When Ramnavmi is Used to Fuel the Fires of Hate: Bhadrak, Orissa (Odisha)

The festival of Ram Navmi was used this year, 2017, the third year of the Modi government being in office at the Centre to aggravate intra-community tensions and even cause the outbreak of communal tensions in states and towns across the country. Jharkand, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa were all the sites and scenes of this kind of aggression and violence. But what of states ruled not by the RSS-controlled Bharatiya Janata Party (eleven states the BP rules on its own and 15 if you count them as alliance partners) and where the police is under the opposition regional parties or the ‘national opposition?’

Bhadrak Violence
Image: Indian Express

Orissa is one such ruled by Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. In 2008 when the anti-Christian brute violence raged in Kandhamals, Patnaik was cozy with the BJP. He fought the state election after that on his own and won resoundingly. This April however saw the police in Orissa show the same degrees of callous complicity in controlling the rise of communal tempers.

Weeping Salandi –a Report on the Outbreak of Communal Violence in Bhadrak Orissa  is a report released by the PUCL this month. It tracks and analyses the violence that broke out in Bhadrak on June 6, 2017 and after. Balanced and comprehensive here is what the report says in its conclusion,

“Despite a rich syncretic tradition, people of Bhadrak, both Hindus and Muslims, have been drawn into communal clashes. This has happened in the backdrop of communal tension in the larger political scenario in the country. This year, the Muslim community had some anxieties after the recent victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and the appointment of Adityanath as its Chief Minister. This provided the backdrop of the celebration of Ramnavmi as political spectacle in Bhadrak this year, although it has never been simply a religious festival. From the beginning, the celebration has been mixed with politics, as it is being organised and monitored by the BJP and its affiliate organisations. The celebration is also associated with the memory of communal riot of 1991…..

“The scale and grandeur of the celebrations, and the deliberately provocative sloganeering did have an effect on the Muslim community. Though no untoward incident happened on the day of Ramnavmi, the atmosphere was clearly tense. Therefore, one cannot say that Ramnavmi celebrations had passed off peacefully, and that it had nothing to do with the communal riot that followed two days later. Although the trigger points have always been local, the political motivations and communal politics that allow these trigger points to snowball into major communal clashes are of larger national origin.

“It was in this tense atmosphere that the objectionable posting in the social media provided the fodder to those forces that were ready to further vitiate the atmosphere. What is worrying is the use of students and unemployed youth as cannon fodder to further gains in electoral politics by cynically creating and manipulating communal sentiments. This will have dangerous consequences for the social fabric of Bhadrak, and if not arrested in time, will lead to violence.

Assessment of Loss and Compensation
Five days after the violence, on 12th April, the Chief Minister visited the town and declared that damages due to riots would be assessed and adequate compensation would be provided. Estimates losses are being put at a staggering 9 crores. Despite promises of swift payment of compensation, the disbursing the money began only in the first week of May, and by mid-May many of the riot-affected people were yet to receive any compensation. There is discontentment among all sections of victims about the amount of compensation. The PUCL team met the Tehsildar of Bhadrak on 8th May, a month after the riots. The team asked the tehsildar for a copy of the list of victims. He said that some names in the list are still being verified. Although about 460 names have been listed, it was not final.

The plight of the poor who lost their livelihood in the riot (and the apathy of the administration towards them) was expressed by one community leader in the following words: “Around 40 families have been affected in Charampa. Of these, 15 families are so poor that they do not have anything to eat now. Their work has stopped for nearly a month. They were eking out their living by tailoring, welding, cycle repairing, vending shoes, fruits, eggs, lock and key repairs, or by quilt making. They don’t have any savings to restart their work. No one has come forward to help them. When natural calamity occurs, the Government provides polythene sheets, food etc. to the affected people. But this has not happened in our case. No one (the MLA, Chairman or the Councillor) has cared to do anything for these poor people. I have been saying all these things when TV guys came to interview me. But they cut these things out and did not air them.”

Callous Attitude of the Police
The callous and tardy role of the government’s law enforcement has been widely commented upon. People, cutting across religious groups and party lines, blame the police for letting the situation go out of control. On being asked as to why did it the police allow people to gather outside the Collectorate, when Section 144 was in force and did nothing to prevent the rally, the SP said, ‘you should ask these questions to the people in charge at that time. I wasn’t in charge then. So how can I answer these questions?’

Has there been any inquiry as to the role of the police during the incidents of 6th and 7th April? The SP’s response to this was, ‘It is the job of the government to institute a commission of inquiry to find out whether the police failed in its duty. And no inquiry has been instituted by the government’. This is another departure from the past: citizens are unhappy about the role of the police not just for its failure in preventing the riot, but also for allegedly acting in a politically motivated manner.

The local police and the district administration did not respond to the communal clashes till the evening of 7th April with enough seriousness, the state government swung into action once it became clear that the situation was going out of control. The same evening, the Home Secretary and the Director General of Police rushed to Bhadrak and mobilised additional forces for the town. Curfew was imposed the same night. Order was issued for the immediate posting of a new district collector to take charge of the situation. It needs to be noted that the district administration was headless during the riot, since the Collector had retired from service since 31 March, and no replacement had been posted. The SP and IIC of the Town Police Station, the Aditional District Magistrate (ADM) who were on duty when the riot happened, have been transferred since then with a new set of officers posted in their place.

The day and night curfew was in force for a few days, but night curfew remained for over a month. It was finally lifted only on 12th May. By the time the curfew was lifted, about 275 people have been arrested and the situation seemed to be improving. Among others, the arrested include the State secretary of Bajrang Dal, the district unit secretary of BJP Yuva Morcha and a BJD Councilor. However, a common concern expressed by the leaders and ordinary citizens is about the arrest of many innocents.

Some sane voices
Hindus are responsible for this problem. It is the moral degradation of the Hindu community which is at the root of all of this. There There is so much space in Bhadrak. Why do they take out the Ramnavmi processions through the Muslim areas? This is deliberately done to provoke Muslim sentiments.’

  • A senior advocate and an eminent citizen, belonging to the Hindu community.

I feel guilty and ashamed of the behaviour of the Muslim youths. I felt so helpless when my Hindu friends from Chandan Bazaar were repeatedly calling me over the telephone for help. They were giving me minute to minute description of the incidents of loot and arson. What could I do? I am old and ill. Not a single person was with me to take me to the place and help me stand with them during their distress. I cannot show my face to them. I have been isolated from the communities.’

– A respected social worker and senior citizen, belonging to the Muslim community.

‘Observations of religious days through processions, whether of Hindus or Muslims, have become marketable affairs. Where is the feeling of spirituality in all these processions? We should stop all  religious processions.’
-An ordinary shop keeper

It is tragic indeed that seventy years down, and many communal clashes behind us, we have failed as a society and state to implement what  Justice Madon wrote in his epic 18 volume report that inquired into the Biwandi-Bombay-Jalgaon communal clashes (1970). That processionists and organisers of ‘religio-political’ processions must observe strictly laid down rules and laws: deposit amounts of security in advance and be help legally responsible for destruction and the breakdown of the rule of law.



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