The Ram Shila Pujan programme launched by Hindutva in 1989 was like a hurricane which shook secular India by the roots. Braving the tornado, a district magistrate and a superintendent of police stood by their post in Khargone, a communally sensitive town in Madhya Pradesh (MP). Harsh Mander, who resigned from service in the early 2000s, and is today one of India’s leading human rights activists, shares this inspiring story.
Two men look out through the same bars. One sees the mud, and one the stars. – Frederick Langbridge
The storm – clouds gathered over the entire country with terrifying speed. It was the autumn of 1989, and in the short space of a few tension-racked weeks, the country changed course so fundamentally that the many values and beliefs which held us together as one people seemed to be relentlessly and inexorably swept aside.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and its assemblage of militant Hindutva allies announced the launching of combative direct action to build a Ram Temple at the disputed site of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. The resort to legal and political processes to achieve this agenda were pushed to the background, now there would be an open and bloody battle if necessary.
This new mood of belligerence manifested itself in the countrywide Ram Shila Poojan programme. In villages and towns across the country, bricks emblazoned with the name ‘Ram’, were consecrated, worshipped and aggressively paraded through every lane and by-lane. Finally, they were transported to Ayodhya for the construction of the Ram Temple at the site of the doomed Babri Masjid, which still stood then as a forlorn symbol of India’s secularism.
The Ram Shila Poojan programme was launched on September 15, 1989, and was to become a watershed in modern Indian history. For, in the space of the next few days the country was seized by frenzy unprecedented since Partition. Groups of overcharged young men paraded the streets in every town, morning and evening, day after day, aggressively bearing bricks in the name of Ram, throwing acid at Muslims, shouting slogans which were astounding in their virulence, crudeness and naked aggression.
Huddled in their ghettos, the Muslims watched with disbelief and horror which turned quickly to cold terror and sullen anger. For many of them, their faith and hope built doggedly over tour decades soured. Avowedly secular governments across the country except West Bengal refused to ban the explosive Ram Shila Poojan programme, the media and intelligentsia were quickly infected by the communal dementia sweeping the land. Even secular voices corroborated with their deafening silence.
In less than ten days, town after town fell in a grim roll call of blood-drenched riot and curfew. The sequence was repeated with aching uniformity – militant processions brandishing Ram bricks shouting hate-filled slogans day after day, violent retaliation by small Muslim groups followed by carnage, deaths, arson and, finally, curfew. At one point, around three weeks after the launching of the programme, as many as 108 towns were simultaneously under curfew.
It was futile to expect the small district town of Khargone in western Madhya Pradesh to remain untouched by the sectarian fever that had seized the land. An underseized, haphazardly planned town with a population of less than one lakh persons, in an uneasy balance of an almost equal strength of Hindus and Muslims, Khargone is classified in official files as communally hyper-sensitive.
Records show that the first communal clash took place as far back as 1921 when Khargone was the capital of a tiny and modest princedom. The conflict has recurred with frightening regularity over the following decades.
With such an accumulated history of hatred and prejudice between the two communities of the town, it was only a matter of time before the conflagration sweeping the country also seared the town of Khargone. The pattern was the same – belligerent processions everyday charged with slogans of hate. The young DM and SP responded by calling meetings of the two communities, advising restraint, registering strong criminal charges against the processionists, energising peace committees, preventive arrests and so on. However, these measures, adequate perhaps in normal times, could not ebb the raging flood of communal hatred.
Flash point was rapidly approached in less than a fortnight, when the districtwide Ram Shila Poojan programme was to climax in a massive procession in Khargone on 30th September, 1989. Late night on the 29th, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad volunteers were busy transforming the town into a saffron stronghold, with a profusion of flags, posters, slogans and buntings. Suddenly, out of the darkness, two Muslim youth, their faces masked by burqas, appeared on a motor-cycle and flashed daggers, seriously injuring two young men who were painting slogans. In the government hospital, a night-long series of emergency operation saved the lives and limbs of the victims, but the tension in the town was acutely palpable.
|The story of the bomb attack which unfolded later was that the daily and repeated battery of vitriolic sloganeering by mobs of Hindu youth entering Muslim bastis had terrorised the community. But a small bunch of eight youth, two of them petty government servants – a forest guard and a patwari – decided that they must retaliate. Because they felt alienated from both the police and the mainstream of their own community, which they felt was too passive, they decided to resort to a terrorist-type attack.|
Several arrests were made through the night. At dawn, leaders of the various Hindutva factions were summoned to the police station for an emergency meeting with the DM and the SP. The appeals of the district officers for a cancellation or postponement of the Ram Shila Poojan programme that morning were stubbornly rejected, as were the appeals for changes in route to avoid Muslim settlements and mosques altogether.
