Kendrapara town in eastern Odisha shows no visible signs of having gone through a near communal riot and curfew. The eateries, and auto repair and furniture shops, carry out brisk business. Young men on motorbikes speed through the narrow lanes. And a few flags hung near shop signs move listlessly in the breeze marking Republic Day.
But early last week, the town came dangerously close to a major clash between members of a little-known “nationalist” organisation and local residents following an argument over using a school playground to mark the birth anniversaries of freedom fighters Subhas Chandra Bose and Veer Surendra Sai.
On January 23, prohibitory orders under Section 144 was imposed and the next day, a curfew. Internet services were jammed. Local police and OSAF (Odisha Swift Action Force) personnel chased mobs moving around with lathis. A few petrol bombs were hurled as residents stayed inside their homes.
“People have come to their senses after experiencing the inconvenience of a curfew,” says Mujibur Rehman, a resident and lawyer practicing in the district court. “There was similar trouble in 2008, and people had forgotten how it was.”
The dispute arose over use of the playground by the Kendapara unit of Rashtriya Suraksha Samiti, which describes itself as “a nationalist organisation headquartered in Nagpur”.
While the ground belongs to Kendrapara Government High School, it is situated outside its premises — on an open piece of land across the road outside the school. The ground is also close to residential areas inhabited by Sunni Muslims.
“This was not a religious function,” says Sanjay Patri, local coordinator of the Samiti. “No local objected a day before the event, when we erected a stage. In the afternoon of January 23, just as our route march reached the grounds, a crowd gathered and asked us to move elsewhere. After the SP arrived, they got emboldened and shouted insults at us and the nation,” claims Patri, a lawyer.
Requesting anonymity, some residents who had objected to the event told The Indian Express: “Last year, these people did not allow us to host the Jalsa (religious congregation) on the playground. This year, we did the same.”
Says another resident from near the school: “The playground is in our area. Yet, we could not use it last year. Let them find how it feels.”
With Odisha set for Assembly elections this year, and the Lok Sabha polls just months away, Patri claims the Rashtriya Suraksha Samiti promotes two causes. “We encourage educated people, who normally don’t vote in high numbers, to vote in all elections. We also encourage voting for the party that works for the nation,” he says, before declining to identify any party but ticking off causes such as “gau seva, national security and fiscal responsibility”.
Police sources say the Samiti members did not have written permission from the headmaster to use the grounds. Patri argues that since the area is not cordoned off and is technically outside the school boundaries it has been used for local events with no written permission.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Sukanta Jena, the school’s headmaster, says: “I knew about the function. The playground has been previously used for local events and the school can’t forbid trespassers because the land has no boundary.” Patri claims “the SP was begging the jeering crowd to disperse but he was being ignored”. “Despite agreeing to postpone our celebrations, we were not allowed by the mob to collect the photos of Bose and Sai,” he claims, citing “another instance of humiliation”.
“A peace committee organised by police and district administration spoke to both sides and resolved the issue,” says Kendrapara SP Niti Shekhar, declining to comment further.
Rehman says the Samiti members may have been treated unfairly, but adds that Kendrapara’s 15,000 strong Muslim community had no role in the matter. “Local boys play football on the grounds. Most of them are Muslims, but they objected to the digging and temporary structures on the ground… The Jalsa issue may have been one factor,” he says.