A hindi text message shared on WhatsApp between friends of two communities led to the death of two young men — who were not connected to the text-sharing — in police firing on Tuesday.
Pradip Paswan, 21, and Upendra Kushwaha, 25, of Akbarpur market under Rohtas police station had joined a large gathering of people who were protesting the arrest of a local shopkeeper, Ajay Kumar Sah, for allegedly sending the objectionable text message. According to police, they opened fire on the protesters when they turned violent.
Police said 21-year-old Ajay had sent the message on WhatsApp to his Muslim friends Shaqib and Neyaz on July 7. Neyaz circulated the message — derogatory to Prophet Mohammed — among his friends in the community. When the community elders got to know about it, they made Neyaz lodge a case against Ajay.
Rohtas police arrested Ajay, who runs a cosmetics shop at the local market, soon after he had returned home in the same area of Akbarpur.
Ajay’s cousin Sonu Kumar said he had been friends with Neyaz and Shaqib for the past few years, a little after he moved to Rohtas from Chenari block to stay with his maternal uncles in 2010. The three friends had been on WhatsApp — the latest craze among the youngsters here — for the past few months, Sonu said.
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Ajay, who discontinued college to earn a living, and Neyaz had shops in the same market and would update each other on every little development of their interest on WhatsApp.
Ajay’s uncle Sanjay Sah, who ran a small business, said: “Ajay had got the controversial text message from a person in Dehri and shared it with Neyaz and Shaw in WhatsApp without reading it himself. He thought as it was about Prophet, it might interest his Muslim friends.” Sanjay conceded it was a “grave mistake” on his nephew’s part but said the matter should have been still amicably resolved between the two communities rather than involving police.
Ajay’s maternal grandmother Kalawati Kuwar said: “Some Muslim boys entered my house and pushed me in one corner. This is not the way to react. After all, we have been living peacefully for years here.”
Soon after Ajay was arrested on Monday evening, there were rumours that he had been badly beaten up in police custody and had been taken to local hospital. This infuriated the Hindus, who protested the police taking action against Ajay while letting off Shaqib and Neyaz for forwarding the controversial text message among their community members. By late Monday, rumour spread that “Ajay was killed in police custody”.
On Tuesday morning, more than 500 people gathered before the police station and wanted the police to present Ajay before them. By that time, Ajay had been shifted to the adjoining Indrapuri police station. The led to further tension by by 10 am, people from adjoining villages also joined the protest against police.
Rohtas police station in-charge Mithilesh Kumar Jaiswal said: “Some anti-social elements might well have tried to take advantage of the tense situation. Two police rifles were taken away by the crowd, though one was recovered later. Over half a dozen police vehicles including an anti-landmine vehicle was damaged by the crowd.” He said police had to open fire in self-defence.
Jaiswal said police were investigating if the two killed were mere “onlookers” — as being claimed by their family members.
Mohammed Qasim, an Akbarpur resident, said his community members exercised restraint and let police do their duty. “We do not know much about WhatsApp that is common among the youths. We never had any clash with Hindus even though some people with vested interest want to create distrust between us.” Rohtas has about 40 per cent Muslim population.
Chief Minister Jeetan Ram Manjhi said: “We are looking into reasons of police firing. There is no communal tension.”