A Land Dispute Ends in Carnage
IT WAS 14 September. Maulana Rashid, 27, owner of an automobile repair shop in Andhwadi village, had gone to Gopalgarh for some personal work. Finishing work in the afternoon, he went to the Masjid-e-Aisha for namaaz before returning home. A decision that cost Rashid his life. At 5 pm, the whole town of Gopalgarh erupted in violence and the mosque was the epicentre of it all. Rashid, like eight others, was shot inside it. On 14 September, Gopalgarh, a small town in Rajasthan 80 km away from Bharatpur, witnessed one of the worst carnage the town has ever seen. Nine people, all belonging to the Meo community, were killed and around 30 were injured. Of the 30 injured, 26 were Meo Muslims and four were Gujjars. On 21 September, the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government ordered a CBI investigation into the incident.
The road to the carnage was lain on 13 September, after an order asking Gujjars to vacate 12 bighas of encroached land sparked the violence. According to Noor Mohammad, a resident of Gopalgarh, around 12 bighas of land were purchased in 2000 to build a mosque, idgah and a graveyard. The mosque was for people from around 38 villages. A part of the 12 bighas was encroached upon by the Gujjars who staked claim to it. Meo Muslims of the area filed a case in the Pahadi district court against this encroachment. On 13 September, the tehsildar of Pahadi issued an order under Section 90 of the Land Revenue (LR) Act, asking the Gujjars to vacate the land. Reacting to this order, 10-15 agitated Gujjars gathered near the mosque and beat up Abdul Rashid, the imam of the mosque. The group threatened that they would not vacate the land.
On hearing that the Imam had been attacked, angry Meo Muslims gathered near the masjid, and the Gujjars gathered at the house of Abu and Sher Singh, local leaders in the market of Gopalgarh. Several rounds were fired in the air from both sides. Sensing the situation could go out of hand, leaders from both sides suggested that they go to the local police station to resolve the issue. A five-member team from each community was chosen to talk to the police. Sher Singh, leader of the Gujjars, even agreed to apologise to the Imam.
At that time, local leaders from Bajrang Dal and the VHP, claim Meo Muslims, started floating the rumour that four Gujjars had been killed by Muslims and no compromise could be acceptable. This spread like wildfire and within no time the whole town was simmering with tension. The Muslims also allege that these leaders, aided by a sizeable number of Gujjar policemen, literally forced the Collector into signing the order to open fire. The Meos allege that their mosque was surrounded by the police in riot-control vans and Gujjars attacked the mosque. In the firing that lasted close to an hour, nine Meo Muslims were killed and close to 30 were injured. What was even more shocking was that three to five bodies were burnt and thrown into a well inside the adjacent idgah. Several makeshift shops belonging to Meos were also burnt down. The Meos allege that the local police was hand-inglove with the Gujjar community in playing out this carnage. The police were prompt to deny the allegation and said they fired shots to prevent the riot from spreading. The Collector, SP and SHOwere later transferred under intense public pressure.
Social activist Ramzan Chaudhary says the whole incident smacks of conspiracy on the part of the Gujjar community and the local police, which has a sizeable Gujjar presence. "If what the police is saying is correct," he says, "that they opened fire to quell a riot situation, then how come the dead are only Meo Muslims." When asked by TEHELKA, the police had no reply to this question. "Even if I agree that the police were right in their intention, then how can they explain the burning of dead bodies and then being thrown inside the well? Even if they say that Gujjars did it, what was the police in-charge of the mosque doing?" adds Ramzan. The police have no retort to this charge either. When TEHELKA spoke to the IG, Bharatpur Range, Sunil Dutt about the burnt bodies found inside the well, he accepted that around three to five bodies were found burnt but could not explain how this happened.
FOLLOWING THIS, a fact-finding committee of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) also visited the spot to conduct an independent investigation. Members of this committee told TEHELKA that though it was initially reported in some sections of the media that the police firing was outcome of rioting between two communities, the reality is that there were no deaths before the police had arrived on the scene. The report quoted highly placed police sources who accepted that as many as 219 rounds were fired by the cops, which prima facie appears to be an excessive use of a measure that is supposed to be a last resort. No precautionary steps to disperse the mob, such as lathi-charge or use of rubber bullets, were taken. It also said that since most deaths took place inside the mosque, there is compelling reason to think that the firing targeted only one community.
