Khushnagri, which translates as happy place, is a picturesque village at the foot of the Himalayas in Chamba of Himachal Pradesh. Over the last two weeks, however, the village has been struck by communal tension, following allegations that a 15-year-old Muslim girl was raped by a schoolteacher.
Police claim that Tek Chand, a science teacher at the Government Model Senior Secondary School in Khushnagri, has confessed to sexually exploiting the girl for over a year. Chand was arrested on July 27 and is in judicial custody. The girl, who hails from the Muslim-dominated village and used to study at this school, is now in class XI at the Government Senior Secondary School in nearby Tissa.
On July 29, a mob including women barged into the Khushnagri school and attacked a number of teachers. They were allegedly led by Congress leader Dildar Ali Bhat, who is also president of the state Haj committee and said to be related to the girl. Bhat was named in the subsequent FIR and arrested; he has since got bail.
The violence in the school was followed by three days of retaliatory violence in Tissa, where a number of shops were vandalised, allegedly selectively. The Congress alleges that the attackers were RSS and VHP men, while the BJP says they were common citizens.
The violence has ceased since the district administration held a meeting with local people on August 1. Both schools have been provided security, with policemen patrolling the campuses.
The Khushnagri school has 252 students, 162 of them Muslim and 90 Hindu. The school has 11 teachers including Chand; one of them, Rajdeen, is a Muslim and officiating as principal. Among the other teachers, several allege that they had been called for a school management committee meeting and were attacked by the mob in the presence of subdivisional magistrate (Churah) Hitesh Azad.
“They dragged us out of the classroom and assaulted us. They asked students to come out and began giving hate speeches. The SDM and the officiating principal did nothing to stop it,” said Baziru Sharma, one of the teachers. “We were not even aware of the rape case till July 27, when schools reopened and Tek Chand was absent.”
“We kept trying to convince the mob that we too feel the girl’s pain, but they kept assaulting us. They were making videos too,” alleged Asha Kumari, the Sanskrit teacher.
Kesari Singh, another teacher, said he was accused of being an RSS man. “My wife and I were on leave that day. We got a call from the school saying we had to reach immediately for a school management committee meeting. When we got there, the mob attacked us,” he alleged. “I have been a government employee for two decades. They should prove my links to the RSS.”
The family of the girl, meanwhile, has alleged that other teachers too are involved in “sexual exploitation” of girls. “Our people including Bhat had not meant to assault the teachers but they were angry. Aisa koi iraada nahi tha par ho gaya,” said the girl’s grandfather. “Other teachers too are involved in sexual exploitation of girls and we want action against them.”
After the attack
The assaulted teachers have been temporarily shifted to the Tissa school. They have been replaced with four new teachers, one of them Muslim.
Rajdeen, the officiating principal, said the meeting had been called to discuss the rape and arrest. “Whatever happened on July 29 was totally wrong. I was assured that since the SDM was present, nothing would go wrong, but it did,” he told The Indian Express.
On allegations that he did nothing to protect the other teachers, Rajdeen said, “I too was slapped and hit on the head. I was the one who urged the SDM to call for more police. It is on my complaint that the FIR has been registered.”
Azad, the SDM, said he was “suddenly surrounded” by the mob. “I have no idea from where they came and how it all happened. It was all of a sudden. I had to protect myself too. I called police and it was on my call that they came,” Azad said.
In the violence that followed in Tissa during July 30-August 1, mobs pelted stones at policemen and attacked shops as well as ITIs run by Bhat and his brother Parvez Ali. Police have lodged an FIR against unidentified people. For the Khusnagri school attack, the FIR is against the Bhat brothers – both out on bail – and unidentified people.
A teacher said he couldn’t recognise some of those in the mob in Khushnagri. “The faces of the women were covered and the men were almost unrecognisable. We’ve never seen them before in Khushnagri,” the teacher said.
Liyakat Ali Bhat, member of the Khushnagri school management committee, was present when the attack happened on July 29. “We have always lived in peace and now parents of the Muslim children have given in writing that they want the Hindu teachers back. Most of those in the mob were not parents.”
In a state going to polls this year, the Congress and the BJP have taken up the issue to target each other.
Congress leader Asha Kumari, head of the district grievance committee, Chamba, says the BJP instigated the mob in Tissa. “What more could the police have done? They arrested the rape accused and then our leader Dildar Ali Bhat following complaints from the teachers. The parents were angry and thus some women beat up the teachers,” Kumari said. “Why did the VHP and RSS men inflame the situation? It is part of the BJP’s agenda to instigate people on the basis of religion,” she said.
“Communal forces led by Congress are trying to defame the BJP,” said BJP MLA Hans Raj (Churah). “It is not the RSS or VHP that led the agitation but common people angered by the attack on teachers… The Congress wanted to create communal tension. Their own leader was arrested.”
Yakub Khan, 70, is upset that it has become a political issue. “For the 40 years I’ve lived here, we’ve had no such incident,” he said. “When the teacher was arrested, what was the need to beat up the others? When police were doing their work, why did politicians have to go to the school? This is all because of the elections.”
SP (Chamba) Virender Tomar said a probe was on to identify those involved in both attacks. He refused to comment whether political workers were part of the mobs. Sudesh Mokhta, DC, said an explanation has been sought from SDM Azad on how the situation flared up despite his presence.