By CSSS Team
Constituting the Fact-finding Team
In the month of December, we read in newspapers that there a were series of communal riots in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. Some social scientists have pointed out that riots are more likely to occur nearer election times. The Shivraj Singh Chouhan led BJP Government had been installed about nine months ago on 23rd March 2020 after 22 Congress MLAs resigned from the Party reducing the then ruling Congress Party Government led by Kamal Nath to minority. Elections to these 22 Assembly Constituencies were held on 3rd November 2020 along with 6 other Assembly by-elections. It was a bit surprising that communal riots took place after the elections. Narottam Mishra, the Home Minister of the state reportedly gave a statement that the homes from which stones are pelted, stones from their homes will be removed (Sabrangindia, 2020) (Tanwar, 2020). Such a statement was not only illegal, but also coming from the Home Minister of the state (and one of the aspirants to the post of Chief Minister) is highly objectionable. To prove that he was equally belligerent and intolerant to any defensive action taken by the minorities, the Chief Minister Chouhan also announced that he would bring in a stringent law to punish the stone pelters. An independent fact-finding team was formed by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) to investigate the incidents of Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Christian communal clashes, which occurred in Madhya Pradesh in the month of December 2020.
The team consisted of:
- Vibhuti Narain Rai, Former DG Uttar Pradesh, Delhi,
- Irfan Engineer, Centre of Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai,
- Harnam Singh, Senior Journalist, Mandsaur,
- Chittaroopa Palit, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Khandwa,
- Sarika Shrivastava, State Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women, Indore,
- Rakesh Dixit, Senior Journalist, Bhopal,
- Advocate Shanno Shagufta Khan, Human Rights Law Network, Indore,
- Nidah Kaiser, Researcher, SOAS, University of London, and
- Vineet Tiwari, National Secretary, Progressive Writers Association, Indore.
Between 28th and 30th January 2021, the team visited Chandankhedi village in Gautampura District, Begum Bagh colony in Ujjain, Dorana village in Mandsaur and Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh. These places were reported to have been rife with majoritarian communal tension in December 2020. The team met with victims of the communal violence, eyewitnesses, religious leaders, village heads, police personnel, journalists, and activists and took their testimonials. In view of the sensitive nature of the information provided, the names of all those who were interviewed and gave information and views are not being disclosed, unless they are already in the public domain.
Chapter 1: Background
Malwa region, which is a strong saffron bastion since early Jan Sangh days, has been a major contributor to the BJP’s ride to power since 2003. Even earlier, when Janata Party (1977) and the BJP (1990) had come to power, the region overwhelmingly sided with the ruling party.
The BJP had won 56 out of total 66 seats in Malwa-Nimar region in the 230 strong assembly in the 2013 elections and was hoping to repeat the performance in 2018 polls. But the Congress upset the saffron party with winning 35 seats. The BJP was reduced to 28 seats and independent candidates won three seats.
Setback for the BJP in the 2018 assembly election was primarily due to the party’s inability to win over angry farmers with its time-tested strategy to polarise voters along communal line. In June 2017, Madhya Pradesh was in turmoil due to farmers’ agitation with Malwa being its epicentre. The 10-day stir took turn for worse with five farmers being shot dead in police firing in Mandsaur on June 5. The firing and consequent intense political squabbling changed the narrative from Hindutva- pride to farmers’ anguish. It amply reflected in the assembly elections held next year. The Congress’s promise for loan waiver proved more appealing to the aggrieved farmers than the BJP’s Hindutva. The Congress returned to power after 15 years. However, the ruling party’s wafer-thin majority kept the BJP tantalisingly hopeful of recapturing power. The party got that opportunity sooner than later as sulking Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia led a revolt of his loyalist MLAs against the 15-month-old Kamal Nath government in March last year. The revolt paved the way for Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s ascension to the chief minister’s post for a fourth time.
By the time the CM Mr. Chouhan took oath for the office, corona virus had already begun to spread in the state. However, the growing menace of the pandemic did not deter the chief minister from mobilising the party cadres for by elections that had become due owing the resignations of rebel Congress MLAs who later joined the BJP. Presiding over the stolen mandate that was facilitated by Scindia’s treachery, Shivraj Singh Chouhan quickly shed his moderate Hindutva image that had characterised his earlier three terms. His language towards Congress opponents turned more offensive, and even abusive. His strategies to mobilize saffron cadres acquired a brazen communal overtone. He seemed to have become acutely conscious of the reality that unless he pandered to the baser Hindutva instincts, the Hindutva cadres may not be easily persuaded to campaign for the Congress rebels who were to fight on the BJP tickets in the by-elections on the seats the party had lost barely one and half years ago. The massive media demonization of Tablighi Jamaat and their devout who had congregated in Hazrat Nizamuddin in April 2020 and scapegoating them for the spread of Covid-19 came handy for the Chief Minister to advance his communal agenda. Without any empirical data or any other basis, Chouhan blamed Tablighi Jamaat members, who had returned from the congregation, for spreading the pandemic in Madhya Pradesh. Other BJP leaders wasted no time in joining the Chief Minister in the vicious propaganda against the Muslims. The propaganda was particularly widespread in the Malwa region which accounted for the maximum number of returnees from Hazrat Nizamuddin. An incident of stone-pelting in a predominantly Muslim slum of Indore on a team of visiting medical staff was over hyped in the media to denigrate the entire community as super spreader of the corona virus. The government ordered detention of three Muslim youths under the NSA on the charge of stone-pelting. Suspicion against Muslims intensified.