Already some 25-30,000 Hindutva volunteers had assembled, determined and highly charged. The DM and SP realised that any attempt to halt the procession by force was doomed to failure and would only lead to large-scale violence and killings. The only option seemed to be to let the procession pass with intensive control and regulation.
The procession was unprecedented in size, passion and militancy. All assurances regarding restraint in sloganeering given earlier, in writing by the organisers, were thrown to the winds as the most vulgar and vicious slogans rent the air. Trishuls and naked daggers were flashed. The leaders suddenly attempted to steer the processionists into the heart of the Muslim bastis contrary to prior agreement. But they were firmly pushed back to the agreed route.
The seemingly endless procession wound its way through the narrow lanes at a tortuously slow speed, as tension mounted to unbearable levels. As it passed the mosques in particular, the virulence and passion of the sloganeering acquired a new pitch. The executive magistrates and the police had to physically push the frenzied young men forward. No Muslim was seen out of doors.
With about two-thirds of the procession having passed by late afternoon, the DM and the SP began to believe that the explosion had been diffused, at least for that day.
Suddenly, a cluster of young men came running in panic from the direction opposite the procession, shouting that the Muslims had thrown a bomb on the crowd and that a processionist had been killed. The DM and the SP ran to the spot, barely 100 metres away. There they encountered a young man, his chest torn open by a crude bomb, his life quickly ebbing away, the crowd madly enraged. The DM quickly lifted the youth into his car which was parked nearby and asked the driver to rush him to hospital. He died before the car reached the hospital.
The story of the bomb attack which unfolded later was that the daily and repeated battery of vitriolic sloganeering by mobs of Hindu youth entering Muslim bastis had terrorised the community. But a small bunch of eight youth, two of them petty government servants – a forest guard and a patwari – decided to resort to a terrorist-type attack.
Their game-plan became clear to the DM and the SP as soon as they reached the spot after the first bomb was thrown. The bomb was hurled on the mob from a small double-storeyed house in a very narrow by-lane which branched off from the main lane through which the procession was passing. The calculation clearly was that the enraged mob would gather below the house for counter-attack when a series of bombs would be thrown on the mob from above, resulting in a large number of deaths.
The DM and the SP repeatedly shouted to the mob that they were taking charge of the situation and that they, the mob, should stay away. Most of the crowd listened and tentatively stayed at bay.
Once below the house, the best course appeared to be to fire at the house from where the bomb was thrown. The SP himself, and an ASI who accompanied him, fired a repeated volley of rounds at the house. This served several purposes. The crowd was satisfied that effective action was being taken and did not insist on taking the law into their own hands.
The gunfire also frightened the conspiring men from throwing any more bombs and one of the young conspirators was caught by the police as he was running away from the house. It was through him that the subsequent police case was quickly solved.
The crowd now began to fan out in every direction with many rushing straight to the Muslim bastis. The DM imposed curfew immediately with clear instructions to the police and magistrates on duty in pickets at all sensitive points in the town, to enforce his directive with a firm hand in the shortest possible time. He authorised them to use force, including resort to firing, if necessary to carrying out his orders.
The DM and the SP jumped into the latter’s jeep and drove around the sensitive bastis. The SP himself had to fire several rounds. The police resorted to firing at three other places. Curfew was fully imposed in the brief period of twenty minutes.
However, in these twenty minutes, four lives were lost, about a hundred Muslim houses and commercial establishments set ablaze and three mosques desecrated. The deaths were by country made rifles and daggers used by mobs while attacking Muslim bastis and one by a bomb thrown by the fleeing group.
Soon, an uneasy calm fell over the city. Additional forces were called from neighbouring districts and permanent pickets established at sensitive points. All executive magistrates were pressed into duty, mobile police patrols scoured the city round the clock. Large-scale preventive arrests and searches were ordered. On the first night itself, 126 persons were arrested, but most of them were Muslim.
There was no relaxation of curfew for 72 hours with little violation barring the extensive desecration of four mosques on the second night. The anguished Muslim community insisted that this could not have been possible without police complicity.
The DM and SP snatched just two hours of sleep on the second night, inside the police station. That is where they spent the next 19 nights, first on benches under the tree and later, in camp-cots under a tent, fully dressed and ready to rush if a clash was reported. The rest of the time they were out on patrol.
The people of Khargone were to become very familiar with the while Gypsy and its flashing red light endlessly scouring the shadowy and deserted lanes and by-lanes of the city. The control room was assailed by a continuous barrage of complaints about mob assault, all of which were checked out and most of which proved to be just rumours. The press was regularly briefed, special arrangements were made for the distribution of newspapers from the second day, in order to control rumours. The peace committee and responsible leaders of the two communities were pressed into service.
