Chronicle of a Rampage Foretold?

What causes subtle communal tension to erupt into mob violence? India’s history of massive internal migrations, its large Muslim minority mingled with a Hindu majority, and extreme poverty are only partial explanations for the country’s cycle of intercommunal attacks. In this revealing investigation, Hardnews visits a New Delhi neighborhood where the scene seems set for something terrible to occur: Hindu mobs whipped up by provocateurs, a Muslim minority holding desirable land, nationalist groups jumping into the fray.

The writer finds that in this microcosm at least, there are more local, pedestrian factors at work: rich local businessmen squatting on land owned by a Muslim religious foundation, seeking to redirect attention from their misappropriations by way of a bit of communal violence.

On a cold Sunday morning in January, residents of BK Dutt Colony (named after freedom fighter and revolutionary Batukeshwar Dutt), next to posh Jor Bagh in the heart of New Delhi, were awakened by loud shouts of a man seeking their attention on a “very sensitive” issue. The entire neighbourhood was soon perched on the balconies and rooftops. Accompanied by a small group, the man began his speech on a microphone after the numbers had swelled. “Brothers and sisters, a tragedy has struck us. And if we don’t act, it might be very late,” he said dramatically. “The parks where our children play are under threat of encroachment and Muslims are conspiring to usurp these parks where our children play,” he thundered. His voice reverberated across the dilapidated, closed-in compound with small, ‘upgraded’ rooms and homes, built for the refugees from Western Pakistan after Partition.

Another man screamed on the loudspeaker, “If we don’t act now, this whole colony will be taken over by them. They are building a wall around these parks in Karbala, so let’s come out in large numbers and protest against this nefarious design of encroaching upon government land in the name of religion.” Most seemed impressed with the fiery speeches. The group with the loudspeaker moved on towards another neighbourhood.

The parks being allegedly encroached upon have become a major bone of contention between the residents of BK Dutt Colony and Shiite Muslims who claim that the land belongs to the Waqf Board [religious foundation], and rightfully so, as they have legal documents to prove their claims. However, a certain group, primarily real estate sharks, is giving the whole dispute a communal hue; they openly threaten that if the land is taken over by one community, there could be “a bloodbath”. “We will see a repeat of the Babri Masjid here; if they kill four we will kill 74,” says an aggressive Preeti of BK Dutt Colony Vikas Samiti (BKCVS).

Preeti and her colleagues spit venom on the few Shia families living in the compound of Dargah Shah-e-Mardan. “They are harbouring terrorists. It is possible that masterminds of the recent Hyderabad blasts are living there. This land does not belong to them and they are trying to take over the government’s land. The Delhi government is handing over land worth Rs 3,200 crore[$600,000] to these terrorists for its vote bank politics. [Delhi Chief Minister] Sheila Dikshit is hand-in-glove with them. Mahmood Pracha, the lawyer fighting these cases, lives in her house,” says Harbans Dankal, president, BKCVS. He, obviously, has no evidence to prove his claims.

Dankal alleges the BJP  [rightwing Hindu nationalist party]is not supporting the Samiti [neighborhood association]since Shias are presumably BJP supporters. “They are trying to align with us now as elections are near; or else, they have been supporting the Shias. Are we living in Hindustan? Even the party that calls itself a saviour of Hindus is aligning with Muslims,” he adds vociferously.

With political outfits like the Bajrang Dal, Akali Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), among others, extending support to the ‘extremist’ Hindu groups, locals fear that the situation can turn worse in days to come. “Just a few days back I was sitting in the balcony at night when some men arrived and claimed that ‘they’ were coming to attack. I was asked to keep a weapon at all times. They gave me an iron rod and said that if anything happens I should use it. It is still in my room. I didn’t know whether to believe them or not,” says a senior reporter with a vernacular daily. He feels that something sinister is brewing in the neighbourhood and it is no longer safe to stay there.

The controversy has turned into simmering communal frenzy. Congress politicians like Rahul Gandhi, Ahmed Patel, Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath, among others, have apparently stepped in to resolve the conflict, but to no avail. “It is beyond politics and we will have to act soon so that the Mughal period doesn’t make a comeback. How can we allow them to piss at the peepal tree? They even throw bones on the tree. How can we allow this? If the government can’t do it then we will take the law into our own hands to protect our religious symbols,” says a rabidly fanatical Dankal.

The controversy revolves around four properties in the campus of Dargah Shah-e-Mardan in Jor Bagh, including Qanati Masjid, Dargah Shah-e-Mardan, Chhoti Karbala and the surrounding land. In 1991, Anjuman-e-Haideri, the managing committee of Karbala, requested the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) to allow the committee to build boundary walls around these properties to protect them from land- grabbers. The NDMC, in its letter, told the committee to go ahead with the construction of boundary walls to avoid encroachment on Waqf properties. However, as soon as the work began, some sections of BK Dutt Colony raised objections and physically stopped the construction.

The issue has been brewing ever since and the committee had approached the NDMC and Delhi Government to intervene and help them protect Waqf properties. However, NDMC and the Delhi government paid no heed to these requests and made no effort to stop the encroachment. The committee then approached the Delhi High Court in 2005 and requested the court to intervene. The court, in its order, said the land should be protected from trespassers and the revenue department should demarcate the boundaries of these properties. The court also noted that the committee could build a boundary wall wherever needed and police protection should be provided. Since then, whenever the committee tried to build boundary walls around these properties, it has met with resistance from sections of the local community, especially the extremists in BKCVS.