Assisted by negative media coverage targeting the Muslim community, the BJP and its ideological affiliates succeeded in deepening hatred against Muslims. Having thus set-in motion Muslim-bashing, the saffron activists felt more emboldened as campaigning for the forthcoming by elections gathered momentum amid growing menace of the pandemic. They organised religious functions, held public gatherings, took out Kalash Yatras and launched a door-to-door campaign, contemptuously defying the protocols for the necessary precautions during the pandemic.
The state government did not object to flagrant violation of the protocol in the gatherings which were mainly organised by local BJP leadership. The local administration and police treated the BJP functions with kid-gloves while coming down heavily on common people for ignoring corona precautions.
It was during the campaigning for the by-elections that the saffron activists realised the futility of seeking administrative permission for their public mobilisations. They cocked a snook at the administration during the election campaign with as much impunity as they did while taking out bike rallies in the name of donation collection for Ram temple in December. Significantly, none of the rallies that resulted in communal violence against Muslims in the three districts of Malwa, had formal police permission.
The by-elections were to be held in seven assembly constituencies spread across Malwa and Nimar regions. They included Sanwer, Hatpipliya, Badnawar, Suwasra, Mandhata and Nepanagar. The BJP and the RSS had geared up their entire force in the region to ensure victory in the bye-polls. At no stage of campaigning did the volunteers face any restrictions on account of the corona protocol. Since the very survival of the government was at stake in the by-elections, the campaigners at the grassroots had all kinds of incentives from the ruling party to keep the momentum going.
A no-holds-barred campaign with protection from the government paid off for the BJP. The saffron party won six out of seven seats. Overall, the BJP won 19 out of 28 seats in the by-elections. Anti-Muslim platform was very important for the BJP to win by-election the Malwa region.
Having regained the lost fortress of Malwa with massive deployment of saffron cadres, the ruling BJP is keen to ensure that its winning strategy –essentially terrorising Muslims – is not derailed by any secular narrative such as farmers’ agitation. It seems to have learnt hard lessons from the 2018 assembly elections which had seen its divisive politics being overwhelmed by farmers’ anger.
Another context to the communal violence in the three different places is the impending elections for the local bodies in the following months, and the farmers’ agitation in the country which threatens to inflict Madhya Pradesh again, as in 2017. Those who helped Chouhan secure his government now want the Chief Minister to help them win local elections as a quid-pro-quo.
It is not surprising that that groups owing allegiance to Hindu nationalist organisations chose predominantly Muslim areas in districts of the Malwa region for rallies to solicit donations for the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. A reasonable person would know that passage of such rallies could not be to solicit donations but to provoke members of targeted community to react to their abusive slogans which then can be used to trigger off communal violence. This is what seems to have happened in the last week of December 2020. The VHP-sponsored campaign for donation collection in the name of Ram temple in Ayodhya, the ostensible purpose of their motorbike rallies with saffron flag aflutter, had been launched simultaneously across Madhya Pradesh in December, but only Malwa witnessed the campaign rallies turn violent targeting the Muslims, leaving behind a horrifying trail of traumatised victims , damaged and robbed homes and desecrated mosques in their wake.
Why, then, only Malwa’s three Muslim areas bore the brunt of communal frenzy? Its answer needs to be sought in electoral politics. Given the results of the assembly by-elections that were held barely one and half months before the three communal incidents, it is tempting to conclude that the saffron aggression was a kind of celebration of the ruling BJP’s political reassertion over the region the party had significantly lost in the 2018 assembly elections.
