October 18, 2015

India: In Communally Sensitive Bhagalpur, a Non-Riot (Javed Iqbal)

The Wire - 17 October 2015

Communalism: In Communally Sensitive Bhagalpur, a Non-Riot
by Javed Iqbal

First the legs of a cow were thrown in a Hindu area and then a dead piglet was left inside a mosque. Despite these deliberate attempts to provoke violence, the efforts of concerned citizens and a dedicated police chief ensured peace prevailed.
Nujahid Ansari, Aslam Niyazi and Sajjan Kumar Sah, who worked for peace after 'beef' was thrown into a Hindu area in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Nujahid Ansari, Aslam Niyazi and Sajjan Kumar Sah, who worked for peace after ‘beef’ was thrown into a Hindu area in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Bhagalpur (Bihar): The minute you tell people in Bhagalpur that you want to do a story to counter the narrative of communalism in the mainstream news, they welcome you with open arms.

On September 26 and then again on the 30th, Bhagalpur town saw two mobs form over the deliberate placement of particular forms of meat in a town that has seen widespread communal clashes and pogroms in the past. A month-old piglet, with his hind legs tied, and its neck cut, was thrown into a mosque; three days earlier, three beef shanks (legs) were thrown onto a street in a predominately Hindu area.

Shops shut down in fear as mobs formed, threatening violence and demanding the culprits be found, yet something else happened.

A calmness prevailed over the swirling hatred, and it was no coincidence that it was the older generation of Hindus and Muslims who had lived through the 1989 riots that helped placate the mobs.

This was the first time the provocative use of controversial meat was used to spur communal incidents in Bhagalpur, a town that has seen repeated incidents over inter-religious marriages, and during the interlapse of durga puja, moharram for decades. The fact that the incident took place just a fortnight before the first round of polling in the ongoing Bihar assembly elections led to residents claiming that someone was doing ‘rajneeti’. Yet one wonders whether mere instigation is enough to polarise the vote.

Most people feel the Bharatiya Janta Party in Bhagalpur town is in trouble, due to the breakaway faction of Vijay Kumar Sah – who ran as an independent against the BJP’s Arijit Shashwat, and whose rallies saw over 500 motorcycles across town, against the 200 or so of the BJP. The Congress’s Ajit Sharma also stood a strong chance due to this in-fighting and the consolidation of Muslim votes, yet I shall restrain myself from one of the most popular activities in Bihar today: talk about who is winning, and who might lose in which area.

‘Why would anyone throw beef in a Hindu area?’

Tanti Bazaar in Champanagar, Bhagalpur is an unremarkable road separating the Muslim bunkars (weavers) from their Hindu counterparts. It is also the site of a large Jain temple. It was around dusk when, in the cover of darkness, three beef shanks appeared to have been left on the road.

Within minutes, there was a mob of young people, locals and outsiders, clamouring for the administration to arrive. They apparently called for apt retribution, screaming at the few local Muslims how happened to be around: ‘What would happen if we throw a pig in your locality?’

Nujahid Ansari, who lives a mere five minutes away was called by the police and told to go and deal with the matter. He is part of the Bunkar Sangarsh Samiti, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as well as the local peace committee. He wanted to take the meat away himself but was restrained by the crowd who wanted the administration to appear first. His next action was to send reliable people to nearby cross-roads, and make sure that Muslims returning home from work did not walk into the angry crowd.

Uday Shankar, another middle-aged resident’s first response to the incident, was the oft-repeated and sometimes cliched statement that Hindu-Muslims here have always united with each other: ‘Yahan ke log itne judey hain, hum taani aur bharni ke jaise hai.’ (We’re as united here as the intercross of fibre on cloth.)

‘All the boys who were aggressive were 20 to 25-years old,’ he adds, a fact confirmed by a visibly upset Sajjan Kumar Sah, who also debated with the angry mob.

Sah was one of the first people to notice what had happened as the meat was thrown right in front of his workshop.

As he began to appeal for calm, a young man whom Sah refuses to name, yelled at him saying, ‘Aap chup rahiye, aap toh Ansari bann gaye.’ (You keep quiet, you’ve become an Ansari.)

People like him braved insults and continued to press for peace and only went to their homes when the situation was under control, as the administration and the police were swift to arrive. (The District Magistrate was quick to point out that law and order was more important than his ‘official duties.) Unlike 1989, when Satyendra Narain Sinha of the Congress was the Chief Minister, the police did not act partisan or instigate the mobs – as enquiry reports into that deadly riot have established, implicating, in particular, the then Superintendent of Police, K.S. Dwivedi.

Dwivedi is now an Inspector General in Bihar. The Congress paid dearly for the complicity of the state administration in the violence. The Muslims of Bhagalpur, until then loyal Congress voters, eventually moved over to Lalu Prasad Yadav.

