As Saharanpur becomes another communal flashpoint in Uttar Pradesh, we follow the fault lines in a still volatile town
As he points toward the burnt and hanging shreds of tarpaulin that were part of a rain shed above the entrance to his shop, 47-year-old automobile parts dealer Jaspal Singh suddenly goes blank. With Eid just round the corner, he had been looking forward to the festivities and bumper sales that businessmen and traders hope to see during the season. Only four days earlier, the market along Ambala Road in Saharanpur buzzed with festivity: lined with food stalls, its shops and stores overstocked with LCD TV sets, air conditioners, washing machines and mobile phones in anticipation of festival- related sales.
A few seconds later, perhaps nudged by the lingering stench of burnt chemicals and electronics hanging heavy over the market, Singh is back with us. When we meet him, on the day of Eid, all that remains of the market is burnt shops, charred vehicles and those shreds of tarpaulin. His shop was among the 200 shops that were looted and burnt down in a clash between Sikhs and Muslims in the early hours of 26 July. The violence occurred along the highway that separates Saharanpur’s old city, dominated by Muslims, and the new city, predominantly home to Sikhs and Hindus. The shops that fell prey to the conflict largely belonged to the town’s Sikh community, many members of which settled here after Partition and set up small businesses.
“I don’t know what made me spend Rs 5,000 on this shed just a week back. I could have saved that money,” says Singh, eyes fixed on the road while hurriedly walking away from the shop he has owned for the last 30 years. Police jeeps and trucks, indicating the imposition of an evening curfew, begin whizzing by. Paramilitary forces begin to take charge of the road that leads up to the Idgaah, a large ground for offering Eid prayers, in the old city. The tension is palpable.
“My losses have notched up to Rs 30 lakh already. I have a son studying engineering in Chandigarh and the second one is ready to start college. I don’t know how we will manage,” says Singh. “On Eid, every year, all you could see on this road were people in white skull caps. I had never imagined that one would see paramilitary forces here.”
This outbreak of violence in UP comes barely a year after Jat-Muslim riots ravaged Muzaffarnagar, not far from Saharanpur in the state’s northwest. While the earlier episode was sparked by an isolated incident, last week’s violence was touched off by a longstanding dispute between Sikhs and Muslims over a piece of land amounting to nearly 3,400 sq ft, next to a gurdwara by the railway station. While the matter was being heard by a tribunal of the local Wakf Board (a body governing properties dedicated to religious, pious or charitable purposes as recognised by Muslim Law), Sikhs allegedly kept their construction work going on the piece of land; where, according to residents, a mosque once stood.
On 26 July, tension mounted and clashes began in the hours of sehri (a pre-dawn meal had by Muslims before a day of fasting) when a few faceless youths identified by their get-up as Muslims are said to have pelted bricks—presumably in protest of the construction—at an old Sikh woman who was visiting the gurdwara for the early morning path (reading or recitation). According to Balbir Singh Dheer, pradhan of the gurdwara and Sri Guru Singh Sabha of Saharanpur, the security guard reported that incident at around 4.30 am. “We rushed to the gurdwara in our nightsuits only to find huge chunks of bricks lying outside on the road,” he says. “While we informed the police and district administration about the incident, we noticed a Muslim crowd gathering at the chowk in front of Qutub Sher station, barely 50 metres away from the gurdwara on Ambala road.”
According to Virender Pal Kohli, a member of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the crowd continued to swell under the leadership of former councillor and local goon Moharram Ali Pappu, who was the main claimant of the piece of land on behalf of Muslims as a community. “He is a land mafia dealer who was blackmailing us and wanted to extort money from us to quash the case,” Kohli alleges. The police has booked Pappu, who has been absconding since the incident, for rioting and arsonry. They say that there were negotiations underway between Pappu and Sikh leaders; but these talks had failed. “It is not a communal clash but a clash between two communities over a piece of land,” says Rajesh Pandey, Senior Superintendent of Police, Saharanpur.
By about 9 am, claims Kohli, a huge crowd of Muslim men was seen heading toward the gurdwara, past the police station. “They had tamanchas (country- made guns) and bricks in their hands and started firing at us,” says Kohli, “We too picked up chunks of bricks to save ourselves but ran in the opposite direction.” The police opened fire at the mob, and the crowd reportedly got out of hand when a constable was killed in the cross- fire. As Sikhs ran for cover, he says, the charging crowd began looting their stores and setting them ablaze.