Chapter 2: Begum Bagh, Ujjain
The fact-finding committee visited Begum Bagh in Ujjain on 28th January 2021. Begum Bagh colony is a Muslim-majority area, close to Mahakaleshwar Mandir in the Ujjain district. As per the 2011 census, the population of Ujjain comprises 77.5% of Hindus and 18.88% of Muslims, with the remaining 3.7% of people belonging to other communities. Every year, thousands of Hindu pilgrims pass through Begum Bagh on their way to Mahakaleshwar Temple. Never in the past have the pilgrims faced any trouble from the area, and nor have they complained about the residents’ behaviour. On the contrary, as a gesture of harmony, the Mahakali procession is showered with flowers from the rooftops of the Muslim homes. Muslims from the area remain present during the religious festivities and sit in during the recitation of Hanuman Chalisa. During the festival of Mahashivratri, mosques and ‘jamaat-khanas’ (Muslim halls for assembly) of the area had opened their doors and served about sixty thousand Hindu pilgrims.
On Friday, 25th December 2020, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) known as the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the Bajrang Dal and the Samagra Hindu Samaj were among the Hindu organisations that conducted a bike rally in Ujjain. The rally, organised by the different Hindu groups, set out from different parts of the city, including Nana Kheda bus stand, Agar Naka, Nagziri and Bherunaka. The route, taken by a group of about 150-200 rallyists, which started at 11.00 am, passed through Begum Bagh on its last leg to the Bharat Mata Mandir. The rally was planned as a prelude to the nationwide fund-raising campaign, due to begin from 14th January to seek donations for the construction of Ram Mandir on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The Ramnidhi Sangrahan rally was supposedly conducted in service of public awareness. The groups were meant to meet at Bharat Mata Mandir to plan and discuss the process of the donation drive. Hordes of men, carrying saffron flags, drums and some armed with lathis, rode their bikes through the city chanting and sloganeering.
The rally was taken through the Muslim-majority area between 4:30 pm and 6:00 pm. The bikers passed through Begum Bagh thrice within a span of an hour raising objectionable slogans, communal jeers, and name-calling. As reported by the residents, these included,
(a) “Baccha baccha Ram ka, chachiyon ke kaam ka” – a slogan that has sexual connotations, loosely translating to “All of Rama’s male children are useful for Muslim aunties”;
(b) “Hindustan mein rehna hoga toh Jai Shree Ram kehna hoga” which means “If you want to reside in India, you have to chant ‘Hail Lord Rama’”;
(c) “Chacha bole Jai Shree Ram, chachi bole Jai Shree Ram, Mullah bole Jai Shree Ram…” translating to, “Muslim uncles, aunties and priests all chant ‘Hail Lord Rama.’”;
(d) “Baccha bacha Ram ka, Mussalmaan haram ka” translating to, “Hindus are children of Ram, Muslims are illegitimate offspring”; and
(e) “Aurangzeb ki aulaado, sudhar jao, desh humara hai” translating to, “Children of [Mughal Emperor] Aurangzeb, reform yourselves. The country belongs to us [sloganeers]”.
Passing thrice through a Muslim majority locality and chanting abusive and insulting slogans was obviously to provoke a reaction. The demeaning slogans were brought to the attention of the armed policemen present at the site. The bikers crossed through Begum Bagh twice, without any retaliation to their communal slogans. As the tension was mounting, on the third round however, an argument ensued between the bikers and the locals, who objected to the repeated parades. The arguments broke into name-calling, abuses and stones pelting between both sides, while the police tried to move the rally on, to prevent crowding. While the police drove off men on the street, a few women, and children, perched on their rooftop, responded to the provocation by throwing stones at the bikers. This escalated into a clash between the bikers and those residents who were on the ground, and those on the rooftop of their homes. The clash occurred at 5:40pm and lasted for 20 minutes. While some men dropped their bikes and ran, others engaged in stone pelting and began damaging vehicles parked on the street. Video footage from the incident is evidence of the hurling of stones between the two sides on the ground as well as from homes onto the street, and from the street up to the homes. Two women and a few children can be seen hurling stones from the rooftop; saffron clad men can be seen using stones and lathis to break cars and rickshaws.Our informant from the Majlis-e-ittehad-ul Ummah informed us that on youth from the rally was injured.
The residents reported that eight vehicles were severely damaged, with broken windshields, windows, and dented bumpers, and bonnets. These included three-four auto-rickshaws, three cars and two bikes. Several homes had their windows broken, as well as a local clinic in the area in which the windows and gates were broken. Eighteen members from the rally belonging to the BJYM and RSS were reportedly injured in the clash.
The State’s Response
During the incident, armed policemen deployed in the area tried to calm the situation and scatter away the crowd. From the video footage of the clash, policemen can be spotted walking through Begum Bagh – Mahakal Temple road alongside men who are seen swinging lathis on vehicles and hurling stones into Muslim houses. After the clash ensued, the state administration imposed Section 144 in Mahakal, Kharakua, Jiwajiganj and Kotwali police station areas which prohibited public gatherings of more than four people.
