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Saharanpur's frayed social fabric

For years, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have lived together in harmony in Saharanpur, but the recent riot threatens to destabilise that equation

Dhruv Munjal 

The uneasy calm that follows a riot is unmistakable in Saharanpur. Surrounded by fertile agricultural land, the city has all the signs of unplanned prosperity: lots of cars but bad roads, clean homes on dirty streets. When I visit it on July 30, four days after communal riots broke out here, the city wears a deserted look. Except for a few eateries and small retail stores, the markets are closed. Saharanpur has a thriving furniture industry and a fair number of textile merchants and handicrafts exporters. They are not at work today. More than 15 battalions of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Central Reserve Police Force have been deployed. Later in the day, curfew is lifted for a short while in Old Saharanpur, where the riots took place. Grocers and greengrocers are swamped by buyers who don't know when they might be allowed to venture out of their homes next.

Barely a kilometre from the busy Bazdaran Street, the city's fire station stands in ruins. At around 7.30 am last Saturday (July 26), this is where the unfortunate events started unfolding. "Six of us were on duty that morning. Out of nowhere, we saw a mob of about 2,000 men running towards us," says Pramod Kumar, a fireman at the Saharanpur Fire Station. The mob ransacked the station and torched a car and six motorcycles. "We were unarmed. So we immediately ran for cover," adds Kumar. Several electronics stores and automobile component shops on Gurudwara Road, owned largely by Sikhs, bore the brunt of the assault. Merchandise worth crores of rupees was destroyed within minutes. Curiously, the Samajwadi Party office right behind to the station was spared.

Harpreet Singh was an eyewitness to the assault that fateful morning. Standing outside his tiny two-bedroom flat in a congested neighbourhood this afternoon, he is still visibly shaken by the events of last week. The 34-year-old was coming out of the gurudwara after offering his morning prayers when the mob struck. "The mob was well armed. There were 16-year-old boys wielding swords and country-made pistols. We were all panic-stricken," says Singh. Other eyewitness accounts suggest that sophisticated chemicals were used in the attack, which are otherwise not easily available.

The bone of contention between the two communities is a 9,000-square-feet plot adjacent to the Shri Guru Singh Gurudwara near the Saharanpur Railway Station. The piece of land was bought by the Shri Guru Singh Sabha from a private individual in 2001 to expand its current premises. The Muslim community claims that the site was home to a mosque till a little more than a decade ago and the Sikhs cannot stake claim to the land. According to unverifiable accounts, the plot was owned by a Muslim who had chalked out a small portion of the land for his personal praying space, where he used to offer namaz every day. The man left for Pakistan at the time of Partition and the house was bought by a Hindu family, which sold it to the gurudwara. The Sikhs, in their defence, point to the order of a local court that allowed construction at the site. The Muslim community appealed against that verdict, but their plea was struck down in May 2013.

Work at the site had actually begun in early 2010, but trouble started brewing on the morning of July 26, roughly five hours before the clashes started. "Some members of the Muslim community were passing by the gurudwara around 2:30 am on Saturday. They heard the construction workers planting pillars at the site. That's when trouble began," says an officer of the Uttar Pradesh Police requesting not to be named.

Harpreet Singh puts the blame squarely on the Saharanpur administration. "Several members of the administration were present in the morning when the violence broke out. They were witness to the terror unleashed by the rampaging mob. But nothing was done," Singh says despondently. The police were called upon several hours later. In fact, when the violence broke out, only six officers were on duty at the Saharanpur Police Station.

Still others see a political hand in the riots. "The top command of the state government was in the know of the entire situation. But in order to keep the Muslim vote intact, no action was taken," says Jasbir Bajaj, another member of the Sikh community.

According to the local police, Moharram Ali Pappu, a former Congress municipal councillor, was the chief instigator of the rioters. Named in one of the 22 First Information Reports registered by the Saharanpur Police, Pappu was arrested late on the evening on July 30. Initial findings suggest that the attack was planned. "Most of the people involved in the violence were not even from Saharanpur. They were outsiders," says a UP Police officer. The rioters strategically targeted the fire station first, he says, to ensure that the city stayed crippled in case of an emergency.

As in other recent communal riots, social media - accessed on the mobile phone - played a role in Saharanpur too. Mohammad Shahid, a handicraft and antiquities dealer in Hiran Maran, plays a video clip on his phone that shows the existence of a mosque on the piece of land. Although the visuals prove inconclusive, some members of the community are convinced about the presence of an Islamic shrine on the property. "What happened has saddened everybody, but you have to fight for such causes. The Sikhs may have won in court, but they do not possess requisite clearance certificates to carry out construction," says the 38-year old.

The neighbouring city of Muzaffarnagar may have been engulfed by communal clashes in the last one year, but in Saharanpur relations between different communities had been largely peaceful. This is the first time the city has witnessed communal clashes since the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. In spite of the recent riots, in the narrow cross lanes of Saharanpur's textile hub, Kamboh Katehra market, the bonds of unity between different communities are still evident. As he stands outside his shop dressed in a crisp white kurta pyjama and a skull cap, with colourful kids' clothing displayed in the background, Noor Ali explains why there has never been any animosity between the two communities. "We are a town of traders. In business, there is no room for religious hostility. Our businesses are interconnected. All of us work together," he says. Mohammad Wasim, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in the same market, echoes the sentiment. "Several shops were burnt down on Saturday. That should not have happened. I sympathise with my Sikh brothers."

The Sikhs, on the other hand, are yet to get over the incident. There is widespread anger among members of the community. "We want the government to carry out a thorough investigation and bring the perpetrators to justice," says 58-year old Raghubir Singh.

Amid the tension, the city's trade has taken a severe beating in the last one week. Most shops in the city have remain closed because of the curfew. While businesses have suffered massive losses, customers too have suffered with prices of essentials skyrocketing. "The shopkeepers are taking undue advantage of the helplessness of the people. Prices of staples have gone up considerably," says S K Arora, a resident. People are forced to pay Rs 100 for a litre of milk. The prices of tomato and potato have doubled. Local authorities, however, expect the situation to improve. While curfew is still in place, it was relaxed for 10 hours yesterday.

For the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government in Lucknow, the brickbats have, meanwhile, not been as severe as in Muzaffarnagar where communal violence went on for days together. While most say there was "intelligence failure" because the government did not anticipate the riots in Saharanpur, many others believe that order was restored quickly. The general opinion, however, is that the party should have been aware of the simmering tension in the city given its interest in the area. That is evident from the giant billboards carrying pictures of top Samajwadi Party leaders plastered across the city.

Chief Minister Yadav has set up a five-member inquiry committee to look into the riots. But immediately after the clashes broke out, he had trained his guns at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, holding them responsible. There are, however, not many takers for that argument. "The lack of good governance is the problem. Had the state reacted swiftly, Saharanpur would never have burned like this," says Arora.

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First Published: Sat, August 02 2014. 20:33 IST