The present Superintendent of Police, Bhagalpur, 37-year-old Vivek Kumar followed the letter of the law: he heard about the incident when he was in the headquarters and instantly directed the civil society shanti committees, policemen and women from eight to ten police stations, the Rapid Action Force, the CRPF , and only then left for the site. ‘People from both communities had shown lots of maturity,’ he said, adding, ‘Whatever the anti-social elements wanted, they failed.’

‘Are you aware of what had happened in 1989 in Bhagalpur?’ I asked him.

‘Of course.’

‘So what motivated you to act with such diligence when you heard about this?’

‘That this just doesn’t go out of control.’

Later, Sajjan Kumar Sah recalled for me the riots of 1989: how he and few young men would patrol the area, where just two kilometres away, Muslim localities were being attacked. ‘Doh mussalmaan bhaag rahe the, aur unke peeche thode log talwaar leke aa rahe the.’ (Two Muslim men were running away from people with swords.)

Sah remembers that he saved the life of 70-year-old Inamul Haque, describing the men who were trying to kill him as ‘BJP-minded’ people. He goes on to add that whoever threw the beef to provoke people were neither Muslim nor Hindu, but inhuman.

‘Why would anyone throw beef in a Hindu area?’ asks Nujahid. ‘And why that part of the animal? The legs? I don’t think any Muslim could have done this. If a Muslim wanted to provoke the Hindus why would he throw the most cherished part of the animal? He could throw bones, he could throw the waste.’

‘Don’t put any photos of the pig on WhatsApp!’
No Muslims or people of other religions were physically harmed when a piglet was thrown into this Mosque in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Credit: Javed Iqbal

No Muslims or people of other religions were physically harmed when a piglet was thrown into this Mosque in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Credit: Javed Iqbal

It was around 8 in the morning at the Shahi Masjid at Jabbar Chowk that labourers working on the second floor of the mosque discovered a piglet with its throat cut left on a rug. They quickly informed the Imam, 25-year-old Mohammed Ulfad Hussain, whose first action was to shut the gate of the mosque, and then call the people whom he trusted the most.

Yet rumours began to spread, and within 30 minutes, hundreds of people had gathered near the mosque.

Dr. Sallauddin Ahsan, Principal of M.M. College Bhagalpur was one of the first to arrive on the scene, and began calling the police and the administration.

‘We wanted the administration and the police to just catch who did this,’ he said. ‘The DSP was the first senior officer to arrive, but he was also a Muslim. So we decided to wait for the SDO or DM who is Hindu. Otherwise they would’ve thought that we Muslims did this to ourselves.’

Within minutes, hundreds of security forces had cordoned off the area and prevented people from coming towards the mosque, which is off the main road. Yet those who knew the neighbourhood managed to come to the mosque and climb the roof of the neighbouring house to try to get a look at the body of the piglet. When the media arrived, a whole mob managed to get inside the gate of the mosque along with camera persons, but were swiftly chased out. Yet not without taking photos.

With all the clamour about Digital India, there was a unique moment of mature self-censorship. When Sallauddin and Professor Hasnayn Alam saw that their relatives in Delhi and the Gulf began to put the photo of the pig on Whatsapp and Facebook, they instantly called them and got them to delete it. They refused to share the photos they had with people they knew, keeping it only for evidence – to show that this was no accident but a deliberate attempt at provocation: the image clearly shows the animal with its neck slit and its hind legs tied.

‘People wanted to go do a chakka jam on the street, all the young boys, but we made sure they didn’t,’ said Sallauddin.

‘The local media also behaved well, but tell me one thing,’ he said, but then asked, ‘Why is it that in the national media’s talk shows, three maulanas are given the right to speak for all Muslims?’


In Champanagar, Nujahid Ansari had offered to cart away the cow shanks, but it was Alam, a driver who works with the police, who finally took it away.

In Jabbar Chowk, the ‘safai karmachari’ took the pig carcass away, and the caretakers of the mosque cleaned the space.

The offending meat was taken to the police station, catalogued as evidence, photographed, and disposed of as there were no freezers in the evidence room. The police are still trying to find out who was behind these attempts to stir up trouble.

A few days ago, I received a story that is going a bit viral amongst Indian Muslims, whose author I am unable to trace:

“In a small village in India, a little fox told its father of his desire to eat human flesh. Next day father fox managed to get some pig meat and offered it to his cub. But the little fox wouldn’t have it. Then the father fox managed to get some cow meat and offered it. The cub refused to eat that as well.

“The stubborn little fox was adamant that he will not settle for anything other than human meat. That night the father fox left the pork in the front of a masjid and the beef in the front of a temple. The next morning the entire village was filled with dead humans and the little fox ate his fill.

“Story might be hypothetical, but the Fox is for real. Author unknown.”

Javed Iqbal is a freelance journalist and photographer