The Saran Riots of 2016

On the afternoon of Friday, August 5, 2016, reports started coming in that the Bajrang Dal activists looted and burnt shops owned by Muslims in the town of Chhapra, the district headquarters of Saran in North Bihar. One of the shops happened to have been owned by Balaghul Mobin of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – the dominant ruling alliance.

Saran Riots
Image: Rediff

When the police officers in the field were unable (or unwilling?) to control the violence, the state administration brought in its more competent and credible officer, Kundan Krishnan, IPS.

 The immediate provocation for the communal violence was this: A young Muslim, Md. Mubarak, of the village, Maker (20 km North of the town of Chhapra, and bordering on Saraiya thana area of Muzaffarpur, where in a village –Azizpur, there was a communal violence on January 18, 2015), allegedly circulated a video on WhatsApp. This video is said to have depicted a Muslim urinating on the images of Hindu gods and goddesses. The accused is believed to have criminal antecedents. Though, Mubarak has eventually been arrested by the police from Kalyan (Maharashtra), it is yet to be ascertained whether or not the local police of Maker delayed taking action on Mubarak on August5, 2016 or whether the accused was actually present in the village on August 4-5. One of the reports says that some of the people of the village Maker had informed the police about the video.

The allegations of police complicity with the Bajrang Dal rioters in the town of Chhapra are based on the fact that while Muslim-owned shops were being looted and burnt, the police remained a mute spectator, the thana (police station) being less than 50 metre away. Reports have also come in about Bajrang Dal activists coming out on the streets on motorbikes. They roamed through the town and announced a bandh. This mob also included some women. Police vehicles were damaged and the IPS officer Krishnan was also attacked. Following this, the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP) and Rapid Action Force (RAF) were also deployed.

The local BJP MLAC. N. Gupta had joined the mob at Karimchak mohalla and if eye witnesses are to be believed, even the ITBP winked at the criminal acts of the mob. Now, the allegations, with the video clippings, are there that the MLA also shouted provocative slogans along with the Bajrang Dal people.

Saran district is known for Yadava electoral dominance even in the pre-Karpoori (Thakur) era, and long before Lalu Yadav emerged as a political hegemon in 1990. The late Ram Jaipal Singh Yadav used to be minister in the early 1970s, and was elected several times from Sonepur in the 1960s and 1970s. Another Yadav, Darogha Rai was the chief minister of Bihar (February-December 1970); his son, Chandrika Yadav represents Parsa – one of the Saran seats. This dominance is aptly reflected in naming of the long bridge on the Rewa Ghat of the river Gandak after Darogha Rai. This bridge connects Muzaffarpur with Chhapra through the National Highway 102. Ever since independence, Muslims in the assembly segments of the district of Saran used to be mere voters with almost no assertion over political power. Though, till 1946, the Muslims of Chhapra town have had considerable presence in education, employment, and trade. In recent times, however one Salim Parvez, has emerged as an important JDU leader of the district. He was also pitted against Rabri Devi of the RJD in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.

The Saran Division (comprising the districts of Saran, Siwan, and Gopalganj) borders on the district of Deoria in Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, the current chief of the Bajrang Dal, Rajesh Pandey also belongs to Deoria. Pandey was earlier the media manager of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lucknow during the elections.

[[The Bajrang Dal was formed in 1984 as a wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad founded in 1964. The slogan of the Dal is Seva (Service), Suraksha (Protection), Sanskar (Culture). By virtue of these stated concerns, they have been deeply concerned with cow protection. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Dal was alleged to have been at the forefront of the Gujarat massacre 2002. Its cadres were also accused in the Parbhani mosque blasts (2003) and in the Nanded blasts (2006) in Maharashtra.]]
In the midst of competitive communalism of the 1980s (Shah Bano versus Ram Janambhumi) and the emergence of the gangster-legislator Mohammed Shahabuddin in the 1990s, came the rise of Lalu in the 1990s. The last two developments escalated aspiration levels among  a section of the Muslim youth – the aspiration to rise through criminal clout.  The story is not much different with other social groups.

Munna(Vijay) Shukla has his sway across Muzaffarpur and Vaishali, and he is a role model of sorts for a section of Bhumihar youth; the same goes with Suraj Bhan, and Anant Singh in the Mokama-Barh belt of Central Bihar; Anand Mohan Singh, is similarly lionised by the Rajput youth, and Pappu Yadav is another icon for the youth of his community. That is how the people of Bihar and eastern UP have been living under the shadows of gangsters cum legislators cum caste heroes, for the last many decades. 

