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Four years ago, Muslims in Atali village had taken permission from the village panchayat to utilise a newly constructed school basketball court as their Idgah. That was a different Atali. On Saturday, as its Muslims offered their Eid-ul-Fitr prayers at the court, police lined it.
The school is now a police barrack, housing several hundred officials keeping the peace in Atali, and the village, where clashes broke out for the first time on May 26 when several Muslim homes and shops were torched in an hour-long rampage, remains deserted.
The Muslims, most of whom had fled the village after a second spurt of violence two weeks ago, returned on Saturday to offer prayers at the court, wearing black ribbons on their arms as a reminder of the continuing tension.
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The mosque in the village that is at the centre of the Atali dispute would get crowded, which is why the Muslims had sought the basketball court as a praying ground for Eid.
“There is not enough space at the mosque, and the earlier idgah would get overrun by thorny weeds during monsoon. When the basketball court was constructed, our community asked the panchayat for permission to use it for prayers. The court is cemented and doesn’t require a lot of preparation from us,” says Nizam Ali, a resident.
Until last year, their Hindu neighbours would also join the Eid celebrations, including sharing the lunch afterwards. On Saturday, they stayed behind closed doors.
Ram Bir was among the Hindus who fondly recalled the “intimate” Eid festivities with neighbours they had long known.
“It was never a very grand affair, it was always more intimate. Muslims would pray and then we would join them in the afternoon. We would eat together and the children would play together. Gifts were given by both communities,” he said.
In another sign of the changed Atali, the celebrations were at a much grander scale on Saturday.
A tent had been erected at the home of Isak Lambardar, a community elder, that was among those charred in the initial rioting on May 26.
The Eid lunch was served under this tent, with invitations sent to Muslims and Hindus from Atali and a neighbouring village.
Community elders said many displaced Muslim families hadn’t been able to prepare for Eid and the lunch would allow them to sit together for a meal after days.
“This is the first time we have set up a tent for Eid. We are doing this because we feel it’s important to not let the violence affect you negatively. On days of joy, we want to spread our happiness,” said Lambardar.
Among those who joined the lunch was social activist Swami Agnivesh, who brought along a small delegation of Jats. He later spoke to both the communities, urging them to “try and maintain peace and live in harmony”.
Savita Chaudhury wasn’t convinced. Pointing to the tent area with its heavy police presence, she said, “They (the Muslims) should stay away. The police side with them and they have also arrested our youths. How can we live with them anymore?”
Police Commissioner Subhash Yadav said they were working towards “achieving amity”. Noting that the celebrations had been conducted in a peaceful manner, he insisted there was no “ongoing tension”.