In the state where the lynching of Pehlu Khan in Alwar in April last year by a mob that accused him of “cow smuggling” sparked nation-wide outrage, and the police investigation subsequently cleared six men Khan had named as his assailants in his dying declaration, and where the same crime stalks more victims, you hear the disclaimer over and over again: Rajasthan does not have a communal problem, they say, everything is fine here between Hindus and Muslims.
The denials of an increasing communal polarisation end outside the Muslim mohalla.
In Mohalla Chopdaran, in the heart of the tiny town of Jhunjhunu, a group of young Muslim men talk of an increase in “bhed bhaav (discrimination)” and intolerance. Mohammad Ali, a salesman, says the conversation has changed: “Earlier, when we got together with our Hindu friends, we would talk about business and other things. Now the online hate campaigns hang over our interactions with each other.”
They describe WhatsApp messages that feel like a whiplash — like the one that carried an exhortation to Hindus not to eat in Muslim homes this Eid, amid gory images of cow meat.
About six months ago, a drunken sparring between two childhood friends, one Hindu and the other Muslim, flared into something nastier and bigger in a neighbouring locality. Processions were taken out, they recall, and slogans were raised: “Hindustan mein rehna hai toh (If you want to live in Hindustan)….”
Mohammad Aslam says he used to take calves from Jhunjhunu to Delhi, sell them in Ghazipur, carrying on a family business. “I stopped because it became difficult. There was the threat of the mob, there could be violence, and we saw that police would not come to our rescue. My brother was beaten up. Since two years, I have been forced to look for work as a daily wage labourer.”
Even more than the BJP, however, outfits associated with it, like the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena, are to blame, they say. Earlier, the RSS was not so visible, now they can be seen wielding lathis (sticks), and cow protection groups are everywhere.
But the responsibility for the growing Muslim insecurity also lies with the Congress. “Muslims are caught between soft Hindutva and hard Hindutva. It is as if the high command has directed the Congress not to speak of, or for, Muslims”, says Mohammad Ali. “My question is to the Congress: You don’t talk about the so-called sensitive issues, that’s fine, but why is it that you don’t speak up for us on bijli-sadak-paani issues either?” After all, the Muslim mohalla is more deprived than the Hindu neighbourhood. “Here, even the corporator’s wife draws water with a hand pump,” he says.
But the Congress does not speak, or even show up — as in a recent debate on a local TV channel, in which the BJP MLA and MP were allowed to have their say, unchallenged and unopposed. “Susti har jagah hai (The Congress shows laziness in everything),” says Mohammad Ali. “But unfortunately, in Rajasthan, we don’t have a third option.”
Asif Ali, a businessman, says: “The Congress is not just scared to speak up for Muslims. It is scared to speak, period.”
In Nagaur town, in the Muslim mohalla of Loharpura, home to a large and famous hand tools market, a group of older Muslim men also discuss the growing polarisation: “Nafrat, khai, itni badha di hai (The hate and divide have been etched so much deeper). They look at our beards, treat us as gair (strangers),” says Shakeel Ahmed.
Here, and in the Sheher Kazi’s office, about 2 km away, they tell stories about pulling back from the brink, and averted conflagrations.
A mazaar near Mirdha College was vandalised some months ago, they say. “There was tension in the area. But we went to court, not to the site of the incident, to avoid violence. We want peace, we don’t want to confront,” says Shakeel Ahmed.
Three to four times in the past two-three years, communal tensions have been pushed to the edge before subsiding in Nagaur, says Taj Mohammad, who worked in a stone factory before it closed down because of the GST.
Sheher Kazi Mohammad Meraj recalls a recent “hungama (furore)” over a “cow-related matter” in a village 10 km away. “The local administration stepped in, or things could have gotten out of hand.” When the BJP feels weak, it revives talk of temple in Ayodhya, he says.
The BJP remains silent when any hate crime is reported, adds Ikramuddin. “This silence tantamounts to support for the culprits. When there is turbulence in the country, Modiji heads out abroad. No family elder does that — you can’t go to someone else’s wedding when your own home is in turmoil.”
On the Congress role and stance, however, the view in the Nagaur neighbourhood is different from that of the young men in the Muslim mohalla in Jhunjhunu. “If the Congress wants to come to power, it will have to remain silent,” says Tanvir Ahmed, who teaches math at Sophia Basic School in Nagaur town.
Mohammad Shafi, a cotton trader in Kaziyon ka Chowk, agrees: “The Congress does not have to speak for us. We only want peace.” “Bas, dhandha chalna chahiye (business must go on, that’s all),” says Abdul Waheed, a labourer. “At least under the Congress, itni tangi nahin dekhi (we did not feel so cornered in Congress rule).”
Tanvir Ahmed says that Congress rule in Rajasthan was scarred by “scams and lack of development”. But, now, “Poison is being spread in Sabarimala, and by Amit Shah’s statements on it. How can they flout the court?” And, “Modiji makes false claims, tries to divert the issue.”
Be it on bijli, sadak, paani or intolerance, Tanvir Ahmed paints a dire choice for the Muslims in Rajasthan: “Ya to phansi pe chad jaaiye, ya zehar kha leejiye (you can either hang yourself, or swallow poison).”
For the minority community, it’s a choice between the “kuan” and the “khai”, the devil and the deep blue sea, Shakeel Ahmed says.