Provocative clerics, frenzied mobs and the widening fault lines of communal India.
Sitting inside a tea shop not far from Darul Uloom Deoband, Rasheed, a mechanic, can’t hide his anger as he sips tea with vigorous slurps as if to beat the biting cold. “Allah ko badnaam kiya,” he growls, justifying a recent protest in this part of northwest Uttar Pradesh against Kamlesh Tiwari, a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist ‘neta’ based in Lucknow who made derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. The moustachioed Rasheed has no doubt whatsoever that Tiwari is a ‘BJP neta’. The skullcap-wearing 30-year-old also has no idea that the statements that Tiwari made, contemptible as they are, were made in response to an attack on members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) by Samajwadi Party strongman Azam Khan, who called them ‘homosexuals’. “We came to know about Tiwari’s blasphemy from our community leaders,” says Rasheed, referring to clerics of the noted seminary nearby where thousands of students come to study Islam. Rasheed doesn’t know that it was in Deoband that a case was filed against Tiwari (which led to his arrest and detention) and insists on identifying him as a “well-known RSS leader” though police confirm that he was not associated with either the RSS or the now-defunct Hindu Mahasabha. Rasheed then claims that there was stone-pelting at the protest venue, injuring Deoband Municipal Board chairman Maviya Ali, though the latter himself confirms that he was hurt by a loudspeaker that fell on his head.
Tiwari shot into national limelight after Muslim groups in various parts of the country—from Muzaffarnagar in UP to Nellore in Andhra Pradesh and from Bengaluru in Karnataka to Kaliachak in West Bengal’s Muslim dominated border district of Malda—took to what intelligence agencies call ‘instant crowd violence’. Several officials in Delhi contend that this betrays a pattern of behaviour: protests orchestrated particularly to fan communal hatred. “There is nothing spontaneous about it, other than the spontaneity of being available as cannon fodder for clerics and a few Islamic strongmen,” says another senior intelligence officer who has studied communal strife closely for decades. Violent protests have rocked several other parts of the country, too, over the past several weeks, following the arrest of Tiwari in the first week of December. These include Dehradun, Indore, Bhopal, Kanpur, Bareilly, Lucknow, Purnea and others (see ‘Mob Fury’). According to at least four senior Central Government officials who spoke to Open, the “uncontrollable Muslim anger” at the protest venues suggested “rabble-rousing, planning and execution” of demonstrations designed to create religious polarisation in largely Muslim pockets. “To a large extent, these protests were meant to provoke retaliation,” says one of them.
Indications are that at least in places such as Malda and parts of UP, these shows of ‘Muslim frustration and wrath’ have succeeded in inviting a potential backlash. This, intelligence agencies suggest, is the apparent motive of Islamic clerics and leaders who have been zealously unleashing mob fury, using ‘brainwashed youths’, most of them illiterate or semi-literate, as expendable pawns. While Muslim organisations deny any such motive, calls from various Islamic bodies, including the organisations deny any such motive, calls from various Islamic bodies, including the Deoband seminary, to “target” Tiwari with attacks reveal a “mischievous plot”, claim intelligence officials.
The religious call-to-arms of sorts began last month with Rabey Hasani Nadwi, rector of Lucknow’s Islamic seminary Nadwatul Ulema—a cleric who also heads the All India Muslim Personal Law Board—lapping up the controversial comment by Tiwari. The self-appointed leader won some notoriety earlier this year when he suggested that a temple be built for Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin. But then, Nadwi’s response— to use blasphemy as an excuse to instigate communal disharmony—was no less incendiary. An organisation called Edara-e-Sharia issued pamphlets calling for large-scale protests against Tiwari, who has been in jail since he was arrested early last month for creating disharmony. While students and clerics at Darul Uloom Deoband had an active role in the demonstrations at Bijnor, UP, Maulana Anwarul Haq, general secretary of Jamiat Shababul Islam, offered Rs 51 lakh as a reward on Tiwari’s head.
Over the next few weeks, as violence by Muslim mobs spread to other parts of the country over obnoxious statements on Prophet Muhammad, in Kaliachak of West Bengal’s Malda district—where more than 200,000 people had reportedly assembled to take part in anti-Tiwari demonstrations—protestors went on a rampage of destruction. Some state home officials claim they were acting at the behest of local mafia dons engaged in the opium trade and smuggling of fake currencies to India. “Mind you, the incident happened more than a month after the arrest of Tiwari,” says a senior state government official on the phone, requesting anonymity. On 4 January in Malda, Muslim protestors set fire to a police station and damaged vehicles and property worth crores of rupees.
While the Mamata Banerjee-led government in West Bengal claimed the violence occurred on account of some trouble between the BSF and locals in Malda district on 3 January, other political parties allege that she is being forced to gloss over the issue because Muslims form close to 30 per cent of the state’s electorate and she doesn’t want to upset her vote base in an election year. Malda, a district bordering Bangladesh, has 51 per cent Muslims. Officials say that several provocative pamphlets were distributed among them ahead of the “unfortunate incident”. In any case, the place has a reputation for rampant crime, especially the contraband trade. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has so far arrested over 15 people in connection with the violence and all of them are linked to a fake currency racket in Malda.
Notes Dr Faisal Devji, referring to the recent violence: “Uncontrollable crowd action in the name of vague and emotive causes indicates the failure of Muslim political action, for which the ‘provocative’ statements of Mahasabha leaders serves only as an excuse.” Devji, reader in Indian History, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, has authored several books on Islam and modern Indian history.
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