‘They were Burning My City’

Afroz Alam Sahil for BeyondHeadlines

Politicisation of any issue can be poisonous. But if any issue is Modi-fied, you can guess the rest. I witnessed a live example of that, right in my town – Bettiah, once Gandhi’s abode.

Photo By: Afroz Alam Sahil The occasion was Naag Panchmi, a festival in which Nag (cobras) are worshipped. The festival started in the evening, and as the tradition goes, continued till the next day. Like the evening Akhada of August 11participants jubilantly brandished lathi, spears, swords and other different types of weaponry. Rajdyodhi, the usual place for Akhada in Bettiah town was festive, full of crowd for the Nagpanchmi mela. Balloons, chats and sweets on one side and on the other side, participants of Akhada exhibited their acts after having Sharbat being distributed by the volunteers of local Member of Parliament. Most of the participants performing in the Akhada were wearing t-shirts distributed by the MP. Of course, there could not have been a better opportunity for self-advertisement.

Photo By: Afroz Alam Sahil Jhaankis from different Mohallas had gathered, as it has been for some years. But the very first Jhanki I saw gave just enough hints to plant a seed of doubt in my mind – whether the entire celebration of Jhanki is sponsored by Modi and his ilk? Certainly it seemed so as the ‘festivity’ progressed. Through the religious Jhanki, it seemed clear; it was an attempt at targeting the minority vote bank. It was being portrayed that somehow the ruling Congress party is to blame for everything and anything on earth – that, for example, they are ready to even sell the country for the votes of minority community. Nitish, similarly, can go to any extent to get minority votes. And along with it, a message was conveyed to the audience that the only option to save the country is Modi. Men in the Jhanki had posters which said all this, if anyone had doubts.

Photo By: Afroz Alam Sahil Another Jhanki from a different Mohalla arrived and with a similar tone – it targeted PM Manmohan Singh. On the stage was a setup in which India and Pakistan were talking but Manmohan Singh, in the Jhanki, had his entire face bandaged. A banner behind the enactment of this scene suggested people to think about the future of the country, in such a scenario.

Third Jhanki too questioned the Central government. Questions were raised on the issue of cost of food – how is that possible to get food in Rs 12? Fourth Jhanki, similarly, targeted the Centre and Nitish government in state for all ills – same Nitish, who was their trusted ally till few weeks back. Questions were raised as to why the government didn’t take any action against Pakistan as four soldiers from the state were killed on Indo-Pak border.

Photo By: Afroz Alam Sahil Yet another Jhanki showed funeral of a Jawan, his family accompanying him – and slogans were raised. A sample for you.
 “Ab ki chinta mat kar, Chere ka rang khol denge, Itihas ki kya hasti hai, poora bhugol badal denge.”

Other Jhankis too, like the rest, openly targeted Nitish and the Central government.

The story was unfolding and it was getting obvious every minute that the religious festival was a disguise to rather garner support for the BJP. Anyway, people were enjoying the Jhankis – I was one of them. Suddenly something happened. A commotion ensued; innocent kids and women ran for cover and safety. It was difficult to understand what was going on. Rumours were taking over truth and sense and no one could guess who the ‘actor’ is and who is ‘spectator’.

WP_002305Miscreants, in a matter of hours, had torched many four-wheelers and bikes including many of Police’s. For two hours almost, stone pelting went on from all the sides and there was no trace of administration. Finally when a sign of administration appeared, angry mob torched the vehicles of District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police and any other government vehicles they could find. Almost three dozen were injured.

Police fired in air to disperse the crowd. Teargas was fired to control the situation. As it was happening, a few hundred meters away, a local BJP leader led a mob to Badi Masjid from Ilam ram chowk of my town. Stone pelting happened between two factions. Amid all this, a bullet shot by someone from the mob hit a young man coming out of the mosque, piercing the side of his head, just above his ear. It was a confusing situation. The target of miscreants’ stone pelting and arson were a particular community.

