A disaster waiting to happen: Kasganj town has been communally polarised for a while now
In Kasganj town, the latest place on the communal violence map in the Hindi heartland, the fear is palpable. “Everyone is scared to step out,” Faizan Khan, a young businessman in the Muslim quarters of Biliram Gate, says. His residence is hardly 300 metres from Badu Nagar, where the communal clashes started on Republic Day.
The clashes revived memories of post-Babri Masjid demolition violence. “Then, it happened all over the state so our town also was not left untouched,” Khan recounts. Outside Shahar Kotwali, the town's police station, Malti Devi, too, complains how her son Prashant Sisodia was picked up from Nadrai gate locality as he was on his way to buy milk from the area. There are others too, who have similar complaints that the police picked up anybody they found on the streets.
Waiting to happen
In the recent bout of violence, one person – Chandan Gupta, died, while many other sustained injuries, including other locals such as Naushad and Akram. Police have so far detained and arrested as many as 112 people in five different cases that have been filed in regards to the violence. The violence continued for the second day on Saturday, despite the presence of senior police and administration officials who were rushed to the town after Friday’s incident. Three days after the violence, Sunil Kumar Singh, the local SP, has been transferred. State Governor Ram Naik has called the violence a blot on the state, even as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath continues to keep mum.
“It was waiting to happen,” Faizan recollects, his thoughts drifting to a similar incident on 15 August, 2017. “A group of young boys wielding saffron flags and the tricolour came and started shouting slogans outside Jama Masjid, the main mosque in town, located just a few metres away from where we chatted. “Then, it was controlled by elders,” he says. “This time, there were very few elders around to control the situation. So it went out of control,” Faizan says.
Deepak Agarwal, who runs his shop in the same locality, also says tensions among the two communities have been brewing for a while. He narrates an incident a few days before Republic Day, where members of the minority community had a problem with the local administration barricading the entry to the local Chamunda temple, a road which was used by everyone. The barricades were eventually removed, but only after the protests.
There had been an altercation over the barricading earlier, immediately after the BJP government came to power. “Angry over that incident, they were prepared for Republic Day,” Deepak says. “Or else how would they start pelting stones on the Republic Day rally?” he asks.
The start of the violence
“That road has been there forever now, and has been used by everyone. It would have created problems for the locals and that is why the protests,” Faizan says.
Meanwhile, Faizan was preparing to attend the flag-hoisting function in the neighbourhood, when he heard of the incident on Republic Day and stepped out. Every year, there is a flag hoisting ceremony on both Republic Day and Independence Day, this local businessman says as he shows us messages and a video which show the square decked up with tricolour balloons, chairs neatly lined up, and a flag in the centre.
Sher Mohammad, another young local, says it is at this spot that the clashes began. “Around 40-50 bikers came and started shouting slogans which were met with protests. They were told to wait for the programme to get over, but they would not listen and demanded that they be allowed to go first,” he says. It is here that the clashes began. “They broke the chairs. Then they even destroyed the Rangoli next to the flag,” Sher Mohammad alleges.
The group of young boys had an altercation with the locals. “Then they left, leaving their bikes behind,” Mohammad says. “On the way back, they ransacked some shops.”
A few minutes after the initial altercation, both groups came to blows in Tehsil Lane, right next to the city’s police station. Gunshots were fired, resulting in injuries to at least four people. “This lane has a mixed population of both communities,” Deepak Gupta, a local cloth merchant, says. “It is like a border,” he continued, pointing to the spot at the end of the lane where the firing began.
It was in this firing that Chandan Gupta suffered a bullet wound and lost his life, while another local Naushad is recovering at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in neighbouring Aligarh. The police are yet to come out with details of the weapons, but locals claim country made pistols and even rifles were used. In the evening, one Akram Habib, who was visiting his wife's family, had his an eye gouged out by an mob. He, too, is recovering at the JLN Medical College in Aligarh.
News of Chandan's death, and rumours of the death of another person, fuelled violence on Saturday. A visit by local BJP MP Rajveer Singh, and his statement that the incident cannot be forgiven, too, added to the fury.
“How is it possible that so many policemen and senior officials were not able to control the mobs,”Anees Ahmad, a local businessman, asks. His three buses, parked at Nadria Gate, were set on fire on Saturday. “The mobs selectively targeted seeing the name on the buses,” Ahmad says. The same day, a mosque, too, was vandalised.
Even on Sunday afternoon, two days after the violence, one Sherwani Shoe store in the Bazar was still on fire. The city wore a deserted look.
The anti-national narrative
The narrative, however, changes to ‘anti-national minority community’ when one talks to the members of the majority community. “Why would they attack a Republic Day rally otherwise,” is the question that everyone asks.
That Chandan’s body was brought home draped in a tricolour and that the family continues to demand that he be accorded the status of a martyr, has only added to this manufactured narrative. On Monday, when the District Magistrate visited the family with a cheque of Rs 20 Lakh as compensation, he was met with protests.
“There is no use of having Modi as Prime Minister,” Kuldeep Thakur says. “Modi bekaar hai,” he continued, as we chatted at Nadria gate, the centre of Kasganj town. This young college student is angry. “Chandan was just like another young college-going boy. They killed him just for shouting pro-India slogans,” Thakur says, pointing towards the lane next to the crossroads, where Chandan Gupta's family lives.
“Chandan was not known to be associated with any organisation, but he had friends in local Hindutva organisations,” Akhilesh Yadav, another young political activist who went to the same college with Gupta, says.
But he admits that the rally this year was more aggressive than in previous years. “This time, it was bigger than the previous ones. And there was sloganeering too,” he says. BJP had won from Kasganj,too, by a margin of more than 50,000 votes. Muslims make up approximately 25 percent of the town's population.
Subhash Chandra Sharma, the Commissioner Aligarh Division, too, accepts, “There must have been provocation. Two groups must have had an altercation.” But on the question of whether permission was taken for the Tiranga Yatra, he says very bluntly, “Nobody needs a permission to unfurl the tricolor on Republic Day. The Supreme Court has made that clear.”
The current situation
Meanwhile, It is only four in the evening on Sunday, and people have just started to come out on the streets to buy essential items. The local bazar is mostly shut, except a few shops which the local administration pushed hard to reopen. “We have the market open now,” Sunil Singh had told this reporter.
Police, the Rapid Action Force, and Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel have been deployed at every nook and corner of the town of less than a lakh people. “The situation is coming back to normal. But we cannot leave anything to chance,” Sanjeev Gupta, Inspector General Aligarh Range told Catch, even as he carried a drone that is to be deployed in the city. “It is for surveillance of unmanned areas.”
“There is tremendous anger among the youth in this area,” Thakur says. On Sunday night, there were sporadic incidents of violence with reports of houses being set on fire.
Back in the Muslim quarters, it is only fear that haunts. “We want peace to come back as soon as possible,” Faizan says.
But there are heartening stories too, amidst this hatred. For example, Faizan has not been able to visit his dairy business which he runs from another locality dominated by the Kushwaha community. “They are the ones helping us carry out the daily chores since we are scared to go out,” he says, a sign that there is still hope in these troubled times.