By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO
NEW DELHI: While the Forbesganj incident is proving to be a major embarrassment for Bihar governmentâ€™s â€œsecularâ€ image, it has made the stateâ€™s opposition parties extra-conscious about their â€œsecularâ€ image. Taking the lead are Congress leaders in Bihar. Four Muslims were killed from police firing at Forbesganj in Araria district on June 3. A â€œclashâ€ between the police and locals also caused injuries to several people, including some policemen. Demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)-probe into the incident, Bihar Congress leader Mehboob Ali Qaiser has blamed the stateâ€™s deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi for the incident. Qaiser alleged that during his visit to Forbesganj on May 29, Modi had apparently pressurized the administration to settle a local dispute over a link road that passed through plot of land allotted to an upcoming starch factory. The agitated mob was apparently against the upcoming factory blocking the only road to their village, which they have been using for the past 50 years. In protest, they had demolished a part of wall constructed by the management of this starch factory. The director of this industrial unit is the son of local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashok Kumar Aggarwal.
Qaiserâ€™s implication is that primary purpose of Modiâ€™s Forbesganj-visit was to ensure that local peopleâ€™s agitation was silenced and the starch factoryâ€™s construction was not disturbed. The developments have certainly proved politically more costly than perhaps Modi and his supporters envisaged. The opposition parties are using the opportunity to question the secular and â€œpro-Muslimâ€ image won by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Television footage of the incident and comments made by certain celebrities are helping the Biharâ€™s opposition leaders further. There is footage of an officer stomping on body of a person injured in the police officer. Questioning the incident, Bollywood filmmaker and social activist Mahesh Bhatt deliberated at a press conference in Patna: â€œWill chief minister Nitish Kumar allow Bihar to go the Gujarat way?â€
Bhatt has raised a valid point as the manner in which police firing took place in Forbesganj is hardly suggestive of an unruly mob having been targeted. If the intention of police was to disperse people agitating against the â€œwall,â€ they could have used tear-gas shells, fired in the air or below the agitatorsâ€™ knees. The upper parts of victimsâ€™ bodies were hit by 15 of 16 bullets, according to post-mortem report. Prospects of the victims being agitators are ruled out by local reports. Eighteen-year-old Mushtaq Ansari, who ran a betel shop to support family, was going to offer Friday prayers when the police picked him and fired four bullets into his torso. When he fell down, the police kicked him brutally. Infant Naushad, was being carried by his mother, when he was killed by two bullets in his back. Six bullets killed Shazmin Khatoon (27), who was pregnant. Mukhtar Ansari (22) succumbed to four police bullets, three in his head.
It may be recalled that despite BJP and his party (Janata Dal-United) being allies, Nitish Kumar did not allow entry of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during campaign for Bihar assembly elections. Kumar apparently did not want to lose votes of Muslims in Bihar. Against this backdrop, the Forbesganj-incident has provided opposition parties ample political ammunition to question secular credentials of Kumarâ€™s government.
Led by Congress leaders, Ranjit Ranjan and Lalan Kumar, several party activists observed a day-long fast at Kargil Chowk in Patna (June 12). They also held a demonstration there. â€œWe want a judicial probe or an inquiry by CBI within a stipulated period of six months, besides registration of criminal cases against the local administration and policemen,â€ Kumar told media persons. Besides, he said: â€œThe state government should also dismiss all the officials and policemen involved in the incident.â€ In addition, the state government must ensure compensation of ten lakh (one million) rupees to bereaved families of each of the deceased, Ranjan said.
The state Congress leaders want Bihar government to ensure a speedy trial and punishment to guilty policemen and officials responsible for firing. They want registration of a case under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code against the police officials. They have also demanded registration of a case against local BJP leader Ashok Aggarwal and his arrest. â€œCongress workers will protest till the state government registers a case and removes Araria police superintendent of police,â€ Ranjan said.
Though Kumar ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident soon after its occurrence on June 6, he took more than a week to take other steps. He ordered removal of removal of Forbesganj sub-divisional police officer R.K. Sharma for â€œderelictionâ€ of duty on June 12. He announced compensation of three hundred thousand rupees to family of seven-month-old boy killed in the police firing. He made these announcements before leaving for China. There was no word on compensation for families of three other victims. He stated: â€œAs a judicial inquiry has been put in place, we will go by its findings and recommendations. Let me make it clear that the guilty will not be spared.â€
The opposition leaders and activists, however, are not satisfied with this response of Bihar chief minister. Biharâ€™s main opposition party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has decided to conduct a probe into the Forbesganj-case and send its report to National Human Rights Commission, the central government and the Bihar Governor. Strongly criticizing the state government, RJD leader Ramchandra Purve said: â€œFour innocent poor people were killed by police when they were protesting silently… and it is a barbaric act by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He is more sensitive and concerned about anything happening outside the state… The RJD will expose his double face over the issue.â€
Other opposition parties, including the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and left parties have also demanded stern action against those involved in Forbesganj-case. They have threatened to protest if the state government fails to take necessary action.