Photo By: Afroz Alam Sahil By now the story of rioting had spread in the entire Bettiah town like a wildfire. Slogan shouting had started in other Mohallas. It seemed as if people of my town were so charged as if they can to go to any extent to ‘teach a lesson’ to the members of other community. Rumours of people shot in the town were making people crazy. It was an eerie situation. I had never witnessed something like this. Out of nowhere, thank God, it rained. And rained for long enough to cool down the temperature of my town, successfully.

By now the news has reached the upper echelon of Bihar administration. Tirhut subdivision Commisioner, KP Ramaiya, was o his way to Betiah from Muzaffarpur. SSB forces had also reached the town, so did police forces from Bagha and neighbouring Motihari. The forces were out whole night in rain for night vigil of the streets of Bettiah. Sirens from the vehicles of police and specialised riot control police filled the air whole night.

Photo By: Afroz Alam Sahil I enquired about the violence from all sources. And the entire story started unfolding. In fact, the truth is that the script for all this drama was already written in advance. A violent scene had already been created in the vegetable market a day before. Locals say that the shops of poor hawkers and fruit sellers were looted and destroyed.

In the Christian Quarter locality, the Akhadas from Kalibagh and Naya Bazar had fought each other. Both sides brandied lathis and swords as a show of strength. One side fired from a pistol to scare away the other and that created a commotion of sort.

Photo By: Afroz Alam SahilAnd that’s not all. Attempt was made to break the boundary walls and gate of a graveyard in Baswariya locality. That already had created communal tensions locally. Both factions faced each other, lathis had their field day but thankfully sane people from the locality pacified the anger of the crowd. To avoid any untoward incidence, a large police contingent was deployed there. Forces were also deployed in Karnemiya, which has a history of communal tensions. Due to all these incidences, Police were already stretched, which made the Police presence at Akhada weak.

Locals say that someone was hit from a lathi in Akhada when an Akhada reached Joda Inaar Chowk. People from a particular community objected it and that lead to fist fighting and later stone pelting. One faction says that some mischievous youth tried to divert the set route of Akhadas – cleared by authorities — to the Mohallas of a particular community which they objected to. As a result, many youth used their weapons to attack those who objected to it. Rest is all history.

Photo By: Afroz Alam SahilOther faction says that people from other community forcibly tried to enter their Akhadas. When objected by them, it turned ugly. At the same time, some say that the spat was due to Jhankis and politics by the ruling party leaders who objected to Jhankis.

For the first time here, people – or rather netas – of my city had replaced God with a neta – who aims to be the Prime Minister of this countryThis Akhada was more political than religious, undoubtedly.

Days have passed but the cheap political game is on. One side blame others and no one is ready to take any responsibility. For some it’s failure of the government, for some it’s handiwork of the opposition. Open lies are being propagated from all sides.

Photo By: Afroz Alam SahilTruth, however, can come only after a thorough enquiry. But if anyone has lost due to these riots, it’s my city Bettiah and its peaceful citizen. Poor citizens of my city are more concerned about gathering their food and getting back on track their livelihood. Section 144 is enforced in the city. Every nook and corner has police presence. Entire city seems like a curfew. An eerie silence has engulfed the small town. Only thing that prospers amid all this is politics of hate and resulting mileage for the vested interest from the unfortunate incident.

Photo By: Afroz Alam SahilNow People of Bihar and especially Bettiah have just one question in their mind? Whether all this drama is punishment for Nitish breaking away from the BJP or is it a ploy to gather momentum in support of Modi?

I have heard that politics is a heartless bitch. But my only request, an earnest request, is that please, for God sake, leave my city alone. This city is not only mine; this city was once abode of Gandhi ji. Gandhi was son of Gujarat. Hey Ram! What kind of an era is this when in the name of a son from Gujarat which was once Gandhi ji Gujarat, the atmosphere of my city is being vitiated and destroyed – for narrow political gain.

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