A motorcycle rally of around 100, which started on March 25 (Sunday) afternoon from Satendra Nagar area of Bihar’s Aurangabad town, was supposed to be a build-up for the main Ram Navami function the following day. And like a rehearsal, some of them shouted slogans with gusto: “Ek hi naara, ek hi naam, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram; Bharat Maa mein teen hi naam, Modi, Yogi, Jai Shri Ram; Hindustan mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hoga.”
Sunday’s drill ended in clashes between people from Hindu and Muslim communities, with nearly 15 shops, owned by people from both communities, gutted.
The police, according to witnesses, were caught unawares by the huge crowd the next afternoon. Against 2,000 to 3,000 people that have taken part in the annual procession so far, former JD(U) district president Tejendra Kumar Singh said, there were nearly 10,000 people at two points from where the processions took off on March 26 (Monday) — Gandhi Maidan and Satendra Nagar, two ends of Aurangabad, in the district of the same name.
The town, about 150 km southwest of Patna on national highway 139 and with a population of 1.25 lakh people, including around 25,000 Muslims, saw clashes during Ram Navami procession in 2016 as well.
According to Tejendra Kumar, Shri Ram Navami Puja Samiti, the organisers, has members from parties across the political spectrum — the BJP and ABVP, the Congress, the JD(U) and the RJD — as well as local organisations such as Hindu Sewa Samiti. There were workers of all parties in Sunday’s bike rally, although no senior leaders took part, he said. The sloganeering was done by BJP and ABVP members, witnesses said.
The Samiti had sought permission for the rally.
As they reached Karbala locality, an elderly man named Jugnu ostensibly provoked two youths to start throwing stones at the motorcyclists, according to a video footage being analysed by police to identify miscreants. While some motorcyclists sped off, many stayed put and threw back the stones at Muslim households, said Ravindra Kumar Ravi (57), district cricket association president and Aurangabad resident since 1975, who was walking by the motorcyclists. Policemen tried to pacify the crowds but without much success, according to him.
Soon, Ravi said, the motorcyclists started moving from Muslim-dominated Nawadih towards Ramesh Chowk, the town’s busy crossing with shops owned by people from both communities.
“At Ramesh Chowk, I saw a group of youths beating up one Mohammed Aslam, who was returning home in an autorickshaw after visiting a doctor. I persuaded the youths (to stop) and took help of constables to save Aslam…. It seemed to be getting out of their (police’s) hands.”
The police finally arrived in numbers by 4.50 pm and arrested 25 and 28 people from Hindu and Muslim communities, respectively, and later booked them for inciting violence and rioting in separate FIRs.
There was a meeting of the peace committee, comprising representatives of both communities, that night at Town police station. Among those who attended the meeting was Aurangabad BJP spokesperson Ujjwal Kumar, one of those named in the FIR. Assured by the peace committee that the main procession would go off peacefully, the police did not cancel it.
The district administration, sources said, seems to have overlooked alerts from intelligence agencies, which had cautioned against “increasing activities of RSS, Bajrang Dal, VHP and sundry unregistered Hindu groups” in Aurangabad, among several districts of Bihar.
JD(U) leader Tejendra Kumar said, “As people from almost all political parties have traditionally attended the procession, I joined Aurangabad MLA Anand Shanker Singh (of Congress), JD(U) Sadar block president Om Prakash Singh, JD(U) leaders Sujit Kumar Singh and Shashi Kumar, who is also secretary of Ram Navami Puja Samiti, ABVP’s national executive member Deepak Kumar and Sawarn Kranti Morcha’s (an organisation working for upper castes) Kumar Saurav at Durga Chowk in Satendra Nagar. Aurangabad MP Sushil Kumar Singh (of BJP), former state minister Ramdhar Singh and several BJP leaders joined the procession from Gandhi Maidan (the other point).”
He said: “We had planned to meet midway (near Badi Jama Masjid and proceed towards Old Grand Trunk Road) but there was an unprecedented crowd. Several people were carrying traditional weapons such as swords, lances, gadasa (a blunt object used to cut husk) and wooden sticks.” By the time the procession crossed Badi Jama Masjid, stone-pelting had begun, he said.
Ravindra Ravi, who was present on both days, said, “I saw some youths trying to enter the six-foot lane of Imam Toli. Two policemen and I stood at the lane’s entrance, telling them that they would be harmed if they got in. We took some blows before the youths changed their minds and moved ahead, shouting.”
Tejendra said, “I tried to stop people from our side but was heckled. I thought it better to leave unscathed…. What has started happening is ominous.”
The police finally took control of the situation around 4.45 pm, announcing that curfew had been declared, witnesses said. In all, 46 shops were gutted over two days, an officer said.
The police later said prohibitory orders had been issued, which are still in place. Over a dozen people remain admitted at various hospitals. They said 130 of 148 people named in the FIRs have been arrested.
Aurangabad SP Satya Prakash said police are checking footage of 20-odd CCTVs installed at main locations of the town to identify the culprits.
DG, BMP, Gupteshwar Pandey, sent as a nodal officer to control the situation, said there are two SITs — one for Muslims and another for Hindus.
At Ujjwal Kumar’s home, his younger brother Uttam alleged that he has been framed. “Police must watch all video footage to ascertain if he was trying to defuse tension or provoke…we will seek legal advice,” he said.
ABVP leader Deepak Kumar’s mother Shobha Pandey also alleged bias: “Deepak has done MBA and is pursuing doctorate from Magadh University. Since he has been doing social service and is an active member of ABVP, he is being targeted.”
The family of BJP and Hindu Sewa Samiti leader Anil Singh, who had fled from police custody on Thursday, refused to comment.
SP Satya Prakash said, “Police deployment will continue for a while. Some civilians have done a tremendous job in bringing peace and normalcy.”