This process of criminal-turned-caste/community hero attained greater salience in the 1980s. An astute observer of Bihar, Arvind N. Das (1948-2000)had this to say, in his seminal book, The  Republic of Bihar (1992, p. 136)

“[T]he state has been carved out into zones of influence of local ‘leaders’, mostly with daunting criminal records. Many of them are MLAs; some are ministers. From Mohammed Sulaiman’s territory in Kishanganj through Pappu Yadav’s domain in Purnea-Madhepura, one can cross Bihar by passing through Anand Mohan Singh’s area and then into the realm of Raghunath Pandey [Muzaffarpur], and ‘Samrat’ Ashok and further into the Gopalganj belt of Salaluddin and the wild west of Champaran. Alternatively, one can go through, Makhi Paswan’s Khagaria, Kailu Yadav’s region, into the Dularchand tal and then through Dilip Singh’s land and on to the lawless Kaimur ranges crossing the realm of Surendra Yadav”.

 As an insider of the locality and being a sufferer at the hands of such petty criminals, being worshipped by the community and villagers as their heroes, I have observed that at the local level, these ambitious, criminally oriented youth of various castes and communities operate as syndicates and cooperatives, and as suppliers and traffickers of illegal arms. During the day, these characters will roam about the villages and markets on bikes, gambling every now and then; evenings see them taking to drink. They are frequent visitors to the police thanas and the Block Development Offices. They act as fixers and brokers within such establishments. No state functionary knows them better than the local police and the deputy collectors of the Bihar Administrative Services serving as the Block Development Officers.

Even then the higher state functionaries in the police and the administration either remain woefully ignorant (or feign to be so) about these characters. Their crimes often remain unreported. These characters also act as huge resource persons for the bigger gangsters-turned-legislators. They act as informers and as henchmen, besides indulging in vehicle-snatching and kidnapping for ransom. I have at some length narrated about this phenomenon in the chapter 11 of my book on Muzaffarpur, Contesting Colonialism and Separatism (2014), and also in my essay in the Economic and Political Weekly (January 31, 2015), on the Azizpur violence of January 18, 2015, besides my [another] forthcoming essay on the Lalganj violence of November 2015.  A more responsible media and police would or should look more closely into these trends- this deadly cocktail of crime and communalism –all for political gains. The police and media need to, similarly, expose the social base of the Bajrang Dal to question which kinds of un(der)employed youth are the backbones of such organisations. In the case of Saran, there are some indications that the new rural elites, specifically Yadavas, have joined the Bajrang Dal in significant numbers, particularly since the late 1980s.

On this basis of an insider’s experience, and relying on the apparently plausible police version that Mubarak has established criminal antecedents, one can surmise that this person is operating as a part of a group and not as a lone actor. In this view of this background, the hand that seems to have guided Mubarak ought to be identified. One of my friends having served in the rural administration of Bihar commented on the Saran violence in the following words:

“What bothers me is the utter lumpenisation of the grassroots. And a riot or a communal tension here or a caste wrangle there could well be the result of failed political ambitions at level of the Panchayat elections. Their desirability apart, they invariably manage to churn elemental passions which float the atmosphere after the elections are over. Add to this a disturbingly typical image of today’s youth in Bihar – armed with a bike, a smartphone and possibly some illegal arms too, most probably unemployed or semi employed, imbibing incessant stream of images form Internet, and TV, imbibing prohibited alcohol too, at the edge of the urban economy, averse to do what his parents are doing, unable to find or provide a job in the metropolis that could support his daydreams; he would remain split between his desired self-image and his run-down existence. This split would find manifestations in his attempts to contrive a meaning for his largely meaningless life. Some of them would turn into Gau-bhakts, some would listen with interest the exploits of Salafism. All of them start their bikes at the same time, take a round of the local market, look (lecherously) at the girls, who go to tuitions, with more than erotic interest, dig deep into the sub-terrannean recesses of the internet to come out with images which cry vociferously that their respective religions are in danger. They contort their face, clench their fists, twitch their nostrils, crease their forehead and decide that some excitement was long overdue. The rest is done by the internet. Mayhem, murder and massacre follow.” '

