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In Odisha, a riot postmortem you don’t hear often

In Bhadrak, an Odisha town, a group of residents is determined to continue a long tradition of communal harmony

An appeal for communal harmony, on a wall in Bengaluru. Photo: Priya Ramani
An appeal for communal harmony, on a wall in Bengaluru. Photo: Priya Ramani

Two friends, one Hindu, one Muslim, engineering college classmates in Bhadrak, Odisha, were quarrelling on a supposedly private chat. They abused each other’s gods. A political party accessed that private chat, highlighted the bits where the Muslim boy was abusing Hindu Gods and conveniently excluded the bits where his Hindu friend was returning the favour.

The political party then posted this half truth on WhatsApp, where it went viral and resulted in a riot between the two communities on 6-7 April 2017. The last time a riot occurred in Bhadrak was in 1991, in the run up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Yet Bhadrak is special. It has a 200-year-old history of communal harmony, and this time a group of town elders were not willing to watch this mess unspool quietly. Last week, members of the town’s Gandhi Peace Foundation told the visiting Karwan-e-Mohabbat (caravan of love) led by human rights activist Harsh Mander, how the town, with its 60:40 Hindu-Muslim population respectively (Census 2011), handled the riot and its aftermath. Residents stood up and said their piece one after another. Here is the account of that evening:

Sheikh Mohammad Farooque: Historically Muslims in this area were agriculturalists and both communities follow many similar rituals and ceremonies. Bansi Ballabh Goswami’s Mughal Tamasha, an 18th century play which satirises the lifestyle of Mughal revenue officers, would be enacted by both communities outside the town’s Shiv temple. The Shyamsunder temple and the eidgah where Eid prayers occur twice a year are adjacent to each other. The latter was not attacked during the violence. We have a history of bhaichara (brotherhood). This riot was not a riot.

Murmurs of agreement from audience and some shouts blaming the widespread arson that destroyed 23 shops on the first day on “bigde huwe bachche" (youth gone astray).

Farooque continues: After two days when the curfew was relaxed for an hour, I went on my motorcycle for a spin around town. I saw the two communities interacting normally again. Nobody thought it was a big deal. We’ve seen the youth get angry before and stopped them in time, but this time we couldn’t.

Shiva Prasad: This communal polarisation across India helps a particular party. He recounts the incident that started the riot. The political party that posted half the chat on WhatsApp wanted to create communal imbalance in Bhadrak. If your religious feelings are hurt, a sensible person would go to the police but they didn’t do that. They sensitised the matter via WhatsApp, then went to the police station with hundreds of people. When the other political party heard there is some kind of religious polarisation between two religions….

Audience member (interrupting): No, no why are you getting into all these details.

Prasad continues: The other party wanted to get something out of this chaos, so they aligned with the Muslim community. They encouraged Muslims to take out a rally despite the fact that the police had by now imposed Section 144 (which prohibits assembly of five or more people). This was the reason for the sponsored riot.

Karwan member: Who was this political party?

Audience says this is not the forum to name political parties. There’s general chaos about why speakers are sharing so many details. We all know what happened, someone yells.

Umar Ali (shouting): They are spreading hate…Bhadrak is the land of amity. We must hear the full story.

Audience disagrees. That story is over, someone says.

Tushar Mohanty: It was never a danger. There were some spoiled youth. When this happened, the district administration went to sleep for a day. This was not a riot. There are many Hindus and Muslims in this room, we are not rioters. We were on the road Umar, Gaurang, Hari, Radha madam, Ajay, Shanti…calling it a riot is like putting salt on an open wound.

Audience member: We will not discuss it please.

Another audience member: Then it will be pushing it under the carpet.

Gaur Chandra Panda: I’ll tell you a small story (audience protests)… It will take two minutes. He recounts a story about Gandhi that’s longer than two minutes. Nobody is listening.

Abdal Qadri: I’m one of the 8-10 Muslim families who live in the Hindu locality.

I was at home with my wife, sister and mum. My house has an open roof. There was also some construction work going on and the scaffolding provided easy access to my house. Suddenly the mob climbed up the scaffolding and started throwing stones. My neighbours were also there. Radha madam was the first to raise her voice to support me, then many other older people came and they started stopping the mob. They told them if you really want to show your mardangi (masculinity), go pick on someone in the Muslim area, don’t pick on the minority families who live in our midst.

S.K. Zulfikar: The police have arrested many innocent young boys and 15-16 cases have been filed on them. This is the whole tragedy. They’ve been in jail for three to four months. Sure some criminals have been caught but some innocents have also been caught. When will they get out of this legal wrangle? How will they find jobs? Their lives have been destroyed.

Pradipto Rai: Bhadrak is the land of bhaichara. The peace committee must be properly formed. It’s not working properly. There has been a massive administrative failure twice. We need a stronger peace committee.

Biswajeet: If we sit here as Hindus and Muslims there’s no point sitting here. We must all be human and find a solution to the problem. The problem actually began earlier when during Ram Navmi some wrong slogans were chanted. In Odisha there are more believers of Krishna than of Ram. He fills in more details of the mood around this time. All these slogans didn’t originate here. They are manufactured in north India and travel across the country. In two days things went back to normal. Even the youth realised that they would be the ones to suffer, and not the ones who were instigating them. We enacted Safdar Hashmi’s Ek Ajnabi Lash in Oriya. I’ve worked with many riots across Odisha and what I’ve seen in Bhadrak I haven’t seen elsewhere. The elite classes here clearly said: We won’t let this happen here. This is why the Gandhi Peace Foundation was formed.

The residents of Bhadrak are talking and keeping the hate at bay, even if one fellow Karwan traveller likened the conversation to a joint family reluctant to show its warts to the world. They understand that unemployment is a big cause of angst for the next generation. Nobody’s blaming anyone for what happened. They are working together to make sure it never happens again. I wish more of us would do this.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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