Encroachment on Mosque Land Triggers Violence in Indian Town

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

MUMBAI–Communal tension raised its ugly head in powerloom town-Bhiwandi, leading to four deaths, over a dispute between local Muslims and police regarding claim to a piece of land. Tension surfaced in Bhiwandi, about 60 km north-east of Mumbai, on Wednesday (July 5), when Muslims objected to construction of a police station on a vacant plot, located next to a mosque and a grave yard. While some Muslim organizations, Raza Academy and the Kabrastan Committee, claimed that land was theirs, police said that it belonged to the government. On Wednesday, a mob attacked workers engaged in constructing the police station on the disputed plot. Police used cane-charge, tear gas shells and also fired in air to control the mob. Police firing at the mob led to two Muslims being killed, which further enraged the mob. Had the police exercised restraint and acted cautiously, the situation may not have taken an ugly turn the same day. Mob displayed their ire later in the night by going on a rampage in Bhiwandi. They attacked government vehicles and buses. Two policemen, who were on a motorcycle, were brutally attacked and killed. Their bodies were flung into a bus that had been set afire.

Curfew was imposed in riot-torn town and additional forces rushed to help police maintain normalcy there. To defuse tension, the government stalled construction at the disputed site. Bhiwandi-issue dominated proceedings in Maharashtra’s legislative assembly with debate lasting for around for four hours on Thursday (July 6). During the debate, Home Minister R.R. Patil said that the claim of Muslim organizations on the disputed plot would be verified against government records. A senior police will investigate the riots and that section 302 of Indian Penal Code will be invoked in murder of two policemen, Patil said. He also announced compensation and a job for families of the two policemen. Blaming Samajwadi Party leader Abu Asem Azmi (Member of Parliament) for provoking the mob, opposition demanded strict action against him and those responsible for killing the policemen.

Not failing to exploit the situation, Shiv Sena leaders demanded Azmi’s arrest. Describing compensation announced by government for policemen’s family as “inadequate,” Shiv Sena also criticized the government for not taking strict action against rioters. Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray said: “My party will not tolerate such incidents in Maharashtra. If the state government does not arrest those who attacked the police, our party will arrest them. Let the government stop us from doing that. We believe that the whole thing was instigated by Abu Asem Azmi.”

Despite politicians adding communal fire to prevailing tension, no untoward incident was reported from the area. Burial of two Muslims killed by police firing (Wednesday) took place amid tight security on Thursday without any violence being provoked. Their burial did not take place at the disputed cemetery. With situation viewed as “under control,” curfew, imposed on Wednesday, was lifted on Friday night.

Police registered six cases against 5,000 people in connection with Wednesday’s riots and arrested 13 for murder of the two policemen. The 13 were produced in a Bhiwandi court on Saturday and remanded in police custody till July 13. The main accused regarding riots, named by police are, Sakeel Raza, general-secretary of the Raza Academy, Parvej Anis and Gulab Nabi. They have been charged under various sections of Indian Penal Code, including inciting a mob.

Just when it seemed that situation in Bhiwandi was limping to normalcy, peace in other parts of the state was held at ransom to tension on Sunday (July 9). Alleged desecration of a bust of Meenatai, the late wife of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, by unidentified miscreants sparked a violent reaction from party activists. Meenatai’s bust, located at Shivaji Park, near Shiv Sena’s headquarters in Dadar, was allegedly smeared by mud. As this news spread, Shiv Sainiks reacted violently in Central Mumbai, suburbs and Thane. There were also claims that two idols of Hindu deities kept in a gymnasium nearby were desecrated. Shiv Sena activists staged more than 30 road blocks and damaged around 40 state transport buses. Bombay Electric and Transport Undertaking (Best) took its buses off their routes till the “situation improves in the city.”

Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh convened an emergency meeting of top officials to discuss the situation. The center also offered assistance, including extra forces, to help the state government. Later in the day, claiming that the situation was under control, Deshmukh asserted that Sunday afternoon’s chain of incidents had put administration on high alert. “Our police force is making all efforts to catch those responsible for the incident, but our first priority will be law and order and then investigation,” he said. Sporadic incidents of violence had led to 500 arrests all over Maharashtra, including 46 in Mumbai, Deshmukh said.

With Shiv Sainiks displaying their ire across the state within a few days of Bhiwandi being witness to communal tension, secularism of politicians and police forces in Maharashtra has been put to test. It is to be watched whether the state police deal as strictly with Shiv Sainik extremists for indulging in violence as they do with those responsible for the tension in Bhiwandi.


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