An altercation over two flags, one saffron and the other green, developed into 48 hours of communal tensions, and finally burst forth in vandalism and extensive damage to property in Chhattisgarh’s Kabirdham district on Tuesday (October 5).
An estimated 3,000-strong mob led by Hindu organisations defied a curfew imposed by the administration to march with swords, lathis, and other weapons in the district headquarters town of Kawardha.
They raised slogans of Jai Shri Ram, attacked homes and vehicles owned by Muslims, and pelted the police with stones. More than a dozen civilians and police personnel were injured in the violence.
Police carried out a lathicharge to bring the situation under control by early evening. The town remained under curfew on Wednesday as well.
The Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for a “peaceful” protest on Tuesday, which went out of control early on.
After leaders from the opposition BJP, including former MLA Abhishek Singh, who is the son of former chief minister Raman Singh, flagged off the protest, a mob of mostly young men entered Muslim neighbourhoods and began attacking vehicles, handcarts, and doors and windows of houses.
“The protest was against the police, for not taking stern action against miscreants who had [on Sunday] beaten up a local person and vandalised a Hindu temple,” a VHP leader from the area said.
Kabirdham district was earlier known as Kawardha, with the district headquarters town lying 126 km to the northwest of Raipur. Raman Singh has represented the Kawardha seat in the assemblies of both Chhattisgarh and undivided Madhya Pradesh; since 2008, he has been MLA from the adjacent Rajnandgaon seat, which, like Kawardha, is part of Rajnandgaon Lok Sabha constituency.
Local people in Kabirdham district said the area has not seen communal tension of this kind in decades.
“It started as a fight between two groups on Sunday. A local history-sheeter named Durgesh Dewangan got into an altercation with some Muslim men, who beat him up,” said Mahant Kashyap, who lives in the Lohara naka area of Kawardha town.
“A few hours later, some men pulled down a green flag and green-coloured decorations that had been strung alongside the roads. In retaliation, the other group pulled down a saffron flag and trampled on it. Some miscreants also threw stones at the nearby Vindhyavaasini temple,” Kashyap added.
As tensions ran high, Superintendent of Police Mohit Garg and Collector Ramesh Sharma visited the spot on Monday. Said a local person: “We demanded that stern action be taken against the men responsible for the vandalism and for beating up Dewangan. But it was Dewangan who was put behind bars instead.”
Also on Monday, the district administration called a meeting of the Shanti Samiti (peace committee) comprising members of all communities. Such meetings are supposed to be held regularly as part of the community policing initiative, but had not been called for many months, local people alleged.
The meeting failed to defuse tensions adequately. “No direct answers were given to our questions and demands. So we submitted a memorandum that we would protest on Tuesday,” the VHP functionary quoted above said.
Anticipating trouble, the Collector imposed a curfew in the town on Tuesday, and more than 5,000 state police personnel were deployed on the streets, and to man the entry and exit points to the town.
Fourteen-year-old Himanshu Kashyap, who was among those injured in the stone-throwing, said: “I had stepped out to buy groceries, and was caught in the crowd. People were armed with rods and swords, and I could smell alcohol. Before I could escape, a brick hit my face, just about missing my eye.”
Shoaib Akhtar, the 54-year-old ‘hafiz’ of a nearby mosque, said: “I was pulled off my vehicle and beaten. Only when I started to bleed profusely did they leave me. The police were present but were unable to do much. They were just waving their batons and trying to shoo away the armed men.”
According to police, the VHP and BJP leaders had promised a peaceful protest, but after the mob became unruly, they claimed they could not control everyone. By late Tuesday evening, most of these leaders had left the district headquarters fearing legal action.
“We have detained more than 59 people and are investigating further. We are watching videos of the incidents to identify the miscreants. Action will be taken against them,” a senior police officer said.
Kawardha MLA Mohammad Akbar, the Collector and the SP did not respond to several calls for a comment, and could not be contacted during visits to their offices.
T S Singh Deo, the minister in charge of the district, said, “I have been taking regular updates from members of the administration. Stern action should be taken against whoever has broken the laws and adversely affected the law and order situation without any biases.”
Late on Tuesday night, Inspector General of Police Vivekanand Sinha issued a statement saying 70 people had been identified based on videos of the incidents, and that police were trying to identify more people who were part of the mob.
The district PRO issued a statement saying “outsiders” from districts such as Rajnandgaon, Bemetara, Mungeli, Dhamtari, etc., had violated the curfew to enter Kabirdham.