Additionally, the report alleges that the mosque bore evidence of excessive vandalism, lending credence to the allegation that after the firing, it was captured by a section of the Gujjar community in complicity with the police. It also raised serious questions on the conduct of the administration in handling the original dispute concerning the graveyard land and during the crisis of 14 September. There were confirmed reports about violent confrontations between the two communities but once the initial clash subsided around noon, the crowd was allowed to remain at the site, and re-arm for five hours even though the DM and SP were present. This smacks of a lax administrative machinery, if not of complicity.According to sources, the police firing in the air had happened at around 2.30 pm, when both groups were armed. But when the police fired at the people inside the mosque, they were unarmed. The police, on its part, is laying the blame on inflammatory speeches by the Meos.
The PUCL report was not the only one to have found the conduct of the state government wanting. A team of Congress MPs led by Rashid Alvi visited Gopalgarh to investigate the matter. Within 48 hours, Alvi submitted a report to Congress President Sonia Gandhi. In his report, Alvi confirmed that excesses were committed by the police, and that violence had in fact escalated after the arrival of the uniformed men at the scene. The report also came down heavily on the conduct of state Home Minister Shantilal Dhariwal, and accused him of taking sides. The Congress-led government, facing flak for inaction, went into overdrive and ordered a judicial inquiry and handed over the investigation to the CBI. It also announced a compensation of 5 lakh for the families of the deceased. Following a Cabinet meeting, Dhariwal has taken moral responsibility for the incident and promised that the inquiry would yield results in three months.
The harrowing tale of 35-year-old Sapat Khan confirms the fear that hounds the Meos of Gopalgarh. Sapat, a farmer, had gone to buy some farm products for his land, and like Rashid, decided to offer namaaz before going back home to Andhwadi. To his horror, he heard gunshots being fired at the mosque. Sapat hid behind a slab and was hit by a bullet in his thigh. He was down on the ground, when after 15-20 minutes, he saw police entering the mosque. Sapat alleges that the police dragged him outside like an animal and threw him inside a van. There were three other bodies in the van. That's all he remembers before he fainted. Now walking with a pronounced limp, Sapat says that more than being shot at, he cannot get over the fact that the local police and Gujjars desecrated a sacred place of worship by entering the mosque and killing people inside it.
WHEN TEHELKA visited Masjid-e-Aisha, entry to the mosque was barred. Only after the IG intervened were the premises opened, with strict instructions not to take any pictures. The sight there could make one's stomach turn. The mosque bore signs of a battle outpost with several bullet marks outside and inside the structure and blood stains all over the place.
The underlying surprise factor in all this is that this area has never seen violence before this incident. The Gujjars are a majority in this area, and the adjoining villages are dominated by Meo Muslims. Meos have customs different from other Muslim communities. Unlike other Muslims, they don't practise inter-marriage within their families. Other customs are also different. In fact, they seem closer to Hindus in their way of life.
Shamser Singh, a resident of Gopalgarh, is alarmed. "I am amazed at the intensity of the violence of 14 September," he says. "There has been no tension between Meos and Gujjars until now. Even families who have lost their sons or fathers in this carnage admit that they have had no problems with the Gujjars in the past."
So why did this violence happen? Nobody in Gopalgarh and adjoining villages has an answer to this question.
A pall of gloom has descended on Gopalgarh, and threatens to turn it into another tension-filled part of India with communal feelings colouring the fabric of daily life. Though a judicial inquiry and a CBI investigation have been ordered, work is yet to start on the ground. The victims of this carnage are also not too hopeful. Sixty-five-year-old Hazar Khan, father of the deceased Rashid, rues, "Yes, the government has ordered a CBI investigation, but will the dead get justice? Will that inquiry remove this disturbing thought in my head that my son was not only killed, but burnt by the very same people who were supposed to protect him?"
Hazar and others allege that bodies were burnt by Gujjars under the protection of the police. Whether the truth comes out or not, Gopalgarh has already found its way into the annals of communal violence of this country.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.