Multiple strategies involving local mobilisation of youth, firm action by the administration, legal interventions through public interest litigation as well as responsible and constructive reportage by the local media thwart the VHP’s efforts to foment communal tension and violence in western Maharashtra
For the past several years, Hindutvavadi organisations comprising the Pratapgadh Utsav Samiti, PUS, a shakha (branch) of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have been using this platform to spread anti-Muslim terror and propaganda by holding ‘Shiv Abhyas Shibirs’ at Wai and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra’s Satara district. They take their mobilisation from village to village and their leaders, Milind Ekbote, Vijaytai Bhosle, Sanjay Bhosle, make speeches that vitiate the atmosphere and spread their communal message.
As a result of this mobilisation, communal tensions between the Hindu and Muslim population in Wai and Mahabaleshwar – an area free from such trends in the past – have been smouldering. Communal tensions, which were particularly visible in the area after the Gujarat carnage of 2002, again resurfaced over the past ten months.
The role of local village sabhas and elected representatives, especially after last year’s violence, when Muslim establishments were targeted in Wai (see CC, November 2003), has been crucial in the maintenance of peace. The administration and the media also played a constructive role while the Yuvak Kranti Dal through its peace corps, the Shanti Dal, has been working to train young persons to systematically intervene and counter this deliberate attempt to foment violence.
Local activists engaged in regular communication with the state administration, pressing for a ban on the Shiv Abhyas Shibirs on the grounds that they foment violence and hatred as also a ban on the entry of Milind Ekbote into Satara district. Activists wrote to the district police chief on September 2, 2003, to the district collector, Satara, on October 8, 2003, and the minister in charge of the district, Ajitdada Pawar, on October 23, 2003, urging such a ban. However, no ban on these gatherings was effected.
The Yuvak Kranti Dal also communicated with the Maharashtra home minister, RR Patil, to urge him to effect a ban on the entry of Milind Ekbote into Satara district since he came there with the clear intention of fomenting inter-community hatred and passions. But the government did not intervene; they did not ban the gatherings nor Ekbote’s entry into the district.
On the night of November 16, 2003, Hindutvavadi forces attacked Muslim establishments in Wai. Despite this outbreak of violence, the activities of the Pratapgadh Utsav Samiti did not stop. Following the Lok Sabha election results in May 2004, a decision was taken at an important RSS meeting in Nagpur to demolish the Afzal Khan kabar (tomb) in Pratapgadh just as the Babri Masjid of Ayodhya was demolished in 1992. This action was felt to be critical to generate the ‘right’ kind of atmosphere before assembly elections in Maharashtra, to generate inter-community passions and assist the return of a Hindutvavadi government in the state. Part of the decision was the resolve that the BJP and its alliance partners would not be at the forefront of this struggle but would let the VHP and the Pratapgadh Utsav Samiti do their job.
This issue was raised on the eve of the elections in an attempt to pose an explosive threat and challenge to the state government and the administration. The tomb of Afzal Khan and the dispute over the land allotted to it, the property dispute over the land on which it was built and subsequent expansions and additions, all offered a golden opportunity to foment tensions. Satara in western Maharashtra and the Konkan coastal region, where the writ of the SS-BJP alliance holds, were the focus areas to generate and spread such dissension.
Instead of following legitimate judicial process over the land and alleged mishandling and misuse of land given to the trust, Hindutvavadi organisations, with their scant regard for justice, simply raised the issue to generate ill-will between communities. These sangh organisations with a distinct Brahmanical outlook, are the same forces that had opposed Shivaji Maharaj centuries ago. During colonial rule, they collaborated with the British and maintained a distance from the freedom struggle. They are the people who once celebrated Independence Day as Black Day. They also murdered Mahatma Gandhi who thwarted their dreams for a Hindu Rashtra. In short, the sangh parivar, which of course has no regard for Afzal Khan and neither love nor respect for Shivaji Maharaj, is simply trying to garner Hindu votes and come to power by raising a non-issue.
This is what pushed citizens of Satara, through the author of this article, to file a petition in the Mumbai high court challenging the efforts to breach public peace and questioning the ability of the state administration to maintain harmony. The petition was admitted by the Mumbai high court, which ordered the maintenance of a status quo on the site and requested all parties to file their affidavits.
Following this development, in mid-September 2004 local activists of the Pratapgadh Utsav Samiti decided to withdraw their agitation. But the VHP insisted on forging ahead. The Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur units of the VHP, however, withheld participation since the local police administration had been in touch with the leadership over the court’s decision.