Society is undergoing a disturbing flux. These hoodlums, on being elected to Panchayats, would make money and will have luxury houses in the towns, escaping the scanner of the Income Tax Department.  Some others would raise funds for constructing or renovating masjids and mandirs: in order to assert their respective identities, they will build the tallest possible minars, use the costliest possible marble in the masjids, besides eventually becoming Hajis, and then flaunt this ‘status’ to claim an enhanced moral authority in the locality. Quite often they are brick-manufacturers as well. This is how these Panchayat functionaries raise money,  often purchase symbols of the ascendant political parties at the time of assembly elections, and eventually aspire even to enter into the Parliament.

[[For a comparative understanding, just go and talk to a Muslim engaged in raising funds for educational upliftment and better healthcare versus those raising funds for masjids.  The former will point out the huge difference: how difficult it is to raise fund for the former purpose, and how easier to raise fund for the latter! Once reluctance to contribute to the local masjid fund is known, the goons and their neighbourhood patrons will declare the conscientious objector/dissenter to be an outcast of sorts. The odds are that the next time round the person refusing to donate will meekly contribute to the ‘pious cause’ and the aspiring criminal-politician will by then have scored a point. With each bout of communal tension and violence, the criminal gets entrenched in the community as a champion-protector. 

Saran does not have any noticeable industries (the chocolate factory, ‘Morton’ at Marhowrah, has shut down a long ago), nor does it have rich agriculture, as no effective irrigation system has there been in place despite the river Gandak flowing past Lalu’s promise of rail coach factory is a recent development. Maker is close to the historic village Vaishali which is yet to figure on the rail map despite its promising prospects of tourism economy.

The Indian Railways seem to have forgotten and abandoned Lord Mahavir and Lord Buddha as national icons, despite the fact that so many ministers who held the prestigious and powerful railway ministry have hailed from Bihar. If Vaishali is brought on the rail map– as a rail junction connecting with Hajipur-Patna, Champaran, Saran and Darbhanga–the link would usher in a communication revolution besides offering markets for the vegetable and spices growing peasants of North Bihar. Let us not forget that Bihar is among the provinces – barring the provinces with difficult terrains – having lowest per capita rail road availability. The low-lying waterlogged lands (chaur) offer little hope to the farmers. The Hindu upper caste land-owning elites (more particularly the Rajputs and the Bhumihars) have secured public employment by opening up degree colleges in the early decades of independence, which were subsequently taken over by the government. The district may have poor literacy, but even its rural areas have got many government degree colleges, including one at Amnour – the ancestral village of Rajiv Pratap Rudy, close to the village of Maker. Rudy is the incumbent BJP MP of Chhapra, and is the Union Minister of Skill Development. While assessing the accomplishments of his ministry would be too early, it can perhaps be metaphorically said that sections of the people from his constituency have been developed the skills of crime and violence, and the minister has preferred to remain silent on this latest bout of violence in his constituency.

Highly placed officers, overburdened with administrative tasks, may not have much time to look into the history of the region they serve. Probably because of this, Krishnan, said that Saran is known for communal harmony. One of the first major communal riots was the Basantpur (Siwan) riots of 1893. Anand A. Yang, who has studied Saran’s history, demonstrates how the cow vigilantes, using the communication networks of the people’s gatherings of weekly markets (haats) mobilised the majority community to chastise putative beef-eaters. Large scale killings were also carried out in Basantpur.

Again, in October 1946, Saran found itself in the midst of the fire of communal violence, when ‘anti-Noakhali Day’ was observed on October 25, 1946. Incidentally, the violence on August 6, 2016 started from the same Karimchak mohalla of the Chhapra town, where the October 1946 riots had started. In my book, I have cited evidences to narrate how villages after villages of Saran (such as Khodaibagh, Rasulpur, Jalalpur, Olhanpur, Nagra, Katendar, Paighambarpur) had to be vacated by  Muslims, then. Even the then collector of Chhapra was accused of having abetted the riots, along with the leaders of the local Congress and of the Muslim League on either side.

