Communal riots in Lohardagga during Ram Navmi Procession

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By Irfan Engineer

“Ram Navmi was a festival in which we Muslims also participated in our childhood and joined the Ram Navmi procession”, Shabana Ansari, a middle-aged woman told us while attending the customers in her small shop in Hendalso, as we were asking her address of Mujahim Ansari who was injured during a communal riot that accompanied Ram Navmi procession this year in Hirhi Village. Altunissa Khatoon told us that her 5 years old grandson was also dancing in the Ram Navmi procession on 10th April 2022. A fact finding committee of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism consisting of Irfan Engineer, Director, Sr. Journalist and social media activist – Ashok Verma, Afzal Anees, General Secretary of United Milli Forum and Ziaullah from Association for Protection of Civil Rights visited the area to gather first-hand information.

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Instead of a memorable Ram Navmi festival for which Hindus and Muslims, both wait, Hindu nationalists have been infiltrating in the festival and misusing it to assert their aggression and power, particularly over the Muslims. “Jai Shri Ram” has become a war cry instead of religious slogan praising Lord Ram and praying for Lord Ram’s victory and desiring Lord Ram’s just rule. Some in the Ram Navmi procession this year were shouting ‘iss desh mein rehna hoge toh jai shri Ram kehna hoga’ (only those who proclaim the glory of Lord Ram can stay in this country). The slogan proclaimed that only Hindus can stay in the country. This war cry results in communal riots in some places.

In Hirhi village (Lohardagga district), where the communal riots on the occasion of Ram Navmi procession began this year, there is only one Hindu family of Mr. Pandey. There are 320 Muslim houses in, only 2 Hindu houses of Pandey family and 10 adivasis houses. Every year the procession stops at Hirhi Village and the Muslims in the village welcome those in the procession, offering them cold drinks as they are guests of the village. Usually there are about one hundred people in the procession and they are in village for about an hour.  As the procession passes the Mosque and kabrastan (Muslim burial ground) in the village, every year drumming stops out of respect. However, this year there were more than a thousand people in the procession. Every year, people from Manhu, Kujra, Hendalso and Purje villages join the Ram Navmi procession. People from Kurse and Hondaga villages joined the rally for the first time this year. They arrived at about 2.30 pm and stayed on for about three hours till 5.30 p.m. The procession stood in front of the Mosque with loud music and dancing for more than one hour. Ram Navmi this year was during Ramzan and the Muslims of the village were fasting. Their iftar (breaking the fast) time was around 6.10 p.m. They were all preparing for iftar. Riyaz Ansari, Joint Secretary of Lahardagga district Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, told us that he was returning from Lohardagga and greeted those in the procession and shook hands with them. Every year he arranges welcome cold drinks. This year he was in Lohardagga and could not.

Mohammad Ejaz Ansari told us that some youth in the procession were drunk. They broke the wall of the kabrastan and were throwing beer bottles inside. We did find the kabrastan wall broken but did not find any beer bottles inside the kabrastan. According to Ejaz, 2-3 Muslim boys asked those in procession why were they doing this. They started shouting “Jai Shri Ram” and attacked those boys. Sanaullah was injured and is still in Janata hospital. Salahuddin’s car, Alto was attacked and its rear screen was broken.  Mohim Ansari and Shamim Ansari’s car were also damaged. Ejaz Ansari opined that there must have been stone throwing from both sides. 34 Muslims have been arrested. According to the villagers, all of them have been falsely charged as all were fasting and in their homes.

Mujahim Ansari (70) told us that he was preparing to break his fast and he followed the procession as they were proceeding towards the Mosque. There was a melee and he was suddenly attacked with sword. They aimed at his neck but he tried to block the attack with his hand and took the blow on his left palm. Two fingers are just hanging on incapacitated. There are nine stitches on his palm. He was hospitalized in Lohardagga hospital. The doctors advised him hospitalization for 21 days. However, he had no money and took discharge and is convalescing at home. He claimed that he had already incurred expense of more than Rs. 5000/- for his treatment. Being labourer, he could not afford the medical bills. There is a minor contusion on his shoulder and neck. Noorul Ansari was hit on his hand near kabrastan. Ayyub Ansari was also hit on his head. As the procession proceeded, it left a trail of violence along the way, attacking Muslims identified from beard or cap, or otherwise known to the attackers. Tanveer Ansari was hit on his head near the Hendalsa railway station, a couple of hundred metres away from the village, as he was returning. Sanaullah’s nose was cut. From the railway station, the procession proceeded towards the Mela (fair) which is organised as a part of Ram Navmi celebrations. They attacked and burnt down several Muslim shops.

