On the afternoon of March 31, a day after Ram Navami, a crowd of over 2,000 people gathered at the Shram Kalyan Maidan in Nalanda’s Biharsharif. “In our area and culture we do the Shobha Yatra (religious procession) a day after,” says Sameer Jaiswal (name changed to protect identity), a resident, who has lived in the Muslim-majority town with a population of about 4 lakh people, all his life.
His voice is steady when he gives out matter-of-fact details of the yearly festival to celebrate Ram’s birth as the avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu. This year, the procession that comprised 12 raths (chariots) was brought together by the far-right grassroots organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the Bajrang Dal, its youth-led militant wing.
As the conversation proceeds, Mr. Jaiswal is distraught, as any father whose 16-year-old has been jailed would be. Usually a carnival-like atmosphere prevails during the yatra that goes down narrow roads, with people dancing around the chariots that carry various characters of the Ramayana, led by a trio dressed as Ram, his consort Sita, and brother Lakshman. “It may take many hours to go through the city, even until midnight,” says Mr. Jaiswal. On this occasion, in the early evening, just as the peace committee comprising both Hindus and Muslims was handing out sherbet to the participants along the way, stones began to be hurled at the Gagan Diwan kabristan (burial ground) and the Murarpur mosque, 3 km away.
In the violence that ensued, at least 250 petrol bombs went off in the mosque complex, the Azizia madrasa’s 100-year-old library with over 4,500 rare books of Islamic literature was destroyed by the fire, a Hindu flag was hoisted atop the masjid, and a mob threatened the Muslim population within the religious premises to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Horrifyingly, a similar incident had taken place 175 km away in Sasaram, Rohtas district, a day earlier.
When 183 people were imprisoned, it turned out that 54 were minors, both Hindu and Muslim, 30 from Biharsharif and 24 from Sasaram, spread across five police stations, with 18 first information reports (FIRs) filed. Many teens were on the cusp of adulthood, at 17, and have been charged under the Arms Act.
Naturally, the parents of the minors are finding it hard to come to terms with the harsh reality of jail. They sit outside the police station, some on the cemented area outside, some at the tea stall, waiting to give their children food, hoping they can catch a glimpse of them, perhaps grasp a hand or come together in a brief hug. There are packets of fruit, steel dabbas of roti-sabzi, and plastic ones of bhujia, a local speciality.
Mr. Jaiswal says that on the evening of the procession, when they heard that there had been riots, they tried to get in touch with their son. “I called him to ask where he was, but his phone was not reachable. When he returned, he said there had been some chaos near Sogra College and City Palace Hotel,” says the father, who thought nothing of it, until the police rang their bell the next day, on April 1. The Bihar Thana and Laheri police stations lie in the areas of the Gagan Diwan cemetery that had seen violence. The place, quiet for a week, is now almost back to normal, with the local administration having repaired the damaged minar. Mr. Jaiswal cannot believe that a peaceful jaloos (procession) that took place every year could turn violent, and that his son was a part of it.
“The arrests have been made on the basis of the CCTV footage; cameras were installed at different locations,” Nalanda district magistrate Shashank Shubhankar said sternly, of the clips that had caught images of young men brandishing swords and rods.
Requesting anonymity, a police officer posted in Laheri police station said that during the interrogation process, a minor had revealed that a day before the Ram Navami procession, groups of Hindus had gathered in the Murarpur locality, where swords and iron roads were distributed among them by local BJP leaders. They were also given ₹500 each for the petrol so that they could come on their respective motorbikes for the procession. Liquor too was distributed, the bottles later used for petrol bombs by the mob. These were found inside the madrasa and library, two in each of the 22 rooms.
A source in Bihar’s Economic Offences Unit said that a WhatsApp group had been formed a week before, with 456 members, of which minors too were a part. “There were fake messages circulating on the group that claimed a flag with the words Jai Shri Ram was burnt by the Muslims,” he said. Many of the display pictures of the group’s participants were of Hindu gods and goddesses. There were also messages about killing the Muslims.
A police officer of the Additional Director General rank says, “Young people do many things to gain followers on social media. They are also hired by vested interests.” Used by them, and hungry for popularity on various platforms, which is the currency of the day, he feels many adolescents may go down a dangerous path.
Rahul Ramesh (name changed) says his 14-year-old son left home saying he was going to see the Ram Navami procession, never indicating he would take part in it. “When he was going out, he had nothing in his hand, but police said that he was found with swords and that this was visible in the CCTV footage as well. He is just at the beginning of his life. What could be a bigger disaster for us than our child being identified as a rioter now in the eyes of the law,” he wails.
However, no one is taking responsibility for the violence. Avinash Kumar, one of the members of the organising committee from the VHP, says, “We have been taking out this procession for eight years now, and there has never been such an incident.” He hopes for a fair investigation, while saying that the police are not giving accurate information.
Among the Muslim minors who have been arrested is a 13-year-old, the son of a single mother, who can barely speak from the shock. He studies in the Azizia madrasa on which the attack was carried out. But since Ramzan is on, and it was shut, there were no children attending school.
The parents of another arrested, a 14-year-old, say the police barged into their house at 2 a.m. “They broke the lock to enter our house and also abused the women of the family. One police jawan hit my wife on herchest with the butt of his rifle. The communal violence took place 3 km away from our house. It was a Hindu festival. What would my son do in a Hindu procession? On what basis has he been arrested? This is complete anarchy,” says the father.
There’s a story about how the police seized the mobile phones of all the family members of a home before arresting the teen. “There was one lady constable and four policemen in civil dress. They took away ₹32,000,” says a father.
Ali Ahmad, a ward councillor in Biharsharif, said, “The Muslim children have been wrongly framed by the police. The BJP MLA of Biharsharif, Dr. Sunil Kumar, is responsible for the communal violence. He is the one who provoked the Hindu crowd to pelt stones. He is the one who should be arrested, but the police is not questioning him.”
On his part, Dr. Kumar says, “I am a Hindu. Do you think on the day of a festival I would incite violence? I have been elected from here five times.” He adds that he hoisted a 51-foot-high flag at the Dhaneshwar Ghat Hanuman temple on Ram Navami day, telling his followers present to protect the faith. He says he was not present anywhere near the procession.
In another part of town, Mohammad Pheku, 60, waits for his money: ₹12,000, for the hire of the lead rath (chariot) that carried the tableau during the Shobha Yatra. He feels lucky that his red-and-gold horse-drawn carriage decked with tinsel for the occasion was unharmed. With Ram Navami ends his peak season of wedding processions and other festivities, and he prepares for the long summer, when his income is meagre.
Mr. Pheku, who began life as a tonga driver, has been in the business of supplying chariots for almost two decades and has done the Ram Navami procession for 18 years. As he sits in the stables among his 11 horses, patting down two that are unwell, he says, “Earlier there used to bebhajan-kirtan; the music was soothing and hardly any electronic gadget was used during the procession.” Today, music is blared from loudspeakers attached to the raths, often galvanising the crowd into frenetic movement.
“Parents used to accompany children during the procession; it was a family affair, and it used to be a peaceful event with a lot of festivity,” he says, of the change in profile, with the number of women coming down drastically and the crowd becoming younger.
“However, I will continue offering my services whenever and wherever there is demand,” says Mr. Pheku, to whom it makes no difference whether Ram or Rahim is celebrated. As long as he can make enough money for his family to live.