Three people were killed and 27 injured as clashes broke out between two communities in Saharanpur city of western Uttar Pradesh in the wee hours of Saturday over a small plot of land situated next to a gurdwara.
More than two dozen vehicles including fire tenders were torched and over 70 shops set on fire on Ambala Road in the city. Among the injured were three police personnel. Even though curfew was imposed in six areas and shoot-at-sight orders issued, the situation remained tense.
Towards late Saturday evening, three shops of Muslims were reportedly torched by Hindus. “This is just the beginning. There will be a reaction to what they have started,” a local said.
Twelve persons have been arrested by the police in connection with the violence. Twelve companies, including of the CRPF, have been deployed.
“Three persons, including traders’ leader Harish Kochar, Arif and an unidentified person, were killed in the clashes,” Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Mukul Goel said in Lucknow.
Both Muslims and Sikhs claim ownership of the land in Kutubsher area over which clashes broke out, and violence started after some Sikhs started construction on the site on Friday night.
Saharanpur SSP Rajesh Pandey said that around 3 am Saturday, the ADM and SP were informed that the gurdwara samiti had started construction without the permission of the Saharanpur Development Authority and this had to be stopped.
“The DM and I went to the spot to tell them that construction could be done only after the development authority gives permission. We were there when a mob came to the gurdwara and started pelting stones. They had ammunition with them. We had to call in extra forces and use teargas shells, rubber bullets and lathis. The crowd however swelled and spread to other parts. A group of around a thousand people marched towards Ambala Road and torched vehicles and shops,” said Pandey.
Admitting that police may have been lax in assessing the situation earlier, he said they had been on their toes ever since.
Eyewitnesses however said the crowd overpowered the police and that its personnel ran to save their lives. “Seventy shops, more than a dozen vehicles, including fire tenders and buses, cannot be torched in one minute. These rioters were given a free hand by the police. The police were missing between 7 am and 9 am. Men not only broke into our shops, they looted them and torched them and police were nowhere to be seen,” said B S Chawla, whose shop was among those burnt. “These were our anscestral shops. We saw this in 1984 and, after so many years, this situation has risen again in 2014. What was our government doing?”
The mob was reportedly armed with pistols and iron rods. Eyewitnesses claimed they first attacked the fire station. “They came with canes full of a chemical to burn shops. They first burnt down a fire tender and hurled stones at the fire station and all the staff ran for their life. When they were torching vehicles and shops, no fire tender was available,” Chawla said.
Daljeet Singh Kochar, advocate, Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, said the land over which the row started belongs to the gurdwara. “Ten years ago a Muslim filed a petiton in court stating that there was a masjid on that land and hence it belonged to the Waqf Board. But in June last year, the district court, Saharanpur, ruled in our favour. The other party then went to the Allahabad High Court, but their plea was rejected.”
“Curfew has been clamped in the urban pockets of Saharanpur while schools and colleges have been closed for an indefinite period. Police are appealing to people on loudspeakers to remain home and not even peep from windows,” said Vaibhav Krishna, the SP.
Of the injured, Constable Shensar Pal was stated to be in a serious condition.
The Uttar Pradesh government has sounded an alert in Muzzafarnagar and Meerut and directed officers to take extra measures to ensure that tension doesn’t spread to their areas.
DIG STF Deepak Ratan and Bhuvnesh Kumar, who was Commissioner of Saharanpur earlier, had been rushed from Lucknow by helicopter to control the situation, sources said.
With inputs from Amit Sharma, Meerut