On the eve of 25th December, Anil Firozia, the BJP Member of Parliament from Ujjain and Paras Jain, BJP MLA along with others staged a ‘dharna’ at the Mahakal Police Station. The MP and his supporters demanded stringent state action against the residents of Begum Bagh within 24 hours. That night, the police filed a First Information Report (FIRs) against 24 people. 19 Muslims were arrested, amongst which five were booked under the draconian National Security Act including: Ayaz Mohammad (21), Wasim Aslam (26), Shadab Akram (22), Altu Aslam (53) and Yusuf Mohammed Shafi (36). 14 others were charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 307 (attempt to murder), 147 (rioting), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 336 (endangering life or personal safety of others) and 427 (mischief causing damage). One rooftop was identified in the videos as a site of stone pelting, from where two women and children were seen pelting stones. From among them, a 42-year-old woman named Yasmeen Bi was arrested. The arrests have been made based of evidence obtained from video clips and via information from informers. As of 28th January, when the team visited Begum Bagh, none of the 19 people had been granted bail. An FIR has also been registered by the locals of Begum Bagh, based on which no arrests have been made so far.
The day after the clash, 26th December, the Ujjain Municipal Corporation along with the District Collector Asheesh Singh and Superintendent of the police Satyendra Kumar Shukla assembled at Begum Bagh to demolish the home from which stone pelting was observed. The home belonged to a Hindu man named Kikaram who belonged to the Yadav community; one woman who was seen pelting stones lived there as a tenant. When Kikaram and his wife Meerabai demonstrated their Hindu identity, the authorities reportedly deemed it sufficient to not have them face the penalty of home demolition. The authorities then decided to bulldoze the house next door to Kikaram’s, which belonged to Abdul Hamid.
The residents of the locality strongly believed that the nature of the state’s dispensation of ‘punishment’ was illegal, unfair and arbitrary, on a resident whose home was, at the very least, a subject of doubt about being a site of stone-pelting. The residents claimed that the administration’s decision of bulldozing Hamid’s and not Kikaram’s house was due to their respective religious identities. The woman Yasmeen Bi who was arrested did not live in Kikaram’s house, and the locals claim that she was not the woman seen pelting stones. The Shehr-e-Qazi, Khaliqur Rehman alleged that the state administration was targeting the residents of Begumbagh, while ignoring the video clips which demonstrated that the bikers were shouting communal slogans, pelting stones and damaging vehicles.
In protest to the state’s attempt to inflict financial damage on the Muslim homeowner, Abdul Hamid, men and women gathered on the Begum Bagh – Mahakal Temple Road and staged a ‘chakkajam’ or a road blockade. A senior Muslim leader, the Shehr-e-Qazi, Khaliqur Rehman, appealed to the administration to refrain from taking untoward action of meting out justice hastily. The confusion that followed about which home needed to be demolished and the discussion with the locals caused an almost three-hour delay. The Qazi claimed that, if the state would demolish the house, “in 15 minutes the situation could worsen, which neither parties would be able to regain control.” The police took Rehman and other discussants to the control room while the administration held its stance, and finally, at 6pm, Abdul Hamid’s home was razed, and his family was rendered homeless.
After the demolition drive, the Special Action Force took out a domination march through Begum Bagh and nearby areas. Section 144 was imposed, and the armed forces were deployed in every nook and corner of the neighbourhood.
The Administration’s Responsibility
The administration’s justification for the demolition of Hamid’s house was allegedly cited to be that stones were being hurled at the rally from his rooftop. Later, the administration changed its stand and claimed that the home was an illegal encroachment. Regardless, without any notice, the district administration reduced the home of a family of 16 to ruins. Hamid’s house-hold belongings, clothes, bedding, kitchen utensils, food-grains, furniture were thrown out.
Like the 200 other homes in Begum Bagh, Hamid’s home was built in the Mahakal Ghati on ‘patta’ land allocated by the state government. Hamid is a ‘patta’ homeowner and his family has been living there for the past three decades. The district administration’s plan to expand and beautify the Mahakaleshwar Temple premises by 70m involves the razing of these patta houses in Begum Bagh. The destruction of Abdul Hamid’s home is seen as the first step towards this project, conducted under the guise of ‘penalisation’ or ‘illegal construction.’
The Secretary of the organisation – Majlis-e-Ittehad-e-Ummah – Haafiz Mohammed Ayyub who is a social activist and runs a local hospital, claims that the residents of Begum Bagh will pursue the matter and seek justice in court. They demand to know from the state administration (A) was permission sought for conducting the rallies? (B) If yes, on what basis were they permitted and why weren’t Covid-restrictions abided? (C) Why was the rally allowed to cross a sensitive neighbourhood multiple times in the day? (D) Where does the investigation on their FIR stand and why no arrests have been made so far? (E) On what basis was an order given to bulldoze Abdul Hamid’s house, without any notice?