From the Mela, the procession proceeded towards Kujra village. They reached Kujra around 5.45 p.m. Only 3 to 4 Muslim families reside there. All these years they felt as comfortable as the Pandey family in Hirhi. In Kujra, they attacked Mobarak Ansari’s 3 shops and residence, all within one structure. Two were vegetable stores and one was run as a garage by his brother. The shops were completely gutted. Mobarak’s residence has strong iron gates. Mobarak was not in his home when the attack on his shops and home began. Only his fasting wife and children were there. Bricks were thrown and attack was mounted with other equipment. One iron crown on the door broke but the gates sturdily protected the family within.  Mobarak’s Hindu neighbour across the street informed him of the attack and he rushed back from his shopping. Mobarak was attacked on his way home with a sword. He escaped with a minor injury on his crown as he ducked the attack and his mobike’s seat was torn with a sword. His carrots and tomatoes worth Rs. 4 lakhs were damaged and the spare parts in the garage worth 3.5 lakhs were damaged. He could not quantify the damage to his RCC structures. He lodged an FIR with the police and named Sanjay Verma and his son Rahul from Kurse Badka Toli village and Prakash and Prasad Sahu from Hendalso village as accused.

After attacking Mobarak Ansari, the mob proceeded to attack Hashim Ansari and Mujahid Ansari’s shops and homes. Both are brothers. Their shops and homes are within the same structure. Hashim Ansari had rented his shop to Sajjad Ansari, where he vended readymade garments. Mujahid Ansari had rented his shop to Qasim Ansari, a kirana retailer. Mujahid himself runs a bakery from his home. The shops were closed and its iron shutters down for iftar. The shops were completely gutted and damaged. They were attacking the shops and targeting homes for about an hour! According to Hashim Ansari, if the police had come even 5 more minutes later than they did, the mob would have been successful in breaking into their homes and harming their lives. While the attack was going on the shops, Mujahid Ansari hid his kids in one room that they thought was safe, but the smoke from burning shops adjacent choked the kids and he shifted them on roof. However, tones and missiles were thrown on to the roof and the entire family rushed down, injuring his wife as she tumbled from the stairs, into another room. In that room too, smoke from the shop belonging to his brother was choking the kids and they felt very insecure and helpless. As the crowd broke into his home, they looted jewelry worth 3 lakhs and cash of Rs. 1.45 lakhs, both kept as his two daughters were going to be married after Eid.

Meanwhile, Aman Ansari (about 45 years old), handicapped with one leg, along with an escort Wasim Ansari, (about 17 to 18 years old) from Bodha village in Lattehar district were returning after purchasing a second-hand bike in Itki. Then they purchased their medicines in Lohardagga. As they were passing through Bhandara, Wasim called his family and informed that Insha Allah, they would return in time for iftar. However, as they were enroute to Bodha, their bike was stopped as Aman had a Muslim beard and cap. They had nothing to do with whatever happened in Hirhi village with the Ram Navmi procession. Both of them were beaten badly. Aman with sever sword injuries on his head, face and all over his body died on the spot. His hands were cut in three places according to his maternal uncle Akhtar Ansari and other villagers. Aman is survived by his wife and 5 children – 4 daughters and one son, the youngest being only 10 months old. His body was untraceable for several hours and ultimately found in a nullah. Wasim is recuperating in Ranchi Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), seriously battling for his life. Aman and Wasim, both are labourers doing even sewerage work if that was available. Aman vended ice-creams in summer on a small mobile cart. The lives of all children are in the dark now with no help from the government so far. Although compensation of Rs. five lakhs has been announced by the CM. Hindus and Muslims in Bodha village and surrounding areas have a very good relationship even after the incident. There is no Hindu marriage without all Muslims in the village being invited and vice versa. There is no funeral of a Muslim without participation of Hindus and vice versa. Akhtar Ansari told us in categorical terms that if for some reason Hindus cannot participate in a Muslim marriage on a particular day, the marriage itself will be cancelled and fixed on another day. Hindus were first to gather for Aman’s funeral as well. The state fearing a possible backlash had lockdown the villagers in Bodha from 11th April morning, the day after Aman’s brutal murder, until completion of his funeral on12th April.