The DM mobilised the services of the Public Works’ Department to repair and restore the desecrated mosques with the support of moderate Muslim leaders overnight, before the first two-hour relaxation of curfew. The Muslims wound their way straight to the mosques to offer prayers. The fresh paint and mortar told their own stories to which they responded with low voices and strained, sombre faces. But except for an explosion just before the end of curfew relaxation, in which none was injured, there was no major setback.
The police force was stretched almost unendurably. Since the commencement of the Ram Shila Poojan programme a fortnight earlier, the armed constabulary had been on continuous vigil in neighbouring districts. With the riots at Khargone, they were hastly bundled onto buses and trucks, driven into the town overnight and immediately deputed to sensitive spots.
The DM and the SP made it a point to stop at each of the pickets during their night-long rounds, speak to the men about how difficult but important their mission was and occasionally share a cup of tea with them. Later, the two officers would often recall with warmth, how the weary faces of the men lit up with just this exchange as they stood erect and alert at their watch posts. Weeks later, before the men left for the next riot-torn city, the DM persuaded eminent citizens of the town to organise a thanksgiving bada khana for the policemen, in which they sat and ate as city elders served them.
Four days after the bomb attack, the DM from neighbouring Indore telephoned to say that one of the seriously injured riot victims, a young man named Ghulam, had died in the medical college in Indore and asked the district officers from Khargone to arrange for the disposal of the body. Communal tension had risen in Indore as well and they could not risk organising the funeral there.
The DM and SP decided to go the thana to other solace to the bereaved family. They encountered the mother weeping inconsolably near the body of her son.
The DM said quietly, “We cannot bring back your son, but tell us who was responsible for this and we will ensure that justice is done”.
The mother replied angrily: “There is no point telling you the names of the killers. Everytime there are riots in Khargone, the same men lead the mobs for looting, burning and killing, but nothing ever happens to them. During the last riots, we were hopeful because the police even took down our statements. We waited for four days but nothing happened. In the end the police did come, but it was we who got arrested. Therefore, we have nothing to say.”
The DM promised that this time justice would be done and pressed them for the names. They finally gave the names charging some of the most powerful and respected men of the district.
The DM said to the SP, “Let us round them all up before the body of this boy is lowered into the grave”.
It was past midnight when the dead body was taken to the graveyard, a bush-covered wilderness outside the town. Before the body was lowered into the grave, the SP arrived in his jeep, rushed to the DM, who was with the bereaved family and said, “They have all been arrested”.
It was about three o’clock in the morning when the DM and the SP returned to their tent in the police station and wearily stretched out, fully dressed, to catch a little sleep. Barely two hours later, they were awakened by an uproar at the thana gates. Rubbing their eyes sleepily, they found that the local MLA of the ruling party had arrived with a group of her supporters, all holding curfew passes.
“Injustice, injustice”, she screamed along with her supporters, “We will not put up with this injustice. We will not allow the arrest of innocent people”.
The DM quickly understood what had happened and was furious. “Tell me”, he asked the MLA, “are you the representative of a particular community or of this town? In the last few days, when hundreds of Muslims were arrested, beaten, dragged by their beards and placed behind bars with no criminal records or complaints against them, I never heard a whimper of protest from you. But when ten persons are arrested for murder, you come charging here and complain of injustice?”
The MLA’s protest was only the beginning. That day, the DM came under more pressure than he had experienced in a single day on any issue during his frequently turbulent career. The chief minister telephoned to enquire why there was so much outrage. The DM replied that it was a matter of basic justice and that he would not change his decision. He was relieved that the CM did not get back to him. But from the state capital downwards, pressure continued to mount.
|The district magistrate went to see the district judge and said: “I have never tried to interfere with the judicial process. But in this case, with the same offence committed in the same riot, how can there be two openly different standards for people of two communities – one for Hindus, another for Muslims? It is not an ordinary case, it is the question of the faith of a whole community in the system of justice in our country”. But the district judge refused to even discuss the issue with the DM.|
Late that night, according to their daily routine since the tension in the town had first arisen, the DM and the SP sat at the thana, reviewing the arrests and releases of the day. With great reluctance, and after considerable probing, the Station House Officer revealed that the ten men arrested the night before, which had led to the detonation of such powerful protest, had been released by the court the same morning.
Further questioning revealed that the police had framed charges against them, not of murder, arson and rioting, but the most minor offence of all – violation of curfew. Not surprisingly, the courts had let them off after a find of fifty rupees each.
