LESS THAN a kilometre away, in the premises of a school, there is a tent with purple drapes and a tempo with election equipment. But in Munger’s Loharpatti area, a day before the first phase of the Bihar Assembly elections, the first in the country during the pandemic, there is mourning — and a heartbroken father who can barely speak. “If I had not come home early yesterday, I could have held him in my arms, even if he was dead,” said Amarnath Poddar.
Durga Visarjan was meant to be a day of festivities here. But late Monday night, a clash broke out between devotees and police over a delay in the immersion of idols in the Ganga, leading to lathicharge, stone-pelting and firing at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (DDU) Chowk. Poddar’s son, Anupam (22), was killed in the firing, which left seven others injured. A video showed a procession breaking up, a section running away and police raining blows with their lathis on devotees seated around the idol. Follow Bihar Election 2020 Voting Live Updates
Local residents and eye-witnesses say Anupam, a first-year student at JMS College, was killed in police firing. Police say they had only fired in the air to disperse a mob, which allegedly retaliated by firing back with country made guns. But with voting just a few hours away, the incident has ignited a political firestorm with the Opposition calling for an inquiry and action against police — a demand that is being echoed by the JD(U)’s ruling ally BJP.
Outside Poddar’s home, there is even talk of boycotting the polls.
According to Anupam’s friends and family members, he stepped out with his friends at 10 am and returned after celebrating Durga Puja by 3.30 pm. “He changed his clothes and ate lunch. It was the last time he ate at home,” said Poddar about his only son and youngest of five children.
By 5.30 pm, Anupam left again after telling his father that he would call when the procession came close to their first-floor home. “His phone ran out of charge, so he called us from a friend’s phone around 10 pm,” said Poddar.
At 10.30 pm, as Poddar watched the Shadipur idol, Badi Durga, stop before the chowk, his son went home once more with three friends for a cup of tea. “He came where we were and gave us a bottle of water,” said Poddar. This, he says, where it began to go wrong.
According to Poddar, the idols didn’t seem to be moving, and there were murmurs of unrest ahead in the road. And just as he returned home, the father was told that there has been a stampede. “In another five minutes, we were told that Anurag had been shot at DDU Chowk. I told a neighbour to take my wife on a Scooty, and I ran. We found him dead on the road. We tried to take him to a private hospital but there was no doctor. At the Sadar hospital, too, there was no help,” said Poddar.
Local residents said the festival has grown over the years in Munger, with over 120 idols being usually immersed in the river from across Munger and neighbouring Jamalpur. According to custom, the Shadipur idol is immersed first.
But this time, says Deepak Kumar Barma, sabhapati of the Shadipur Durga Puja, trouble started from the beginning. “The administration told us that because of the elections, we need to finish the immersion quickly. We told them this is a festival, which has rules. But the administration kept pushing the devotees, who numbered over a thousand, to hurry up,” said Barma.
In the melee, Barma says, the administration suggested that a smaller idol be immersed first. “This was against everything we have always done. They had no patience in dealing with devotees. When people resisted, they began to lathicharge everyone and assaulted us. Even I got hit. I have injuries on my back and legs,” he said.
As things went out of hand, said Barma, the police opened fire. The police claimed to have recovered three country made pistols with live and empty cartridges from the site. “We are collecting video footage of the spot to identify troublemakers. Adequate forces have been deployed to ensure no further untoward incident happens,” said Munger SP Lipi Singh, adding that over 30 people have been detained for questioning.
According to police, about 20 personnel, including the station in-charges of Sangrampur, Kotwali and Qasim Bazar, were injured in the incident.
Gopal Patwa, an office-bearer of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the BJP’s youth wing, says he was present at the site and that the police had opened fire. “It was the administration that opened fire at DDU Chowk. The administration beat people mercilessly for not hurrying up. This is entirely the fault of the administration,” he said.
With the three-phase elections starting, ruling ally BJP was quick to call for a probe. “I demand that an inquiry committee be set up. Whoever is found guilty, the strongest action must be taken, no matter how big the official,” said BJP leader and Union Minister Giriraj Singh.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted: “Will the BJP-JDU government thrash Durga worshippers like animals? Will the BJP-JDU government kill people for immersing Durga idol?”
The state government and the JD(U) have not yet issued an official statement over the incident although there has been a heavy deployment of police in Munger.
BJP youth wing leader Patwa says the incident will affect Wednesday’s voting. “People are angry. Many in Munger town have decided to boycott the elections. We held a small protest in the morning, we will protest again after the elections,” he said.
Patwa says he worked for the BJP through the election — the RJD had won from Munger in 2015 — but “this changes everything”.
Back at the Poddar home, politicians have made a beeline to express sympathy. But nobody was given a long audience. “We want nothing from them. All we want is that a proper investigation takes place. My son cannot come back. But I want to know how he died. And I want justice,” said Poddar.
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