Updated: March 23, 2021 7:31:31 am
On Monday, as the weekly market at Bhainsa, a town in Nirmal district of Telangana, opened for the first time in 10 days, people rushed to replenish supplies. Yet, the air was still and heavy with tension.
On the evening of March 7, a couple of skirmishes, first over a lost goat and then over a minor accident involving a motorcycle, had flared into rioting and arson in the town. While police managed to control the situation in a few hours, there was more to follow — on March 10, as anger over the rape of a three-year-old girl spilled over, the town saw more violence and arson. Twelve persons were injured and the administration imposed Section 144.
Police have so far registered 28 FIRs related to separate incidents that occurred from March 7 to 10. In the rape case, police arrested a 14-year-old 24 hours later and registered a POCSO case against him.
“You never know when the situation will explode,” said Wasim Shaikh, a fruit vendor at the Bhainsa market.
“You have to watch what you say… anything can cause a flare-up. We are fed up of this now,” said Gangadhar Kumar, a school teacher.
In the Zulfikar mosque area, where the March 7 incidents happened, residents of both communities are wary of talking to outsiders. On Monday, most people in the area chose to stay indoors. A police officer said peace committees had not been effective because members don’t trust each other.
That day, around 6.30 pm, a Muslim man confronted a few Hindus in the neighbourhood, accusing them of stealing his goat. The numbers swelled and both sides shouted each other down. Around an hour later, with the atmosphere still tense, two Hindu youths got into a scuffle with a group of Muslim youths after the handlebar of the motorcycle they were on allegedly hit the latter.
The tension built up steadily and around 8.30 pm, members of both communities clashed with each other and indulged in arson. Police said two houses and six shops belonging to Muslims and several vehicles belonging to both sides were set on fire.
While frequent clashes between the two communities have turned Bhainsa into a communal tinderbox — this is the third such incident so far this year — many blame it on an ongoing turf war between groups led by the Hindu Vahini and the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM respectively.
Kapil Kumar, a Hindu Vahini activist in Bhainsa, alleged that in the rape case, police delayed taking action against the alleged perpetrator as they did not want to antagonise the minority community.
AIMIM leader Mohammed Jabir Ahmed, who is also vice-chairman of the Bhainsa municipality, said that while the goat and motorcycle incidents were minor, they came under an “organised attack” after evening prayers that day.
“The mob came armed with iron rods and swords. The attack was captured on CCTV cameras,” he said.
However, Hindu groups claimed that it was Ahmed himself who provoked these attacks. “Ahmed is constantly trying to consolidate the Muslim vote bank and it is he who keeps the communal fire burning. Last January, to make himself popular ahead of the municipal elections, he orchestrated violence after the Ijtema festival of Tableeghi Jamaat, when thousands of people from across the country were camping in Bhainsa and Nirmal. Hindu families living in Muslim areas live in constant fear,” said BJP district president P Ramadevi.
In the municipal polls held 10 days after the Ijtema incident on January 11 last year, the AIMIM won in 15 wards out of 26, while the BJP won 9 and Independents 2.
“There are old, open wounds on both sides. There is deep distrust and hatred towards each other and this environment has been created by leaders of both communities. That is why it only takes a loud motorcycle or a lost goat to cause a riot,” said a municipal councillor who did not wish to be named.
While the AIMIM has a strong presence in Bhainsa, the BJP is trying to expand its footprint in Nirmal district and Mudhole, the Assembly constituency of which Bhainsa is a part. Bhainsa, with approximately 22,000 Muslim votes and an equal number of Hindu votes, is key to winning Mudhole.
Adilabad and Nizamabad, the two districts surrounding Nirmal, are with the BJP. “The Mudhole Assembly seat has approximately 36,000 Muslim votes and we vote en masse to the party that Asaduddin Owaisi tells us to support. In the last election, it was the TRS. The BJP is riled by this and has been constantly trying to whip up communal sentiments in Bhainsa,” said AIMIM leader Ahmed.
The BJP’s P Ramadevi, who unsuccessfully contested from Mudhole in the 2018 election, says it is the other way round. “The AIMIM sees an opportunity to take control of the Bhainsa municipality from the TRS. AIMIM and Mohammed Jabir Ahmed have engineered this polarisation,” she says.
BJP state president Bandi Sanjay Kumar accused the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti of shielding the AIMIM. “AIMIM leaders in Bhainsa provoke attacks against Hindus over every minor incident. Police are under pressure from the TRS government not to take action against them. TRS and AIMIM are hand in glove,” Kumar said.
Nirmal SP Vishnu Warrier denied any bias in the investigation. “We have a lot of CCTV evidence. We are arresting only those who indulged in violence. So far, we have arrested 29 Hindus and 28 Muslims for their involvement in rioting, stabbing and arson. There is no partiality,” he said.
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