“It was all pre-planned,” believes Sikh shopkeeper Jaswinder Singh, claiming that the Muslim shops in the area were spared. While the fire station was attacked first, its vehicles and water supply destroyed, a strange incendiary chemical was used by the assailants, he alleges. “My shop still erupts in flames even after two days,” claims Singh, who had an electronic goods store.
With news of subsequent attacks in different parts of the city spreading, the police imposed a curfew by evening. Only three days later, on Eid, were the hours of curfew relaxed; the old city was opened up for the morning namaaz, restricting numbers to about 3,000 at the Idgaah. In the evening, curfew hours were relaxed, alternately, in the new city. The situation continued to simmer, however, evident in the panic that took hold when a young Muslim couple lingered in front of the gurdwara as they were walking from the railway station toward the old city during curfew hours. Paramilitary forces whisked them away, escorting them to the old city.
The piece of land that led to this row had passed hands from a Muslim nawab to a Hindu Baniya family, before ending up with the gurdwara. Community leader Qazi Nadim Akhtar says the property had belonged to a man called Hassan Askari, and that it was famously known as ‘peeli kothi’. Within the plot lay a mosque Askari had built for private use. After Partition, he sold off this land to two Hindu sisters, Mansa and Lajwanti Devi, but clearly excluded about 3,400 sq ft of land that housed the mosque in the sale deed signed in 1949, says Akhtar: “The property is mentioned as a masjid with No 1102 in the records of the Waqf Board.”
In 2001, the gurdwara committee bought the land from the family. “The entire 3,500 square yard plot of land belongs to them, excluding the part over which the mosque is built. If the sale deed clearly mentions that, it is up to the Waqf Board to decide, [the gurdwara committee] cannot do anything about it,” Akhtar adds. While the Waqf tribunal is still hearing the matter, the district magistrate did pass an order in December 2013 on the basis of an application filed by Muslims, declaring that any construction on the land would be termed illegal.
“The gurdwara, however, continued with the construction at night and the matter got out of hand. Unfortunately, we live in a country governed by emotions, if only the crowd had waited for the city administration to take action,” says Akhtar.
The violence has erupted at a politically sensitive time; by-elections for Assembly seats in Saharanpur and Moradabad are scheduled next month, and political parties are indulging in a slugfest of sorts, blaming each other for the outbreak. While BJP MP Raghav Lakhan Pal pinned the blame on the state’s Akhilesh Yadav government and its political plans, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan, speaking on the occasion of Eid, blamed the Centre and Congress for the violence.
Both Sikh and Muslim community leaders, however, blame the city administration. “They knew about the case since the beginning, but still couldn’t prevent the illegal construction,” says Akhtar. “They wanted to ensure peace during Eid and could not prevent a crowd from assembling in front of the police station; even the fire station was rendered useless by the rioters, all under the nose of the administration,” says Dheer.
While the police are still trying to nab Pappu—who had about 15 cases of extortion and blackmailing levelled against him prior to the incidents—and claim to have arrested 43 people on the basis of 22 FIRs filed in the matter, they also say they will investigate allegations of the riots being part of a plan.
As an eerie silence settles on Eid, a few hours before the evening curfew comes into effect, 68-year-old Jamal Shah winces in pain, lying in the district hospital. His head is heavy, covered with heavy bruises, and he cannot move his right leg even now.
“I still don’t know what happened,” says Shah, who works as a daily wage labourer in sugarcane fields. The last thing he remembers, minutes after walking out of the railway station toward the old city, is a flurry of stones flying in his direction. “I was returning from Firozabad as I had gone to collect funds for a mosque to be built in our village in Kunda. I had Rs 30,000 and was on my way to fetch my daughter who was living with a relative,” he recounts. He was hit with a blunt and heavy object on his head and leg, and was found unconscious near the gurdwara on the day of the violence. The mob had robbed him, of course. “I don’t know whether they were Sikhs or Muslims; they were thieves,” he says.
At the same hospital, Mohammad Talib, still unable to walk, realised what had happened only after he woke up to find his head shaven and wrapped in bandages. “I was unconscious for about a day,” says the kirana shop owner, who was in the area to buy goods for his shop. He was in a light carrier vehicle popularly known as a chhota haathi in the area.
“The mob came and pulled me out of my vehicle. Since I have polio, I couldn’t run. They robbed me and hit me with iron rods,” he says. Like Shah, Talib says he has no clue who his attackers were. “They ruined Eid for my family and robbed us of our money,” he says, “I don’t know whether they were Sikh or Muslim; violence has no face.”