CONGRESS MLA Ajay Rai was arrested on Tuesday in connection with a mob resorting to violence and arson during the Anyay Pratikar Yatra organised by sadhus and local leaders on Monday.
This comes soon after the police registered an FIR against 56 people, including Swami Avimukteshwarananda, sadhu Satua Baba and Rai — the MLA from Pindra. Besides, 48 people were arrested from the spot during the march on Monday.
Rai was arrested around 5.30pm as soon as he landed at Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport in Varanasi’s Babatpur. The arrest came after Rai arrived in the city from New Delhi. Varanasi district magistrate Rajmani Yadav said the MLA has been arrested for his alleged role in Monday’s violence. Sources said the police were preparing to arrest Swami Avimukteshwaranand.
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Condemning Rai’s arrest, state Congress president Nirmal Khatri said: “We have come to know about detention of our MLA, which is clearly out of vendetta and an attempt to save VHP and Bajrang Dal people, who are the actual culprits of the violence”. He added that the ruling SP government was trying to divert attention from its failure to maintain law and order by putting the blame on the Congress.
“Police have taken him (Rai) to a secluded place… We are trying to meet the SSP and know about his whereabouts,” Congress district unit president Prajanath Sharma said.
Over a dozen vehicles, including police jeeps, were torched while several policemen and protesters sustained injuries as they clashed at Godaulia chowk Monday evening. The yatra was held in response to the police lathicharge on Avimukteshwaranand and others on the intervening night of September 22 and 23 over immersion of Ganesha idols in Ganga. Last year, the Allahabad High Court had directed that no idols would be immersed in Ganga.
Police said apart from three jeeps, nearly 20 motorcycles were set afire. A tourist information booth at Godaulia, maintained by police, was also torched. However, no shops were burnt. More than 15 policemen and locals sustained injuries in the violence. Two mediapersons were also injured.
Before his arrest, speaking to The Indian Express, Rai had blamed the administration of playing politics in collusion with the Centre. “It is the handiwork of the ruling parties in the state and the Centre. They are instigating the situation in Greater Noida (Dadri lynching) and now in Varanasi. No Congress worker was involved in stone pelting and arson,” he claimed.
Rai added: “The administration is trying to co-relate the two issues of attack on sadhus and immersion of idols. The issue actually is mismanagement by the local administration. Why did they lathicharge the sadhus in September? And, now, they could not control yesterday’s violence.”
At least a dozen PAC companies, Rapid Action Force squads and police forces from neighbouring districts have been summoned to Varanasi. Police said all shops were open on Monday and the situation was normal. However, forces have been deployed on every intersection, along with mobile patrolling being conducted.
Meanwhile, VHP leader Sadhvi Prachi, who had participated in Monday’s meeting at Town Hall — from where the yatra had begun — did not figure in the FIR. Police said she was not a part of the procession and had left the place. Those mentioned in the FIR included activists and office-bearers of Congress, Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and the newly-emerging right-wing outfit Kashi Yuva Shakti. Police and administration officials maintained that the rioting was pre-planned.
Varanasi SSP Akash Kulhari said: “The accused have been booked for rioting, obstructing police in discharge of duty, damage to public and private property under various sections of IPC. Besides, Section 3 of Criminal Law Amendment Act has also been invoked. The sadhus have been named in the FIR in their capacity as organisers, besides taking note of their actions in the run-up to the violence. We have evidence to say that it was pre-planned. We are looking into what or who instigated them.” He added that arrests of those named in the FIR would be expedited.
“The sadhus held their programme for four hours at Town Hall in Maidagin. Police were all along with them to ensure their security. It is also true that the violence begun even before the sadhus were to reach Godaulia. Still, their role needs to be investigated because people can use various methods to initiate violence,” Kulhari said.
Asked how the police would deal with such a volatile situation with Durga Puja festival on the anvil, Kulhari said: “Let us not forget that it was only one idol that led to the blockade in September. Most puja samitis are ready to accept the high court order on immersion of idols. We will have to draw out a plan to deal with such elements.”
Also maintaining that the violence pre-planned, the DM said: “Our stand is to sort out the issues through dialogue… The role of the organisers in instigating the violence will have to be probed.”
Yadav added that the yatra organisers had assured the administration that though a crowd would gather, but the protest would be peaceful. “Adequate arrangements were made to manage the crowd… The violence was unprovoked,” said Yadav, adding that the decision to announce curfew in four areas initially was taken to ensure stayed in their homes.
“It was not formally invoked. But with the announcement, people went inside their houses, which eased the situation. It was revoked soon after,” he said.
Despite repeated attempts, Swami Avimukteshwaranand could not be contacted. However, he was quoted by news agencies saying that he had nothing to do with “anti-social elements that indulged in violence” and that he was ready to cooperate with the police.
Meanwhile, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday termed the Varanasi violence as “unfortunate”. “Law and order is a subject related to the state government. I have spoken to several officials yesterday and have been informed that efforts are being made to normalise the situation,” he said.