In a corner of Meerut’s Old City, lanes little wider than two people standing close together lead to a masjid, a Jain temple and a Hindu mandir, separated by merely 100 metres. The area has seen arguments over a common well dug in 1982, even a protracted legal battle, but no violence.
Saturday’s clash leaving a dozen injured, one of them critically, was the first communal violence Gudri Bazaar has ever seen. Over the same well, which now has little water.Says 66-year-old Inder Jain, who lives in the area, “This well is a matter of pride for the three communities that live around it, the Jains, Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims have always tried to usurp it. On Saturday, they were putting a fence around it. When the Hindus objected, there was an argument, and somebody set fire to a motorcycle. Many here have illegal weapons, and soon there was firing between the two.”
According to Jain, “Some of the firing was in front of the police, which failed to calm things down for over two hours.” Local BJP corporator Vijay Anand, who claims he was attacked by a mob when he reached Gudri Bazaar on Saturday afternoon, seconds Jain. “It was earlier a common well, but since there was a dispute between the Hindus and Muslims over its ownership, court had been approached. And currently, there is an order that status quo be maintained. We will not allow anyone to disrespect the courts.”
If the Jains and Hindus are clearly united in their “cause”, on the other side of a narrow drain that separates the mosque from the Hindu area, the Muslims say they were “only making everyone’s lives simpler”. “There is very little water so people cannot use it for anything other than drinking from it. We were installing a water cooler so people could do that conveniently, and everyone could use it. We were not staking a claim. But the other group began shouting slogans and things went wrong from there. They say that only their side was shot at. But some of us have bullet injuries too, we have not reported them,” says Syed Ahmed.
While more than 10 people are reported to have suffered blunt force injuries, two have bullet wounds. One of them, identified as Shivam Rastogi, is on ventilator support, doctors at the Meerut Government Hospital said. Meanwhile, unsubstantiated rumours abound.
Some speak of an eve-teasing incident on Friday, but ask for specifics, and nobody has an answer. Others see a conspiracy, of guns being distributed beforehand, and of the violence being a bid to loot traders in the area. But while some shopkeepers point to broken locks, nobody admits to actually having seen weapons being handed around.
Gudri Bazaar is now under virtual curfew. Shutters are down and, outside closed shops, RAF and UP Police personnel are stationed or on patrol. Said SSP Omkar Singh, “The situation is under control and there has been no fresh violence. We will take action against those who spread rumours, and those directly involved. An FIR has been registered against 200 persons. Confidence-building measures are also being undertaken.”
A kilometre away from the site of the clash, there are few signs of trouble, and people speak of a larger problem — the proliferation of weapons. Says Bhisham Singh, a fruitseller, “You think this is a communal clash? This is not a problem of religion. It is a problem of guns. Every argument turns into a gunfight. Log kehte hain bandook nahin hai, toh mard nahin ho (People say that if you don’t own a gun, you aren’t a man). Violence happens so often that other than the people directly affected, life goes on. Very rarely is it a religious issue that people are fighting about. This was about a well, was it not?”