In one of the FIRs[criminal complaints], Naqvi alleges that the local police, in collusion with these land sharks, have often provoked the members of the Anjuman-E-Haidari. This was evident when this reporter met one of the policemen posted in Chhoti Karbala. He said, “This is Chhoti Karbala and all this land has been grabbed by them. I don’t know what are we doing here?”

Karbala is a Shiite burial ground in BK Dutt Colony and is now reserved exclusively for the burial of tazias, the ritual coffins of Imam Hussain, the prophet’s grandson. On the 10th day of Muharram every year, Shiite mourners from across the country gather here to honour the martyrdom of Hussain.

“After the Partition, Shias migrated from this area and settled in different parts of the country or moved to Pakistan. So, there was no one to look after the Waqf land. From Safdarjung Airport to Nizammuddin, this was known as the Waqf Qudsia Begum that came under Aliganj. Post-Partition, this land was taken over by the government and some of it was encroached on by the refugees who had come from the other side of the border. Since most of the management committee of the Waqf Board consisted of government servants, they feared that raising the issue of encroachment could put their jobs at stake. The issue was never settled,” says senior journalist Syed Mohammad Kazmi, who lives in the same neighbourhood.

There are two [plant]nurseries on the Waqf land in Karbala that is embroiled in the controversy. Many believe that the tension in the area is being triggered by the proprietors of these nurseries. “We know for a fact that this communal tension is being fuelled by Moid Khan and his brothers who run Rajdhani and Evergreen Nursery in Jor Bagh. These people are creating tension between the two communities so that the issue of illegal possession of these nurseries is always placed on the back-burner. All these people opposing the construction of boundary walls are on the payroll of Moid Khan,” says Bahadur Abbas Naqvi, Waqf secretary for Anjuman-e-Haideri. He adds that there has been no tension between local communities and this surfaced only after Moid Khan was asked to vacate 2.5 acres of land.

In 1976, Anjuman-e-Haideri entered into an agreement with Moid Khan’s father and the licence agreement was periodically renewed. In 1997, the contract was renewed again for three years and it was decided that the land would be handed over to the committee after the term’s expiry. However, Moid Khan and his brothers continued using the nursery for commercial purposes and it was found that some members of the previous managing committee were operating in nexus with him. “They misappropriated funds and even tampered with the account books,” adds Naqvi.

During his election campaign in UP in 2012, [Congress Party vice-chief] Rahul Gandhi met top Shia cleric Syed Kalbe Jawad Naqvi who apprised him of the illegal possession of the nursery land and asked him to intervene. Soon after, an FIR was filed by Abbas Naqvi in 2012 wherein it was revealed that Moid Khan and his associates had violated all terms and conditions of the contract and were using the nurseries for commercial activities. The FIR mentioned that the ‘culprits’ were desecrating graves by allowing people to walk on them, use the area for bathing and so on, and generally violating the sanctity of the space.

In another FIR, Naqvi alleged that, on November 25, 2012, when he visited the nursery, he saw torn pages along with documents of Rajdhani Nursery; he heard some of the accomplices of Moid Khan alleging that a certain community had committed this act and they should be taught a lesson. He alleged that this was a sinister and concocted plan aimed at inciting communal frenzy and rioting during Muharram. “They want to divert the issue from the illegal possession of the nursery to communal tension,” alleges Naqvi.

However, Preeti and her colleagues rule out this angle. Their perspective is unilateral and uni-dimensional. They claim that the issue has nothing to do with the nursery or communal harmony. “Every year, during Muharram, they gather here in large numbers and indulge in anti-social activities. During Muharram in 2012, 80 car batteries were stolen in a day. They deliver provocative speeches during exam days. They call criminals from outside who shout slogans like “Karbala khaali karo”. It has become a do or die situation for us.” Indeed, not all locals from across the communities agree with her. Many presume her and her colleagues to be utterly biased and driven by hate politics.

On January 15, 2012, Shia mourners during Muharram tried to break the western gate that had been locked since 2005. The violence resulted in injuries to mourners and policemen. Several men were arrested and FIRs were filed against them. The Shia clergy in its statement said the gate had to be opened to avoid a stampede and it should be opened during Muharram.

On January 17, 2013, the Delhi High Court passed an order stating the NDMC shall finish the construction of boundary walls within one month of the order, according to the demarcation report. However, Bahadur Abbas Naqvi says that only the boundary walls of the eastern and southern side of Shah-e-Mardan have not been constructed as portions of that land have been encroached upon by residents. “The high court then wrote to the chief secretary that he should identify how much land has been encroached. We have submitted a PIL requesting the court that the construction of boundary wall should be done in accordance with the demarcation report and there is no need for it to be sent to the chief secretary,” adds Naqvi.

Meanwhile, some residents of BK Dutt Colony fear that if the order for demolishing some houses is passed by the court then there could be a violent outburst in the neighbourhood. “The likes of Preeti and Dankal would want this order to be passed as it would help them stoke communal passions and create a frenzy in the neighbourhood. We fear that we would just become a victim of their propaganda,” says a resident of BK Dutt Colony

Akash Bisht