Let me quote from my book, Contesting Colonialism and Separatism (2014):

“Very next day [26 October 1946], the town of Chapra witnessed worst form of anti-Muslim pogrom, and then it spread to the rest of Bihar. Even the ‘Indian [Hindu] Collector of Chapra had taken an important part in the riot’. ‘The worst elements—hoarders, black marketers and Hindu Sabha communalists—came to the top in the town [Chapra] Congress Committee, they roused hate sentiments, and when Noakhali Day was observed on 25 October it became the signal for riot which soon spread to rural areas. . .police sub-inspectors actually instigated the rioters. . . . [In Jalalpur village of Parsathana in Chapra, almost bordering the district of Muzaffarpur, across the Rewaghat of the river Gandak], the office-bearers of the town Congress Committee and Muslim League fomented the trouble by their rapid propaganda. . . . Most provocative editorials were written by The Searchlight . . . Hindu Sabhites, AryaSamajis, profiteers and zamindars who have recently entrenched themselves inside the Congress organization, exploited its fair name to aid their nefarious propaganda’. ‘Even the office bearers of the town [Chapra] Congress Committee and Muslim League helped in the fomenting of trouble by their rabid propaganda”.

After independence, in some of these villages, graves of the victims came to be declared as ‘worthy of worship’. Hindus of these villages still continue to revere some of such Muslim graves. Is it because of the contrition and remorse about the ‘collective guilt’ committed in 1946? This is a question awaiting academic exploration in rural Saran, suggests one of my friends having taught political science in a college of Chhapra.   Subsequent to the October 1946 riots, when Gandhiji visited the affected areas in March 1947, there some expressions of public remorse. Pyarelal, in his, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, reports that many Congressmen actually came and confessed before Gandhiji about their involvement in the killings. But that was then and the man was Gandhiji. We are now living in an age when adulation of Godse – the killer of Gandhiji, has become the dominant and accepted political ideology.

Moreover, from the archives of newspapers, The People’s Age, and the one owned by the then chief minister, Shri Krishna Sinha (1887-1961), Rashtravani, of 1946, I have also found out the redeeming stories whereby suffering Muslims came out to protect Hindus, and vice versa. In one such instance,

“In Chapra, Ganesh Tewari of Congress, ‘went to all affected areas and persuaded angry mobs to disperse’. . . . In village Nagraj for example a local gentlemen named Narbadeshwar Pande threw himself between two angry mobs and ultimately succeeded in turning them back, ‘A Muslim Hakim, Khuda Bakhsh, had his brother slaughtered before his own eyes. But in the night he found a Hindu boy belonging to one of the murderers’ families taking shelter in his house. He fed and kept the boy for the night and sent him back with escort, the next morning . . . a (large) number of Hindus faced angry mobs of their own community for the ‘crime’ of giving shelter to their Muslim neighbours. Among them are three Communists of Dalhawa who organized the joint defence of their Mohalla’.

These kinds of stories of fraternal relations understandably determined the harmonious mutual co-existence of the two communities in post- independence period”.
One can only hope that these redeeming instances will help restore normalcy even today. If we wish to ensure sustainable peace, the criminal justice system needs to become much more effective. Sadly, this is an aspect around which the Indian democracy has almost wilfully failed.  Even the Lalu-Rabri regime (1990-2005), which has earned many laurels on the count of having controlled the outburst of communal riots with a firm hand, it has been found equally disappointing in terms of bringing the rioters of Bhagalpur (1989) and Sitamarhi-Riga (1992) to book.  If the Justice Ruben committee could not be set up to report on the 1946 riots, the S. R Adige Report on the Sitamarhi riots (1992) remains hidden under a carpet as yet.

Image: Rediff
Besides, the immediate economic factors around growing social tensions also need to be addressed. In short, this deadly cocktail of crime and communalisation needs both serious and comprehensive attention. A massive police crackdown on the mohalla hoodlums is the urgent need. In most of the recent riots in Saran and Tirhut, we have found a pattern wherein the immediate flashpoint has been some misdeeds of the hoodlums which then provoke communal violence at which stage hoodlums who have resorted to loot and arson come out in large numbers on motorbikes; this cohesive action lends itself to the conclusion that there is an element of pre-planning behind them. Yet, even then, the local police and intelligence claimed to have been caught unawares. It is an accepted fact that these hoodlums have been getting political patronage. This possibility cannot be ruled out even in the case of the Saran violence of August 2016 either. 
(The author is an Associate Professor, Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, and has published two books)

Also Read: Communal Violence in Chhapra & Maker: A Fact Finding Report



Related Articles