The DM cannot recall being more enraged in his life. Everyone was stunned to see the normally soft-spoken and restrained officer explode, shouting about their deceit and open partisanship, and charging that they were not fit to wear uniforms. He threatened to chase them right up to hell if the ten men were not rounded up again within an hour. The police officers rushed back into town and the ten accused men were re-arrested. This time the DM and the SP personally supervised the preparation of documents for the courts.
However, it was now the turn of the Sessions Court to release the accused on bail within a week. On the other hand, the Muslims, who had by then been rounded up in the bomb case, were refused bail for over a year. The DM went to see the district judge and said: “I have never tried to interfere with the judicial process. But in this case, with the same offence committed in the same riot, how can there be two openly different standards for people of two communities – one for Hindus, another for Muslims? It is not an ordinary case, it is the question of the faith of a whole community in the system of justice in our country”. But the district judge refused to even discuss the issue with the DM.
Complaints also came in about excesses in Muslim bastis during the house-to-house searches. The DM visited these houses. It looked as if a tornado had swept through them. Everything inside – TVs, radios, mattresses, furniture, artifacts – had been smashed, torn or burnt by the police. An old woman of about 70 showed to the DM deep lathi marks all over her body, from her shoulders down to her ankles. The DM ordered strong action against the guilty policemen. The complaints did not recur.
Several nights after peace had returned to the rest of the town, there was a recurrent complaint from the Hindus of one mohalla that stones were being hurled at their homes every night from a nearby mosque. The residents were outraged.
The mosque was so far from the houses of the complainants that it was physically impossible for anyone to hurl stones at them from such a distance. But the residents stubbornly refused to listen to reason because of the blind and wanton irrationality that infects a large majority of otherwise rational citizens in any riot situation.
The SP’s suspicion centred on an elderly resident, a member of a Hindu communalist organization since his youth. But there was no proof. Until one night, when the DM and the SP rushed to the mohalla at 3 a.m. on a fresh complaint and the SP found a broken cup amidst the stones. Without any warning, the SP marched into the house of the elderly resident and found five other cups in his kitchen matching the broken one. And, on the second floor of his house, the SP saw something which neither he nor the DM will ever forget.
Near his bedroom window was a large trunk full of stones. The old man stayed up every night until everyone else in the neighbourhood had slept and then hurled stones at his neighbours’ windows. As they gathered angrily outside their homes, he would say, “Look at these hateful people. Even after all that has happened, they are still throwing stones at us”.
But, most of all, the DM will probably remember a young man whose humble, thatched hovel, which stood in the most densely populated part of the old town, at the boundary of Hindu and Muslim settlements, had been razed to the ground during the riots. Days later, when some sanity had returned to the town, the DM sat with him and others among the ruins of their homes and belongings. With whatever conviction he could muster, the DM said, “Do not worry, we will rebuild your house and all will be well once more”.
Hearing this, the young man suddenly broke the heavy silence of the evening crying loudly like a child. He just couldn’t be consoled. The DM felt the sharp sting of tears in his own eyes.
Finally the young man spoke, “Everytime there is a riot in this town, my hut is burned down. It has happened again and again. Tell me, how many times will you rebuild my house?”
The DM pledged to himself to do all that was within his power to help rebuild the lives of the riot victims. He called the local leaders of the communal parties and told them: “I know your aim is not merely to take lives, or loot and destroy the property of people belonging to the other community during riots. You want, even more, to see their wounds fester as they continue to suffer. I am throwing you a challenge. Those whose lives you have taken away, I cannot bring back. But I promise you the district administration will ensure that those alive who have suffered because of you are much better off than when you set out to destroy them.
To the young man who had wept so inconsolably, and all the other poor residents of over-crowded old bastis filled with decades of hatred and prejudice, the DM offered space in a new part of town, where new mixed colonies were planned so they could live in security.
A large number agreed to move. The district administration acquired land, allotted plots and sought out grants and loans for them to build new homes. Those who had lost an earning member or their commercial establishments – often no more than a rented, ramshackle kiosk in the town’s periphery – were allotted commercially valuable sites in the heart of the town, where pucca shops were built and allotted to them on an ownership basis.
The next change in government predictably saw the DM shifted out of the district. Some years later, when on an assignment at the state headquarters, he visited Khargone once again. That evening he made a quiet, sentimental journey to the new tenement of the young man who had wept so desolately years earlier because his home had been burnt down once again by rioters.
The DM asked him what happened when Khargone was rocked by riots once again after the Babri Masjid had been razed in December 1992. He replied, “For the first time in my life I felt safe during a riot”.
It was not the young man, now secure in his new tenement, who wept silently that evening.
(The writer is Course Co-ordinator, IAS Phase I, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)
From the Nov-December 1994, special issue of Communalism Combat