The main issues that arose out of this agitation and the resistance by local activists of the Yuvak Kranti Dal are:
1. Administration – Following the court’s order of a status quo, a top level meeting of top police officials from Pune, Satara, Konkan, Kolhapur and Sangli was held, where the situation was assessed and thereafter handled with the utmost responsibility. A decision was taken for high deployment of men in the area. The Satara district police chief, the Satara district collector, the Wai DYSP and tehsildar handled their responsibilities well.
2. Media – Representatives of the print and electronic media from Satara district were taken by the state police and district administration to visit the spot, Pratapgadh fort. Copies of all the documents relating to the tomb and the dispute were made available. The media played a critical role in conveying the truth about the history of the tomb, the dispute over the land and the devious politics of Hindutvavadi organisations in trying to foment a blatant communal dispute over a non-issue. There was no inflammatory and provocative coverage. The Yuvak Kranti Dal also played a critical role in maintaining direct contact with youth involved in the Hindutvavadi groups and their agitation and even managed to wean some of them away from it.
3. Political Parties – Mainstream political parties took no clear and open stand on the agitation. Some Congress leaders, along with leaders of Hindutvavadi parties, assisted the agitators financially. The Shiv Sena and the Shambhaji brigade publicly declared their non-participation in the agitation at a press conference, while the BJP kept mum. The Pratapgadh Utsav Samiti declared its withdrawal from the agitation, probably because it could embroil them in unnecessary controversy given the court order directing a status quo. Earlier, due to the PUS’ activities and mobilisation in Panchwad, the VHP and Bajrang Dal workers had come together under their banner.
4. The Agitators – The agitation received no support in western Maharashtra. There was no support from Pune either. All agitators who gathered at the spot came from Marathwada and Khandesh (Vidharbha). They were misled into believing that they were getting an all expenses paid trip to Mahabaleshwar. They were not informed of the background and motives behind the agitation or its seriousness and consequences. "We have just come after the chief activist of the agitation gave us flags, scarves and head-bands," is what they told Yuvak Kranti Dal activists. The young girls and women who joined the Durga Vahini hailed from outside Pune.
At the Panchwad victory celebration following the failed mobilisation, only they knew what victory they were celebrating. Once again at this rally provocative speeches were made and stones were pelted. However, since the rally was held without government permission, the administration was forced to lathi-charge the gathering. Following this, the agitators, who were all set to destroy the tomb of Afzal Khan that Shivaji had permitted to be built, panicked and ran helter-skelter. For these were not the real agitators, but poor rural children and youth. They were not trained activists who would, no doubt, have confronted the police.
5. Villagers of Panchwad, i.e. local representatives of Pratapgadh and Mahabaleshwar represented in the Panchwad gram panchayat, took a decision at a special meeting of the gram sabha to prevent the agitators from entering their village and holding a meeting since the village council opposed it. This resolution was publicised in the local papers. The resolution clearly distanced itself from communal mobilisation and stated that the villages and region that participated in this agitation ‘would be defamed nationwide. Tourist visits to our region suffer. Our village, Panchwad, is a symbol of Hindu-Muslim and inter-caste harmony.’ The decision commented on a contrary development in nearby Mahabaleshwar city where the decision taken by the Mahabaleshwar city head (nagar adhyaksha) and his deputy had a detrimental impact on Panchwad and Wai. The resolution stated that this agitation was holding the Panchwad village to ransom and urged the administration to take stringent steps to bring things under control. This resolution was made public and protection from the administration demanded at a large public rally in Mahabaleshwar. At the same time, a Shantata (peace) committee meeting was held in the Mahabaleshwar police station at which Hindu and Muslim citizens were present. A joint sitting of 22 sarpanches from surrounding villages was held where they declared the negative and detrimental impact of this agitation on their village and the environs. The administration was further urged to control and diffuse the situation. The media was informed of this joint sitting.
6. Ordinary Hindu and Muslims – Only nine months had passed since the violence in Wai (a Muslim dominated village), and the road to Pratapgadh passes Wai; hence residents of Wai did not want the experience of violence to be repeated. This played a role and also impacted on the role of the administration.
The dispute simmered for a month and front-page coverage in local papers kept the issue alive. But the important thing is that despite this not a single incident of Hindu-Muslim tension occurred anywhere in Satara district. This is an obvious indication that on the eve of the state elections, ordinary persons in western Maharashtra do not want issues and parties that raise and thrive on communal tension. The real motives of organisations belonging to the sangh parivar have been exposed. Ordinary people have rejected their strategy to create communal polarisation to harvest votes.
7. Police and administration controlled outbreak of violence – Due to the PIL filed by the Yuvak Kranti Dal, the state administration did its job firmly and well. Instead of succumbing to the hysteria generated by communal forces, it did its job in protecting the tomb of Afzal Khan. As of now, the case is pending in court with the next hearing scheduled for October 4.
This piece was translated from Marathi by Teesta Setalvad