We had several questions about the handling of the procession and the riots that ensued. Ram Navmi processions were allowed subject to 36 conditions that had to be followed. Most processions followed most of these 36 conditions in breach. How were swords and weapons allowed in the procession? When one of the conditions was that no more than 100 people could be in the procession, how come more than a thousand people were allowed in the procession? The procession was for more than three hours in Hirhi itself. Was the procession video graphed by the police, as is the rule?  If the violations of the conditions were noticed, were they reported to the police officers above? If not, which police officer was negligent in his duties? What action has been or will be taken against the delinquent officer concerned? How come the mischievous and politically driven elements in the procession had field day and could do as they wished for over three to four hours? Therefore we met R. Ram Kumar, SP of Lohardagga.

The SP’s first aggressive question to us was, “what fact finding you are doing, what is fact finding?” We briefly reported the situation as we had learnt on ground and the questions we had in our mind. The SP was just dismissive and gave us very generalised vague answers, in fact refusing to answer our queries. All his response was that the District Commissioner and himself were on the spot as soon as they heard about the violence, and that a Special Investigation Team has been constituted and the cases are under investigation. That 18 cases had been filed. He refused to answer any other question on the ground that cases are under investigation.

Although riots took place in Hirhi-Kujra villages in Lohardagga, that was not the only place where extreme provocation and aggression in the Ram Navmi processions was enacted by the Hindu nationalist with political objectives. It only means that in Hirhi-Kujra, the aggression for political outcomes they desired.  In other words, the Hindu nationalists might have infiltrated into many other Ram Navmi processions, displayed the aggression, tried to provoke a reaction from some Muslim individual/s and not succeeded. The Hindu nationalists have to succeed only in one place, and more than one success is welcome, to make media headlines with their desired narrative of ‘anti-national and aggressive Muslims’ who disrespect and desecrate Lord Ram, and that they should be hated. They also want to demonstrate the prowess of Hindu nationalists who are more than capable of meeting the ‘Muslim challenge’ and teaching them a lesson. Their aggression and violence is also a message to the police and the state that the Hindu nationalists would not obey any laws that put any restrictions and limitations on them, whereas they were capable of compelling the state to impose severe limitations and restrictions on the freedom of religion of Muslims and Christians. That the state should defacto, and if possible de jure accept the privileges of the culture and political ideology of the Hindu nationalists. There is no Constitution or rule of law that they would follow. Hindu nationalism is their constitution. This was clear from our meeting with Dainik Bhaskar reporter Samid Ansari, also working with Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, and other villagers Kairo, enroute to Hirhi.

In Kairo there is a tradition of organizing Bharat Milap rally the day after Ram Navmi. Bharat Milap was stopped in 1984-85 because of its communal narrative, polarization and politicisation. However, 12 years ago the rally was permitted once again. On Ram Navmi, there was a procession in front of the Mosque from 7.00 p.m. to 7.52 p.m. For this entire time, there were provocative slogans: ‘iss desh mein rehna hoga toh jai Shri Ram kehna hoga’, loud drums and dancing. The district administration ultimately succeeded in persuading the rally to proceed further. Muslims were thankfully did not get provoked and kept their patience for that long. Next day there was Bharat Milap rally and the same thing was repeated. Let us see the positive side – the divisive elements did not succeed in provoking violence and in communally polarising in spite of infiltrating into scores and even hundreds of religious processions and using that as a cover to achieve their objectives. However, that is not enough. The forces of humanism, communal harmony, peace and those who value rule of law and secularism will have to bring this down to nil, a big zero. Let us take that challenge. Let us counter the hatred of Hindu nationalists with love and humanism.

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