 50-year-old Mr. Shaikh said, poker-faced.
“The people of Kolhapur are aggressive by nature. Also, unlike Muslim and Hindu communities in Ahmednagar and Aurangabad, the Muslim and Hindu communities in Kolhapur are extremely mature owing to a history of peaceful cohabitation. This time, however, the mob fury was unprecedented. But the attempt ultimately failed,” he said.
Mr. Shaikh phlegmatically said that efforts to polarise communities in the future will come a cropper as “rioting is simply not in the DNA of Kolhapur’s public”, which is infused with Rajshri Shahu’s progressive ideals.
Mr. Ajrekar, Mr. Shaikh, and several other Muslims from all strata, are quick to condemn the glorification of Aurangzeb in the WhatsApp status by “misguided”, “thoughtless” and “idiotic” youth.
“Who is the king of Maharashtra? It is Chhatrapati Shivaji. What is the meaning of putting up a status glorifying Aurangzeb, and that too on Shivaji’s coronation anniversary. And what influence does a ruler like Tipu Sultan have in these parts which is imbued with Shahu Maharaj’s ideals? If you want Muslim heroes, why not put up a status message acknowledging the greatness of someone like reformer Hamid Dalwai or A.P.J. Abdul Kalam?” Mr. Ajrekar, condemning the actions of the college-going youth, said.
Many accused the police machinery of being caught napping at the turn of events. Several local observers and journalists have alleged that the Superintendent of Police (SP) and his deputy, who took charge of their posts just a week ago, did not have a firm grasp of local dynamics.
“The police acted immediately by detaining the offending juveniles on the night of June 6 itself. The violence which unfortunately broke out was soon brought under control within an hour…More than 1,000 constables, 150 officers and two State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) units have been stationed in Kolhapur since,” SP Mahendra Pandit said.
While remaining tight-lipped on the motivations of the youth posting the WhatsApp statuses, the authorities said the five juvenile offenders had been sent to a correctional home as directed by a local court, and an ongoing probe sought to know the source of the offending audio messages that were posted on social media accounts along with images of Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan.
For the past few months, the social harmony of the Kolhapur-Sangli belt — known as Maharashtra’s ‘sugar heartland’ — has been tested to the limit, with members of Hindutva outfits and the ruling BJP raking up incidents and giving them a communal colour.
According to a local analyst, this belt has been the traditional bastion of the Congress and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), with the BJP trying to supplant the two parties by solidifying the Hindu majority votes.
The Kolhapur violence has an eerie precedence in the 2009 Miraj riots that erupted in neighbouring Sangli district (50 km from Kolhapur city) during the Ganesha festivities in September that year. The flashpoint was an arch erected by a Ganesh pandal depicting Shivaji killing Afzal Khan, the commander of the Deccani Adil Shahi dynasty in 1659. Miscreants from the minority community pelted stones objecting to the poster, with some hitting the Ganesha idol. Soon, the incident had snowballed into a violent retaliation game, with the clashes between Hindutva outfits and radical Muslim mobs in Miraj spreading to Kolhapur.
The clashes, which came months before the 2009 Assembly election, showed who benefited from them — political power decisively moved to the right, with the BJP riding the tailwind of polarisation to decisively supplant the Congress from Sangli. Local saffron leaders like Sambhaji Pawar, Suresh Khade and Suresh Halvankar of the BJP snared the Sangli, Miraj and Ichalkaranji Assembly seats without having to do much campaigning, while Rajesh Kshirsagar of the then undivided Shiv Sena won the Kolhapur North Assembly segment. Since then, the spectre of orchestrated communal clashes haunts the belt prior to a major election.
Sangli-based lawyer and activist Amit Shinde said that in neighbouring Sangli, there have been no less than five incidents in last two months that had the potential to explode into a communal conflagration.
“The incidents ranged from a so-called ‘love jihad’ case, the BJP’s pet propaganda, to disruptions in front of a dargah. But the Muslim community showed remarkable restraint, not responding with any WhatsApp messages or posts that could give provocation to radical Hindu groups,” Mr. Shinde said.
He added that politically mature citizens of Sangli came forward and formed an inter-faith group under the banner of ‘Amhi Sanglikar’ (we, the people of Sangli) to take proactive steps and nip any attempts at rupturing social harmony in the bud.
Similar attempts are on in Kolhapur to preclude future violence.
“During our Friday prayers, we have appealed to youth to not misuse their mobile phones and put up provocative statuses that needlessly heighten social tensions. We are impressing upon them on the need to use mobile phones constructively and not fritter away time in harmful activities. What happened in Kolhapur is extremely unfortunate. We should take care not to tarnish the reputation of our Shahunagari,” a local cleric, Maulana Irfan, said.
Lost in the fog of realpolitik is the plight of the little man — the rickshaw drivers, the small traders, the hawkers — who await compensation.
After the 2009 riots in Sangli and Kolhapur, socially-committed personalities like the late Govind Pansare (who was shot dead by radical Hindutva activists in 2015) and N. D. Patil had come forward and taken the lead in damage assessment and ensuring that the riot-afflicted received due compensation.
“Today, neither the beloved Mr. Pansare nor Mr. Patil are with us and Kolhapur’s progressive ideals are under attack. So, it is all the more urgent that all communities come together and send a strong message that this will not be repeated again,” Mr. Ajrekar said.
It is Javed Momin, a small clothes shop owner and resident of Bara Imam, who has the final word: “Frankly, at a time when most people are struggling to eke out a living in the face of ratcheting prices, one could care less about dead kings of 200 or 300 years ago.”